Symbolism | Definition | Types | Use | Example

Definition: What is Symbolism?

The use of an action, an object, or a name to represent a concept or a characteristic is known as symbolism. It’s essentially the process of linking a symbol with something that’s generally concrete in order to give it a new or larger meaning. Symbolism is a creative way for writers to express an idea or notion to their viewers without saying it out loud. Writers can utilize symbolism to make their works more complicated.

Many people employ symbols in their daily lives as well. For instance, white denotes purity, dark denotes evil, roses denote romance, a butterfly denotes change, and a dog might denote loyalty.

Types of symbolism

Symbolism can be seen in a variety of places, including in literature and ordinary speech. Understanding the variations between different types of symbolism will help you have a better understanding of symbolism in general. Here are some examples of different sorts of symbolism:


A metaphor alludes to one thing by referencing another directly. It essentially compares two distinct objects while demonstrating that they share a commonality. As a result, while a metaphor can help clarify things, it can also highlight the similarities between two things or concepts, despite their evident differences.


A simile, rather than hinting a connection like a metaphor, expresses a direct comparison between two objects. The words “like” and “as” are frequently used in similes. With a simile, you compare two things that are fundamentally different. Similes, as contrast to metaphors, are considerably more direct analogies.


An allegory is a story in which a character, incident, or setting conveys a wider message about a real-world problem or event. To put it another way, it’s a story in which the majority of the characters and plot developments are symbols for something else, or in which the entire story represents a broader occurrence in the real world or society. Allegories use characters and situations to disclose a hidden meaning or message rather than speaking it out loud. A metaphor and symbolism in general are used extensively in an allegory.


An archetype is a recurring story element, such as a concept or a character type, that represents something universal. You can, for example, construct a character based on particular features or traits that readers will recognize. Archetypes are characters, images, or themes in literature that symbolically express a universal meaning or human experience.


This form of symbolism imbues something that isn’t alive or human with human characteristics. Personification, for example, gives a chair, nature, a book, or an abstract notion like love or hatred a human form and senses. Personification is a technique used by writers to make their readers relate to non-human creatures or objects.


Exaggeration is used in hyperboles to convey a point or add emphasis, whether for a comedic or serious reason. You’re not supposed to take a hyperbole literally when it’s employed as a figure of speech. Hyperboles, like the polar opposite of understatement, are frequently flamboyant and often ludicrous overstatements. A hyperbole can not only draw your attention, but it can also demonstrate a contrast between two items. Many authors utilize hyperboles in their writing, and many individuals use hyperboles in everyday conversation.


A metonymy is when a word that has a strong connection to an entity is used instead of the entity’s name. To put it another way, you refer to something by the name of something that is closely related to it. Metonymy is a literary device that allows writers to address something in a more lyrical or unique way. Metonymy also aids them in giving a more sophisticated meaning to a term that is ordinarily generic or mundane.


Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning contradicts the literal meaning of the conveyed words. Irony can take many forms, including dramatic and verbal irony. Irony is a powerful tool for engaging readers and adding depth to a fictitious story.

3 Types of Symbolism in Literature

While the subject matter of literature has changed over the centuries, the definition of symbolism has not. The concept of a word or item expressing something other than its literal meaning unites all symbols. Certain sorts of symbolism have piqued the interest of authors, poets, playwrights, and lyricists throughout history:

Religious symbolism

Symbolism in religion. Because religious leaders have maintained control over society for much of human history, this has been possibly the most consistently “approved” kind of symbolism throughout literary history. Religious symbolism can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization, but literary examples include John Milton’s Paradise Lost (which is itself a reworking of the Genesis account) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (among its subtle symbolism is a physical representation of the Holy Spirit).

Romantic symbolism

Symbolism in the Romantic period. Romantic symbolism has saturated large areas of world literature, maybe second only to religious symbolism. From Shakespeare’s sonnets through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s modernist stanzas, poetry has been a particularly rich ground for romantic symbolism.

