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A symbol, whether in a story or "real life," is when one thing stands for another. That's a pretty basic definition. If I have a shoe on my mantle because it reminds me of my time as a long distance runner, well, the shoe has become a symbol of running for me. People have lots of symbols without always realizing it. Sometimes, after being out of town for a long time, you might see a particular billboard or restaurant that reminds you of home. That billboard (or whatever) has become a symbol of your home town.
A universal symbol most people seem to understand is the flag. When someone sees the flag, they think of America (or whatever country they happen to be from.) The Statue of Liberty is another good example. It is a universal symbol of freedom.
Poets and writers use symbols in their writing, sometimes knowing they are doing it, and sometimes people only find them after the fact. I don't know too many fiction writers who sit and think about how to put symbols into their writing. Mostly it happens because someone reads the story, gets a "theme" out of it, and then finds objects or people in the story that represent that theme.
I think poets are more likely to put symbols into their writing because their type of writing is different. It deals more with emotion, imagery, and subtleties. Instead of talking about the death of a romance, for example, a poet could discuss how the petals fall off of a rose. The rose becomes a symbol for love. See how that works?
Poets use it so that they can discuss familiar topics, like love, from fresh angles. I mean, if every poem about failed romance had to have people in it, well, they would get boring after about the millionth one. Fiction writers, like I said, are largely unconscious about the symbols in their writing. People mostly make the connections after the fact. Of course, there are exceptions, and I am sure some writers make a point of putting certain objects in their stories to represent other things...I just don't think they set out to do it. It more kind of just happens than it does in poetry.
At least, thems my opinions!
In his acclaimed novel, "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne introduced into the American novel the use of symbolism; as a result, this literary element has become the salient feature of many, many American novels. A significant literary device, a symbol carries a figurative meaning that often radiates into several meanings. Hawthorne himself suggested this characteristic of symbols in "The Scarlet Letter" as he narrates that, after some time, the townspeople reinterpret the meaning of Hester Prynne's scarlet "A" upon her breast. Whereas the "A" has originally stood for "adulterer," after Hester tends the sick and dying untiringly, the villagers speak of the "A" as meaning "able," while others interpret the meaning of the letter as "angel." In a sense, too, this symbolic "A" has effected a partial redemption for Hester. Thus, the power of symbols is clearly implied by Hawthorne.
Certainly, symbols are powerful tools for poets and writers. With them, multiple meanings and extensions of meanings can be implied, conveying to the reader significance without wordiness.
I fully agree with the previous poster and want to add some of my own thouights on symbols.
One of the best things about symbols not mentioned in the first post is that they are often multivalent. Symbols, by definition, are concrete things that have much larger meanings, but those larger meanings can vary tremendously and can change dramatically over time. For example, even symbols that may seem nearly universal to us (such as the American flag or Statue of Liberty or a cross) can have a very different set of meanings for a very different culture group. Even within the same culture group, a symbol can take on a range of meanings. Some people might see a single rose (the concrete object) as a wonderful token of love (the abstract idea), but others may very well see that same rose as a symbol of a complete lack of imagination or hopeless conformity on the part of the one giving the rose.
I would say that writers use symbols because of their power to suggest or condense multiple meanings simultaneously. Creative writing, much like our dreams, presents the world to us in ways that are not purely logical or reducible to single meanings. One way to approach symbols is to look at how they can have multiple, even conflicting meanings at once.
To answer your question about universal symbols, rain is a symbol for loss, death, or tears. Winter is the universal symbol for approaching death or old age. Spring symbolizes birth or rebirth. A snake represents Satan or evil. Wine represents new life or strength. Mountains represent a goal that is difficult to attain. Finally, the seas represent the passage of time.
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