Symbols have been used in literature for…a really long time (I know, I’m great with words). You can probably think of a few prominent symbols in some popular books, like the two-fingered salute or the Mockinjay pin in The Hunger Games, or the scarlet letter in, (you guessed it!) The Scarlet Letter.
A symbol is usually a physical object that represents an idea. According to reference.com,
Symbols are important because they facilitate communication and identification of ideas and other concepts based on what those symbols represent, though they can have literal as well as figurative meanings. Symbols can be used to signify individuals, groups of people, organizations or more ambiguous concepts.
There are several levels on which symbols can be used. For instance, using a color to symbolize something can be simple, yet effective. If there’s a young person wearing white, it may symbolize their innocence, and vice versa for a creepy person wearing black. Some such symbols may be viewed as “universal symbols”, as they mean much the same thing to everyone.
Now, you can’t talk about these “universal symbols” without mentioning archetype symbols. What is that, you ask Well, it’s generally themes, characters, and sometimes images that are meant to embody meanings or experiences significant to everyone.
A quick overview of Archetypes:
As mentioned above, these archetypal symbols are generally renowned and accepted across many, if not all, cultures, and can even stretch across time. For instance, we are all familiar with the Heaven vs. Hell archetype. Yes, it may be named differently in different cultures, but the idea remains the same. According to a list compiled by an English Teacher from Jenks High School, Jenks, Oklahoma, the Heaven vs. Hell archetype is as follows: Humanity has traditionally associated parts of the universe not accessible to it with the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern its world. The skies and mountaintops house its gods; the bowels of the earth contain the diabolic forces that inhabit its universe.
Can you think of any stories that use this archetype? There’s Dante’s Inferno, for example, or one of my favorite movies, What Dreams May Come.
Another archetype (just for funsies) is the Supernatural Intervention. This is where a supernatural force interferes with the lives of mortals. You can browse some Greek or Roman mythology for examples. Or, just watch an episode of Supernatural, where it happens all freakin time. Not that I don’t love that show ;)
Now that you have a clearer idea of symbolism in archetypes, let’s explore more of the complex symbolism.
Using symbols on a more complex level can get a little tricky, but can sometimes prove to be more effective than those more simplified symbols. Why can it be tricky? Well, for one, the more complex the symbol, the better chance it has of being misconstrued. Of course, symbols can have more than one meaning, but you don’t want it to be completely mistaken for something else-for something that you never intended.
A work of literature that has some very complex symbolism is the script for Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett. Yes, I did first see it on stage, but I have since purchased the script and read through it. It was created in the absurdist style, which is to say, very absurd.
For all of its interesting, enchanting absurdity, the play was riddled with symbolism. If you haven’t seen or even heard of it, I suggest you look up little clips on youtube (it’s very entertaining, even if you don’t understand what’s going on). Going into its symbolism though, the two main characters hang around a tree throughout the entirety of the play. Many who have viewed this play or read the script argue that the tree is a religious symbol. This may be due to the fact that the tree comes to life in the second act, which may represent the gift of Life, as believed in the Christian religion. The characters also discuss repentance, which seems to prove further that there are many religious elements to the play.
However, the playwright Beckett himself said that he didn’t intend for it to be a religious play. My own interpretations lead me lean towards the religious symbolism, but who’s to say? It may not have been intended, but with such obscure, and complex symbols in an absurdist play, it’s bound to raise contradicting interpretations.
So, there you have it. There is a wide array of symbols in literature. Some may only be recognized within a certain cultural sphere, while others may be instantly recognized by millions (if not billions) around the world. Some are very simple and easy to use, such as colors, while others can be much more complex.
Remember that as you use symbols in a story that they are powerful weapons for you, the writer. You want to be sure you are using the right ones for your stories, and certainly the right ones to strike a chord in your audience. Do your research, delve into stories and seek out the symbols within. Gauge how important or vital a symbol is to a story, or reflect on why certain symbols may be deemed useless. Just remember, symbols can be powerful if used correctly. Dwell on the topics or ideas you want to convey in your literature and see if any symbols can enhance that.
Get out there, and get writing!
Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett