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Notes on Symbolism

When an object takes on significance beyond the object’s function or worth, the object becomes symbolic. A symbol, then, is an object, character, or action that suggests meanings, associations, and emotions beyond what is typical of its nature or function. Signs are different from symbols in that they point arbitrarily, by common agreement, to something definite. (E.g. numbers, a red light, alphabets, road signs) Signs can be changed and we will adjust, but symbols cannot arbitrarily be replaced. For example, can we replace the American Bald Eagle with a Turkey Vulture? Can we replace a red rose with a dandelion? Can we replace a Christian cross with a square? The answer is no because they do not suggest the same meanings or emotions as the original symbol. Symbols are multi-faceted, less definite, and more emotion-laden than signs. We generally think critically about symbol to understand a work’s theme rather than to simply go on a symbol hunt. Your purpose will be to explain the symbolic meanings as a key to understanding the work.

When writing about symbol, you have two tasks:

  1. to show how the writer gives the object symbolic significance and
  2. explain its symbolic association and hence its contribution to the work’s meaning.

Carl Jung developed the concept of collective unconscious. He believed that humans have a mental record of ideas/concepts/images that is passed on through generations (possibly genetically coded) and archetypes trigger common responses because of our collective unconscious. (E.g. snakes trigger rear and revulsion) His theory of collective unconscious relies on another theory called the doctrine of accommodation wherein humans tend to put vast incomprehensible (abstract) concepts into understandable (concrete) terms. These concepts are then passed on to other generations to build a body of knowledge.

Archetypes are the originals after which all other things of the same type are modeled or patterned. The word itself is taken from the term for metal molds for mass production. The Christian Bible is an excellent source of Western culture archetypes of character and plot. (E.g. the Fallen Woman: Eve, Mary Magdalen, And the Unwilling Hero: Moses, the Underdog Hero: David vs. Goliath, the Savior of Humble Origins: Jesus of Nazareth, or Sibling Rivalry: Cain & Abel, Fall from Grace: Adam & Eve, Decline of Civilization: Sodom & Gomorrah.) Jung also believed that out of archetypes, we have developed symbols that contain assumed or additional meaning. These symbols occur on three levels:

  1. Personal: having meaning for an individual which may or may not be consistent for the individual or others. (a star=spiritual value)
  2. Cultural: having common meaning within a societal/ethnic/cultural group. (Gold wedding band=commitment & endless love)
  3. Universal: having common meaning to all societies, centuries, ethnic, or religious groups. (movement of celestial bodies=human life cycles)

Numeric Symbolism
The most “potent” numbers in magic appear to have been 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9. Odd numbers were universally considered more “godlike” more perfect, and more powerful than even numbers. 7 is composed of the first number added to the first even number (1+2) combined with the first number added to the first odd number (1+3) so you get the formula: (1+2) + (1+3)= 3 + 4= 7 making 7 very potent in alchemy and mathematics in relation to magic. The tree of life has 7 branches each bearing 7 leaves and is perhaps the ancestor of the 7 branched candlestick of the Hebrews, which according to legend, burned for 7 nights of light from 1-3 nights worth of oil allowing the Hebrews to fend off their enemies until reinforcements came to save them. 3 is also an important number in Christian mythology due to the Trinity of Heaven (The Father/The Son/The Holy Spirit) which is seen as Power/Love/Wisdom as opposed to the Trinity of Hell, which is impotence/malice/ignorance.

Color Symbolism
Blue—color of accomplishment, devotion, deliberation, the Virgin Mary’s robe to mean mother, protector, source of love, birth, and patience. Blue physically lowers the blood pressure and pulse rate, but can actually deepen depression.
Purple—looked upon as elegance, passion, royalty, but also in superstition purple means strangulation and rage.
Green—is symbolic of nature, balance, normality, birth, re-growth and life, but also in superstition, green is envy, biliousness, and poisons.
Orange—is the social color, cheerful, luminous, and warm; Orange lessens traits of hostility and irritability; also the color of force and action.
White—is bleak, emotionless, sterile or pure/untouched; white means birth, death, fright, loss of blood/life.
Violet—indicates those searching for religious experience or fulfillment.
Black—decay, death, despair, depression, evil; often people who are emotionally unstable or criminally minded are fascinated or preoccupied with the color black.

For more reading refer to Man and His Symbols—Carl Jung Or Symbol, Myth, and Culture—Ernst Cassirer.

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