Emotional symbolism

Symbolism with emotional overtones. Physical symbolism is used by many authors and poets to depict metaphysical sentiments. This type of symbolism is well-known among French language symbolists like Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, as well as English language writers like William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

5 Ways to Use Symbolism in Writing

Symbolism has the ability to transform literature into a visceral experience. Writers can convey more with less by using symbols to give words double meanings, both literal and figurative. Symbolism can also serve as a form of code between the author and the reader. Symbolism can be used to do the following things:

  • Emotion: Symbols frequently elicit emotional responses in readers, allowing them to get invested in the plot and characters. Symbolism’s emotional impact leaves a lasting imprint on the reader of the literary work.
  • Imagery: Symbols can help readers understand difficult literary concepts by creating imagery and providing visual aspects. This has a positive effect on authors since they are less reliant on language to convey their intended meaning.
  • Thematic connection: Symbols can help readers link ideas both within and beyond works of literature. As a result, a better comprehension of literature as an art form is possible.
  • Character attributes: Symbols can be used to symbolize a variety of character traits, both literally and figuratively. Readers are able to recognize character qualities and interpret their behaviors as a result of the literary work’s symbolism.
  • Deeper meaning: Symbolism allows writers to express deeper meaning to their readers through their work. This generates a layered impact of comprehension, allowing various readers to discover their own personal significance in a literary work, as well as varying levels of significance with each exposure to the literary work.

50 Examples of Symbolism and Meanings

20 Common Symbols and Meanings

1. Raven

Raven visual symbols and meanings are essential for any communicator or visual storyteller.
One of the most famous examples of the utilization of this mysterious and gruesome bird, which is typically connected with its cousin, the crow, is Edgar Allen Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven.”

The raven has become associated with death and dread in the human mind as an animal that feeds on dead bodies. Ravens’ symbolism is so widespread that modern audiences associate them with a bad omen.

The sign can be used by all types of visual communicators to foretell death and calamity or to create a bleak atmosphere.

2. Dove

Dove visual symbols and meanings: Every communicator and visual storyteller should be aware of dove visual symbols and meanings.
Peace, tranquillity, and elegance are commonly associated with the dove. Its meaning has become so ubiquitous that it is utilized as the truest picture of peace, grace, and divinity by major world religions such as Christianity and Judaism.

It has also come to be associated with pacifism and the end of a fight in modern times. Its evolution from a religious to a political symbol may be seen in its use as a symbol for anti-violence campaigns and the Olympic games, which have become a vehicle for promoting worldwide cooperation and peace.

The symbol can be used by all types of communicators to convey tranquility, harmony, oneness, and the lack of aggression.

3. Butterfly

Every communicator and visual storyteller should be familiar with butterfly visual symbols and meanings.
Because of its metamorphosis from a wormy caterpillar to a gorgeous insect with vividly colorful wings, the butterfly is recognized as a symbol of transformation and change all over the world, in both myth and art.

This large beetle is a symbol of the soul in certain cultures, and it is utilized in stories and myths to indicate a visit from someone who has died away or the prospect of life beyond death. The colorful butterflies on Rose’s hair comb, for example, were employed in the film “Titanic” to signify her escape from the “cocoon” of her engagement to a man she did not love.

This symbol can be used by all types of communicators to visually express any type of internal or external change or transformation.

4. Cross

Every communicator and visual storyteller should be familiar with cross visual signals and meanings.
The cross is connected with Christianity, spirituality, forgiveness, resurrection, and healing all across the world. It depicts, more particularly, Jesus’ victory over sin and death on the cross.

In combat zones and disaster zones, a red cross is widely used as a symbol for medical and humanitarian assistance workers. Apart from the International Red Cross, the American Red Cross, and other organizations, it is also extensively used to indicate first aid and medical supplies.

5. Water

Water has always symbolized life in a community because it is a necessity for human survival. As a result, water symbols were particularly popular throughout history, representing birth, fertility, and refreshment. Water is frequently seen as the source of life itself, as evidenced by numerous creation myths in which life originates from primordial waters.

