Symbolism began as a literary movement that developed from Romanticism in France in the second half of the 19th century, taking its themes of decadence, dandyism and mysticism from the novels of J.K. Huysmans. The poet Jean Moreas gave the term general currency in his manifesto in Le Figaro in 1886, though the poet Stephane Mallarme developed its ideas of suggestion, ambiguity and symbolism rather than direct conveyance of meaning: ‘Suggestion, that is the dream’, he declared. Like Romanticism, Symbolism favoured feelings over reason, but was more intellectual in its conception. Huysmans in his novels A Rebours and La bas was significant in promoting the painters Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon and drawing the visual arts into the movement.
The use of symbols has had a long tradition in European art, and we may see origins of 19th century Symbolism in the mystical and visionary works of Piranesi, Fuseli, Goya and Friedrich. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s return to an Early Renaissance style and mood was a more contemporary influence, The art of Symbolist painters such as Puvis de Chavannes and Eugene Carriere was thus characterized by a desire to use evocative subjects and images rather than explicit analogy or direct description. However, the movement was more interested in the content and concept of expression of the inner life rather than artistic style or form. Many Symbolists were also interested in the macabre, the mysterious and the morbid, which has been seen as a phenomenon of the fin de siecle. Symbolism had far reaching influences as a movement in reaction to Realism and Impressionism, and the Nabis and Gauguin were closely related to the Symbolists, as well as the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler and the Norwegian Edvard Munch.
Examples of Symbolism
Symbolism is the practice or art of using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning.
When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion, he can also use symbolism to hint at it, rather than just blatantly saying it. Let’s explore some examples of symbolism in the arts and our everyday lives.
Symbolism in Everyday Life
Our language contains an immense number of symbols whose intended meaning or significance is well-known and accepted by the majority. Of course, many of these do wind up in books, magazines, stories, and other written works.
Symbolism is often found in colors:
Black is used to represent death or evil.
White stands for life and purity.
Red can symbolize blood, passion, danger, or immoral character.
Purple is a royal color.
Yellow stands for violence or decay.
Blue represents peacefulness and calm.
Everyday objects are often used to symbolize something else:
A chain can symbolize the coming together of two things.
A ladder can represent the relationship between heaven and earth or ascension.
A mirror can denote the sun but, when it is broken, it can represent an unhappy union or a separation.
Flowers as Symbols
Even flowers possess symbolism:
Roses stand for romance.
Violets represent shyness.
Lilies stand for beauty and temptation.
Chrysanthemums represent perfection.
Animals as Symbols
When we read a book or enjoy a poem, any animals added to the story can convey a message or work as part of the theme. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
A bear might represent courage or danger.
A butterfly can symbolize great transformation.
A dog often stands for loyalty or devotion.
A serpent might symbolize corruption or darkness.
Weather as Symbols
Also in works of literature, a writer might spend a moment describing the weather in a particular scene. This is likely for a reason. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Fog might represent a bad omen or something terrible on the horizon.
Storms usually symbolize hostility or turmoil.
Snow often comes with a message of calmness or purity.
Wind might be used to symbolize power or strength.
Metaphors as Symbolism
A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses symbolism. It compares two things that aren’t similar and proves they actually have something in common. In a metaphor, there is an additional meaning to a word. This makes it an example of symbolism.
Examples of symbolism that take the form of metaphors include:
Time is money: This is symbolic because it warns you that, when you spend your time, you’re giving up the opportunity to be doing something else with that time (like making more money). Just as when you spend your money, you give up your chance to do something else with the money. Further, like money, time is finite.
Life’s a roller-coaster: This is symbolic because it indicates that there will be ups and downs in life that you have to weather.
He’s my rock: This is symbolic because it signifies he’s strong and dependable. He will keep you grounded.
Love is a jewel: This is symbolic because it suggests that love is rare and precious.
