The Literary Apprentice



What are symbols? Why are they so powerful? Why do some readers relate strongly to symbols while others are reluctant to open their reading of literature to such meanings? What are the most fundamental distinctions we can make in talking about symbols in literature and what are some methods for determining if, indeed, our identifications and interpretations of symbols are warranted.

  • What exactly are symbols and how do they differ from ordinary language and other figures of speech?
  • How can we determine if a text invites a symbolic reading?
  • How can we distinguish various types of symbols such as personal, conventional, cultural, archetypal and allegorical?

These are some of the questions we hope to answer. New readers of fiction are often thrilled by the power of symbols to point to larger meanings. In language and culture in general, when we strive to express great significance, meanings that can transcend our power to explain them in mere words, we turn to symbols.

Image vs. Symbol: In discussing fiction, it is best to start with symbols rather than other figures of speech though symbols are often discussed with other figures of speech. Janet Burroway again is very helpful for the clear way she distinguishes symbols from other figures of speech:

A symbol differs from metaphor and simile in that it need not contain a comparison. A symbol is an object or event that, by virtue of association, represents something more or something other than itself. (273)

She goes on to explain that although the cross, for example, can symbolize Christianity, its symbolic meaning does not arise from a comparison. The cross is "not similar to redemption" (273). If, in your personal life, a particular stuffed toy comes to symbolize your relationship with someone, it is not because the relationship is like the stuffed toy in any way, but rather because you have, for some reason, associated it with the relationship. Perhaps it was gift that came to express more than itself. Relationships often acquire such things: songs, places, rocks, anything, in fact. It becomes your personal symbol of your love because no one else is aware of its special meaning. In that sense all souvenirs aspire to be symbols of your experiences. But these things can be quite arbitrary and are associated by a mere physical presence in the relationship.

Holmon and Harmon define a symbol as "something that is itself and also stands for something else. . . . In a literary sense a symbol combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect." They also go on to say, "it is advisable to distinguish symbol from IMAGE, ALLEGORY, AND METAPHOR" adding two more concepts to the distinction Burroway makes. This is how they distinguish symbol from IMAGE.

If we consider an image to have a concrete referent in the objective world and to function as image when it powerfully evokes that referent, then a symbol is like an image in doing the same thing but different from it in going beyond the evoking of the objective referent by making the referent suggest a meaning beyond itself; in other words, a symbol is an image that evokes an objective, concrete reality and prompts that reality to suggest another level of meaning. (Holman and Harmon)

Without images there would be no literature at all, much less symbols. To Holman and Harmon images are either literal or figurative. The literal image calls up "a sensory representation of the literal object or sensation" while the figurative image involves us in a "turn" toward this other meaning. In "Young Goodman Brown" he takes a walk down "a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind it."(8) This is an image of the path with its "trees." Does the path "turn" to another meaning? Do the trees? If so, they are symbolic.

One important idea here is that symbols begin with imagery. The reader is rarely told directly that the image also suggests another level of meaning; instead the image functions in the play of literal meanings in the narrative. Brown walks on the path. The image is particular, concrete, and sensuous. But does it have symbolic associations? Here you must make interpretive decisions. Your tendency to be willing to let an image reach beyond the literal may have as much to do with your own cognitive style as with the shape of the text.

Figurative vs. Literal Reader: The reader who tends toward literal meanings bears resemblance to the CAM (Character-Action-Moral) reader George Dillon describes in "Styles of Reading" who treats the text as an extension or portion of the real world, the characters as real persons, so that we will recognize "the experience of characters as being like our own experience. . . . Thus, inferences [we] draw are based on commonsense notions of the way the world is, people are, etc."(524). Objects or images are likely to remain just what they are. When people walk on paths in the woods, they are standing on dirt, leaves, and twigs. Any other meaning is unnecessary.

For Dillon's "Diggers for Secrets" readers, on the other hand, "the story enwraps secrets, the narrator hides them. . . and the reader must uncover them." Symbols attract the Diggers for Secrets, according to Dillon. (He goes on to discuss a third type, the Anthropologist, so if you do not see yourself in these two, you should find Dillon and read him (Dillon, George L. "Styles of Reading" Poetics Today 1982 Spring v3(2) p77-88 ).

When you took Miall and Kuiken's Literary Response Questionnaire, did your self-assessment prove high in empathy, insight and imagery vividness? Those factors may correlate with Dillon's "Diggers for Secrets" and the strategy of being more open to more figurative readings.

For our purposes, at this point, we must note that the CAM reader (or "story driven" reader in LRQ terms) is quite secure in his or her literal reading of the image because the image functions quite clearly as what it is. So how does one know when to extend that literal meaning to a different level?

The Norton Introduction to Literature (Jerome Beaty, J. Paul Hunter. The Norton Introduction to Literature, Seventh Edition, 1999) textbook gives readers this excellent advice:

A single item, even something as traditionally fraught with meaning as a snake or a rose, becomes a symbol only when its potentially symbolic meaning is confirmed by something else in the story, just as a point needs a second point to define a line. (184-bold type is my emphasis.)

