Symbolism examples are all around us.
Hearts mean love. Rainbows mean hope. You’re probably so familiar with those, you don’t even think about them.
In literature, symbolism lets authors use one thing (like a heart) to represent a deeper meaning (like love).
Often, symbolism evokes abstract ideas or emotions by using something tangible.
Symbolism lets writers reveal a greater truth or idea — or simply link together different elements into a cohesive plot or theme.
Symbolism is a type of literary device. It can be defined as:
The use of symbols to express an idea or quality, particularly an intangible one. The symbols will usually be something visible or easy to visualize. Symbols can be multifaceted, representing more than one thing, even within the same work. For example, the sea can be a symbol of both life and death.
Common Types of Symbolism in Literature
Using symbols can create a powerful story that uncovers universal truths. Three key types of symbolism in literature are religious, romantic, and emotional symbolism.
Centuries ago, religious symbolism was rife throughout literature and art — and religious symbolism can still be seen in modern works. In Western literature, religious symbolism is generally drawn from Christianity.
Often, we may not think of these symbols as religious, but that’s their origin — such as the tolling of church bells as a warning, traditionally believed to drive out demons.
Literature is full of romantic symbolism, from classic romances like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to modern Mills & Boon novels. Romantic symbolism includes flowers, particularly roses (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in Romeo and Juliet, for instance).
Other romantic symbols include hearts, diamonds, Cupid’s arrows, and more.
Physical symbols can be used to depict complex, intangible, or even ambivalent emotions.
In Seamus Heaney’s poem, Digging, the act of digging can be seen to stand for several things: the connection between the generations of a family, qualities like diligence and perseverance, even the act of writing.
Examples of Symbolism
Symbolism is easiest to understand through examples. Let’s take a look at how symbolism is used in literature, poetry, movies, and even in everyday life and language.
Symbolism Examples in Literature
1. Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned Spot” speech, Macbeth, by William Shakespeare (1606)
LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot, out, I say. – One, two – why, then, ’tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky. – Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard! What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Lady Macbeth’s guilt is symbolized through the blood she imagines on her hands: as she sleepwalks, she’s trying to clean them, but later tells herself, “Here’s the smell of the blood still.” The imagined blood represents her guilt over urging her husband Macbeth to kill Duncan and take his place as king.
2. The Conch Shell in The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)
“Conch! Conch!” shouted Jack. “We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things. What good did Simon do speaking, or Bill, or Walter? It’s time some people knew they’ve got to keep quiet and leave deciding things to the rest of us.”
Near the start of The Lord of the Flies, the marooned schoolboys use a conch shell to keep order at their meetings. It’s a powerful symbol of civilization and democracy. When Jack says they don’t need the conch anymore, he’s becoming a more tyrannical leader. And when one of the boys, Piggy, is killed, the conch shell — which he was holding — is shattered “into a thousand white fragments.”
3. Snakes in the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling (1997 – 2007)
“D’you want to tell me what’s wrong with stopping a massive snake biting off Justin’s head?” he said. “What does it matter how I did it as long as Justin doesn’t have to join the Headless Hunt?”
“It matters,” said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, “because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin House is a serpent.”
Harry has just learned that he can speak Parseltongue — a snake language. Most wizards can’t, and his friends Ron and Hermione are alarmed by his newfound ability, because it’s associated with Salazar Slytherin, the evil wizard who was one of the four founders of their school, Hogwarts.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, snakes are used as a symbol for evil — drawing on religious imagery that goes back to the story of creation in the Bible. Voldemort’s snake Nagini, and the Basilisk, are both examples of snakes on the side of evil in the stories.
4. Spring in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis (1950)
They had been just as surprised as Edmund when they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May.
They hadn’t even known for certain (as the Witch did) that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia. But they all knew that it was her spells which had produced the endless winter; and therefore they all knew when this magic spring began that something had gone wrong, and badly wrong, with the Witch’s schemes.
Spring is used in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as a sign of new life and of hope. When spring magically arrived, in a land that’s been “always winter and never Christmas” for a hundred years, it shows that the power of good is going to triumph over evil.
Symbolism Examples in Poetry
5. The Ruined Statue, Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
(You can read the whole poem here.)
The ruined statue of Ozymandias, which consists only of “two vast and trunkless legs of stone”, could be seen as a symbol for hubris and the downfall of civilizations. The “lone and level sands” show the enduring power of nature against humankind’s works.
You could also read a more hopeful message into the poem, with the destruction of Ozymandias’s statue showing that tyrannical leaders will eventually be overthrown.
