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Literature Symbolism

Teacher/Instructor Katie Aquino
Katie Aquino

Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University

Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.

Symbolism in literature is defined as one tangible thing that represents an intangible thing. In literature and essays, there are examples of symbolism. Typically, symbols are repeated throughout literature. Some examples of popular symbols in literature are the green light in The Great Gatsby and the conch shell in The Lord of the Flies.

Let's talk about symbolism, so I know when I was in high school, I asked my English teacher, "come on can't the blue dress just be the blue dress, the author has to mean something?" And the truth is, that if that blue dress continues to show up and continues to show up, it probably is a symbol and it probably does mean something. So let's review the definition of symbolism and then look at some examples of it, alright. So symbolism is one tangible thing and tangible means you can put your hands on or you can hear it or you can taste it or you can feel it, you can experience it with your five senses. So it's when a tangible thing represents something that is intangible and we have common accepted symbols just in our culture today, for instance the dove. A white dove typically represents peace, right. You can't necessarily package peace up in a box and give it to somebody but if you wanted to represent that I guess you can put a dove in a box or hopefully a cage and give it to them, alright.
Same with the color red, we have some associations. So red is a tangible thing we can see it and it generally means love or passion alright. So if you see the repetition of the color red in variety of pieces of literature, you know it's signifying something about maybe the person whose wearing it or the room, whatever it is. And then finally we have promise rings or engagement rings that kind of thing and those typically symbolize love or some sort of commitment and clearly we can't package commitment up in a box and give it to somebody but when we give somebody a ring, that's our symbol of that.
So let's talk about some prominent examples in literature that will hopefully help you identify examples in the literature that you are reading. So one of the most famous ones is the green light in F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. And here you have a quote 'If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay... You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock'. So you are introduced to this idea that Gatsby's got a green light at the end of his dock that he looks at every night. And that would be okay and kind of an acceptable behavior and we can just leave it at that, if it weren't for the fact that it's constantly brought up and he's constantly doing it. And what you'll discover is that green light comes to represent something more. It represents the dock that is across the bay from his which is, his love Daisy. And he's staring at it and that color green represents all of the things that he's work so hard for; the monetary wealth that he has. So when you see the repetition of that symbol throughout, you can start to read a little bit more into it.
Another popular symbol is the Conch Shell in Lord of the Flies. So we've got another quote; 'At once half the boys were on their feet. Jack clamored among them, the conch forgotten'. So one thing you notice here is that what happens when people forget about the conch shell? you notice the word clamoring, it's chaotic and you'll notice throughout the book the conch represents a rule, nobody can talk unless they have the conch shell. And when it get's forgotten or stolen or destroyed, things start to loose their order or their laws and again it's one of those symbols that Golding tends to repeat and describe over and over and over again and that should be your clue that it's a strong symbol.
Alright, finally and I think this is one most typically used in a lot of books, bad weather or storms often represent evil or chaos or something bad. So it's a clue, so it foreshadows but it's also one of those symbols because we can experience. And this is a quote from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 'It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers'. So right there, because we have this bad weather that we can almost experience like the characters are, we get this cold feeling and this happens on the night that Hydesson goes over to Jekyll Endive laboratory and really discovers the mysteries of what's going on there. But again we see it repeated and repeated in a clue's essence. So hopefully this idea of symbolism will help you take a look at some of these important symbols but also recognize symbols in what you are reading.