The Three Types of Symbolism

The Three Types of Symbolism

Ah, symbolism. A key to understanding texts. Also immensely irritating for some students of English, and an excellent way to alienate less enthusiastic students from the close reading of texts.

Anna Ancher (1859 – 1935, Denmark)

You may have seen this graphic. Pretty sure every English teacher has seen it. It is very annoying.

This meme shows a fundamental misunderstanding (or misremembering) of what English teachers do in the classroom. Too many students leave high school English thinking it’s all about spin, i.e. You can say anything you want in an essay so long as you can spin well enough.

The room he brought her to was as it had been when he’d taken her to it before, the pictures on its walls, the bronzes on the mantelpiece, the long blue curtains. The piano was open, as if someone had been playing it, music propped up. … Mr Ravenswood stood by the window, the light behind him, the blue of the curtains harsh where the sunshine fell on them.

Taking Mr Ravenswood, William Trevor

What did William Trevor mean by the ‘blue’ curtains? In this case, a more fruitful discussion may result from different types of detail rather than different types of symbolism. Some details are ‘telling’, others help (phantasic) readers visualise a scene. Better to ask instead what the detail is doing rather than what William Trevor meant.

“What the author meant” is a problematic question because it misrepresents how creativity works. Creators of art are not necessarily cognizant of everything they are doing at the time. Some artists are far more aware of the cultural impact of their work, and where it sits, than others. Margaret Atwood is an example of an author who has a very keen awareness of where her own work comes from and where it sits in relation to other work. J.R.R. Tolkien? Perhaps not. He rejected the idea that The Lord of the Rings had a single thing to do with the fact that he was living through world war. “What did Tolkien mean to convey about world events when creating the setting for LoTR?” is therefore not a great question. We can word it another way to get to the same discussion though: “How did the life and times of Tolkien influence LoTR?”

We can’t know what’s in an artist’s head at time of creation, which leads to this overall dismissal of English literature as a valuable field of study.

Sometimes, we talk about novels as though writers have the ultimate answer but I think that’s rarely true. I get so many questions from readers—I interpret it this way, is that right? And I know it sounds facetious, but I tell them: I don’t actually know. Sure, I have some theories myself—though they often change—but after I write this thing, I’m just another reader.


Postmodernism hammered this home, but really, any story is a collaboration between a storyteller and their audience. Authors expect an audience to contribute their own meaning, and even when authors don’t have any such expectation, audiences always bring their own various experiences to a work anyhow. This is not advocacy for invisibilisation of the author. The author’s biography and era absolutely have an effect on output and lead to interesting classroom discussions.

So, rather than ask what the authors mean by using certain symbols (or details, as the case may be), I’d far rather we talk about symbolism as it works across works or within specific works. These ‘temporary symbols’ are called motifs. (In that link I talk about different types of motifs. Motifs are a subcategory of symbol.)

I like Erich Fromm’s categorisation. I don’t know if this is Fromm’s own terminology or if it originally comes from elsewhere, but he uses these three categories of symbol it in his book The Forgotten Language.

Charles Heinz Geilfus 1890 – 1956 Alemanha, in which the red shape depicted above stands for ‘love’, to anyone who has learnt it from their surrounding culture.
Charles Heinz Geilfus 1890 – 1956 Alemanha, in which the red shape depicted above stands for ‘love’, to anyone who has learnt it from their surrounding culture.
Charles Heinz Geilfus 1890 – 1956 Alemanha, in which the red shape depicted above stands for ‘love’, to anyone who has learnt it from their surrounding culture.
Charles Heinz Geilfus 1890 – 1956 Alemanha, in which the red shape depicted above stands for ‘love’, to anyone who has learnt it from their surrounding culture.


The Conventional Symbol

The best known of the three.

The word ‘table’ stands for a piece of furniture with four legs and a flat top. There is no inherent relationship between the object and the word ‘table’. (Or between the signifier and the signified, in the language of semiotics.) English speakers simply agree, by convention, that the word ‘table’ refers to that particular piece of furniture.

In short, the thing table has nothing to do with the sound ‘table’. Apart from onomatopoeia and mimesis, human language works via conventional symbols.

Pictures can also be conventional symbols e.g. flags. Flags do have a story behind them, but their design is ultimately a convention, especially since most people don’t know the stories behind flags of countries (unless it’s our own).

The Accidental Symbol

This is the opposite of a conventional symbol in that it is based on individual experience, but again there is no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolises.

If someone has a horrible experience in a certain place they will learn to connect the name of the place with negative emotions. A word from psychology has in recent years hit mainstream in relation to the language of trauma — accidental symbols which provoke a strong negative memory are known as triggers.

In contrast to the conventional symbol, the accidental symbol cannot be shared by anyone else except as we relate the events connected with the symbol. For this reason accidental symbols are rarely used in myths, fairy tales, or works of art written in symbolic language because they are not communicable unless the writer adds a lengthy comment to each symbol they use. In dreams, however, accidental symbols are frequent.

Erich Fromm

The Universal Symbol

In a universal symbol there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and what it represents. The universal symbol is probably what your English teacher is talking about when close reading a text. 

Universal symbols, as the label suggests, are understood across time and culture. This is because universal symbols link the external world to the internal, sensory one. Emotions and sensory experiences endure. Stories heavy in universal symbolism also endure.

Fromm offers ‘the outskirts of a city’ as an example of a universal symbol. No matter where you grew up, if you find yourself alone on the outskirts of a city, the emotions you experience are probably the following: desertion, strangeness, the mood of lostness and anxiety.

Fromm also offers the example of fire a symbol of power, energy, grace and lightness, but also of the related sensory experience.

These days I love a good universal symbol myself. As evidence I offer:

Regarding Fromm’s categorisation, I have reservations about categories in general because many things exist along spectrums. But it’s still a useful starting point.

People often represent objects in relation to their emotions, attitudes and interests. A thief represents a lock as a frustrating obstacle while its owner represents the lock as a comforting source of security.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


As Erich Fromm says:

A symbol is often defined as “something that stands for something else.” This definition seems rather disappointing.

If we leave our definition at that, we won’t be saying anything insightful.

Instead, let’s go one step further:

It becomes more interesting, however, if we concern ourselves with those symbols which are sensory expressions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, standing for a “something else” which is an inner experience, a feeling or thought. A symbol of this kind is something outside ourselves; that which it symbolizes is something inside ourselves. … The world outside is a symbol of the world inside, a symbol for our souls and our minds.

In the ‘blue curtains’ meme above, the hypothetical English teacher is clearly talking about the concept of the universal symbol and how it applies to the inner, human experience.

But when taken completely out of context, the ‘blue’ may instead be what James Wood calls ‘off-duty detail’.

We shouldn’t mistake off-duty detail for universal symbolism. Nor should we dismiss the concept of symbolism outright. It’s not woo-woo. It’s not idiosyncratic. Your English teacher isn’t making this stuff up as they go along. These symbols are as old as storytelling itself, and as universal as the formulas of trigonometry.



Objective correlative: The tangible manifestation of an intangible, created and used by the author to help the reader grasp the intangible concept. Most literature is about emotions or ideals — things that you cannot see or touch. So the objective correlative becomes a focus, a tangible surrogate. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the painting becomes the objective correlative of Dorian Gray’s soul — it shows the invisible rot. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s child is the objective correlative of her sinful passions.

An important characteristic of objective correlatives is that they are usually vested with attributes which tilt the reader toward the emotion the author wants [them] to feel in relation to the intangible being staged. (T. S. Eliot)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction


Header photo by Aryan Singh

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