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What are some examples of symbolism in literature?

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Quick Answer

Symbolism in literature is an object, person, action or situation that has both a literal and additional meaning. For example, in Christian literature, a tree may symbolize Christ's execution cross.

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Symbols in literature are often not rational. When interpreting them, the reader should consider the context of the text and associated situations. Different types of symbolism include:

  • Sometimes, symbols are metaphors. For example, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
  • Symbols also arise in the form of similes. An example might be "As strong as an ox."
  • Allegories are symbols that are similar to metaphors. They use one thing to represent another, but usually cover an entire work or a large chunk of text. One example is John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress."
  • An archetype is an element of the text that has cross-cultural symbolism. For example, representing the devil as a creature with horns and hoofs is archetypal.
  • Myths are also symbolic and have cross-cultural associations. However, they represent a larger portion of the text, such as the myth of Icarus.

One individual who provided good examples of symbolism was William Shakespeare. Examples from "Othello" include:

  • Othello gives Desdemona a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolizes chastity. When she loses the handkerchief, it acts as a symbol of her unfaithfulness.
  • When describing Othello through other characters, Shakespeare uses terms like "black ram" and "Barbary horse." This represents the racism towards Moorish persons among Venetians at the time.
  • Symbolism in the form of light features throughout the play, such as Othello being blinded by rage, leaving him unable to see the truth.
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