What are 5 characteristics of symbolism that can be found in literature?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Interestingly, the word symbolism, derived from the Greek word symballein (a compound of the word syn=together and ballein=to throw), means to throw together. With symbolism, authors create layers of meaning because symbols often have more than one meaning. Here are 5 traits of symbols:

1. Symbols add levels of meaning, creating depth in a text.
There is a literal meaning to a symbol as well as its more profound meaning(s). For instance, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's ornate red A that she is forced to wear upon her bosom symbolizes her sin of adultery for all to recognize so that she will carry the shame of her transgression. However, after Hester humbly tends to the sick regularly, many begin to perceive the letter as a "symbol of her calling," giving it the meaning of Able. (Ch.13) When the Reverend Dimmesdale sees a meteor one night that seems to light the sky with a red A, he interprets it as the original scarlet letter, signifying his own sin of adultery. The next day, a sexton speaks to Dimmesdale and asks if he saw the letter A in the sky, "which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night." So, the same symbol of A means three different things: Able, Adultery, and Angel.

2. Symbols lend a universal meaning and a grandeur to the theme and characters of a literary work. Often symbols extend their meanings to the readers of a work as well as making the characters seem significant and "larger than life." For example, the symbolism of Madame DeFarge's frenzied knitting of names to be sent to the guillotine magnifies her cruelty and makes her a villain recognized by many readers. This knitting, too, enhances the theme of Revenge in Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities.
In addition, symbols often unite theme and characters together in a narrative.

3. Symbols pique the interest of readers as they interact with the text. With the interpretation of symbols, readers formulate the meaning of a literary work. In Great Expectations, when Pip first arrives at Satis House, he and the reader both are amazed at the decay and darkness of this mansion that was once beautiful. But, as readers continue through the narrative, they discover the ironic meaning of the mansion's name that denotes satisfaction, or happiness.

4. Symbols are keys to the writer's mind and intent. With symbols in a narrative, the reader better understands the deeper meanings of the text. For instance, the spears sharpened on each end that the hunters carry later on in Lord of the Flies certainly points to the increasing savagery which lies innately in the boys in the beginning of the narrative.

5. Symbols engage readers as they offer the reader a creative opportunity. When a reader tries to interpret the meaning of symbols in a narrative, he/she exercises the imagination, an act that is satisfying on its own as well as helping to deepen the remembrance of a work of literature. Certainly, reading skills are improved as a result.

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