Water cleanses a canvas in the same manner that it removes filth, sweat, and soil from our bodies. However, it also becomes a symbol of impediments to overcome, such as a river or an ocean to cross. In either case, water may be a powerful symbol in visual narrative, with the ability to both claim and release audiences and characters.

6. Owl

The owl as a symbol is as popular as it has ever been, with owls appearing in everything from accessories and clothes to interior design and home décor. However, the popularity of the sign is nothing new.

The fact that an owl usually followed Athena, the Greek goddess of learning, contributed to its historical prominence as a symbol. The owl is associated with the occult and even death in Native American traditions because it is a night creature.

Owls have long been seen as intriguing and even mythical creatures who dwell in and emerge from the darkness, owing to their nocturnal nature. The entities were even thought to be sorcerers in disguise by Europeans during the Middle Ages. Similarly, the owl was seen as a messenger of secrets and a companion of sorcerers in West African and Aboriginal Australian civilizations.

An owl can be used to signify knowledge, intelligence, or a lesson that has to be taught in a visual message such as a logo or design.

7. Rose

Who doesn’t think of a red rose when they think of love and romance? After all, it is often employed as a representation of these notions in film, art, and literature. A single red rose is a perfect way to convey “I love you.” The link isn’t brand new, though. The flower was worshipped by the Romans as a symbol of their love goddess, Venus, and by the Greeks as a symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Roses can represent a variety of things depending on the situation. The rose is associated with the Virgin Mary and the rosary among Catholics. The sign portrays the nation of England in the War of the Roses, a series of battles between two families vying for the throne.

8. Fire

Fire, which is a key component in the evolution of civilization throughout human history, is often regarded as a symbol with numerous meanings: a flame can represent wisdom and understanding, while a blazing fire can represent fear, anguish, fury, and retribution, destruction, and even death. Such links are said to date back to the dawn of time.

Fire, after all, was a power that could quickly obliterate early settlements until humans discovered how to properly harness it. As a result, fire elicited terror. Drought-stricken areas are still being devoured by fires that are out of control. Even now, in the western United States, we can see the battle.

On the other hand, as in the case of the phoenix, a fabled bird that ignites itself and rises from its own ashes, fire can also symbolize rebirth and renewal. It can also represent passion bursting forth from inside.

A word of caution to those considering using the symbol in any form of content: When creating your visual message, keep the context in mind. A candle flame, for example, may be taken as wisdom, whereas a roaring fire may be read as destruction, judgment, and danger. Poking smoldering coals to restart a flame, on the other hand, more aptly represents a person’s soul sparking passion or lust.

9. Arrows

This sign may conjure up images of Robin Hood and his merry men wielding bows and arrows, but they are also common in today’s world: Consider your computer’s cursor or the arrows used on websites to attract attention to specific areas on the screen. They’re especially common on highways, where they draw your attention and point you in the appropriate direction.

Arrows are frequently used in logos to represent movement, progress, aspiration, and direction. Arrows can also be employed as a symbol that is only recognized by our subconscious minds. Take, for example, the well-known FedEx logo. An arrow pointing to the right is hidden in the white space between the E and the X. Because we read from left to right, pointing right indicates forward motion, and the arrow represents speed.

10. Flags

Depending on the context, symbols, and colors used, flags can have a variety of meanings. The rainbow flag, for example, is frequently connected with the LGBT cause. National flags, on the other hand, are frequently employed to instill pride and patriotism in individuals.

Colors used in a banner can represent a wide range of ideas, which is why most countries have created their own flags with color meanings in mind. Red, for example, can represent bloodshed, bravery, and revolution, whereas white is typically associated with pacifism and tranquility. Blue, on the other side, is associated with liberty, while yellow is associated with riches, and green is associated with agriculture and fertility. It’s no surprise, then, that blue, red, and white, as well as yellow, red, and green, are the most prevalent color combinations on country flags.

