Definition of Symbolism:
Symbolism is the use of an object, action, or event to figuratively represent something other than and beyond itself. Symbols are oftentimes extended throughout the entirety of a work and add a richer layer of meaning beyond the more straightforward elements of a story. However, we also use symbols in everyday life, such as the red hearts that symbolize love or the white doves that symbolize peace.
Examples of Symbolism in Literature:
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
—Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
In this example, the symbolism is actually explained by Catherine as she describes the different kinds of love she feels for both of the men in her life. These symbols also extend to each man’s character, with Linton being more gentle, like leaves on a tree, while Heathcliff is more crude and hard, like a rock.
“Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Coleridge creates a connection between the cross, a Christian symbol representing sin and redemption, and the Albatross. The Albatross’s being worn around the mariner’s neck symbolizes the curse and the burden of sin that he now bears. Since he shot the bird that had guided his crew to safety, he must accept the blame for all of the disasters that follow.
“‘...and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “HOUSE OF USHER.”’
—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
The title of this example itself is symbolic, since “The House of Usher” can refer to both the physical house as well as the members of the Usher family. Since the last two remaining members of the Usher family have died and the house has collapsed on top of them, the final line of the story makes the symbolic double-meaning explicit: the narrator witnesses the fall of Usher, both the physical house and the family.