Symbolism in literature allows authors to deepen their themes, giving them the means to get right to the emotional and subconscious centers of their reader’s minds without most readers knowing it.
Every story has a theme. That theme could be love, hate, peace war…the possibilities are endless. It all depends on what the author is trying to convey. For instance, even Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham, a children’s book my 19-year-old daughter can recite in its entirety, has a theme (in case you’re wondering, that theme is to try something new before you say you don’t like it). Moreover, while the casual reader may not sit down and analyze the novel they are reading, subconsciously they are recognizing the theme of the story.
It’s one of the reasons why novels and movies, and anything that catches the imagination the way they do, leaves us with such strong emotions.
Symbolism in literature is one way the author strengthens the theme or themes of their story. It helps them capture an emotion or create a mood in their fiction. A symbol could be a person, an object, colors, animals…even situations, or a repeated word that comes to represent something else. It goes hand-in-hand with the themes of the story to create worlds and immerse the reader. Some authors are able to incorporate symbols seamlessly into their stories; for others, it’s a hard concept to grasp.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at a scene I wrote for an upcoming novel (this is still a rough draft) that incorporates some symbolism. I’ll explain the symbols as well as some others to give you a better understanding of how they work.
Eleanor stood inside the doorway to Sebastian’s studio and waited until he turned on the lights. There was a still hush around them, the soft sound of some night bird singing in the trees. She looked behind her to the small lake the studio overlooked. The moon reflected off the gently moving water and something flew in front of it, casting a dark shadow over the bright glow. The quiet was soothing, comforting, and she understood why Sebastian chose to set up his studio and residence here on this hillside outside of Florence.
She felt his hand on her shoulder and she returned her gaze to him. She smiled a bit shyly, knowing that he was letting his guard down and letting her into his private world. This was his refuge, his private space that he had shared with no one else. She is the first person he had brung there. She wasn’t sure if she should believe him at first until she stepped into the studio.
Eleanor wasn’t sure what to expect from the passionate man she had met over a week ago. The earlier scavenger hunt he had sent her on had surprised her and was romantic. The small cabin that housed his studio was nothing like she had imagined it to be. His easel and paints are set up to her right as she stood in the door, near the windows that lined the wall, and lets in the natural light during the day.
Her eyes slowly took in the art that sat in various stages of finish and her cheeks warmed a bit. He had never discussed the type of painting he did. Seeing it now, ranging from landscapes to abstract splashes of color and imagery, showed her the breadth of his work. His colors were bright, various shades of orange, red, yellow, and blue worked into every piece.
“Coffee, bambina?” he asked as he moved past her into the very neat kitchen. A single espresso machine and sunshine yellow coffee mug sat on the counter. Nothing else. As a matter of fact, the entire interior of the cabin, with the exception of his work area in front of the window, was neat, uncluttered, sparse in its furnishings without any extraneous objects littering the end tables on either side of the blue and tan plaid couch to her left. It wasn’t sterile, not with the various paintings hanging on the walls or drying against the floor and wall, but there was very little of Sebastian’s personality on display.
“Yes, please,” she replied as she slowly entered his domain. She moved slowly, reverently, afraid to get too close to the art in fear of accidentally ruining it. Instead, she made her way over to the kitchen and settled against the counter. She watched him remove a container from the cabinet, catching a glimpse of the neatly arranged boxes and bags before he closed the door. He handed her a cup of the fragrant brew in a bright orange coffee cup. Eleanor looked at it. “You like bright colors.”
“Cadmium orange is my favorite. It is vibrant and warm. It invokes happiness and comfort,” he replied as he leaned next to her against the counter. “I saw you looking at my work. It is in every piece somehow. It is my signature, in a way.” He took her free hand in his and led her through the cabin to the single bedroom. The door was located next to his easel and he let her go in before him. “You can relax in here, bambina. You won’t ruin any paintings in here.”
The bedroom was a stark contrast to the rest of the cabin. Here was Sebastian’s personality shining through like a beacon in the dark night. A single painting hung above the bed, the colors darker, somber, with his signature orange splashing through. Magazines and books littered the nightstands on either side of the bed. Most of the magazines are art-related, the books ranging from Tolstoy to Dante to Shakespeare. The drawers of the dresser is partially open, t-shirts and other clothing peeking out. A stereo with a turntable and tape deck stood under the window. Eleanor quickly looked at the LPs in the rack, finding everything from jazz to classical to disco to some of the new hard rock coming out of England.
The bathroom is attached to the bedroom and the counter is lightly cluttered with shaving products, hair products, a toothbrush that is in need of being replaced, and other bath items a man used. He wasn’t joking when he said orange was his favorite color. The rug on the floor was orange, as were the towels hanging over the rack above the heater. The tub was a large, claw-foot affair that was immaculate and she could almost imagine Sebastian taking long baths in it. She didn’t think she was too far off the mark, smiling at the remaining stubs of candles that lined the windowsill around the tub.
