Welcome to my three-part series about Symbolism, Theme and Motif. Each week we’ll be examining one of these ideas, looking at examples and how they can be used in writing. This week we’re starting with symbolism, intentional and unintentional and how they can be interpreted by different readers.

What is a symbol? A symbol is something that means something else. Here is a literal example.


The picture of the triangle in a circle does not mean triangle in a circle. It is the universal symbol for play as in play the DVD. You encounter symbols everyday such as a stick figures for men and women on toilet doors and symbolism can be found almost as frequency in literature. Here are a few examples:

  • The flashing light across the bay from Gatsby’s House in The Great Gatsby.
  • Holden Cauldfield’s red hunting hat in Catcher in the Rye.
  • The Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn.

Authors use symbolism to add deeper meanings to an object, person or place. On its own, the flashing light across the bay doesn’t mean much. To the casual observer in the novel it’s just a flashing light. To Gatsby however that flashing light represents his dreams hopes and ambitions. The narrator of the novel, Nick, comments on this green light, calling it an “enchanted object”.

“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that green light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” The Great Gatsby.

Holden Cauldfield’s red hunting hat is equally as famous a symbol (you could count it as one of the most famous literacy symbols of the twentieth century) as the light Gatsby gazes at. Holden brought his hat for one dollar after losing his school’s fencing foils (an unforgivable crime!) and it shows up again and again when Holden is facing trouble. When he’s alone or knows that he won’t see anyone that knows him Holden wears his hat but when amongst company the hat is hidden away. Interestingly the hat is the same colour as his siblings, Allie and Phoebe’s, hair as well as Allie’s baseball mitt. It is widely accepted that Holden’s hat is a symbol of his individuality. He wants to be different to everyone else around him but Holden also wants to be accepted in the world.

“…but it was freezing cold and I took my red hunting hat out of my pocket and put it on, I didn’t give a damn how I looked” The Catcher in the Rye.

The Mississippi River isn’t just a river to Huck and Jim, it takes on god like qualities, it becomes friend and foe. It is a path of escape and the path to a better life, it is an obstacle to be overcome and a means for their enemies to chase them.

“So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.” Huckleberry Finn.

Admittedly some of these symbols are better than others. That could be because some of these symbols are deliberate while others may not be. Unconscious ideas seep into the text and through the various drafts and edits they accidently take on meaning. There is a debate whether these organic symbols are better than the deliberate ones or if they count as symbols at all. Some authors argue that no one writes with any theme in mind and that all symbols come naturally. English teachers and professors are often accused of symbol hunting by their students, trying to find and create meaning where there is none.

How can we be sure that the flashing green light is a symbol of Gatsby’s goals? Why can’t it mean something else? The author tells us in the above quote what the symbol  represents but what about Holden’s Hat? Why can’t it be a symbol of his vulnerability instead of a symbol of his uniqueness? How can we be sure that is what the author meant without asking them? If we don’t have the author’s word we could interpret almost anything as a symbol and assign it meaning.

This idea is frowned upon by students and by many writers as it completely ignores authorial intent. I’m planning to cover the idea of authorial intent in a separate post but consider this. There is no right or wrong answer in literature, almost everything is ambiguous. You can see the flashing light in same way Gatsby does, as his hopes, dreams and ambitions and how close he is of achieving them or you could take Nick’s more pessimistic opinion that the flashing light shows how close Gatsby is to his goals and yet  how he can never achieve them. You could see the flashing light as a symbol of the American Dream and how people flocked to America to start a better life. Or you can see the flashing light as a flashing light.

To quote Sigmund Feud  “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

And just to end here is a little joke I found about symbols floating around online.

blue curtains joke

Thanks for reading. What do you think of these symbols? Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation of them or do you have your own meaning? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you next week where we will be discussing themes.

8 Replies to “Symbolism”

  1. Personally for me, if symbolism feels too forced or obvious (i.e. I feel like I’m being knocked over the head with it when I’m reading) then it can lower my opinion of a book. I guess that’s why many people argue for organic symbolism as it tends to grow naturally during the process writing and feel less inserted or deliberate. In my own writing I think I’d be unlikely to consciously insert something symbolic, but might enhance or continue a thread of symbolism if I notice it while re-reading.

    Btw I love that last image, made me laugh! I had an English teacher who was very good at finding symbols (she was great though, you never knew what she’d point out next).

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it’s funny re-reading your work and noticing that you’ve placed symbols everywhere isn’t in? I once had a discussion with my friend over a book. She claimed that a certain recurring object was a symbol and meant such and such. While I agreed it was a symbol I thought it meant something completely different. We each thought that the moral of the book was different. It depends how you read it.

      My English teacher would hunt for symbols in everything no matter how random. It always used to make the class laugh.

  2. This was a great read. I think there’s something to say about the interpretation of works outside the author’s intent. When the words leave the author’s desk and goes into printing, the author is essentially dead and those words are the ones that need to carry the weight. So whether the symbolism is intentional or otherwise, whether the author likes it or not, it is still there, like the Ring in Lord of the Rings being allegory to the atomic bomb. And you’re right, there is no right or wrong answer. It is one way to read it but it’s not the only way to do so. And I think that’s what so fascinating about literature. What you read into a book says as much about you as it does the author.

    1. Thanks! While I don’t agree that the author is essentially dead I do agree with most of what you’ve said. I think that we are influenced by the author or who we believe the author of a text to be. Even if we know very little about them, all we have to go on is a name, their gender could affect our reading experience without us realizing it. Take for example J K Rowling using her initials so as not to put off young male readers.

      In the end thought it really doesn’t matter what the author wanted the work to say. If I read a book and take a positive message from it or have a pleasant experience reading it then does it matter if I completely missed the point the author was trying to make?

      Thanks for your thoughts. I completely agree with your final line. 🙂

      1. That’s true. Our perception of authors due influence our reading of the text. I definitely agree that as long as we have an enjoyable time with the book, it doesn’t really matter about the author’s point.

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