The colors of a national flag will be interpreted as a symbol of patriotism based on the audience’s country of origin. The colors red, white, and blue, for example, are a sign of national pride in the United States. Red, green, and white, on the other hand, would elicit similar reactions in an Italian audience.

11. Rain/Storms

Rain is often linked to sadness and depression. It’s easy to see why: dreary, lonely, and pessimistic feelings are common when the weather is bad. Consider the role of rain in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” It just so happens to be storming whenever an exciting moment occurs. Rain warns the reader that trouble is on the way.

Rain’s symbolism is far from limited, even though it most usually connotes sadness and melancholy. Rain has been utilized in films to convey a sense of dread and even to portray a person crying.

As it washes away dirt and ruin, rain can also represent purity. It can even represent the purification of the human soul. Consider a character going through a mental transition while strolling through a rainstorm.

12. Peace sign

While several peace symbols, such as the dove and the olive branch, have been used in various ways across cultures and circumstances, the modern “peace sign” was created in the 1950s as the emblem for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The peace symbol was created by combining the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D,” which stand for “nuclear disarmament.” It was later adopted by a number of anti-war organisations.

Although the emblem conjures up images of the 1960s hippie movement, it was adopted as the symbol of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, bringing it back to its roots.

13. Occult symbols

The occult, which means “unknown” or “hidden,” refers to supernatural phenomena and the paranormal; in other words, everything that goes beyond human reason. Occultism is considered essential to a spiritual experience by religions such as Wiccanism and NeoPaganism.

Symbols used in the occult can range from witchcraft and satanism to Kabbalah and other mystical ideas.

In ceremonies and rituals, common symbols such as the inverted pentagram, ankh, and the all-seeing eye play a significant part.

14. Hearts

The heart is one of the most well-known symbols. While it still means “love,” it can have a lot more nuanced connotations, and it has a lot of different variations that have evolved over time. Early versions of the symbols, for example, were more realistic and rounded, whereas contemporary interpretations are simpler renditions in the form of pictograms.

A 13th-century miniature depicting a suitor delivering his heart to the woman he is courting has the first documented use of the heart symbol. The heart emblem has also been seen on many coats of arms. Many of the ideas we associate with hearts today, such as love, valor, loyalty, and kindness, might be represented by the symbol in such contexts. When hearts are represented surrounded by flames or thorns, they might have a religious significance.

15. Colors

Colors, like symbols, have been assigned meanings that vary depending on the circumstance.

Blue, for example, can connote a variety of emotions at once, including tranquility and melancholy. The color red is another example. While it is typically connected with peril, it is also frequently associated with love and passion.

Because different symbols and colors have varied connotations at an individual, cultural, and international level, color symbolism can vary widely.

Understanding the context-specific meanings of color symbolism might help marketers better grasp how to use it correctly.

16. Skulls

When we see the skull and bones symbol, it conjures up images of poison warning labels, pirate ships, Halloween, death, and mortality.

Skulls are the most easily recognized bone in the human body, but they virtually invariably elicit thoughts of dread and dismay. After all, any time we see a skull, we know the person who owned it has passed away.

Since the Middle Ages, graphics depicting a pair of bones crossing beneath a human skull have denoted death. Skulls are also the major symbol of Mexico’s yearly Day of the Dead, which is inscribed on the head of the first tombstones in Boston and the rest of New England.

Context is crucial, just as it is with other symbols. Because of the symbol’s prevalence in current culture, some people are concerned that children who are fascinated by pirate images will be attracted rather than repulsed by warning labels that include the symbol.

17. Crescent

A crescent represents another major world religion, just as the cross is connected with Christianity and the star of David is a universal emblem of Judaism. However, the crescent moon has been used as a symbol for thousands of years, long before Islam. In truth, ancient societies in Central Asia and Siberia used the sign to worship the sun, moon, and sky gods.

The crescent, often known as the sickle, is the astrological sign that represents the moon since it is literally a representation of the second lunar phase. Because the crescent moon literally means “to develop and increase,” it frequently represents new beginnings and the realization of dreams. It has even been linked to reincarnation and immortality.

