In short, symbolism is the author’s use of something to represent something else. For example, when you see 🙂 you think of happiness or laughter right? Why? It’s just a symbol. But your brain has been taught to associate 🙂 with different concepts. Symbolism in literature is like that, except you have to figure out what the author your teacher wants you to associate with the symbol.
This, my friend, is the crown jewel of AP English Lit. The king of kings, wonder of wonders, key to doing practically anything in your essays – symbolism. Symbolism is The Way. Life. The Universe. Everything. 42. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Hitchhiker’s reference). It is with symbolism that mountains become death, death becomes flowers, flowers become Armageddon, Armageddon becomes…you get the picture. With an adequate Fact, symbolism will get you ANYWHERE.
Using symbolism well in an essay asking for literary devices shows your ability to think creatively and will more than likely provide for some extra points.
If you want a detailed explanation of symbols for your specific book you can always Google it. But make sure to make the work your own. Plagiarism is the evil overlord of AP Lit. It will strike at any time, in any way, and result in a critical hit to your grade points. Just trust me. Take the Act and Fact, but make the Abstract your own. For example: take Fact “yellow = corruption” and Act “the multiple instances of yellow at Gatsby’s party” but take the Abstract in your own direction. You can use Google to direct where the F/Act takes you, but the wording and the Abstract/Tying it Back must be your own.
Before I get into a collection of the FUSE (Frequently Used Symbols of Eternity, also way to blow your paper up to the next level), a warning. Beware – there is a difference between a symbol and a motif! A symbol is very specific (red means love) whereas a motif is pretty general (color refers to emotions). Do not get these mixed up! (In the FUSE, symbols are what you get when you click on “Show All” and motifs are the categories.)
Disclaimers: Just because I say a symbol means something doesn’t mean it always means that in your book. At first. You can work in any meaning to a symbol to your paper with enough effort. Also, certain books could create specific meanings for symbols (like a character’s memory of a book means any reference to that book is the memory). Additionally, the FUSE is my quick guide to standard symbols. However, if you can think of an adequate Fact, you do NOT have to stick to these interpretations.
FUSE (Frequently Used Symbols of Eternity)
White – innocence, purity, goodness
White is a blank canvas. It has nothing, it is pure. Mini-science lesson: the actual color white is created when an item reflects all pigments. Symbolically, white is ignorant of all the other colors. It is innocent. Also, a woman was supposed to have been a virgin until her wedding (hence the white dress).
Black – death, mourning, evil
Black is the color of funerals. Mourners wear black. Also, the Black Death. Black is foreboding of evil/death. Mini-science lesson 2: black is created by absorbing all the pigments. It knows everything, the good and the bad (Adam and Eve’s fall, anyone?). It also goes with anything.
Red – love, blood, passion
Red roses, red hearts, red Valentine’s Day. Having red mean love is a pretty standard thing and most of us recognize it immediately. Red is also the color of blood – blood brothers, blood like murder, bloody marys, etc. Someone can “see red” when enraged, or blush a deep red, signifying passion or increased emotions coming to the surface.
Pink – innocent romance, girls
Pink is a mix of red and white, symbolically a mix of romance and innocence, like a crush. Pink is the color of most baby clothes for girls, and the old-fashioned mentality for girls ties back with the whole “innocent romance” thing.
Orange – danger, safety, life/death
Orange is bipolar. It is the color of life jackets and fires. It is the color of safety and danger. It keeps us safe with triangle signs, yet appears constantly in the fall (symbolic of waning life). It is the color of sunrise (birth) and sunset (death). It is also the primary color of tigers (combination of black and white plus extra helping of danger-orange).
Yellow – happiness, childhood, corruption
Yellow is also up there on the bipolar scale. It is the color of all those smiley face stickers, sunshine, and summer vacation. At the same time, it is a “false gold” and has connotations from “yellow journalism” to mean corruption.
Gold – prestige, wealth, power
Gold is a precious metal that has long been associated with awesomeness. There was the Gold Rush, the hunt for “El Dorado” (city made entirely of gold, for those of you who haven’t seen the Disney movie…or heard about it in History.) If you have gold, you have power. Kings have enormous stashes of gold. Someone with an excess of gold is either a king, or pretending to be one.
Green – nature, envy, illness, go
Another one of those self-explanatory ones. Green like leaves/trees/shrubbery. Green like “green with envy”. Green like that “green” face you get before you barf, or for those of you who don’t want to use that, that old expression “green around the gills”. And then there is the green light. Saying “go”.
Blue – freedom, calm, sadness, depression
Blue is the ocean. “She’s not just a ship, mate, she’s freedom.” – Jack Sparrow. Love that movie! So yeah, blue like the ocean – an adventure and chance for freedom in the olden days. Or the sky and airplanes for those books set in this time. Blue can be calm like how the ocean is calm when it’s blue. Also, blue like “I feel blue”. And blue like rain. And bleu cheese.
