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.
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.
do we know whether something may be symbolic?
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.
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.
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.
can we know what a symbol means, if meaning depends on so many
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.
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.
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.
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.
is symbolism used in literature?
Symbolic meaning can reinforce or strengthen literal meaning
by making available a deeper level of understanding.
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 is a shorthand to communication.
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
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