18. Stars

The star, an old symbol with various meanings, can take on different meanings depending on the setting and the number of points. Stars can represent physical distance, such as a voyage, or emotional distance, such as a misunderstanding because they are some of the most distant bodies we can view with the naked eye.

Stars were once viewed as a metaphor of the fight between light and darkness, between the spiritual and material worlds, before scientific breakthroughs allowed people to comprehend the nature of our galaxy and its celestial bodies.

Magic is frequently connected with stars. As a result, wizards and magicians frequently wear stars on their clothing, and the act of magic can be shown visually using stars and starbursts. Wishes, hope, and dreams are all associated with a shooting star.

19. Light

Many cultures utilize light to represent illumination in a metaphorical sense. It has the potential to represent purity, goodness, clarity, insight, and understanding.

Darkness is a sign of death and destruction, whereas light is a representation of joy and life-giving force. As a result, light is frequently equated with immortality and a greater force in religion. A cloud of light, for example, symbolizes Yahweh’s presence in the Jewish Holy of Holies.

Light is the channel through which we see objects in our physical environment. We see with knowledge rather than light in the metaphorical world. As a result, light is frequently linked to enlightenment.

20. Darkness

Darkness is the antithesis of light’s benevolence and knowledge. It represents evil, the unknown, and negativity. Darkness and light, like yin and yang, signify two opposing natural forces, whether good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, love and hate, or happiness and despair.

As a result, visual storytellers can use this symbol to depict death or the transition to the hereafter; a lack of clear eyesight; the dangers and secrets of the night; or the darkness of the human soul.

20 Visual Symbols and Meanings

21. Lion

The lion, sometimes known as the “king of the jungle,” is a symbol of power, monarchy, and authority. It is used in religion to portray Christ as king.

22. Swan

In ancient Greece, the swan was a symbol of grace, balance, and beauty. It is also connected with love, poetry, and music.

23. Spider

Spiders are a symbol of mystery and growth, but they may also represent our ability to shape reality through our choices.

24. Wolf

The wolf is frequently shown as a symbol of trust, guardianship, strength, independence, and freedom.

25. Viking

Although the Old Norse word means “pirate” or “raider,” it also has connotations of power, magic, and might.

26. Phoenix

The phoenix is a mythical bird that is said to rise from its own ashes. As a result, it represents rebirth, rejuvenation, and immortality.

27. Triangle

Power, stability, the Holy Trinity, and female reproduction are all connected with the triangle.

28. Rainbow

The rainbow, which is frequently seen after a shower, represents new beginnings, hope, the realization of a dream, and the promise of riches.

29. Circles

Wholeness and a natural sense of completion are represented by circles. They can represent both eternity and continual motion.

30. Dragon

The dragon is one of Asia’s most treasured symbols, representing strength, power, wisdom, luck, and magic.

31. Angels

Angels are divine messengers who signify guardianship, divinity, protection, and benevolence in religion.

32. Demons

Demons represent base cravings, addictions, or shortcomings or defects you strive to hide from others, and they are symbolic of our internal conflicts.

33. Peacock

The peacock is a graceful and flamboyant bird that is frequently connected with grace, awakening, majesty, self-expression, and confidence.

34. Eggs

The egg is a global metaphor for fresh life, birth, fertility, resurrection, and the capacity for expansion.

35. Witches

Witches are a well-known emblem of evil, darkness, the occult, and the depravity of the human spirit.

36. Rabbits

The rabbit, a gentle and cuddly creature, is typically associated with feelings of warmth, comfort, vulnerability, and fertility.

37. Forests

While a tree may represent fertility and life, a forest is a metaphor for exploring the unconscious and unknown.

38. Planets

Each planet in astrology means something. Mercury represents intellect and reason, while Venus represents love, beauty, and art.

39. Sun

The sun signifies the self, life, power, grandeur, foresight, and vision as the star around which the Earth and other planets orbit.

