What is symbolism?

Symbolism is simply the use of something, often quite concrete, that stands for something else, usually abstract. We use symbols and symbolism every day, and they are deeply embedded in our routine thinking.

For example, we see flags everywhere. Not only does every country on earth have a length of colourful cloth representing it, or standing for it, but organisations like the Red Cross, the United Nations, and so on fly them every day.

When an organisation holding an event promoting peace wishes to indicate its intention it may release a flock of white doves; we adorn funerals with black items, and mourners wear black; we signal a romantic intention when we send a bouquet of red roses, and so it goes on, with symbols and symbolism all around us every day.

Writers, particularly poets, use symbolism as a useful way of making an impact with their poem or novel, story or play. They accomplish that by using symbolism to attach additional meaning to an action, object or name, or to create several levels of meaning.  Symbolism associates something concrete with something abstract, like love, death, courage, violence, in order to give it a new, more significant, meaning.

Symbolism in literature

Different writers choose things to use as symbols and often repeat them throughout a work or body of work. For example, Shakespeare uses hands in a very complex way in King Lear to symbolise the actions of human beings: hands are used to torture but also to raise someone up and the word ‘hand’ or ‘hands’ is used over and over again in the text.

In the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,  Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an albatross hung around the neck of the mariner, who has shot the albatross. However, it’s not just a punishment, and the albatross isn’t just a bird – it’s a symbol of the terrible sin the mariner committed by killing one of God’s creatures, and the burden he has to bear for the rest of his life as a result:

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

We use that symbol in our everyday speech. When we talk about some burden we have we may say that we have an albatross around our neck.

Charles Dickens uses symbols most effectively. The second paragraph of his great novel, Bleak House, is one of the most famous passages in English literature:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The whole novel, basically about a never-ending court case, is suffused with the fog of the slow movement and obscurity of the law and the court system. The fog smothers everything in London and around it, and this paragraph says everything about its condition.

Dickens hardly has a character with a surname that exists in the real world – he was great at inventing names, names which have become familiar parts of the language, names like Mr Gradgrind, Mr M’Choakumchild, Mr Pickwick, Miss Murdstone, Mr Bumble, Miss Sparsit, Sargeant Buzfuz, Mr Squeers, Charity Pecksniff,  Rev Melchisedech Howler, Uriah Heep, Jarvis Lorry, Uncle Pumblechook, and so on. Each one echoes the character of the person it represents – and is therefore a symbol of  -something in their nature. Mr M’Choakumchild, for example, has an educational philosophy that strangles children’s minds, Miss Murdstone is a hard, cruel woman, Mr Bumble is incompetent, etc.

Symbolism in Shakespeare

In thinking about symbolism in literature one’s mind naturally goes to Shakespeare and his brilliance as a writer. Shakespeare and symbolism is such a huge topic that one hardly knows where to begin, so instead of considering it generally, let’s begin with an example that might illustrate the general.

The brilliance of Shakespeare’s use of symbolism can be clearly illustrated with reference to Macbeth.

One of the symbolic strands in the play is the theme of murder. The contrast of light and dark images symbolizes the opposition of good and evil and the struggle between them. In the Elizabethan world a picture of the king was associated with the sun. A sunset, then, represented the king’s death. “When shall we three meet again?” the witches chant, and the answer comes, “That will be ere the set of sun.” That foreshadows the death of the king.

That symbolism develops into a struggle between light and dark: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. ” marks Macbeth’s progress towards the murder of Duncan.

Unwholesome events take place at night. The murders, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, and the appearance of the witches all take place at night. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is a good illustration of the light/dark symbolism. At first she craves the darkness, but then she becomes afraid of it and carries a candle with her to drive it away.

Another symbolic system in Macbeth is expressed by the simple word “blood.” One of the play’s main themes is guilt and Shakespeare uses blood to develop it. The text is drenched in blood, increasingly so as Macbeth, an unwilling assassin, has to deal with his conscience after killing Duncan. It begins with him looking at his bloody hands and exclaiming, “What hands are here!” he tries to remove the blood but moans in despair: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine/Making the green one red.”

Lady Macbeth joins him and says “A little water clears us of this deed,” grossly underestimating the guilt that is going to destroy both of them, and taking her to suicide. During one of her guilt-ridden nightmares, where she is observed walking in her sleep, she scrubs her hands obsessively, trying to get rid of the blood. “Out, damn’d spot,” she cries.

Those are just two illustrations of the way symbolism works in a Shakespeare text. Every single one of his plays uses symbolism to develop the themes and each text is a tightly woven tapestry of images carrying the themes of the play as the two examples above illustrate.

sign saying symbolism, made of signs

Symbolism comes in many forms!