In literature, “symbolism” and “allusion” resemble each other in some ways but differ from each other in other ways. Distinguishing between them is made all the more difficult since “symbolism” can be (and has been) defined in so many different ways. However, here are some similarities and differences that may be relevant to your question:
- Symbolism and allusion both communicate meaning more subtly and indirectly that outright statement. For example, a lion can symbolize courage without a writer needing to say: “This lion represents courage.” However, if a writer presented a cowardly lion, he or she might possibly be alluding to the similar lion in The Wizard of Oz, especially if the writer’s lion says
Courage. What makes a king out of a slave? Courage.
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage.
In other words, if a later text clearly echoes an earlier text (or, in this case, film), allusion is involved.
- As has just been suggested, allusion depends on the reader’s knowledge of some earlier specific text, whereas symbolism does not. If I write a novel in which the main characters are named Adam and Eve and they are forced to leave an attractive place, I am certainly inviting readers to assume that I am alluding to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. However, if I present an attractive, innocent young man and young woman who are forced to leave an attractive place because of a misdeed they commit, I may be alluding to the Bible, or I may just be using the general symbolism of a kind of paradise lost – an archetypal story. Using clear echoes from an earlier text would involve allusion. For instance, if I asked about the young couple, “who first persuaded them to revolt in such a foul and unattractive way?” someone who had a good knowledge and memory of John Milton’s Paradise Lost would recognize that I am alluding to a particular line from the opening book of that poem.
- Recognizing and responding to symbolism requires no great knowledge or education on the reader’s part. If I write a poem in which the sun rises, birds sing, a gentle breeze blows, and flowers begin to unfold, it takes no great education to assume that I am symbolizing such ideas as life, renewal, rebirth, and happiness. However, if I write a poem featuring a story about an old carpenter named John, a clever and lecherous student named Nicholas, and an attractive young wife named Alisoun, an educated reader will assume that I am alluding in some way to Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.”
- Symbolism, therefore, often transcends cultures (light symbolizes knowledge in many cultures); allusion tends to be more culturally specific. Thus, if I begin an essay by writing “Fourscore and several years ago,” an American reader who is reasonably well educated will know that I am alluding to the opening words of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” (“fourscore and seven years ago”). A reader from China might not recognize the allusion unless an editor provided a footnote calling attention to it and explaining it.
Therefore, symbolism tends to be somewhat universal, whereas allusions tend to be rooted in knowledge of specific earlier texts.