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What is symbolism?

The word symbol derives from the Greek noun symbolon meaning 'mark', emblem', 'token' or 'sign'. It can be defined as something which is commonly understood to stand for or represent something else. Scales may be seen to represent justice; the lion strength; darkness may represent evil or ignorance; the colour red, passion or love.

Symbols do not have universally accepted referents; that is, different objects, colours, actions etc do not all refer to one thing and one thing alone. Meaning in symbolism derives from myths and legends, from religious sources such as the Bible, or Koran. Symbolic meaning and association is built up through our literature, painting, drama, dance and all art forms. All of these things are expressions and representations of man's place in the world. Symbolic meaning is currently being created in the popular culture of film, television and the Internet as well as other elements of culture. All of these are interpreting and representing the world around us, and our place in it, on a daily basis.

How do we know whether something may be symbolic?

Meaning, or how something can be understood, can be said to exist at two levels - the literal and the metaphorical. Literal meaning is what is stated, what happens. Metaphorical meaning is about what can be inferred or interpreted. Bobby Despotovski, the Perth Glory soccer player recently gestured towards the soccer crowd during a game. Literally he made a gesture with his hand. Symbollically this gesture was interpreted as a Serbian salute, with associations of Bosnians being persecuted. It was suggested he was making this salute towards the Bosnians in the crowd.
The secondary meaning here lay only with those people who were familiar with this gesture. It was later suggested in defence of Despotovski that the gesture was a religious one.

Point is, meaning is dependent on the context of the observer (who, where from etc) and their knowledge, as well as the context or circumstances in which the symbol is used. See below.

How can we know what a symbol means, if meaning depends on so many factors?

Apart from our knowledge of what certain objects, actions, colours etc are supposed to represent symbolically, another way of knowing how a symbol may be read is the context in which this symbol is used.

Context is the surrounding events and circumstances in which something occurs. Whether darkness is being used symbolically to represent evil or ignorance (on the other side being the light of knowledge / the light of goodness) will depend on the circumstances in which the symbol is being used.

Many symbols can have a plurality (wide number) of meanings, sometimes simultaneously (at the same time). The example above could mean both things at the same time, where evil and ignorance are connected, as are knowledge and goodness.

We read (in the case of literature) what is taking place, and from these circumstances decide whether we can from these events taking place, connect darkness with evil or whatever. We decide due to the context in which things take place.

Why is symbolism used in literature?

1. Symbolic meaning can reinforce or strengthen literal meaning by making available a deeper level of understanding.

The Christian Mass is rich with symbolism. What the Priest wears, how he moves, what he does, what surrounds him, the objects he uses; all of these symbolically reinforce what he is saying. Even within what he says are symbols, such as the Holy Trinity, references to the Cross and so forth. Through symbolism, meaning can be strengthened or made more obvious.

If we recognise something symbolically, then this may add or convey a whole range of ideas, thoughts, feelings and associations within us. The associations, knowledge and experiences this symbol creates can add greater depth for that person to the existing meaning that the person has already made without the recognition of symbolism.

2. Symbolism is a shorthand to communication.

Symbolism is used extensively in poetry. One reason is that a wide range of thought and feeling can be conveyed in a simple and compressed way. A rose may represent love, its deep red may represent passion, its thorns may represent the pain that love can sometimes bring. This symbol connects these opposing forces into one powerful image.

3. The whole may be greater than the sum of the parts.

As a reader makes connections within a story, as he or she connects ideas, it may be that new meaning can be made by that person. Because of the way people may see some things as symbolic, for all of the reasons already given, a person may connect certain symbols in such a way as to make significance that they could not have otherwise gained from the story. A pattern may have become apparent which allows some people at least to interpret a story in a consistent, yet different way to other people.

An important point here. Meaning is not hidden by an author waiting to be discovered by someone with a "key". Meaning in a story is made by each of us depending on our own knowledge, who we are, and what our experiences have been. Meaning, that is how we read and interpret and what we make sense of, DOES need to be able to be supported with evidence from the story (in our case) and consistent with the events, actions etc of that story. There may indeed be a number of "keys", but the locks they open may not be intentionally placed by the author.

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