Symbolism: Definition and Examples of Symbolism in Speech & Writing

What is symbolism? In this article, we are going to look further into what symbolism is and how it can be used in conversation and writing. We will take a look at some examples in order to further see how it can be applied to the everyday language.


Symbolism Definition

Symbolism is the idea of using a symbol to represent a meaning, idea or quality. The symbols that are given do not have the same literal meaning as the thing about which they are referring.

Using symbolism gives the speaker or writer the opportunity to describe something in a more poetic fashion rather than simply saying what they mean outright. It can be used to express an emotion or something which is a more general idea, for example, a dove is the symbol of peace or a rose is the symbol of romance and love.

There are some words which are used in a symbolic sense which may have more than one meaning, for example, a chain. This can sometimes refer to being imprisoned but can also be used to symbolise a union.

In some cases, symbolism can mean different things to different people, depending on how they interpret it. However, in most cases, symbolism in generally understood by the masses to have the same meaning.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism in Everyday Language

There will be many times in which you may hear someone using symbolism during an everyday conversation. Let’s take a look at some examples of some of the things you might hear.

  • An olive branch is used to symbolise a truce. I offered her an olive branch after our big fight as I did not want to be at odds with her.
  • Black is the symbol of death. The funeral was full of people wearing black suits.
  • The dove is used to symbolise peace. The countries declared a peace treaty by the releasing of a hundred doves.
  • A red rose is used to symbolise love and romance. He handed her a red rose and she knew at the moment how he felt.
  • A broken mirror symbolises bad luck or separation. The mirror broke and he knew that things would not be good from there on.
  • A cloud with a silver lining represents hope or something good in a bad situation. Every cloud has a silver lining so I knew that getting fired from my job could only mean something better was coming along for me.
  • An ox symbolises hard work and strength. He works as hard as an ox.
  • The owl is a symbol of wisdom and being sage. My grandfather is just like an owl, he always knows the right thing to advise me when I am struggling in life.
  • The colour green is associated with envy and jealousy. I turned into a green eyed monster when I saw my friends expensive new car.
  • The colour red is used to symbolise danger. When I saw how she was behaving it was like a red flag, I knew she was going to get hurt.
  • The colour white represents purity. It is common for brides to wear a white wedding gown.
  • A chain can symbolise the idea of being imprisoned or locked up. He was in chains when he got caught for his crimes.
  • A chain can also be representative of a union. The workers formed a chain to show their bosses that they were not going to stand for the current working conditions.
  • A butterfly can symbolise a transformation in someone or something. She was like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon after she took the meditation course.
  • A snake is used to represent slyness or deceitfulness. Her lies only served to lead me down the wrong path in life, she was just like a snake.

Symbolism in Writing

There are many uses for symbolism but one of the most common is within written words. Because of its poetic qualities, symbolism is a great way for an author to express the meaning behind something in a less literal way. Over the years, symbolism has been used in a wide variety of texts to hint towards an idea or quality.

We will now look at some examples of symbolism being used in various different written works.

  • As you like it by William Shakespeare. Symbolism was used often by Shakespeare and in this text, you will find the sentence “All the world’s a stage. The men and women are just players.” The stage is the symbol for the world and the players are the symbol for the people in the world.
  • Ah, sunflower by William Blake. This famous poem uses a sunflower to symbolise a human being. It is used as follows; “Ah sunflower, who counts the steps of the sun.”
  • Wuthering heights by Emily Bronte. In this very famous novel, you can again find symbolism. In this example the title itself is symbolic, the word wuthering refers to something stormy, which the author uses to symbolise the wild personalities of the characters within the story. The sentence “my love for Heathcliff is like the eternal rocks.” is symbolic too. The eternal rocks symbolise the hard, unbending nature of the character.
  • Wild asters by Sarah Teesdale. In this poem, the following sentence uses the symbols of daisies and spring to represent youth. “In spring time, I asked of the daisies, if his word was true.”
  • The rain by William H Davies. This poem features symbolism in the form of using leaves to symbolise the various social classes. “I hear leaves drinking rain, and hear rich leaves on the top.”
  • My heart leaps up when I behold by William Wordsworth. Another good example of symbolism in literature can be found in this poem by Wordsworth. In this example the sentence “a rainbow in the sky.” is using a rainbow to symbolise hope.
  • Auror leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a novel in which symbolism is used to refer to the undervaluing of women. “We sew and sew and prick our fingers, and for what? To produce a pair of slippers for you to put on when you are weary.”
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling. In the series of books about the boy wizard, Harry Potter, symbolism is used in the form of the scar on Harry’s forehead. The scar symbolises his bravery.
  • The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. In this famous poem, the black bird is used to symbolise death and loss. An example of this can be seen in the line “But the raven, sitting alone on the bust, spoke only the one word, as if his soul did outpour. Nothing further than he uttered, and not a feather that he fluttered, until I barely more than uttered, other friends have flown before.”

Symbolism Infographic