40. Moon

The moon is a celestial body that orbits the Earth and signifies femininity, time, eternity, and the ugly side of nature.

Metaphors Example of Symbolism and Meanings

A metaphor is a figure of speech that employs symbolism in its construction. It analyzes two seemingly unrelated items and shows that they do have something in common. In order to comprehend a metaphor, one must evaluate both the literal and figurative meanings.

41. Time is money

  • This is significant in that it tells you that when you spend (or waste) your time, you’re giving up the chance to do something else with it (like earning more money or otherwise being productive).

42. The roller-coaster of life

  • This statement is significant because it implies that it’s natural to experience ups and downs in life, just like a roller coaster’s predicted motion pattern is. This metaphor serves as a reminder that things don’t always go as planned.

43. He/She is my rock

  • This metaphor describes a person as strong and dependable. It’s meant to represent someone who will always be there for you and help you stay grounded, even when you’re going through a terrible time.

44. Love is a jewel

  • This metaphor symbolizes the rarity, value, and pricelessness of love.

Artistic Example of Symbolism and Meanings

Symbols are a fantastic technique for artists to communicate with their work when they want to say anything. Symbols in this medium are frequently physical objects, such as an animal, an object, or a plant. Certain sorts of symbolism are associated with works of art created at a given point in history.

45. Renaissance

During the Renaissance, a great deal of art was inspired by the Bible. This was done so that people who couldn’t read or write might nevertheless comprehend the Bible’s lessons. As a result, there were many serpents (representing the devil), lambs (representing peace), gardens (representing paradise), and crosses (indicating Jesus’ sacrifice) in the art produced during the time.

46. Roaring Twenties

  • The Roaring Twenties were known for their experimentation and independence. Stick figures, moon faces, fish, and arrows were favorites of Swiss painter Paul Klee, who was recognized for his extensive use of symbolism. He sought to convey a simpler reality than the complex material world he was surrounded by.

Symbolism in Literature and Poetry and Meanings

Symbolism may add richness and color to a literary piece while also deepening its meaning. Symbolism in literature can be a figure of speech, a character’s actions, a word, an action, or an event that has a deeper significance. In literature, there are several examples of symbolism. Symbolism is widespread in literature, but there are numerous examples of it in poetry as well.

47. Emptiness of extravagance

  • Much of The Great Gatsby’s symbolism depicts the emptiness of an opulent lifestyle that prioritizes excess and status over actual connections and meaningful relationships.

48. Human nature’s evil

  • Lord of the Flies’ symbolism presents a terrifying image of how fragile civility is when people are separated from the bounds of civilization and their dark aspects are allowed to emerge unrestrained.

49. Daisy as a Symbol of Youth

  • Sara Teasdale uses nature, notably the spring and daisies, to symbolize the wisdom of youth in her poem Wild Asters. “In the spring, I questioned the daisies / If his words were true, / And the intelligent, clear-eyed daisies / Always knew,” the poem says.


As you can see from these examples, symbolism is an important part of writing a successful screenplay. A fantastic symbol can be anything, from a setting to a character’s appearance to an item that one owns.

You may add deeper significance and pull your audience into the plot by including these little symbols in your script.

When using symbols, keep the following in mind:

  • Rather than telling, show.
  • Think on your main points and thematic direction.
  • Make emotionality a priority.
  • Make use of your act structures to implement a variety of small- and large-scale symbols.
  • Find a happy medium between being overly subtle and overly blatant.

What is Symbolism in Writing?

In writing, symbolism is the portrayal of one thing through the use of another element, such as a setting, an object, or a character.

How Do You Use Symbolism in Screenwriting?

The objective of symbolism in the film is to assist you in articulating certain crucial concepts in your screenplay. It’s critical that the symbolism used is kept to a minimum. However, it must be obvious enough for your audience to notice it and deduce the message behind it.

What are the Best Symbolism Examples in Film?

The strongest symbolic examples in the film are woven into the heart and identity of the plot. They create amazing graphics while also representing the concept in a clearly identifiable manner.

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