Course 9—Lecture


How to Read: Symbol
Symbols lend meaning to a story by evoking an unexpected emotional response. They are some of the most powerful devices a writer has to expand and deepen meaning. LitCourse 9 explores symbols—what they are and how they work.

D.H. Lawrence—"The Horse Dealer's Daughter"

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol


Understanding symbols

Do these phrases sound familiar?

With this ring
I pledge allegiance
Happy Valentine's Day!
Tie a yellow ribbon ...

The words refer to symbols—objects, people, or events that stand for something other than themselves.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Our culture uses symbols everyday. They're ubiquitous. We refer to them as "conventional" symbols.

Conventional symbols
ring—love and marriage
flag—nation and patriotism
heart—love and romance
yellow ribbon—homecoming
scepter—power and monarchy


LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Conventional symbols carry tremendous emotional power, evoking visceral responses both positive and negative.

Statue of Liberty
Grim Reaper

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Symbols allow us to convey powerful meaning without having to use words. They often represent the ineffable, what we can't easily put into words. Take flowers, used for both weddings and funerals:

Weddings—suggest the beauty of youth and the freshness of new love, fertility
Funerals—suggest the brevity and fragility of life on earth, life everlasting life because flowers die and are reborn in spring.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Notice how flower symbolism alters with context. Symbols are fluid, not static: their meanings may change with time, situation, culture or geography.

Serpent wisdom in ancient cultures
sin in Judeo-Christian culture
White purity in Western cultures
purity in Eastern cultures
Dragon evil in medieval Europe
good luck in China

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Symbols play the same role in literature that they play in real life: they convey meaning.

Writers embed symbols in their works. Skillful writers, like John Updike in "A & P" (LitCourse 4) do it subtly, making symbols an integral part of the plot

In "A & P" Updike integrates symbolism so cleverly that it's not obvious the A & P store is both setting and central symbol.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Because symbols carry so much power, writers use them to expand or intensify what they want to say—without having to come out and say it.

In "Powder" (LitCourse 3) the father likes jazz—Tobias Wolff's way of telling us that Doc likes to live spontaneously without strict rules.

Writers use symbols . . .
to reinforce and enlarge meaning
to help them write economically

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Let's look at more examples of how authors use symbolism.

"The story of an Hour" Kate Chopin (LitCourse 1)
The window opening onto fresh spring air suggests the opening of a new life for Mrs. Mallard.
Blue skies suggest hope for a new life.
The sound of birds and music contribute to the activity and pleasure that await Mrs. Mallard.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



"A Rose for Emily" William Faulkner (LitCourse 6)
A decaying house suggests a mind that is deteriorating—Emily's mind.
House dust and Emily's unseen but ticking watch suggest time has passed her by.
The portrait of Emily's father suggests his dominating presence in her life, even after his death. Emily is unable to move into the future.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



"Roman Fever" Edith Wharton (LitCourse 8)
The Colosseum, an place of battle, suggests a more subtle battle of wills between two women.
Grace Slade's knitting needles are like a weapon, or her knitting like a web of entrapment for Alida.
Afternoon shadows suggest a shadow falling on the friendship, a dark secret soon to be revealed.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Some symbols are universal, transcending time and geography. Known as archetypes, they call up deep unconscious responses, almost as if they were hard wired into our brains.

Archetypes as universal symbols
Women—connected to earth and water (fertility)
Light—beneficence and knowledge
Darkness—threatening and ignorance

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Archetypes (universal symbols) are found in myths, many of which share a basic structure.

Cinderella—a pattern (motif) in hundreds of folk tales around the globe. A young girl (or boy) of lowly stature is elevated—she is recognized for her inner worth.

The hero—from Hercules to Beowulf to Luke Skywalker, even U.S. Presidents shape their personal histories to fit the same timeless structure:
accepting the call to action
facing adversity
achieving victory and transformation

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Allegory is the last type of symbol used in literature and art.

While literary symbols are fluid and suggestive, in that they may have multiple meanings according to context, allegory is absolute.

Allegory can mean only one thing. Think of Renaissance paintings, Botticelli or Poussin, in which women figures represent specific female qualities (the 4 graces) or seasons of the year.

LitCourse 9
How to Read: Symbol



Religious works also use allegory. Below is one of the most famous religious allegories:

Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan (1678)
A young man named Christian makes his way toward heaven. Along the way he meets characters called Hopeful, Goodwill, and Mr. Worldly. Imprisoned in Doubting Castle, his only way out is with the key called Promise.

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Symbols—a quick review

Symbols—objects, people, and events that stand for something other than themselves.
Conventional—found in daily life.
Literary—suggestive, fluid, not absolute.
Archetype—age-old universal patterns.
Allegory—absolute, one-to-one correspon- dence, connected with religious works.

And now . . .

Congratulations! You've reached the end of the Lecture. To continue LitCourse 9, click "Readings" in Course Tools.

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