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Symbolism in literature: Is a rose just a rose?

In her poem, “Sacred Emily,” Gertrude Stein wrote, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” This line is often interpreted as meaning things are what they are. In Stein’s view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing already invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it.

In literature, objects can simply be what they are or they can symbolize something more than what they are.

A symbol is anything that hints at something else, usually something abstract, such as an idea or belief. A literary symbol is an object, a person, a situation, or an action that has a literal meaning in a story but suggests or represents other meanings.

If you want to learn more about crafting symbols in your story and how to use poetic techniques to deepen your prose, please join me this Thursday, April 21 for my writing webinar Sound and Symbol: How to Use Poetry to Deepen Your Prose, which is part of the Free Expressions Literary Series.

I’ll dive deep into how poetry can add sensory engagement to your prose.

We can have general symbols—like the aforementioned rose—and we can have specific symbols.

A general symbol is universal in its meaning. Even if the symbol was removed from a work of literature, it would still suggest a larger meaning, i.e. the rose symbolizes romantic love throughout time.

A specific symbol is not universal in its meaning. It acquires a specific meaning based on how it relates to the content of a novel, poem, etc. The symbol’s significance exists only within the context created by the author. For example, if you have a character who received red roses when her mother died, she might associate red roses with death in the future instead of romantic love.

Example of a specific symbol in literature: A hunting cap in “The Catcher in the Rye” has no universal meaning, but in the novel, it is worn backward and symbolizes a looking back at childhood.

In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,”

  • Harry’s scar, which is symbolic of his bravery like a badge of honor. And it also stands for her emotional sensitivity, since it often hurts when he’s connecting with Voldemort.
  • The Golden Snitch symbolizes the spiritual enlightenment every “seeker” aims for.
  • Knockturn Alley is a symbol for darkness and evil. The name even sounds nocturnal. The Dark Arts are practiced in this alley at night.

How can you use symbolism in your writing?

The best symbolism is the type that supports a story, rather than steering it.

  • In your first draft of a novel, don’t preoccupy yourself with symbols. Otherwise it might feel forced. Just focus on writing your story.
  • Once you’ve drafted (or at least outlined) your overall story, look for symbols that have naturally appeared in your story and see if you want to strengthen them and bring them out more.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about crafting symbols in your story and how to use poetic techniques to deepen your prose, please join me this Thursday, April 21 for my writing webinar Sound and Symbol: How to Use Poetry to Deepen Your Prose.

I’ll dive deep into how poetry can add sensory engagement to your prose.

You’ll create metaphors and extended metaphors for your works in progress. You’ll learn how to construct sentences in the most effective way possible using cadence, repetition, and sound. You’ll also focus on specificity in language to create imagery that deepens character development and emotion.

Poetry forces the writer to think about language and use every word in a more direct and articulate way. It places emphasis on the creative properties of language as a way of communicating emotion, suggesting meaning, and creating mood. This will be a fun, hands-on workshop with plenty of time for writing.

Register now: https://www.free-expressions.com/writing-success-series-2021

(Scroll down to my class and try out some of the others too)!

The replay will be emailed to you right after the webinar, along with the PDF of my slide presentation.

Hope to see you there. Please share!

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