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Symbol Definition: a character, place, or object that represents an abstract idea or points to a theme

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Authors use symbols to create a deeper meaning in their plot or characters, which often points to the larger theme or message. Symbolism adds depth and insight into sometimes simplified events or characters. They clue the reader into the fact that something bigger might be going on, and to pay close attention. A symbol typically occurs in the story more than once, but it differs from a motif in that it’s a physical object that represents an abstract idea, concept, or theme. For example, in The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the boys are afraid of a monster that lives on the island and Jack’s group sets out to hunt it; however, it quickly becomes apparent that the monster they’re chasing is not real. The monster they most need to fear is the one that lives within themselves, because their power struggle quickly turns dark with Piggy’s murder and Ralph’s failed attempts to restore order. The monster comes to represent the theme of the loss of innocence, as the boys lose their naivete when they are forced to struggle for survival on the island.

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Notable Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Be sure to check out our article, "Themes, Symbols, and Motifs"!

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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