Symbolism: The Emojis of Literature - Literary Devices Explained

Helping students work on Common Core Standards for CCSS.CCRA.L.3 and CCSS.CCRA.L.6

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Symbolism often seems complicated to students who are just beginning to explore the different literary devices, yet the point behind using symbols is crystal clear once you start thinking about how often you encounter them in your everyday life. If you’ve ever given someone a flower as a gesture of friendship or romance, then you’ve seen this literary device in real-life action.

The basic definition of symbolism is that it’s the use of an object or word to express an abstract concept. Symbols help a writer follow the common advice that it is better to show than tell what a character is experiencing in a story. Just like you might send an emoji to tell someone you’re laughing instead of typing it out in a text, an author might describe a character wearing a yellow dress to symbolize their happiness.

symbolism with emojis

While it might be easier to say that someone’s day just got better, using visual images makes a bigger impression. Plus, it’s much more fun to read that a rainbow emerged in the sky than simply saying the character got happier.

As you start exploring different literary works, you’ll start to see symbols being used in a variety of different ways. Exploring the different symbolism types helps you start thinking about using them in your writing.

Symbolism of Colors

Colors are one of the easiest ways to use symbolism in a literary work. Most people are familiar with black as being associated with sorrow or evil. Take a moment to think about just how many evil characters wear black cloaks or exist within darkened homes.

  1. White is well-known for representing purity, faithfulness, and innocence. Wearing white could symbolize that someone is setting out on the right path or that they’re the person who stands for righteousness and truth. Waving a white flag is another well-known symbol of surrendering to a foe or letting someone know that you mean no harm.
  2. Red is a fun color to use in your writing. You can say that someone saw red to make it clear that they were angry. Or, red could be used to show passion or romance. You’ve likely seen that red is often used on warning signs as a symbol of danger.
  3. Blue typically represents calmness or serenity, and purple tends to be associated with honor and royalty. Remember that the symbolism of colors can change if you are reading or writing about different cultures. For instance, some cultures view red as a symbol of good luck, while other cultures might wear white to a funeral instead of black.

Adding Symbolic Objects to Nail Down a Point

If someone asks you to do some self-reflection, you might picture yourself gazing into a mirror, next to calming water, or surrounded by candles. This is because these objects are frequently used to signal that a character is engaging in some deep soul-searching.

Wedding Rings

Wedding rings symbolize commitment, and you might also see circular objects used to demonstrate similar concepts. When circles are joined together to form a chain, you have deepened the meaning to symbolize connections.


One of the most common examples of symbolism is using a clock to show the passing of time. A student might stare at the clock waiting for time to pass if they are eager to get out of school and meet up with a friend. Or, a character might hear the ticking of a clock as an ominous sign that time is rapidly passing when they’re stressed by a deadline.

Bringing Life to Your Writing with Animal Symbolism

Animals and insects are often used as symbols for the characteristics that people tend to associate with them. Most likely, you’ve encountered butterflies as being used as a symbol of transformation or change. Here are a few more examples of symbolism that use animals.

Darken or Brighten the Mood With a Weather Symbolism

Weather is often used as a symbol that works well for foreshadowing. Writing about how a storm is rolling in incites an instant feeling of danger and excitement. Or, you might write about a snow-filled scene that symbolizes purity and calmness.

If you want to show hope or promise, then rainbows work well for letting a reader know that the best is yet to come. Alternatively, fog and clouds can show the opposite. Since the weather is easy to include as part of the setting, using these types of symbols is a great way to start stretching your writing skills by using more symbolism in your stories.

  1. A storm is rolling in.
  2. Fresh snow covers the floor, starting the day afresh.
  3. Fog clouded the sky.
  4. White clouds lit up the morning sky.
  5. The hurricane of feelings was overwhelming.

Explore More Symbolism Examples Movies and Literature

The use of symbols becomes more obvious the more you start to look for them. Spend some time watching your favorite movies or reading some books while keeping an eye out for some of the most common uses of this literary device.

  1. White cowboy hats tend to symbolize the hero in westerns.
  2. Dogs or cats in someone’s home show they are loyal and kind.
  3. Apples represent temptation.
  4. Crowns tend to symbolize power and high status.
  5. Water is used in many films and represents purity and life, especially in Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Waves.”

Examples of Symbolism in Movies and Literature

Symbolism is sometimes obvious; other times, it's not. See if you've noticed any of the following examples.

Symbolism in Setting

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is full of symbolism, even the symbolism in the book's setting. Jay Gatsby lives in West Egg, and the Buchanans live in East Egg. We discover throughout the book that East Egg is for people with inherited wealth, and West Egg is for new money.

What does this say about the character of Jay Gatsby?

Symbolism in Objects

Certain objects spark different feelings. In Disney films, the symbolism of objects is hugely important, even if it might not seem obvious. If you think about Beauty and the Beast, the rose is put in a glass container. This symbolism parallels the phrase that beauty is on the inside that runs throughout the film.

Symbolism in Color

In literature, color is used as symbolism all the time! The color green, in particular, often represents the psychological feelings of nature and relaxation. However, it can also represent innocence, especially in The Lord of The Flies by William Golding. The children in the book are surrounded by luscious green nature and remain childlike because of the green nature surrounding them. There's also the idiom "green with envy." Colors are important, but remember, colors have different meanings of symbolism depending on where you are or who you're speaking to.

When to Use Symbolism in Your Writing

Looking for symbols gives each thing you read or watch a new meaning that it didn’t have before.

As you explore the examples of symbolism, you’ll want to remember that not all objects, actions, or places mean the same thing to everyone. The important thing is to take into account the general experiences of your reader along with the overall genre or topic that you writing about.

You’ll also want to consider using other literary devices in your writing. Metaphors are a figure of speech that uses symbolism to make a point. You’ve probably heard that time is money, which shows how two different concepts can come together to create shared meaning.

Allegories take symbols to another level by using a whole story or statement to express an abstract idea. Plato and Shakespeare are two authors that have often used allegories in their work.

Now that you know more about symbolism as a literary device, take some time to re-read through some of your favorite stories. Most likely, you’ll achieve a deeper understanding of the meaning of each one. You might also start seeing symbols pop up in your daily life. After all, every new book you open is a path to greater knowledge.