Symbolism. It’s now going on the list with “strong diction” and “powerful imagery.” It’s quickly becoming one of the more abused literary terms, a thing someone says just to say something. So, let’s do some disabusing, starting with the basics. A literary symbol is a signifier that “represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or material entity.” Simple enough. You knew that already. Just hang on a second.
Let’s take an example: A red octagon symbolizes “stop” even without the word. (Shh…go get your socks and put them back on. My turn to wait.)
Who cares, right? Well, what if we ask how the red octagon came to represent “stop”? That’s a bit more interesting. Don’t bother googling it. Doesn’t matter. Just take the turn with me.
While we don’t tend to write literary analysis on such self-evident notions as the red octagon meaning stop, we may sometimes wish to discuss symbols without raising hackles, offending sensibilities, earning the term philistine. How do we do that?
We most certainly do not want to say something like, “The green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes hope.” That’s like saying that the red octagon means stop. Either we’ve said something outrageously obvious, or we’re begging the question (assuming a questionable premise which itself needs to be substantiated). If it is the former, we need to go find something more interesting to write about. If it is the latter, we must explore how we’ve come to that conclusion. How does the author get us to connect these ideas? How do we even know we should? (i.e. sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) What does the author accomplish with this symbolism? Answering questions like these requires close-reading language analysis, text interrogation. And that’s where things get fun.