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Literary Elements: Symbol. A symbol is “a thing that suggests more than its literal meaning” (Kennedy & Gioia 217). Allegory. Symbol is different from allegory, “a story in which persons, places and things form a system of clearly labeled equivalents” (Kennedy & Gioia 217).

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literary elements symbol

Literary Elements:Symbol

A symbol is “a thing that suggests more than its literal meaning” (Kennedy & Gioia 217).


Symbol is different from allegory, “a story in which persons, places and things form a system of clearly labeled equivalents” (Kennedy & Gioia 217).

In allegory, there is a one-to-one relationship, i.e., X stands for Y. For example, one famous allegory is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In this work the hero, Christian, takes a journey to the Heavenly City, meeting characters along the way with names such as Piety and Mr. Worldly Wiseman. The characters are flat with no real depth and stand only for the concept of piety or wisdom. The journey represents the pilgrimage which every Christian must make to gain salvation.

Allegory is rare these days. Another famous example of one is seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which different animals represent particular political systems.

symbols suggest
Symbols Suggest
  • Symbols tend toward multiple meanings or possibilities.
  • Symbols suggest rather than “stand for” (Kennedy and Gioia 217).
  • Symbols are expansive, opening up meaning and giving a work depth, while allegories are “reductive,” forcing an element to represent one idea alone (Birkerts 115).
  • Kennedy and Gioia explain that “Symbols generally do not

‘stand for’ any one meaning, nor for anything absolutely definite; they point, they hint, or, as Henry James put it, they cast long shadows” (217).

examples of symbols
Examples of symbols
  • In Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” the canary is itself a pet bird, but it also seems to stand for Mrs. Wright, of the sweet singing voice, caged and finally (spiritually) killed.
  • In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Georgianna’s birthmark is itself but may also be seen as a concrete illustration of the imperfection of physical humanity, an imperfection which Aylmer, in his quest to play God and control nature, cannot accept.
  • In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” the boat is itself but is also a symbol of the larger world (a small world = “microcosm”) in which a community of men must grapple with the forces of nature.
two kinds of symbols
Two Kinds of Symbols

Conventional or traditional symbols: These symbols have meanings that large numbers of people understand. They embody universal suggestions of meaning, such as that a voyage suggests life or flowing water suggests time and eternity (“Symbol” 467). Can you guess what the visual symbols below stand for?

Depending on one’s own cultural background, she might answer that these are three of the letter t. Or he might say that they are the masts of a ship. If one has been raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, however, it’s highly likely that that person might see three crosses here, representative of the Crucifixion of Jesus and of salvation.

  • In the course assignments, I have organized the sections in a general subject format: gender, nature, family, and so on. But the theme of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is not simply “nature.” Instead one might want to formulate a complete sentence about the relationship of man and nature.

More conventional symbols which may be expressed as words or pictures:

a flag for country (“the flag”)

Go Hogs!

Red Razorback for the University of Arkansas

an X at the end of a letter for a kiss XXX


“spring” as the symbol of new beginnings

a slash line through a sign for NO,

as in “No Parking.”

two kinds of symbols continued
Two Kinds of Symbols (continued)

Private or original symbols: These kinds of symbols may be relative, dependent upon the beholder or upon how they are used in a work.

The park bench where you metthe one you love is a private symbolwhich you interpret privately.

The empty space on the wall where the picture once was could be a private symbol of personal loss for one person, while for another the lighter shade of that space simply indicates that a wall needs to be painted.

In fact, a symbol may shift in meaning as the work develops. Private symbols “acquire” meaning because of the ways they are used in a literary work (“Symbol” 467). Critic Sven Birkerts writes that private symbols gain their meaning “gradually, through repetition or strategic placement” and that they have “powerful, condensed meanings” (“Symbolism” 113).

more private or original symbols
More private or original symbols


A gun, for example, may represent destruction, but it may also be interpreted as a symbol of sexual potency, Birkerts suggests (113).

On the other hand, some objects are just and only that, themselves; that is, a gun is simply a gun in a story and is not meant to carry any larger meaning. I think maybe it was Sigmund Freud who once cried out in exasperation, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” :-)

One can interpret symbols through recognition of their use in patterns, repetition, or “strategic placement” in a work (Birkerts 113). But Sven Birkerts warns that symbols are not “planted” in a literary work “like radishes” and one does not “simply find them and pluck them free” (113).

Instead, he writes, symbols function as a kind of “forcefield, sending out waves of suggestion that penetrate many layers of the work and add to its meaning” (Birkerts 113).

a look at one symbol the a in the scarlet letter
A look at one symbol:the “A” in The Scarlet Letter

One can think of the phrase “multiplicity of meanings” as expressing the concept that a symbol is fluid, not stable, and can suggest many possible meanings.

In Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is a Puritan woman who is pregnant out of wedlock and is ostracized by the Puritan community of Boston. She is punished and forced by town elders to become a living symbol and reminder of her sin and walking warning to all when she is sentenced to wear a red letter “A” on the bodice of her dresses.

the meaning of the a
The meaning of the“A”

As the novel progresses, Hester ages and changes and the townspeople begin to see both her and the symbol A in different ways. Thus the “A” comes to have a multiplicity of meanings, each of which deepens and develops the meaning of the novel

A = Adulteress (Hester is guilty of the sin of adultery.)

A = Art (Hester is a very creative, skilled seamstress who makes her living through this art)

A = Able (Hester is able to support herself and daughter and to survive the town’s condemnation.)

A = Admirable (The townspeople begin to admire Hester.)

A = Angel (She tends the sick and dying and is an “angel” of charity toward others.)

A = Arthur (Everyone wants to know who the father of the illegitimate child is, but Hester will not betray him. Ironically, his initial is displayed in Hester’s punishment: his name is Arthur.

final words of warning
Final words of warning!
  • Hunt Lyman, in his web page titled “Literary Concepts” from the University of Virginia, offers these helpful comments:
  • “Symbols are confusing to many students because natural symbolism is confused with literary symbolism. Definition: Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
  • Symbols in a basic sense are one of the most natural human functions. In fact, words themselves are all symbols -- language is our most universal symbolic system. The key behind symbols is they contain an element of arbitrariness -- there is no single correlation [emphasis added]. Words, for example, are entirely arbitrary”(Lyman).
Works Cited

Kennedy, X. J. and Dana Gioia, eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Longman, 1999.

Lyman, Hunt. “Symbolism.” Literary Concepts. U of Virginia. 10 March 2000 <>.

“Symbol.” A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. C.Hugh Holman and William Harmon, eds. New York: Macmillan, 1992. 466-67.

“Symbolism.” Literature: The Evolving Canon. Ed. Sven Birkerts. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993. 113-15.

  • Developed and prepared by Dr. Linda Lovell
  • NorthWest Arkansas Community College