What comes to mind when someone mentions the word “symbol?” Do you conjure up logos of production studios on TV in your head? Do you think of the “no smoking” sign on the walls of a restaurant? Do you ponder about abstract shapes in a theme park map legend that tell you if an attraction is safe? Symbols can be any noun – an object, place, or idea that holds its truer definition but also stands for something else. Symbolism is usually found in poetry and fictional works, but it can be found in non-fictional ones (such as some articles) as well.
To understand symbolism, first figure out the literal meaning and its other definition in the context of a literary work. Take the star, for example – a star is defined as a glowing ball of gas, and that explicit definition found in a dictionary is the denotation. In the entertainment world, reporters and writers compare stars to famous movie actors, world-renowned musicians, and leading opera singers. The comparison between a ball of gas and some famous person is the connotation, which associates a noun taken literally to a suggested idea. Without figuring out the difference between the denotation and connotation, you’ll have a harder time figuring out what a symbol is when reading something.
Symbols vary from place to place, culture to culture, and belief to belief. In my poem, “The Black Stars on the Streets,” stars mean something else in Colombia. In a campaign by a road safety agency, road workers mark locations where victims died or shortly after the accident, whether it’s vehicular or pedestrian. I started the poem by connoting them with fame and fortune in the first stanza, but in subsequent ones I symbolize the black stars with gold borders on the roads as memorials to the victims as well as reminders for drivers not to drink and drive. This poem is an example of a literary work that comes to show that a symbol can be tied with other symbols in the same place as well. As the star marks locations, the color black represents death and mourning in Western culture.
Writers typically use figurative language to convey the full meaning of a symbol, and the metaphor – the usage of connotations to compare two unlike nouns – is just the main part of creating effective symbols. One example of a figure of speech used to symbolize an object is personification, which gives human feelings and actions to in non-human noun, with an anthropomorphic object (an animal or object who literally does human things like wear human clothing or talk in human language) being an exception. Take this stanza, for example:
Through the headlights of those willing
To merrily drink the alcoholic chalices of vices,
They warn the drivers with their four mournful, sad points,
Beseeching them for attention and vigilance.
To effectively make a symbol more understandable, I personified the black stars on the roads by giving them a human action – pleading and warning drivers not to drink and drive.
The main purpose for a symbol is to capture readers with its literal meaning and then suggest something else. They may be ideas we hold in our lives, products that we use, and places we go on vacation, but they stand for something we may be or may not be aware. The next time you read a passage on your English exam or just read for pure pleasure, look out for the symbol in the text. It’s a literal definition that is portrayed in a literary work, but it represents something you have never heard of before.