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A crash course in literary symbolism.


  1. 1. Symbolism in Literature English 12 Fall 2009 Ms. Ross
  2. 2. Images from:
  3. 3. What is a symbol? <ul><li>A symbol is something that stands for, or represents, something else. </li></ul><ul><li>They are learned associations, arising mainly out of cultural traditions. </li></ul>
  4. 4. Symbols in literature… <ul><li>Are shaped by our own associations as well as the author’s </li></ul>Moby-Dick, the white whale, is usually interpreted as a symbol of evil, God, or an indifferent universe. ( The lion is a symbol of bravery, strength, and power. <ul><ul><li>Conventional symbols: those widely recognized by society </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Contextual symbols: those whose meaning are determined mainly by the author </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. <ul><li>Are related to the culture they come from. The ones here come mainly from a western/Eurocentric tradition </li></ul><ul><li>Can be recognized by the frequency an object or character is mentioned in a piece of literature--if it is mentioned often, it is probably important. Or, look at how much detail is used in describing an object. (“How to Understand Symbolism in Literature”, </li></ul>Symbols in literature…
  6. 6. <ul><li>Can stand for more than one thing </li></ul>Symbols in literature… Alice's Adventures in Wonderland : nothing clearly represents one particular thing--objects are generally contained in their individual episode. The garden may symbolize the Garden of Eden, an idyllic space of beauty and innocence that Alice is not permitted to access. Also, the garden may represent the experience of desire, in that Alice focuses her energy and emotion on trying to attain it. The two symbolic meanings work together to underscore Alice's desire to hold onto her feelings of childlike innocence that she must relinquish as she matures. (
  7. 7. Motifs & Allegories <ul><li>Motif: recurring thematic symbols, images, ideas or items. These point in the direction of the overall theme </li></ul><ul><li>Allegory: a story whose characters, setting, events, etc. are meant to represent general truths about human existence. The entire story is a collection of symbols </li></ul>
  8. 8. Common Conventional Symbols in Literature
  9. 9. Sun & Light <ul><li>Father principle (i.e. male) </li></ul><ul><li>Consciousness: thinking, </li></ul><ul><li>enlightenment, wisdom, </li></ul><ul><li>spiritual vision, awareness </li></ul><ul><li>Passage of time and life </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Rising sun: birth, creation, </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>enlightenment </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Setting sun: endings, death </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Creative energy </li></ul><ul><li>Sun: Law in nature </li></ul>
  10. 10. Moon <ul><li>Mother principle </li></ul><ul><li>(i.e. female) </li></ul><ul><li>Cycles </li></ul><ul><li>Resurrection </li></ul><ul><li>Madness </li></ul>
  11. 11. Night & Dark <ul><li>The mysterious </li></ul><ul><li>The unknown (e.g. to be “in the dark”) </li></ul><ul><li>Death </li></ul><ul><li>Evil, shadiness of quality (i.e. the darker the night, the purer the evil) </li></ul><ul><li>Darkness can also be calming, </li></ul><ul><li>restful, serene—much like still </li></ul><ul><li>being in the womb </li></ul>Image from:
  12. 12. Water <ul><li>The mystery of creation </li></ul><ul><li>Purification and cleansing </li></ul><ul><li>Redemption and rebirth (e.g. baptism) </li></ul><ul><li>The unconscious </li></ul><ul><li>Rivers: the flow of time, journeys </li></ul><ul><li>Lakes: the unconscious (“what lies beneath”) </li></ul><ul><li>Sea/Ocean: the mother of all life, spiritual mystery and infinity, timelessness and eternity, cycles (the tides) </li></ul>
  13. 13. Fire & Lightning <ul><li>Fire: associated with the sun </li></ul><ul><li>and light </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Purification </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Destruction </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Power </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Passionate emotions: love, hate, rage, anger </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Sexuality </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Lightning: dramatic, instantaneous divine retribution and destruction </li></ul>
  14. 14. Flowers: The Rose <ul><li>Traditionally (since the Victorian era, anyway), the </li></ul><ul><li>colour of the rose determines the kind of love: </li></ul><ul><li>Red = romance, beauty </li></ul><ul><li>Yellow = friendship </li></ul><ul><li>Deep pink = gratitude and appreciation </li></ul><ul><li>Light pink = sympathy and admiration </li></ul><ul><li>White = reverence, purity, innocence, remembrance (and, therefore, also death) </li></ul><ul><li>Orange = passion, excitement </li></ul><ul><li>Lavender = enchantment, love at first sight </li></ul>
