Symbolism – Definition and Meaning

Symbolism implies conscious and artful use of symbols, objects, actions or characters meant to be taken both literally and as representative of some higher, more complex and abstract significance that lies beyond ordinary meaning. For example, symbolism is at work when the word rose is used not only to signify the flower itself but also to suggest beauty, love or purity abstractions that rose represents symbolically.

Broadly, anything that signifies, or stands for, something else. In literature, a symbol is usually something concrete-an object, a place, a character, an action-that stands for or suggests something abstract. In Joseph Conrad’s story “The Lagoon”, darkness is a symbol of evil and light a symbol of good. A symbol may be universal or private. Darkness and light are universal symbols of evil and good. Climbing is a universal symbol of progress; descending, of failure. The dove is a universal symbol of peace. In contrast, the great white whale in Herman Melville’s Novel Moby-Dick is a private symbol and a complex one. Many books and articles have been written in an effort to explain it, but like many great private symbols in literature and art, its significance is complex and elusive.

A symbol differs from a literal image, from a metaphor, and also from an emblem in an Allegory. Consider a forest, or a wood. In the following lines, woods is an image, presented literally as a place one is going through: Over the river and through the woods

To grandmother’s house we go. If the woods were pictured in more detail-snow-covered pines, with branches black against the sky-it would still be a literal image, although a more vivid one.

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However, in the statement, “From the helicopter, we were able to see the windfarm, a forest of windmills”, forest is a metaphor. The speaker is not seeing a real forest. A group of windmills is being indirectly compared to a forest. In Dante’s allegory. The Infima, Dante awakens to find himself lost in a wood. The wood, the reader is told, is Error. On an allegorical level, Dante is lost in the error of his ways, or in sin. The only way out of the wood is through the hazardous landscape of hell (the recognition of sin) and purgatory (the renunciation of sin). The wood functions as an emblem because its significance is precisely determined by an allegorical Context, in which abstract concepts have been translated into a kind of picture language.

In William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, all the main characters turn up sooner or later in the play’s principal locale, the Forest of Arden. As the action of the play unfolds, the forest becomes richly symbolic, even though it remains a real forest. It is a place of escape from and banishment from civilization, with both the advantages and disadvantages that involves; a place of freedom; a dream world, where one can act out one’s fantasies; a place of transformation, moral regeneration, and reconciliation; and ultimately, a place from which one must return. Like many literary symbols, the Forest of Arden both embodies universal suggestions of meaning-the forest as a place of escape from civilization-and takes on private significance from the way it is treated in the play.



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