This was where Sebastian truly lived. Everything that was him was in these two rooms. If the rest of the house was where he prayed to gods of art, the bedroom was where he let loose with the carefree devils of life. She could appreciate the fact that the bed isn’t made. It was just a jumble of blankets and pillows, carefree and disorganized, a stark contrast to everything else she had seen. She sipped at the espresso as Sebastian opened up the window that faced the lake and lit a cigarette.
Eleanor joined him at the window and took the smoke he offered her. She drew in deeply as she looked out over the serene lake. Sebastian slipped past her and turned out the lights of the room. She waited until her eyes adjusted and just listened to the sounds of the night as he wrapped his arms around her. This was why he lived here. The quiet, the serenity. It appealed to his soul. And now it appealed to hers.
Copyright 2021, Beth A. Freely
Picking out the symbolism in the small details.
If you paid attention to the conversation between Sebastian and Eleanor in the above excerpt, you would’ve noticed that Sebastian has a thing for orange. It is his favorite color and he uses it in all of his artwork. He says as much. The color orange will become associated with Sebastian as the novel develops.
The smallest symbolic details can be scattered throughout your story. For instance, symbolism can be found in the clothing your characters like to wear, the books they read, the things they decorate their living space with, and so forth. Subsequently, when combined into a full-length story, they help reinforce the underlying theme in your work. For this purpose, when you are developing your characters, see if you can find a way to incorporate symbolism with who they are.
Repeating symbolism becomes a motif.
The color orange has a deeper meaning because it is a small symbolic detail that will come to represent not only his character but his calming demeanor throughout the novel. Eleanor is on a journey of self-discovery and this artist with his love of bright colors and his need for serenity is a symbol of hope and love to her.
In addition, motifs are meaningful patterns of symbols, repeated actions throughout the story, or events that help bolster the overall theme. In order for a symbol to become a motif, it must be repeated throughout the story. As a result, in the above selection the color orange, a simple symbol, will be repeated to help strengthen the theme.
Eleanor’s journey of self-discovery is also a motif. It is actually one of the most common motifs used in literature. We’ve seen it in Dorothy’s journey in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (hint: green is another symbol!) and Bilbo Baggins’ adventure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (another hint: the gold of Erebor is a symbol!). The quest motif has been used in numerous other pieces of literature and it helps the author keep the story alive because it represents a larger idea, reinforcing the theme which is really the point of the story or a lesson the protagonist needed to learn.
Don’t forget the metaphors.
Sebastian’s home is immaculate, but not sterile, everything in its place. However, the exception to that rule is the area where he paints and his bedroom suite. Both are messy, eclectic, a bit quirky. If you’ve ever met an artist, you’ll find they’re all a bit quirky. I know. I’m married to one. In Sebastian’s case, the messy areas of his life are a metaphor for his passion. His passion for his artwork. Therefore, his passion is for living life, sleeping in, not worrying about whether or not his clothing is put away neatly or if the books he reads are on a bookshelf.
Metaphors are a fun way to incorporate symbolism in your writing. They are a great visual element that ties your characters to the theme of the story. We’ve seen fire used to represent a character who has a temper, water to represent serenity, snow, and ice to represent someone who doesn’t care. Metaphors are probably the one type of symbolism that naturally appears in your writing. When you start working on revisions to your novels, look for metaphors that you have incorporated in the story and then build upon them.
You’ve seen universal symbols before.
Sebastian’s studio home is located above a calming lake in the hills that surround Florence, Italy. Most people think of tranquility when they imagine this vista in their minds, unless, of course, you’re not much into nature. The lake and what it represents is a universal symbol.
Subsequently, universal symbols are those that seem to appear in every story and they are a part of everyone’s psyche because we’ve seen them over and over in literature and movies. The raven is the universal symbol for death. Thunderstorms are the universal symbol of defeat or discouragement. Sunshiny days represent happiness and joy. As a writer, you’ll probably use universal symbols as naturally as you use metaphors. Yes, sometimes they may seem cliché, but on the other hand, there is no reason to avoid using them.
Sometimes the symbols hide.
My excerpt above doesn’t have any hidden symbols, although if you notice one, please feel free to point it out. Hidden symbolism occurs when the symbols are buried so deeply in the story that you and your readers don’t realize they are there.
Take Stephen King’s The Shining. The Overlook Hotel is a hidden symbol. It’s a symbol of isolation and the fear that sometimes comes with it. If you’ve read The Shining, you probably felt that odd niggling in the back of your mind that there was something seriously wrong with the place, but you just couldn’t figure out why. Yes, you know it is haunted, but there was something more. That’s the beauty of hidden symbolism. Sometimes it’s there but if it’s not, that’s okay too.
Don’t be afraid to add symbols to your stories. It helps tie the story together, to bolster the theme, and give the story depth. It’s a great literary tool and very fun to work with.
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