What Are Some Examples of Symbolism in Literature?

Symbolism in literature is an object, person, action or situation that has both a literal and additional meaning. For example, in Christian literature, a tree may symbolize Christ's execution cross.

Symbols in literature are often not rational. When interpreting them, the reader should consider the context of the text and associated situations. Different types of symbolism include:

  • Sometimes, symbols are metaphors. For example, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
  • Symbols also arise in the form of similes. An example might be "As strong as an ox."
  • Allegories are symbols that are similar to metaphors. They use one thing to represent another, but usually cover an entire work or a large chunk of text. One example is John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress."
  • An archetype is an element of the text that has cross-cultural symbolism. For example, representing the devil as a creature with horns and hoofs is archetypal.
  • Myths are also symbolic and have cross-cultural associations. However, they represent a larger portion of the text, such as the myth of Icarus.

One individual who provided good examples of symbolism was William Shakespeare. Examples from "Othello" include:

  • Othello gives Desdemona a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolizes chastity. When she loses the handkerchief, it acts as a symbol of her unfaithfulness.
  • When describing Othello through other characters, Shakespeare uses terms like "black ram" and "Barbary horse." This represents the racism towards Moorish persons among Venetians at the time.
  • Symbolism in the form of light features throughout the play, such as Othello being blinded by rage, leaving him unable to see the truth.