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Understanding Literary Symbolism

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Dana Linde

on 7 October 2015

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Transcript of Understanding Literary Symbolism

A SYMBOL is usually a concrete object that stands for or represents something else.
Possible interpretations
How can we determine a symbol's meaning?

San Francisco
However, a symbol can generally involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations.
(cc) photo by Metro Centric on Flickr
(cc) photo by Franco Folini on Flickr
(cc) photo by jimmyharris on Flickr
(cc) photo by Metro Centric on Flickr
Here are some recognizeable symbols.
preexisting knowledge
Let's use E.M. Forster's novel
A Passage to India
Forster has a central incident in a cave. Is the cave a symbol? You bet!
Could the cave be a connection to our primitive nature and the character who is in the cave is getting in touch with her deepest level of consciousness and perhaps is frightened by what she finds there?
Could the cave be forcing a character into contact with her deepest personal fears and anxieties?
Could the cave represent a confrontation with terrors a character has denied and which can only be exorcised by facing them?
It is necessary to realize that we bring an individual history to our reading, which includes previous readings and so much more. This will affect how we interpret symbols.
philosophical inclination
social involvement
educational attainment
Further difficulties arise when different authors use the same symbol!
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the river represents both danger and safety as well as a road to growing maturity and understanding.
In Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge", The bridge and river represent connection.
In T.S.Eliot's The Wasteland, the river represents the corruption of modern life and the collapse of civilization.
Action can be symbolic as well!
symbolizes the wear and tear of daily living on the psyche
represents the solitary business of living one's life
So when you're reading, listen to your instincts; it probably means something.
Let's see if we can interpret the meanings of some more complex symbols.
Is it a brand new start?
Is it the great equalizer?
Does it wash away our false illusions?
Is it restorative?
color can have meaning also...
Have you ever felt blue?
A coward can be labeled as yellow!
When speaking of passion or anger, one may refer to the color red.
When one is ready to give up, he may throw in the white towel!
Symbols which are universally accepted as meaning the same thing are called archetypal symbols.
Shapes and lines can be symbolic as well!
... small
Circles represent eternity.
Jagged lines represent chaos or shattered dreams, injustice, or pain.
Squares or cubes are symbolic of a lack of imagination.
Vertical lines are representative of dignity, hope, and spirituality.
Triangles can symbolize the sense that something is uplifting.
Diagonal lines represent uncertainty, strife, or extreme concentration.
Horizontal lines mean stability, calmness, or tranquility.
Whether it be a season, a color, a shape, a geographical landscape, an animal, or a weather condition, chances are the author may be using it to advance additional meanings. Remember, the greater your exposure to literature, the greater the understanding you will have when you encounter these symbols in other works.
Think about these ideas taken from The Hunger Games and consider what they might symbolize...
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