Defining "Symbol" in Language and Literature

Little girl giving the peace sign.
The peace sign is a positive symbol.

Karin Dreyer / Getty Images

A symbol is a person, place, action, word, or thing that (by association, resemblance, or convention) represents something other than itself. Verb: symbolize. Adjective: symbolic.

In the broadest sense of the term, all words are symbols. (See also sign.) In a literary sense, says William Harmon, "a symbol combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect" (A Handbook to Literature, 2006)

In language studies, symbol is sometimes used as another term for logograph.


From the Greek, "token for identification"



Also Known As


Examples and Observations

  • "Within a given culture, some things are understood to be symbols: the flag of the United States is an obvious example, as are the five intertwined Olympic rings. More subtle cultural symbols might be the river as a symbol of time and the journey as a symbol of life and its manifold experiences. Instead of appropriating symbols generally used and understood within their culture, writers often create their own symbols by setting up a complex but identifiable web of associations in their works. As a result, one object, image, person, place, or action suggests others, and may ultimately suggest a range of ideas."
    (Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 3rd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009)

Women's Works as Symbolic

  • "The works of women are symbolical.
    We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
    Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
    To put on when you're weary."
    (Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh, 1857)

Literary Symbols: Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

  • "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;
    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,
    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.
    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference."
    (Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken." Mountain Interval, 1920)
    - "In the Frost poem, . . . the wood and the roads are symbols; the situation is symbolic. The successive details of the poem and its total form point to a symbolic interpretation. Particular clues are the ambiguous reference of the word 'way,' the great weight that the final phrase, 'And that has made all the difference,' attaches to the action, and the very conventionality of the symbolism involved (that of life as a journey). The roads are 'paths of life' and stand for choices to be made with reference to the 'course' of the traveler's life; the woods are life itself, and so on. Read this way, each description or comment in the poem refers both to the physical event and to the concepts that it is meant to symbolize.
    "I define a literary symbol as the depiction through language of an object or set of objects that stands for a concept, an emotion, or a complex of emotion and thought. The symbol provides tangible form for something that is conceptual and/or emotional and, therefore, intangible."
    (Suzanne Juhasz, Metaphor and the Poetry of Williams, Pound, and Stevens. Associate University Presses, 1974)
    - "Which kind of laugh are we to turn on when we see that the speaker has falsified the record, pretending in his old age that he took the road less traveled, despite the fact that earlier in the poem we learn that 'both [roads] that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black'? . . . If we hear the final statement as heartfelt, absent a moralizing strain, we probably regard the speaker with some sympathy, as symbolic of the human propensity to construct fictions to justify choices made in cloudy circumstances."
    (Tyler Hoffman, "The Sense of Sound and the Sound of Sense." Robert Frost, ed. by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House, 2003)
    - "[C]onventional metaphors can still be used in creative ways, as illustrated by Robert Frost's poem, 'The Road Not Taken.' . . . According to Lakoff and Turner, comprehension of [the final three lines] depends on our implicit knowledge of the metaphor that life is a journey. This knowledge includes understanding several interrelated correspondences (e.g., person is a traveler, purposes are destinations, actions are routes, difficulties in life are impediments to travel, counselors are guides, and progress is the distance traveled)."
    (Keith J. Holyoak, "Analogy." The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Symbols, Metaphors, and Images

  • Det. Nola Falacci: He was killed with a family photo-cube. Interesting metaphor.
    Detective Mike Logan:
    Is that a metaphor or a symbol, Falacci? Guess I'd have to take a Master Class to find out.
    (Alicia Witt and Chris Noth in "Seeds." Law & Order: Criminal Intent, 2007)
  • "Although symbolism works by the power of suggestion, a symbol is not the same as a meaning or a moral. A symbol cannot be an abstraction. Rather, a symbol is the thing that points to the abstraction. In Poe's 'The Raven,' death isn't the symbol; the bird is. In Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, courage isn't the symbol; blood is. Symbols are usually objects, but actions can also work as symbols--thus the term 'symbolic gesture.'
    "A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself. Like a developing image in a photographer's tray, a symbol reveals itself slowly. It's been there all along, waiting to emerge from the story, the poem, the essay--and from the writer herself."
    (Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)

Language as a Symbolic System

  • "Language, written or spoken, is such a symbolism. The mere sound of a word, or its shape on paper, is indifferent. The word is a symbol, and its meaning is constituted by the ideas, images, and emotions, which it raises in the mind of the hearer."
    (Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. Barbour-Page Lectures, 1927)
  • "We live in a world of signs and symbols. Street signs, logos, labels, pictures and words in books, newspapers, magazines and now on our mobiles and computer screens; all these graphic shapes have been designed. They are so commonplace we seldom think of them as a single entity, 'graphic design.' Yet taken as a whole they are central to our modern way of life."
    (Patrick Cramsie, The Story of Graphic Design. British Library, 2010)

The Lone Ranger's Symbolic Silver Bullets

  • John Reid: You forget I told you I had vowed never to shoot to kill. Silver bullets will serve as sort of a symbol. Tonto suggested the idea.
    Jim Blaine:
    A symbol of what?
    John Reid:
    A symbol which means justice by law. I want to become known to all who see the silver bullets that I live and fight to see the eventual defeat and proper punishment by law of every criminal in the West.
    Jim Blaine:
    By criminy, I think you got something there!
    (Clayton Moore and Ralph Littlefield in "The Lone Ranger Fights On." The Lone Ranger, 1949)

The Swastika as a Symbol of Hate

  • The swastika now shows up so often as a generic symbol of hatred that the Anti-Defamation League, in its annual tally of hate crimes against Jews, will no longer automatically count its appearance as an act of pure anti-Semitism.
    "'The swastika has morphed into a universal symbol of hate,' said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization. 'Today it’s used as an epithet against African-Americans, Hispanics, and gays, as well as Jews, because it is a symbol which frightens.'"
    (Laurie Goodstein, "Swastika Is Deemed ‘Universal’ Hate Symbol." The New York Times, July 28, 2010)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Defining "Symbol" in Language and Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Defining "Symbol" in Language and Literature. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Defining "Symbol" in Language and Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).