What EXACTLY is a symbol and how is it different from a metaphor? And what purpose do symbols serve?
A symbol is the conscious and artful use of:
other symbols ( see photo for some common examples)
that represent something greater and more complex than that which is obvious.
Metaphor, on the other hand, is an implied analogy whereby one thing is compared to another. A metaphor “stands for” something else.
The BIG difference. A metaphor means ONE thing…SYMBOLS have many layers of meaning. (I tell my students if they can’t find and explain 3 levels of meaning, they need to call it a metaphor.)
A few concepts to remember:
are multi-layed, like an onion (that’s a simile. “Symbols are onions” is a metaphor.)
may change over time. For example, the swastika is a symbol of the Nazi party, evil, and a belief in white supremacy. It’s actually an ancient symbol for the sun and the cycle of birth and rebirth. It means “aspicious ” in India. Another example is the rainbow. In Judeo-Christian religions the rainbow signifies God’s promise to never again destroy the earth with water. Then leprechauns got involved with the whole pot of gold thing. Now it’s a symbol of gay pride, I would say the rainbow symbol has changed a helluva lot!
are ingrained in our collective conscious. The sun is universally considered to be giver of life. Most cultures have one or two sun gods.Tomes have been written detailing the how, where, when and why symbols emerged from ancient civilizations.
are shared among cultures: Early symbols like the sun, rainbow, stars, and circles stem from early civilizations concern for food and shelter. Conquering civilizations brought their religions and symbols with them, thereby spreading, adding to, or forcing the Defeated to assimilate them.
may be culture/religion specific. The color red in western cultures is linked to love and sexual passion. Red in eastern cultures is symbolic of pure love and good luck.
Symbols add depth, sophistication, and chew-worthy deliciousness to a novel. It makes a reader stop reading ( briefly) to ponder the profound meaning of the object/action/person. That makes for a memorable yummy read.
Symbols in literature are complex! Any object, character, place, action may be symbolic, having several layers or meaning within the text .Peel away the symbolic layers and the author may be making a statement about:
- mental health of character(s)
- emotional health of character(s)
- natural world
- wealth/socio-economic status /class
- religion/ beliefs/dogmas/spirituality
- physical health
- group affiliation ( from Boy Scouts to nerds to the Free Masons to military units)
- Age/ age group (toddler, youth adolescent, teen, middle age, elderly)
- sexuality ( because gender and sexuality are not synonymous)
- ideals ( or lack thereof)
Another important thing to understand about symbols: Each person understands symbols a little bit differently because each person brings their own unique life/gender/age/culture/religious/personal experiences to anything they read ( or watch or hear).
Remember, when READING or WRITING to place the symbol in context of setting, history, and culture OR the symbol will not be understandable.
Examples of symbolism you might remember from high school:
Piggy’s glasses in the Lord of the Flies
the shark in Old Man and the Sea. ( actually, everything in that novella is a symbol, making the tale an allegory–I’ll save that for another blog)
the pearl in The Pearl
the veil in Persepolis
the green light in The Great Gatsby
soma in Brave New World
In the novel, The Merkabah Recruit, I have a few symbols. The merkabah, of course, is an ancient symbol. There is also an action that takes place several times during the course of the story: The protagonist’s attempt to put her key into the locked door in the dark. As you may have guessed, keys, doors, locks, and darkness are equally chock full of symbolic chewy goodness. Folks who have read both novels always ask, “Who is Jack, really ?” Readers know there is more to that character than meets the eye.( I lOVE when that happens!)
By the way, the images used in my Rock Your Writing series are always symbolic of the topic I’m blogging about.
Have fun with symbols!