6. Two Paths, The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost (1915)
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(You can read the whole poem here.)
The “roads” in this poem aren’t simply different options for a walk — they’re a symbol of choices to be made in life. Roads are often used to represent different options for the future. Think about people being exhorted to stay on the “straight and narrow” path, for instance (another example of religious symbolism, from Matthew 7:14 in the Bible).
7. The Albatross, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge (1798)
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’-With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.[…]
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
(You can read the whole poem here, with the language modernized in 1834)
Hung around the Mariner’s neck, the albatross reminds him (and everyone who sees him) of how he shot an albatross, bringing his shipmates into terrible danger. The phrase “albatross around the neck” is now used to mean a past misdeed that continues to haunt someone and hold them back.
Symbolism Examples in Movies
8. Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor, Marvel Movies (2008 – 2019)
Throughout the Marvel movies, Tony Stark’s arc reactor (which powers his suits) is used as a symbol for his heart. Captain America ends the brutal fight by slamming the edge of his shield into Iron Man’s arc reactor – breaking it, and symbolically, breaking Tony’s heart.
9. Coffee Mug, Knives Out (2019)
A mug with “My House, My Rules, My Coffee” is symbolic of where the power lies in this movie. We see it at the start, as patriarch Harlan Thrombey drinks coffee.
By the end of the movie, after Harlan’s death has been investigated and the truth revealed, the mug — along with the riches of Harlan’s extensive estate — belongs to Martha.
10. Music, The Sound of Music (1965)
As you might expect from the title alone, music is hugely important in The Sound of Music. Symbolically, it stands for happiness, joy, and even love.
Captain Von Trapp banned singing in his house after his wife died. In this clip, the Captain plays the guitar and sings for his family for the first time, with his children gathering around him.
Symbolism Examples in Everyday Life and Language
Colors, animals, flowers, and everyday items can all have a symbolic meaning that goes far beyond what they literally are. In everyday conversations, advertisements, and on social media sites, you can easily spot these:
- White — a symbol of purity. You might associate this with brides wearing white, if you’re in the Western world.
- Rings — a symbol of love and commitment, given during proposals and exchanged at weddings.
- Roses — associated with romantic love.
- Lambs — innocence: this is a type of religious symbolism from the Bible
- Owls — the owl is often associated with wisdom or with education. It’s no accident that the Purdue Online Writing Lab uses the acronym “OWL”.
- Rainbows – long seen as the universal symbol of hope (and again, this has religious origins). More recently, the rainbow has been prominently used as an LGBTQ symbol of affirmation and inclusion.
- Fire — another complex and even ambivalent symbol. Fire can symbolize destruction, passion, or rebirth (as in the legend of the phoenix, reborn from flames).
- Rain — sadness and melancholy but also purification and cleansing, even a metaphorical “washing away” of the past.
- Batteries — symbolic of energy (think how common it is for someone to say they need to “recharge my batteries”).
- Handshakes — a symbol of trust, used in greeting but also to seal an agreement. Handshakes can also be a symbol of congratulations and, in some powerful instances, to signify peace after a fight or even a war.
Why is Symbolism Important in Writing?
Symbolism allows writers to:
- Convey ideas subtly, rather than hammering home a moral message.
- Explore complicated emotions and concepts.
- Create a more memorable story (or poem).
- Write something that’s open to interpretation — giving the reader room to bring their own response to the piece.
- Reveal a greater point or universal truth that goes beyond the scope of their work.
Symbolism is related to several other literary elements, all of which use symbols in distinct ways:
An allegory uses symbolism throughout a piece in a sustained way. The symbolism can involve specific characters, settings, or situations that stand for something else. For instance, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, with Manor Farm standing for Russia.
In literature, a motif is a recurring image — one that comes up throughout the work. It’s usually a symbol used repeatedly, given meaning not only through its symbolic nature, but also through being used as a call-back to different instances in the poem or story.
Metaphors compare one thing to something that is — on the surface — quite different. For instance, “Her face was a thundercloud” is a metaphor. The meaning is spelled out here, whereas it might be more subtle in other instances of symbolism.
Using Symbolism Examples to Enrich Your Writing and Understanding
The different symbolism examples above show the breadth of symbolism across different types of literature and entertainment, from classic stories to modern-day movies.
Symbolism is a powerful tool for any type of writing (and might even help you beat writer’s block). It lets you convey ideas in a memorable way, using concrete images to stand for more elusive concepts.
Go back through the examples above to deepen your understanding of symbolism — and next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, keep an eye out for common symbols. You might spot more than you expect.