Symbol: An Object That Suggests an Idea

We are symbols, and inhabit symbols.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Good fiction is often about the things in life that we can neither see nor touch: emotions, experiences, and ideas. Evil, for example, is a factor in real life and in stories, but it is a concept: It cannot be seen or touched. So throughout the ages, writers (and painters) have used a figure to suggest the idea of devil. Traditionally, this figure has worn a red suit (red is associated with fire), has had a forked tail, cloven hoofs, and glowing eyes. There is no mistaking this character, in whatever dark alley or sunny garden he is encountered. The snake or serpent is another figure that writers and painters have traditionally chosen to suggest the ideas of evil and cunning. These are concepts that we can’t see or touch, but they are often given symbolic form in the figure of the serpent.
Symbols aren’t limited to literature and art. Our everyday lives are heaped with symbols. The key in your pocket, though only a jagged piece of metal with a hole in it, may work as a symbol. When you hold it, it may symbolize for you the idea of security, for it makes you think of the door to your house and the supper and bed awaiting you there.
There are many other symbols in our culture that we know and recognize at once. We automatically make the associations suggested by a cross, a six-pointed star, a crown, a skull and cross-bones, a clenched fist, the stars and stripes, the hammer and sickle, and a dove with an olive branch. These commonly accepted symbols are often called public symbols, and we recognize at once what they stand for.
Symbols in Literature
Writers of fiction, poetry, and drama create new, personal symbols for their work. Some literary symbols, like the great white whale in Moby-Dick and like that stubborn spot of blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, become so widely known that eventually they too become a part of our public stockpile of symbols.
In literature, a symbol is an object, a setting, an event, an animal, or even a person that functions in a story the way you’d I expect it to but that, more importantly, also stands for something greater than itself, usually for something abstract, The white whale in Moby-Dick is a very real white whale in the novel, and Captain Ahab spends the whole book chasing it. But certain passages in that novel make clear to us that this killer whale is also associated with all the mystery of evil in the world. That is how symbols work—by natural association. We naturally associate the color green with new life and hope. We usually associate the color white with innocence and purity. We associate gardens with joy, and wastelands with futility and despair; winter with sterility, and spring with fertility; cooing doves with peace, and pecking ravens with death.

One of the most interesting aspects of the use of symbols in fiction is the enthusiastic way some readers take to them. Rather like children excited by finding Easter eggs in the strangest places, some readers begin to discover symbols under every bush.
Once a priest was interviewed about a scene in one novel in which a small boy brings home a cake for a family celebration. The priest was convinced that this celebration was a symbol of the Last Supper. In this way, occasionally what the writer intends is actually less important than what the reader finds. After all, the best symbols are the unconscious ones. They emerge from some deep and secret place in the heart. Just as in the Easter egg hunt, what matters is not what somebody deliberately put out for you to find, but what you have carefully discovered and placed in your basket.
Is It a Symbol?
However, you must also be careful not to start looking for symbols in everything you read: they won’t be there. Here are some guidelines to follow when you sense that a story is operating on a symbolic level:
1. Symbols are often visual.
2. When some event or object or setting is used as a symbol in a story, you will usually find that the writer has given it a great deal of emphasis. Often it reappears throughout the story.
If you remember a story called “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, you will recall the rare bird that appears suddenly at the narrator’s farm and dies because it has strayed out of its natural tropical setting. That bird, the scarlet ibis, is used in the story to symbolize the special delicacy and beauty of the narrator’s younger brother. The bird is mentioned many times in the story and even is used in the title.
3. A symbol is a form of figurative language. Like a metaphor, a symbol is something that is identified with something else that is very different from it, but that shares some quality. When you are thinking about whether something is used symbolically, ask yourself: Does this item also stand for something essentially different from itself?
Think of “The Scarlet Ibis” again. The ibis is identified with the little handicapped boy, who is very different from a bird.
The beautiful, fragile ibis functions as a real bird in the story (it actually falls into the family’s yard), but it also functions as a symbol of the frail little boy and his beautiful nature.
4. A symbol usually has something to do with a story’s theme.
When we think about the ibis, we realize that the death of the exotic bird points to the fact that the little brother also died because he could not survive in a world in which he was an outsider.

Why Do We Use Symbols?
Why do writers use symbols? Why don’t they just come out and tell us directly what they want to say?
One answer is that people are born symbol-makers. It seems to be part of our nature. Even in our earliest paintings and writings, we find symbols. Think of all those mysterious markings on the walls of caves. Think of the owl used in ancient Greek art and stories to symbolize the great goddess of wisdom, Athena. Think of our language itself, which uses sounds to symbolize certain abstract and concrete things in the world.
No one knows why we are such consistent! symbol-makers. But one advantage of symbols in stories is that they can express and suggest—by means of a single vivid object or event or person—a whole range of ideas and meanings.
In some sense, we never fully exhaust the significance of the great symbols. For example, critics have written whole books to explain Moby-Dick, yet probably no one is certain that the meaning of that white whale has been fully explored.

You may not be able to articulate fully what a symbol means. But you will find that the symbol, if it is powerful and well-chosen, will speak forcefully to your emotions and to your imagination. You may also find that you will remember and think about the symbol long after you have forgotten other details of the story’s plot.

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~ por rubiha en marzo 15, 2009.

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