Brushing Up on Symbolism

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“It is mainly from this era, in the work of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Coleridge, and others, that we inherit our contemporary ideas of the ‘symbol’ and ‘aesthetic experience’…” (Eagleton 18). 

I will admit that before I looked up the word symbol, I already pretty much knew what it was.  But I figured it couldn’t hurt to review what Hamilton had to say about it.  There could have been some layer of the definition that I forgot and symbolism is such a common word thrown around by people that it is good to have a clear understanding of what it is. 

According to Hamilton, “A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something, or creates a range of associations, beyond itself” (86).

Now, I will give you a few examples.  A griffin is a symbol of Seton Hill University.  In contrast, the Bear Cat is the symbol of Saint Vincent.  A yellow smiley face is a symbol of Wal-Mart and a smiley cookie represents Eat’n Park.  We all see and use symbols every day. 

However, interestingly, Hamilton also comments that, “In many literary works, however, a symbol is unique in that its meaning is particular to that poem, play, or story and must be inferred by the reader as the work develops” (86).  This still makes sense.  For example, in the “Yellow Wallpaper,” the wallpaper itself is a symbol, while in another work it may represent nothing.

 My question though is this: if symbols can be unique to certain works of literature, can they be unique to each individual reader?  For example, hypothetically, I may read the “Yellow Wallpaper” and feel that since both the main character’s husband and brother are doctors and because I have had bad experiences with doctors that this means to me that doctors are a symbol of blind heartlessness both in real life and in the story.  Could one argue doctors are a symbol from this or would this be something of a stretch?  Maybe it goes back to what type of criticism you are using.  If I only care about the author’s intentions, then maybe it’s not.  But if I’m interested in the reader’s response, then maybe it is.    

Read about more literary terms. 


I just have to comment on the statement you make that people throw this term around. I so agree. There are times I think that we force a symbol were there may not be one. Symbolism is a wonderful way to make people think and see things around them differently, but symbols aren't necessarily everywhere.

I also like the examples you give. They are clear cut and easy to associate.

James Lohr said:

You are absolutely right, a symbol for one person is quite possibly without meaning for another. It is simply an opinion, the only question left is can you back it up?

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