Purple – royalty, magic, mystery
So purple is a mixture of red and blue. The warmest and coolest of the colors and also the most calm with the most energetic. So it’s magical and mysterious. It has also symbolized royalty since forever. (I see some extra meaning in there somewhere!)
Spring – (re)birth, hope, childhood
Spring brings with it all sorts of blossoms and snow-melting goodness. It is the rebirth of nature and renewal of necessary resources (like food) for humankind. Spring can refer to childhood because of the association of birth it carries (since most animals give birth in spring). Also, Easter.
Summer – freedom, exaggeration of emotions, prime of life
Summer is, as every student must know, freedom from the oppressive regime that is school. It is full of long days and just life. Summer can refer to a person’s prime, whatever age that may be. The heat with summer can “heat up” emotions, bringing them to the surface or just making them more pronounced.
Autumn – decay, mid-life, wisdom
Autumn is the death of summer and the start of winter. It is the end of the freedom and carefree days summer vacation allows for and the reentering of tyrannical school. The leaves begin to decay and lose their life. Autumn can refer to mid-life (crises). It can also refer to the wisdom gained as the brazenness of youth declines.
Winter – death, hopelessness, emotional cold
In winter, everything dies. Except evergreens (side symbol of endurance). It is very cold and creates an atmosphere prone to infection. All hope is lost. Animals hibernate to escape. A person whose description is winter-y could reference his/her cold personality (aka: icy stare).
Time of Day
Morning – birth, hope
It’s the start of the day. The start of life. When all the little critters wake up and greet the day. Except non-morning people (like myself) who chuck the alarm clock across the room and grin when it shatters. Back to the point, it is the beginning.
Afternoon – prime of life
So, the afternoon. When the sun is highest in the sky, when people are most active (except us nocturnal ones). It is life, in prime form. It is when anything seems possible, that you have the whole day to complete that paper so why worry?
Evening – mid-life, old age
The sun is setting, life is waning. In the evening life is slowing down. The glory of the day has passed and night is approaching. Night meaning death.
Night – death
…belated spoiler alert for Evening. Yes, night means death. Basically because humans go to sleep at night. In general. Us procrastinators are spazzing well into the morning rushing to finish that paper. But, in general, life ends at night.
Mountains – stability, safety, hubris
So mountains are where Earth meets the sky/heaven. You are as far from hell as you can be on Earth. You feel safe. Then there are avalanches. Mountains can be symbols of human pride, and can foreshadow you crashing down. Or, having your head in the clouds (literally).
River – flow of life/death
In Greek mythology, Hades had this River Styx and Charon would ferry you across it to the Underworld (after you paid, of course). The river is the boundary between life and death, it flows naturally just as the passing from life to death is natural. You can’t go upstream (unless you’re part-salmon, but I don’t think you are…) so doing so is very unnatural and can lead to disaster or just not being able to do anything.
The Moon – changing/returning shape, feminine
The moon has its cycles, where it changes but then returns. It also creates werewolves who change along with the moon. For some reason, it has become a feminine symbol, probably due to the monthly changes and werewolves thing. Or maybe not. It is calming, and subtly changes the ocean’s tides. Go with whichever you want.
The Sun – life, stability, warmth, masculinity
The sun is necessary for life. Without it, it would be dark. And also cold, Earth could not sustain life, and the planet would go careening through space because there is no gravity. The Sun is a staple of life, and humans set their lives in sync with the Sun. So it’s masculine. Or something. Like, it also has millions of hydrogen-explosions a day to keep it burning and is literally a big ball of gas and full of itself. Take your pick once again.
The Earth/Caves – beginning of life
Life began on Earth, specifically in caves. Caves were a place of shelter from the elements for our ancestors, and a place to finger-paint. We all loved finger-painting, don’t deny it. Oh yeah, and Mother Earth and all that good stuff.
Apple – temptation, loss of innocence
This one comes straight from Adam and Eve – the serpent tempts Eve to eat the apple and then the two magically know the difference between right and wrong and are cast out of the Garden of Eden to wander around hopelessly for eternity for daring to eat the fruit on the big hill with the giant neon “DON’T EAT ME” sign.
North – coldness, hostility, death, (hope)
Think the Arctic Tundra land of the polar bears, freezing winters, and death. In the winter in the North (like, Alaska) the sun almost never rises, plunging the land into near-constant darkness. Alternately, the North as in North Star, the guide of the runaway slaves trying to find their freedom.
East – (re)birth, renewal
The sun rises in the East daily, casting aside the night and bringing with it a new day. Literature folks really love making the circle of life appear in everything. Because it moves us all. Through despair and hope.
South – fire, warmth, comfort
The South, as in, birds fly south to escape winter’s icy clutches. The south is warm, and creates a haven during winter for all.
West – freedom, opportunity, old age
The West – the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, you name it. West or Bust. The land of gold, opportunity, wonders. And then there is that whole life-cycle, circle of life thing where the sun sets in the west, making it synonymous with old age and dying.