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What is the difference between the terms "a metaphor for" and "a symbol of"?  Is it...

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donnach | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 23, 2009 at 2:05 AM via web

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What is the difference between the terms "a metaphor for" and "a symbol of"?  Is it repetition within a story that distinguishes them?

For instance, there is a short story by Lorrie Moore in which the protagonist gets a hot stone massage, and there is an unstated comparison between the heated stones growing cold and no longer felt until they are removed from her back to her failed marriage, which is no longer warm nor felt by her (until it is forcibly removed by divorce).  However, since the stones show up no place else in the story and the massage is just one occurrence of many, it would be hard for me to say that the stones symbolize her failing marriage.  It seems more appropriate to say that the stones are a metaphor for her failing marriage.  Also, the hot stones are just that, hot stones, and don't have any other "built-in" meanings associated with them like a flag, lion, bird, etc. would.

Am I correct in how I distinguish the concept "X symbolizes Y" from "X is a metaphor for Y"? Thank you, Donna

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:30 AM (Answer #1)

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I concur.  A metaphor, as you know, is an unstated comparison between two unlike things or ideas.  While image, metaphor, and symbol sometimes shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish, in general a symbol means what it is and more (as you state), functioning both literally and figuratively at the same time.  However, a metaphor means simply other than what it is.

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scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted June 23, 2009 at 9:13 AM (Answer #2)

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Your analysis is correct.  Also, keep in mind that a metaphor can also be an abstract comparison, something not easily connected until perhaps the end of a work.  Symbols are usually much more concrete. 

A symbol does not have to be repeated throughout a work to meet the definition of the term,but authors often do repeat symbols to stress their importance to the reader. A more skilled writer might rely upon motifs rather than simple symbols, because they like metaphors are usually more abstract, and an adept writer will use the motif to represent several different elements.

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revolution | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:22 PM (Answer #3)

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A metaphor shows a comparison between one object and another, where one is identified with all the qualities of another. E.g. Simon is a swaying tree

A symbol is an object that on its surface is its real self but hidden inside, there could be hidden meanings and implications not known to the readers. E.g. A rock could mean that he is strong or maybe he is very vulnerable inside

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