  15. 15. Flowers: A Few More <ul><li>Calla lily = beauty </li></ul><ul><li>Daffodil = regard </li></ul><ul><li>Daisy = innocence </li></ul><ul><li>Narcissus = egotism </li></ul><ul><li>Red poppy = consolation, death </li></ul>
  16. 16. Noteworthy Plants <ul><li>Bamboo = longevity, strength, grace </li></ul><ul><li>Laurel = glory </li></ul><ul><li>Oak = wisdom, strength </li></ul><ul><li>Acorn = potential, strength </li></ul><ul><li>Tree = fertility, life, growth, immortality or long life </li></ul><ul><li>Garden = paradise and unspoiled beauty, innocence, fertility </li></ul>
  17. 17. Circle / Sphere <ul><li>Wholeness, completeness </li></ul><ul><li>Unity </li></ul><ul><li>Having no weak point </li></ul><ul><li>The feminine spirit </li></ul>
  18. 18. Triangle <ul><li>The masculine spirit (positive or negative) </li></ul><ul><li>The sky, the earth and the living creatures </li></ul><ul><li>The union of two that creates the third (such as parents and child) </li></ul><ul><li>The perfect union when two become one </li></ul><ul><li>In Christianity: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The father, the mother and the son </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The power of the One to become All </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>( ) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>NB: Nazis used triangle markings in concentration camps to categorize prisoners </li></ul>
  19. 19. Numbers: One & Two <ul><li>One: the original, the creator </li></ul><ul><li>Two: duality </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Male and female </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Good and evil </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Night and day; hot and cold; etc. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Two-facedness (e.g. Janus: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Roman god of gates, doors, </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>doorways, beginnings and </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>endings) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Yin and yang: female and male </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>opposites </li></ul></ul>
  20. 20. Numbers: Three <ul><li>Spiritual awareness </li></ul><ul><li>Completeness and unity </li></ul><ul><li>Phases of life: past, present and future; maiden, mother, and crone; etc. </li></ul><ul><li>Triads </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Christianity: The Holy Trinity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Buddhism: Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Family: mother, father, child </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The three Fates; three Sirens; three Witches; three Furies; three Graces </li></ul></ul>
  21. 21. Numbers: Four <ul><li>The earth (associated also with the square) </li></ul><ul><li>Cycles, because of the seasons </li></ul><ul><li>Four elements: air, water, fire, earth </li></ul><ul><li>Four directions: north, south, east, west </li></ul><ul><li>Ovid’s Four Ages of the World: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron </li></ul><ul><li>Four rivers of Hades </li></ul>
  22. 22. Numbers: Seven <ul><li>The union of three (spirituality) and four (earth) </li></ul><ul><li>Eternal life: human life linked with divine life </li></ul><ul><li>Completion of a cycle; perfect order (week, music scale, rainbow, etc.) </li></ul><ul><li>Wisdom </li></ul><ul><li>Christianity: creation in seven days </li></ul><ul><li>Judaism: Passover and the menorah branches </li></ul>
  23. 23. Numbers: Twelve & Forty <ul><li>Twelve: completion (of a cycle) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Year, zodiac </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Twelve gods of Mount Olympus, </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>twelve labors of Hercules </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Forty: negative associations, usually religious </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Quarantine” was originally 40 days of isolation in the Roman port </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Examples of 40s in the Old Testament: 40 days Hebrews wandered in the desert, 40 days and nights of the great flood </li></ul></ul>
  24. 24. Cross <ul><li>Associated with the number four, for the quadrants it creates </li></ul><ul><li>Christianity: suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus, the faith itself and its followers </li></ul><ul><li>Red cross: medical care and assistance </li></ul><ul><li>Ankh: Egyptian symbol of life and fertility </li></ul><ul><li>Saltire (diagonally crossed lines): skull and crossbones represent danger, poison, pirates </li></ul>
