What is a symbol?Defining Symbolan object that stands for itself and a greater idea; it creates a direct, meaningful link between
a specific object, scene, character, or action
abstract ideas, values, persons or ways of life
Whats the difference between signs and symbols?Sign vs. SymbolSIGNSYMBOLan object that is taken literallyone meaningan object that can be taken both literally and figurativelyit is what it is, and something morelinks one noun to another
Interpreting SymbolsA symbol can have a variety meanings
1. PERSONAL: a meaning uniquely associated with our experiences
2. CONTEXTUAL: a private meaning created by an author
3. CULTURAL: a meaning uniquely influenced by our current culture
(ex: dogs represent faithfulness in China, but impurity in Indian/South Asian cultures)6 and
4. UNIVERSAL: a meaning that is given to a thing by most people and cultures
(ex: lions suggest deity, power and courage in many cultures)
NOTE: these may be hard to discern because in order to discover these, you have to put aside your own personal and cultural lenses (i.e. your attachment to your soft, loveable, stuffed lion, Somba).
fireNazi crueltyContextual Symbols: Night
night/darknessabsence of God
firehope for rescue/ connection to civilizationContextual Symbols: Lord of the Flies
American flagfreedomCultural Symbol
Job well doneCultural Symbol
Color & SymbolismGREENjealousyenvironmentally conscious growthcomfortrenewallifeyouthopensecurity
BLUEsadnessopencalmsolitudereflectiontruthgoodnesscolddepthInterpreting Symbols in LiteratureSpotting a SymbolLook for:Repeated colors or objectsUnusual character names.Objects that have cultural/universal meaningChristmas tree, owl, flags.
How do writers use symbols?Emphasize key ideas or themesShakespeare uses poison to symbolize the human tendency to take something good (i.e. life) and destroy it.
Emphasizes the way the Montagues and Capulets hatred poisons Romeo and Juliets love.
Stress PlotA storm can represent impending trouble, such as in Chapter 9 of Lord of the Flies.
The death of Candys dog in Of Mice and Men foreshadows the death of Lenny, stresses the death of innocence.
Insight into CharactersIn Taming of the Shrew, Petrucios wedding costume symbolizes his control over Kate.
She has no choice but to marry him, even though he looks like a clown, showing his authority from the start.
A Note on Interpretation:
A piece of writing will always mean more than a writer intended because of personal associations. You may not understand all of the contextual symbols an author uses, but might get meaning out of something the author never planned.
We can derive meaning from the symbol itself, but can also make inferences based on how a universal symbol is exhibited or used.
(ex: Universally, water represents life and purity, so how we might interpret the use of a Polluted river in a story?)