Allegory as Symbolism
Sometimes symbolism takes the form of a literary tool called an allegory. An allegory is an extended use of symbolism and metaphors. A story, a poem, or even a whole book can be an allegory and the symbolism will permeate throughout.
One example of an allegory is the monologue from Shakespeare in his play As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.
This is symbolic of the fact that people are putting on a show and that they play many roles over the course of their lives.
Symbolism in Art
Typically, artists want to say something with their work and symbols are a great way for them to communicate. In this medium, symbols are often tangible items, like an animal, object, or plant.
Symbolism can also be found in the very colors artists choose to paint with. Colors convey various messages. Perhaps an artist will use a lot of white to emote hope or black to indicate sadness. Let’s consider two important periods in art history and see how symbolism affected the work produced during that time.
During the Renaissance period, a lot of the art was Biblical in nature. This was done so people who couldn’t read or write could still understand the messages from the Bible.
As such, we saw a lot of serpents (representing the devil), lambs (representing peace), gardens (representing paradise), and crosses (representing Jesus’ sacrifice).
During the Roaring Twenties, there began a period of experimentation and freedom. Masters like Picasso, De Gaulle, and Chagall made their mark.
Another famous fellow was Paul Klee, a Swiss painter known for his extensive use of symbolism. Some of his favorite symbols were stick figures, moon faces, fish, and arrows. He wanted to express a different, simpler reality than the complex material world we live in.
Symbolism in Literature
Symbolism is often used by writers to enhance their writing. Symbolism can give a literary work more richness and color and can make the meaning of the work deeper.
In literature, symbolism can take many forms, including:
A figure of speech where an object, person, or situation has another meaning other than its literal meaning
The actions of a character, word, action, or event that have a deeper meaning in the context of the whole story
In this excerpt from Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. You can feel the torment Ennis is experiencing over the loss of a great love, as symbolized by the two shirts.
At the north end of the closet, a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis’s nose hard with his knee.
The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.
See the article Examples of Symbolism in Literature for more uses in great literary works. For more on figures of speech, check out some Examples of Rhetorical Devices in literature.
Symbolism in Poetry
Many poets used symbolism to deepen the meaning of their poems. Here’s an example from Sara Teasdale. In her poem “Wild Asters,” Teasdale makes use of nature, specifically the spring and daisies, to symbolize youth.
In the spring I asked the daisies
If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
Now the fields are brown and barren,
Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
Not one knows.
Look Beyond the Paper
Whether you’re enjoying art on a canvas or a novel on a Kindle, look beyond what you glean at first glance. See if there are any elemental symbols being used to convey a message. Here’s more on figurative language.
Perhaps a white blanket of snow is telling people to “keep the faith” and never lose hope. Perhaps a scene with eerie morning fog is pointing toward a future battle or dilemma to be solved. You never know!
Together, let’s go forward with a keener eye for the layers of symbolism that surround us, both in the physical and the artistic world.
Beginnings Of Symbolism
Symbolism first appeared as a literary movement that opposed rationalism and materialism that dominated Western culture in the late 19th century. The beginnings of the movement can be traced back to 1886 when writer Jean Moreas published his famous Symbolist Manifesto.
The manifesto proclaimed that every person, natural element and object should be used to represent a symbol of a deeper idea or emotion. Moreas believed that, rather than replicating reality, artists should suggest it with symbols. Though it began as a literary movement, Symbolism was quickly adopted by a group of young visual artists who followed its rules.
Symbolists artworks are marked with unmodulated colors, broad brushwork and flat, abstract forms. It’s important to mention that Symbolists were a loose group of artists who had different artistic styles and techniques. But they all emphasized the importance of imagination and emotions over realism and rationalism, which made them members of the Symbolists movement.
And while Gustave Moreau painted detailed ornamental paintings inspired by mythology, Odilon Redon painted surrealist black and white drawings of body parts. James Ensor created a unique style based on grotesque, distorted figures. The art of Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch combined Symbolism with Art Nouveau and Expressionism.