Humor columnist Dave Barry says that college students who major in English are likely to “say that Moby Dick is really the Republic of Ireland.” He refers to this sort of insight as a “lunatic interpretation,” or symbol hunting gone awry. But the ability to discover symbolism in a piece literature ultimately expands the scope and importance of that literature. Symbolism is the author’s way of illustrating a situation, either in the story or in the world, and understanding the symbols allows the reader to appreciate and identify with the text. And it certainly doesn’t take a lunatic to do it! Follow these 8 easy steps to analyze symbolism in literature.
1) Take notes. Keep track of objects, characters, and ideas. This is the only way to ensure you can connect the description of a lonely tree in a field on page 12 with the divorced man on the court steps on page 513.
2) Learn what a symbol is. According to most definitions, a symbol is an object/person/idea that represents another idea through association or resemblance. Consider these examples:
- The U.S. flag represents freedom. This is because the United States, with its Bill of Rights, is associated with freedom, and the flag is the emblem of the country.
- The sunrise has become a symbol of rebirth or new beginning. This is a symbol of resemblance: the sunrise starts a new day and thus can represent the larger idea of new beginnings.
3) Look for detailed descriptions. When reading, pay attention to any items, locations, or people that are described with extended details. The author is using these descriptions as big neon signs! Make note of an object’s details. For example, if a flower is being described, what is the color, type, or size? Keep this list of details and look for anything else in the reading that seems to resemble the list.
4) Look for “big idea” names. These are names that may or may not be conventional names. For example, it could be something that is obviously representational, such as “Young Goodman Brown.” This name alerts readers to the fact that the character is a symbol of youth and goodness. The name can also be a bit trickier, though. Consider the character “Godfrey St. Peter” from Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. It is a seemingly conventional name, but “St. Peter” could be interpreted as a symbol of the heavenly figure. In that case, the first name—pronounced “God-free”—becomes part of a highly symbolic idea.
5) Look for repetition. If the author repeats the object or idea, then there is significance to it. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses rhyme repeatedly. However, a careful reader will notice that the rhyme always accompanies some discussion of evil deeds.
6) Do research. Do not hesitate to research the list of objects, numbers, and so on that you have made. Look for historically symbolic meanings associated with the image. As mentioned before, the sunrise is symbolic of new birth. The number 13 is symbolically unlucky. Black typically symbolizes death, and red generally represents either love or passion.
7) List the characteristics. If no historical symbolism can be found, make a list of the characteristics of the item. Draw connections between those characteristics and other things in the story or in life. Consider the following example:
Item Characteristics Connection
Stapler Heavy Romantic relationship
Holds things together Keeps people together
Puts holes in things Can be hard to handle (heavy)
Can cause emotional holes
8) Draw conclusions. Look at all the details and make connections between the objects and the characters, the characters and the plot, the descriptions and the themes, and so on. Readers may draw different conclusions, and it is often that more than one conclusion is correct. The accuracy lies in the supporting details you can produce.