Reading for symbols then becomes a matter of connecting the dots, so to speak, to form patterns. Beaty and Hunter say that two ways that the symbol can be confirmed are through repetition and through explicit statement. Look over, for example, the titles of many of the stories you may have read. Almost always a title is an invitation to think about an image from the story in terms of symbolic meaning. A title repeats an element in the story, and it is an explicit statement by the writer of significance. So if the title names "the yellow wall-paper" we can be sure that the writer is nudging us toward a closer examination of this image for its symbolic status.

Symbol vs Allegory: The second term which Holman and Harmon distinguish the symbol from is ALLEGORY.

They distinguish the symbol from allegory this way: "In allegory the objective referent evoked is without value until it is translated into the fixed meaning that it has in its own particular structure of ideas." In allegory, it seems to me, the goal of the work is to bring the reader to that "particular structure of ideas," and, in that case, the reader who tends to read literally is likely to miss the point entirely. That is a hard thing to do, by the way, since the allegorist is usually pointing all the time to this other level of meaning. Allegory is:

A form of extended METAPHOR in which objects, persons, and actions in a NARRATIVE are equated with meanings that lie outside the NARRATIVE itself. Thus, it represents one thing in the guise of another--an abstraction in that of a concrete IMAGE. By a process of double signification, the order of words represents actions and characters, and they, in turn, represent ideas. Allegory often clarifies this process by giving patently meaningful names to persons and places. (Holman and Harman, emphasis mine)

Have you heard of John Bunyon's The Pilgrim's Progress, a Seventeenth Century work? It is probably the most famous allegory. That should give you a clue that allegories are not as popular as they once were. Perhaps you have read a work like George Orwell's Animal Farm, however, a political allegory in which animals on a farm take over and attempt an ideal state. It was also made into a movie for TV recently. Here are more definitions of allegory.

Symbol vs Archetype: As symbols attain a cultural life beyond any particular work of the imagination, they can become archtypes. Not all conventional symbols would be called archetypes. At this site, for example, we find a dictinary of symbols (Dictionary of Symbolism, Allison Protas, Geoff Brown, Jamie Smith, and Eric Jaffe (2001) <> ). If you explore it you will find fairly obvious and standard interpretations for common objects. But keep in mind that dictionaries such as this one are all culturally determined. The color symbolism, for example, will hardly ever translate from one culture the next. Here is a bibliography of reference works for symbols.

But archetypes are hypthesized as transcendent symbols. We might see Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown as allegory, but also myth, and archetype. As the structure of ideas which a set of symbols in an allegory convey through characters and their narratives becomes more associated with spiritual and cosmic significance, as well as with cross cultural patterns of significance, the allegory becomes mythic and archetypal. In fact, an entire area of literary criticism tries to uncover the universal or collective unconscious patterns of symbol and allegory that lie behind all cultures' narrative and artistic production. Sometimes called Archetypal or Myth Criticism, or Jungian Criticism, it is associated with major scholars such as Carl Jung, Northrup Frye and Joseph Campbell. The famous concept of the quest or journey motif, which structures "Young Goodman Brown," is one of the major common patterns which a critic such as Joseph Campbell has traced in his famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You may want to read about one of the basic structuring stories behind YGB: The story of man's fall in the Garden of Eden. Clearly you can also read this story in Genesis, Chapters 2 and 3.

Things to do:

  • To reinforce your understanding try an analysis of symbols in a work. Begin with a story's title. Find all the images that repeat or refer to, or echo the title. Look for any reactions, or patterns of repetition that lead you to interpret a meaning for the image that might be symbolic. You will have to remind your reader of the images you noticed by quoting portions of passages. If you don't want to work with a title, or have an idea already of something else that is symbolic in a story, write about that.
  • Visit Lyricalworks <> Melissa Osborne's site demonstrates the dedication which only love of literature can produce. Her emphasis is on the new reader encountering intensely "the raw materials of meaning: symbols, myths, dreams, and stories."
  • Make up a fable or children's story which is an allegory. Use the contents of the typical refrigerator to do so.
  • Go to this site and read "The 'Little Mermaid' and the Archetype of the Lost 'Bride' by Margaret Starbird <> After considering her argument and the light it sheds on the idea of the archetype, choose a different Disney tale or other childrens' story and attempt to analyze one of its characters as an archetype. Notice the technique involves making many comparisons between the figure you are explaining and other cultural icons from across time and the world.
  • Here is another site where you can read a dissertation on The Archetype of the Magician (John Granrose, Ph.D.)
  • Granrose refers to the Tarot Cards which are a neat glimpse into what some might call a set of archetypal images or characters or figures. Go to this site (one of many) for a look at images of tarot cards Aeclectic Tarot <>
  • Here is a course built around the concept of the "feminine archetype"--The Feminine Archetype in Myth and Art, Course Syllabus, Spring 1999 from Barbara McManus <>
  • If you want to get serious about archetypes, begin by reading aboutthis term as part of the work of Carl Jung.
  • Search for archetypes in and have fun.

The terms are also defined in other sites as well. Go to the links page for the section on Glossaries that will take you to other sites that define these terms for you.



Copyright 2000 College of DuPage
Communications/Liberal Arts IC3121f (630) 942-2793
Students Registered for class, use