In this guide, we’ll be briefly discussing symbolism. Symbolism is not exactly the most popular thing you learn about in AP English Literature, but it’s gotten a worse reputation than it deserves! With our guide, you’ll be a symbol-spotting expert in no time. (Or at least you’ll have a pretty good start.)
Symbolism is a literary device in which an object or event represents something beyond itself. It is used to represent an idea, concept, or emotion, and can help to add depth and complexity to a work of literature. It can also help express concepts that are difficult to conceptualize, like peace or faith.
Symbols can be found in a variety of forms, including objects, characters, and events. It can be difficult to identify symbolism in a play or a piece of literature because almost everything can be symbolic. However, how do we tell if something is symbolic?
Let’s start by looking at some common symbols.
Objects: Objects can symbolize a wide range of ideas, such as a sword symbolizing power or a mirror symbolizing self-reflection.
Characters: Characters can symbolize ideas or concepts. For example, child characters are often symbols of hope.
Colors: Colors can symbolize a variety of ideas, such as red symbolizing passion or white symbolizing innocence.
Animals: Animals can symbolize a wide range of ideas, such as a lion symbolizing bravery or a snake symbolizing deceit.
Events: Events or actions can symbolize ideas or emotions, such as a wedding symbolizing commitment.
Objects, characters, events… isn’t that what a story is made up of? Yep! Once again, everything can be symbolic.
In order to identify symbolism, it’s important to look for elements that seem to be significant or recurring in the text.
Let’s start with recurring symbols. If, in a novel, one set of curtains is blue, and nothing else is blue, that probably isn’t an example of symbolism. However, if blue is a prominent color throughout the book, that probably means the author is using it deliberately.
As for significant symbols, those are symbols that the author features prominently. Sometimes the author will put the symbol directly in the title (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick). Sometimes it’ll be described heavily in the text or a character will point it out, drawing the reader’s attention to the symbol. Sometimes we can tell if something is symbolic because it means a lot to the characters (ex: Piggy’s Conch Shell from The Lord of the Flies, the White Whale of Moby Dick)
Another way to identify symbolism is to consider the themes and messages of the work as a whole. If you’re reading a book you know is about revenge or love, look to see if any symbols pop up connected to those themes. These could be because they’re common themes in the literature canon that your work is from (such as red roses representing love) or because when revenge or love are mentioned, this symbol is mentioned as well.
It is also important to consider the cultural and historical context in which a work was written, as symbols can have different meanings depending on the time and place in which they appear. For example, white clothing in Western cultures tends to represent purity, virginity, weddings… but in Eastern cultures white was a color of mourning and funerals. Furthermore, an author may be subverting common expectations by using a generally positive symbol such as doves or the sun in a negative manner (ex: doves fly above the characters before someone dies, or a bunch of doves surround a rebel character and smother them, representing an oppressive peace.)
Phew! Now that you have all the evidence at hand, let’s go to 3.5 to discuss how to put it all together in an argument.