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What is Symbolism? Types and Examples of Symbolism

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

What is Symbolism?

What is Symbolism?

Definition of Symbolism

To have a better understanding of the concept of the term symbolism, it is utmost important to probe into its origin. Etymologically, the word symbolism has been taken from a Greek word symballein, which is a combination of two words i.e., syn, meaning together, and ballein, which means throw. Hence, the word symballein means to throw together or compare. The Webster’s dictionary defines the word symbolism as, “something that stands for, represents, or suggests another thing, especially, an object used to represent something abstract.” To put it bluntly, symbolism is the use of symbols to represent something abstract. Symbol could possibly be anything. It is usually a word, character, object or a place to stand for something else disregarding its real and external meaning. For instance, rose is a symbol of beauty. Though, rose is a kind of flower and having physical shape, yet in terms of symbolism, it symbolizes beauty in general. Thus, such a usage of a word, character , object or place is known as symbolism.

Types of Symbolism

Literary Symbolism

Literary symbolism is the use of symbols to signify an idea in a work of literature. The poet or an author makes use of literary symbolism to pass on much deeper meaning to the object above and beyond its primary meaning. Seemingly, the object can potentially convey one meaning, but on deeper side, it suggests another connotation, which is of greater importance than the former one. The writer can make use of concrete objects again and again in his work of literature to put emphasis on the deeper meaning and support his theme. The surface meaning of an object is not really much important, rather; the inner meaning, which is difficult to understand, possesses greater significance and conveys the message of the author in a most appropriate manner. Normally, a character, plot, animal and concrete objects are widely-used as symbols in a work of literature.

In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, various symbols have been used. The most important of them is the use of mist. Mist over the village of Pip is obviously an excellent symbol in this novel. It is a symbol of the skepticism, misunderstandings as well as ignorance. In the very beginning of the novel, we have observed that Pip happens to come across with a terrifying convict in the premises of his village through the mist. He is actually unaware of the identity of the convict. Moreover, he labours under the delusion that his benefactor is Miss Havisham. Thus; mist attached an element of uncertainty to the novel.

Similarly, Satis House is another example of symbolism in Great Expectations. This house is a symbol of disappointment, betrayal and rejection. Throughout the novel, it has been observed that Miss Havisham is the most disappointed woman, who was swindled by his going-to-be husband, Compeyson, at the very eve of her wedding. The gloomy environment of the Satis House is a representation of the inward conditions of the inhabitants of the house. Pip has also been seen to have received tear-jerking and heartbreaking shocks over there. His hopes and dreams all got shattered at Stais House, when Estella, his beloved, got married to another person. Thus; Satis House is an important symbol in Great Expectations.

In William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, the whole story is a representation of an idea. William Golding through the event of the novel wants to convey that men are naturally born with evil nature. They have a strong tendency for bad deeds. They are not naturally good; rather, they are bad at the core of their hearts. Literally, the whole story has got one meaning, while on the deeper side; it conveys an absolutely different meaning.

Religious Symbolism

Religious symbolism is another kind of symbolism. It is the use of words, objects or images to represent an idea or belief. According to Britannica Encyclopedia, “religious symbolism and iconography, respectively, the basic and often complex artistic forms and gestures used as a kind of key to convey religious concepts and the visual, auditory, and kinetic representations of religious ideas and events. Symbolism and iconography have been utilized by all the religions of the world.” Various symbols are used to represent various concepts of religion. Consider the following symbols, which represent various concepts:

  • The Star & Crescent represent Islam throughout the world.
  • The Cross represents Christianity.
  • The Anchor stands for Christians’ hope in Jesus Christ
  • The Buddha Eyes stand for omniscience of the Buddha. It is also call Wisdom Eyes.
Religious Symbols

Religious Symbols

Political Symbolism

Political symbolism is the use of various symbols to represent political concepts, groups, parties, and views, ideas, mottos and beliefs of the political party. Acronyms, banners, play cards, handbills, badges and several other objects are used to represent the concepts of a political party. Political symbolism is a sort of symbolism that is utilized to signify a political stance. This type of symbolism is popular in various types of media, which represents flags, banners, mottos and other important insignias of a political party.

For example:

  • Red Flag is the symbol of Socialism.
  • Hammer and Sickle stand for the Communist Movement. The hammer is a symbol of workers of an industry, while the sickle stands for farmers.
  • Red Star is the symbol of Communism.
  • Elephant represent Republican Party.
  • Donkey stands for Democratic Party


Colour Symbolism:

Colours play an important role in attaching meaning to certain objects. Every colour can be a symbol of an idea, concept, or it may represent parties, people, behaviour etc. They have different meaning in different contexts, locations and situations. They change their symbolic meaning with the change in context and location. Look at the following examples:

  • Red light is used at various sensitive installations to represent danger, embarrassing situation or it is used as a warning. Moreover, red colour is also a symbol of enthusiasm, energy, action etc.
  • Green light is used to allow the permission of doing something. It as symbol for “go ahead”. It is also a symbol of life, fertility, good health and nature.
  • White colour is the symbol of piety, purity, and righteousness. White flag is the representation of surrendering to the enemy in ancient times, especially in China.
  • Yellow is a symbol of joy, happiness, idealism, jealousy, cowardice, swindling, disease etc.
  • Blue is a symbol of peace, contentment, tranquility, harmony, stability, trust, unity, confidence, and truth.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on August 29, 2014:

Yes, why not. I will try to write about Elegy within two days. I am glad that it helped you. Have a nice time!

sneha on August 29, 2014:

im really satisfied with ur explanations sir....I want to know in detail about Elegy sir....Can u plz help me?

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 27, 2014:

Thanks FlourishAnyway for your comments and encouragement. Have a nice time!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 27, 2014:

As a psychologist, I see symbolism and hidden meaning in many things -- in literature, culture, and the spoken word. Your examples are helpful for those who are learning. I am a "purple" person myself, with all the royal implications and the tension between red/blue, hot/cold, energy/tranquility.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 20, 2014:

Thank you very much my friend! I am glad that you liked it. Have a nice time.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 20, 2014:

I was torn between blue and green and finally voted for blue. Very interesting article my friend.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 20, 2014:

Thanks jainismus for your comments! Have a nice time!

Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on April 20, 2014:

Studying a symbol is my favorite hobby. Thank you for writing this hub.

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