When an element of a literary work—such as an object, image, or action—is more than just itself; it also represents something bigger and more abstract.     


•   At the end of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Jonas finds a sled.  This discovery symbolizes his arrival into a world where feelings and color truly exist.  

•   In John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Kino’s enormous pearl may symbolize a number of ideas, including the human tendency toward greed.  

Additional discussion:

In general, a symbol points toward a larger meaning because it has become associated with the idea.  For instance, over time our culture has linked the image of a red heart to the concept of romantic love.  Similarly, a work of literature creates associations between a symbol and an idea, often through repetition or rich description:

•   In The Giver, Jonas’s first memory features a red sled.  So, when the sled reappears after he has escaped his community, it takes on a larger significance.   

•   In The Pearl, Kino looks into the surface of his pearl and sees a new rifle, fine clothing, and other material objects of his desire.  This description helps to endow the pearl with its abstract meaning.

Any object, action, or image within a work of literature has the potential for symbolic meaning.  But additional clues within the text—such as the element’s function within the plot (The Giver) or the nature of the images attached to it (The Pearl)—invite symbolic readings and point the way to valid symbolic interpretations.  Sometimes, a text may support competing or evolving interpretations of a single symbol.

Because it is not a comparison based on shared characteristics, a symbol differs from a metaphor or a simile .  Kino’s pearl has nothing truly in common with greed; rather, the novella has associated it with greed through repetition and rich description.      

Related definitions:

Allegory:  A literary work whose meaning wholly depends on an arrangement of linked symbols.   Every element of an allegory—its characters, setting, plot, etc.—exists for the reader to consider its other (often political or moral) level of meaning.    

[1] Burroway, Janet.  Writing Fiction.  New York:  Addison Wesley Longman, 2000. Print.