  25. 25. Sphinx & Crown <ul><li>Sphinx: part human (usually female) or ram, part lion, part bird </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Knowledge and wisdom </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The sun (and its associated meanings) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Power and might </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Crown </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Monarchy, royalty or head of state </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Power and wealth </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Often associated with the number two (double crown) or three (triple crown) and their meanings </li></ul></ul>
  26. 26. Animals: Serpent / Snake <ul><li>Energy and pure force </li></ul><ul><li>Evil and corruption </li></ul><ul><li>Sensuality </li></ul><ul><li>Destruction </li></ul><ul><li>Mystery </li></ul><ul><li>Wisdom </li></ul><ul><li>The unconscious </li></ul><ul><li>Primitiveness and origins </li></ul><ul><li>Includes worms, because of their resemblance </li></ul>
  27. 27. Animals: Eagle, Dove, Phoenix <ul><li>Eagle </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Bravery, leadership </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>United States of America </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Dove </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Peace, hope for peace </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Phoenix </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Resurrection </li></ul></ul>
  28. 28. Animals: Cat & Dog <ul><li>Cat </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Independence </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Meditation, mystery, and watchfulness </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cleverness and wisdom </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Black cats = bad luck (superstition) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Dog </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Loyalty </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Guardianship (e.g. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cerberus) </li></ul></ul>
  29. 29. Desert <ul><li>Spiritual aridity </li></ul><ul><li>Hopelessness </li></ul><ul><li>Nihilism </li></ul><ul><li>Death </li></ul>
  30. 30. Colours <ul><li>Possibly the most pervasive of literary symbols </li></ul><ul><li>Shade is important—can show the potency of the symbolic meaning </li></ul><ul><li>Consider combinations of colours (separate or blended) </li></ul><ul><li>As many colours can be seen positively or negatively, their effects and contexts must be taken into account </li></ul>
  31. 31. Red <ul><li>Blood; life and death </li></ul><ul><li>Energy </li></ul><ul><li>Violence, disorder, sacrifice, rage, danger </li></ul><ul><li>Warmth and heat </li></ul><ul><li>Passion </li></ul><ul><li>Lust </li></ul>
  32. 32. Green <ul><li>Fertility, growth, and the abundance of nature </li></ul><ul><li>Hope </li></ul><ul><li>Renewal </li></ul><ul><li>Envy </li></ul><ul><li>Na ï vet é </li></ul><ul><li>Rottenness, decay, and death </li></ul>
  33. 33. Blue <ul><li>Closely associated with water </li></ul><ul><li>Also associated with the sky </li></ul><ul><li>Spirituality and religious beliefs </li></ul><ul><li>Peace, calm, stability and order </li></ul><ul><li>Intelligence </li></ul><ul><li>Sadness and depression </li></ul>
  34. 34. Black <ul><li>Closely associated with darkness and night </li></ul><ul><li>Darkness, chaos, and emptiness </li></ul><ul><li>Mystery and the unknown </li></ul><ul><li>Primal wisdom </li></ul><ul><li>The unconscious </li></ul><ul><li>Evil </li></ul><ul><li>Melancholy </li></ul>
  35. 35. White <ul><li>Associated with light </li></ul><ul><li>Purity, innocence, and virginity </li></ul><ul><li>Timelessness </li></ul><ul><li>Blinding truth </li></ul><ul><li>Death and the supernatural </li></ul><ul><li>Mirrors = reflection </li></ul>
  36. 36. Yellow <ul><li>Cheerfulness, happiness, warmth, and joy </li></ul><ul><li>Hope (e.g. yellow ribbons) </li></ul><ul><li>Hazard and danger (e.g. road signs) </li></ul><ul><li>The sun (and its meanings) </li></ul><ul><li>Gold = sovereignty and wealth </li></ul><ul><li>Cowardice and deceit </li></ul>
  37. 37. Orange <ul><li>Red’s intensity and aggressiveness, tempered by yellow’s cheer </li></ul><ul><li>Vibrancy, warmth and joy </li></ul><ul><li>Courage and strength </li></ul><ul><li>The sun (and its meanings) </li></ul><ul><li>Light orange = summer </li></ul><ul><li>Dark orange = autumn </li></ul>
  38. 38. Purple <ul><li>Royalty, nobility, and authority </li></ul><ul><li>Mystery </li></ul><ul><li>Spirituality </li></ul>
  39. 39. Brown <ul><li>Wholesomeness and earthiness </li></ul><ul><li>Dependability, simplicity, and friendliness </li></ul><ul><li>Health </li></ul><ul><li>Permanence </li></ul><ul><li>Dullness </li></ul>