What is a symbol?
My blog recently has been all about how to make your writing, any writing, more literary. One of the key literary devices that can elevate a piece from just a story to something above that, something more meaningful, is the use of symbolism. Symbolism is where one thing--say, a fish, a snake, a tree, or a lamb--can represent something deeper and more culturally significant. All of the aforementioned items are used within the Bible to reference the divine. The symbol of a snake in the Old Testament appears in the story of a brass serpent used as an object of healing, one which many consider a foreshadowing and reference to the story of Jesus. The medical symbol of the crossed snakes references this same symbol while also alluding to Hermes in Greek mythology. Yet at the same time, a serpent is also used in the Old Testament to represent the devil. Say you want to make a character, a doctor, who is mysterious and could be either evil or good. You associate this symbol of the crossed snakes with him to make him seem noble and good, someone seeking to heal. Yet there's also something else snakelike about him, and these snake symbols seem more sinister and are somehow associated with temptation, an apple, and a fruit. You have now used commonly understood cultural symbols to make this doctor both confusing and intriguing. Is he a healer? Is he bent on your main character's downfall? How did you do this? By use of symbolism.
Examples of Literary Symbols
A symbol is most often an object that means more than what it seems at face value. Let's consider Hester Prynn's badge in Nathaniel Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter. At first blush, it seems to be simply a letter. What's in a letter? To the characters in the book, it's a badge, a brand to show that she is a fallen woman. The red marks her as a scarlet woman, a whore undeserving of membership in the regular community. Yet at the same time, the A sets her free to become what she wants. It frees her from the regular constraints of a very restrictive society. It sets her apart and makes her both special and unique. It ceases to be just a letter and becomes a symbol of the outsider. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the white whale is a symbol of the power of nature. Most characters in the novel self-destruct when they joust that mysterious and insurmountable power. One could discuss the phallic nature of both harpoon and whale and see this novel as the ultimate masculine face-off, the moral being that man cannot withstand the power of nature. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, a pair of glasses on a billboard seem like just an image, yet they come to symbolize the all-seeing eye of God, which sees and judges society and finds it wanting. Great authors know and use the power of simple symbols that represent so much more than just a simple object.
How can you use symbols?
Pick an item. Find out how you can make it a symbol. How can you turn it into something beyond just what it is at face value? Consider how that can add meaning to your whole book or story.