The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Symbol: Something that, although it is of interest in its own right, stands for or suggests something larger and more complex — often an idea or a range of interrelated ideas, attitudes, and practices. Within a given culture or cultures, some things are understood to be symbols. National flags represent countries; the rainbow flag and triangle, gay pride; the swoosh, the athletics company Nike. The Golden Arches represent McDonald’s — and, to much of the world, American culture more broadly; likewise, the five intertwined Olympic rings signify not only the Olympic Games but also peace, cooperation, and international understanding. More subtle cultural symbols include the circle as a symbol of eternity and the seasons as symbols of the stages of life. Other symbols, however, are based on individual, personal associations.

Writers often draw on both types of symbols, sometimes appropriating symbols generally used and understood within their culture and sometimes creating their own symbols through a web of associations that enable one element to suggest others. A symbol may thus be defined more specifically in a literary sense as a figure in which the vehicle — the image, activity, or concept used to represent something else — represents more than one thing (or tenor) and is broadly suggestive, having both literal and figurative significance. The urn in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), for instance, suggests many interrelated concepts, including art, truth, beauty, and timelessness. Certain poets and groups of poets, particularly the French Symbolists, have especially exploited the possibilities inherent in symbolism, the relatively sustained use of symbols.

Symbols are distinguished from both allegories and signs. Like symbols, allegories present an abstract idea through more concrete means, but a symbol is an element of a work used to suggest something else, whereas an allegory is typically a narrative with two levels of meaning, a surface story line and a deeper statement about the real world (e.g., that virtue is like a castle constantly under siege). Symbols are typically distinguished from signs in that signs are arbitrary constructions that, by cultural agreement, have one or more particular significations, whereas symbols are much more broadly suggestive. As a sign, the word water has specific denotative meanings in English, but as a symbol, it may suggest concepts as varied or even divergent as peace or turmoil, the giver of life or the taker of it. Some theorists (such as American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, a pioneer in semiotics), however, have argued that symbols are in fact a type of sign, their meanings just as arbitrary and culturally determined as those of signs.

Symbols have been of particular interest to formalists, who study how meaning emerges from the complex, patterned relationships among images in a work, and psychoanalytic critics, who are interested in how individual authors and the larger culture both disguise and reveal unconscious fears and desires through symbols. French feminist critics have also focused on the symbolic, suggesting that, as wide-ranging as symbolic language may seem, it is ultimately rigid and restrictive. Consequently, they have favored semiotic language and writing — writing that neither opposes nor hierarchically ranks qualities or elements of reality, nor symbolizes one thing but not another in terms of a third — contending that semiotic language is at once more fluid, rhythmic, unifying, and feminine.

EXAMPLES: In the following passage from The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Ernest Hemingway used symbols including a quiet harbor, sheltering rocks, a cross-like mast, and great fish to speak suggestively about human mortality, faith that flies in the face of suffering and death, and the ultimate spiritual triumph over limitation and loss:

When he sailed into the little harbour the lights of the Terrace were out and he knew everyone was in bed. The breeze had risen steadily and was blowing strongly now. It was quiet in the harbour though and he sailed up onto the little patch of shingle below the rocks. There was no one to help him so he pulled the boat up as far as he could. Then he stepped out and made her fast to a rock.

He unstepped the mast and furled the sail and tied it. Then he shouldered the mast and started to climb. It was then he knew the depth of his tiredness. He stopped for a moment and looked back and saw in the reflection from the street light the great tail of the fish standing up well behind the skiff’s stern.

In Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), the arrival of locusts symbolically foreshadows dark developments that include the death of the adopted son of the protagonist Okonkwo; the illness of his daughter; the accidental killing of another boy when Okonkwo’s gun explodes upon being ceremonially fired at a funeral service; exile for himself and his family; the arrival in Nigeria of white men who destroy villages; and, especially, the advent of white missionaries whose message is that the Nigerians’ gods are false, their religion idolatrous.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the scars on Sethe’s back, described as a “chokecherry tree” — a tree that produces bitter fruit — serve as a symbol of the enduring burden of slavery:

I’ve never seen it and never will. But that’s what she said it looked like. A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves. But that was eighteen years ago. Could have cherries too now for all I know.

The breath of the dragon Querig — the mist that pervades Kazuo Ishiguro’s Gothic fantasy novel The Buried Giant (2015) — symbolizes the cultural amnesia regarding the atrocities Britons perpetrated against Saxons in a mythical historical period immediately following King Arthur’s reign.