In literature, a symbol is a person, place, thing, or event that has a meaning larger than itself.
A symbol has a literal meaning as well as an abstract meaning. A literal meaning is a symbol’s unimaginative, “boring” meaning. An abstract meaning is a symbol’s “meaning larger than itself.” This meaning is what the symbol stands for and represents.
Conventional symbols There are many symbols that we are probably familiar with. Can you determine the literal meanings and abstract meanings of the following things?
Literal meaning: A flag with 50 stars in the top left- hand corner and red and white stripes covering the rest of the surface. Abstract meaning: Freedom, liberty, independence, patriotism, etc.
Literal meaning: A dove carrying an olive branch. Abstract meaning: Peace, safety
Literal meaning: A clover with four leafs instead of the traditional three. Abstract meaning:
Literal meaning: A snake wrapped around a rod. Abstract meaning:
Tips for identifying symbolism When reading, if you believe a person, place, thing, or event has a meaning larger than itself, ask yourself the following questions: What is the literal meaning of the symbol? What is the abstract meaning of the symbol? What words or phrases help you determined this abstract meaning?
Practice In the following passage, does anything in the passage have a meaning larger than itself? Growing up, I never went down to my basement after it got dark outside. I was too scared. I lived with this fear well into my teenage years. Sometimes my parents would ask me to go down there, to grab an extra roll of paper towels for the kitchen or other times to return a tool to my dad’s workroom, and always I would come up with an excuse. I would pretend I didn’t hear them. I would hide the tool and return it to the basement the next day, when it was no longer dark. I hated that place. On the rare occasion when I was forced to make a trip down there in the dark, I would run as fast as I could, holding my breath, wasting no time. I got out as quick as I could. The place was a dungeon, with hidden traps and secretive murderers waiting to grab me. My imagination predicted gruesome outcomes. Even now, when I’m home visiting my parents, I try to avoid the basement at night. If I’m down there, I still walk a bit quicker than normal, still check around corners, still find myself holding my breath.
Read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes Determine one symbol in the poem. Then, explain both the literal and abstract meanings of the symbol.
Figurative language is any word or phrase that describes something in a way that exaggerates or alters the original meaning of the word(s). The most common examples of figurative language are similes, metaphors, and personification.
Similes and metaphors Many poems and stories use similes and metaphors to compare two similar things. For example, earlier we read Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” In the first two lines of the poem, we read that the narrator was comparing life to a staircase.
Whenever two things are being compared, we are using similes and metaphors. A simile is a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” In this way, a simile says that one thing is similar in some way to something else. A metaphor is a comparison of two things without using the words “like” or “as.” In this way, a metaphor says that one thing is in fact another thing.
Examples The following is a simile from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. “When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.” What two things is Gibran comparing? What makes them similar?
The following is a metaphor from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid- seas.” What two things if Gibran comparing? What makes them similar?
Which of the following would be a simile? Which would be a metaphor? As the match began, the wrestler slowly approached his opponent. The wrestler was strong like an ox, and he had no trouble easily pinning his opponent. As the match began, the wrestler slowly approached his opponent. The wrester was a strong ox, and he had no trouble easily pinning his opponent.
Personification Personification is the giving of human qualities to non-human things. For example, being able to hate or love something is a uniquely human quality. If you were to say: “My computer hates me.” this would be an example of personification.
Further examples Personification or not? During the earthquake, the photographs danced on the shelves. The car moved slowly down the driveway.