Symbolism in writing is a commonly used aesthetic device. I want to shed some new light on symbolism drawing from the perspectives of the poets Goethe and Dante and the literary critic Austin Warren. Understanding symbolism through a poet’s eyes can help writers make their work more interesting and make them more knowledgeable in their craft.
Symbols and symbolism
In The House of Fiction, an anthology of short stories by Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, a section is dedicated to explaining symbolism. Here is how the authors differentiate between symbols and symbolism:
A symbol is “a sign by which one knows or infers from a thing” and symbolism is the “practice or art” of using “visible or sensuous representations” to express “immaterial, ideal or otherwise intangible truths or states” (453)
When you use a rose to represent love your are using the word rose as a symbol. Here are some common examples of symbols used by authors:
- natural symbols like the sea and the sky
- social symbols like home
- moral symbols like the cross
- historical or political symbols like the flag
You probably already use a variety of symbols in your own writing to signify a deeper meaning. But to get a deeper meaning writers need to be able to use symbols artfully.
Ernest Hemingway used symbols this way in the short story The Killers. During one scene we are shown the bear branches of the trees symbolizing life. Later it becomes dark outside which symbolizes and foreshadows death.
Writers can identify symbols and purposefully use them to create symbolism.
An early distinction between symbol use
I have described a common way people perceive and use symbols in their writing. Now I want you to consider an alternative way to view symbols, through the eyes of a poet. Goethe, a German poet and philosopher, was an early observer that poets used symbols in two different ways. The result was either an allegory or poetry. In Aphorism #435 from Maxims and Reflections Goethe describes his idea:
There is a great difference between a poet seeking the particular for the universal, and seeing the universal in the particular. The one gives rise to Allegory, where the particular serves only as instance or example of the general; but the other is the true nature of Poetry, namely, the expression of the particular without any thought of, or reference to, the general. If a man grasps the particular vividly, he also grasps the general, without being aware of it at the time; or he may make the discovery long afterwards (gutenberg.org).
The philosopher is describing two pathways, if you will. On one path the poet will identify all the symbols she will use and place them in her writing to create meaning. Down the second path, a poet uses symbols with no intention to create a specific meaning. This path leads to poetry, which Goethe favors. The other leads to an allegory, which is a fancy term for a story with a moral, and holds no importance for him.
I like to think of Goethe as saying writers can either choose to use symbols to express a meaning —the way Hemingway might have used branches and darkness to express the meaning of life and death — or a writer can choose to write about her very subjective human experiences indifferent to symbols. In this way Hemingway might have been oblivious to branches and darkness as symbols instead he was immersed in his perspective on life and death.
How to use symbols as aesthetic devices to create meaning
We have looked at Goethe and his distinction between people who write stories and poetry and it has to do with how they use symbols to create meaning.
It is a little more complicated than just placing symbols in our writing to create meaning. We need to understand how the symbols will work together to create that meaning. Dante, a medieval poet, offers us four levels which work together to fuse symbols in writing and give it meaning:
- Literal level: which is exactly what the words on the page communicate
- Allegorical level: which is the hidden meaning behind the words
- Moral level: which is questioning what is right and wrong about outcomes and choices
- Anagogical level: which is unknown to us, the mythical
Fiction writers use only the first three to create meaning in our work (Gordon 455). Consider any piece of fiction, like The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov. At the literal level we are reading a story about a man named Korvin who suffers from a mental illness, gets treated, and finally dies. Without summarizing the whole story I think you get the point that this is the literal level, it is is exactly what the words on the page are communicating to us. But beyond the words there is always something more.
In every story there is some moral dilemma, in Korvin’s case if he should seek treatment or keep his illness hidden. This meaning occurs at the moral level. Then there is the allegorical or hidden meaning or theme running through a story. For The Black Monk the hidden meaning might be that mental illness is an extraordinary condition for an individual to experience. Interestingly the authors of The House of Fiction note some stories have an allegorical meaning running counter to the literal meaning. Gives you something to think about, right?
Image, metaphor, symbol, and myth
At this point you should understand that there is a lot more to symbolism than symbols and creating meaning. There is an actual theory behind how meaning is created. But to claim that Dante’s view is only one would be naive. There are other theories explaining symbolism.
Remember the distinction Goethe made between the poet who uses symbols and creates stories and the one who creates poetry? If Dante’s explained how stories get meaning using his four-leveled approach, then Austin Warren explains how poetry gets it’s meaning from a similar four-leveled series.
Austin Warren is an author of Theory of Literature, and wrote a chapter titled Image, Metaphor, Symbol, Myth analyzing why poetry is meaningful. Symbols for him are not viewed as a single device but function in relation to other concepts in a series. They naturally progress from a metaphor, which is a part of the series made up of images, metaphors, symbols, and myths, all working together to create meaning. I will briefly describe the progression below.
There are all kinds of ways we think of images. In psychology an image is a mental representation of a sensual experience. This includes auditory, visual, olfactory, and psychological images.
Images can be compared and analogies produced. For example, we know the image of a rose and one of love. Together we fuse those images and create the metaphor: love is like a rose, or famously written by Robert Burns in A Red, Red Rose:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
Images become metaphors and metaphors becomes symbols. As time progresses metaphors get embedded in our written language and they take on a particular meaning to us. This particular meaning gets used as a symbol.
A symbol is a term used across many disciplines including logic, math, and literature, but they share a general definition for the term. It is something that stands in for or represents something else. Think about our rose example: One object (rose) standing in for another object (love). Or if we are considering metaphors: A metaphor (a red rose is love) is the symbol for love in general.
This term might be confusing if you are used to understanding the word myth as in mystical. When Warren is talking about myth it is in the context of Aristotle. In Poetics, Aristotle describes myth as a plot, or the underlying structure of a story. I like how Warren defines myth in the chapter Image, Metaphor, Symbol, Myth in Theory of Literature:
But, in a wider sense, myth comes to mean any anonymously composed storytelling of origins and destinies: the explanations a society offers its young of why the world is and why we do as we do, its pedagogic images of the nature and destiny of man (191).
We can thank Warren for explaining another way to think about and use symbols. As writers we don’t need to identify our symbols first and later write them in. Alternatively we can write with underlying story or plot, our myth, in mind, and the symbols will reveal themselves as a result.
Where to find out more
Check out these resources to see how great writers are using symbols effectively.
- A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
- The Maxims and Reflections by Goethe
- The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
- Lieutenant Lare’s Marriage by Guy de Maupassant
- The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov
- Poetics by Aristotle
- Gordon, Caroline, and Allen Tate. The house of fiction; an anthology of the short story, with commentary. New York: Scribner, 1960. Print.
- Wellek, Rene, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. Orlando, Florida: Harcour Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Print.
- Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Maxims and Reflections, Thomas Bailey Saunders, EBook#33670, Produced by Christine Bell and Marc D’Hooghe at http://www.freeliterature.org, 2010. Accessed 10 July 2017.