How to Write a Symbolism Essay

Updated on February 23, 2017
Learn how to interpret symbols to ace your English class with a stellar essay.
Learn how to interpret symbols to ace your English class with a stellar essay. | Source

In literature, authors often utilize symbolism, using something tangible or even a person to represent an idea. To write an essay about symbolism in a poem or a story, you must first identify what has symbolic meaning. The symbol will be one of three types: archetype, universal or contextual. Once you've done that, support your idea with evidence from the text; use outside sources only when appropriate.

Whether interpreting a poem, short story, or novel, it is possible to identify symbolism if it exists. Look for recurring images or motifs. Try re-reading the first part of a piece after completing it in order to identify possible reoccurring motifs. Try using the rule of three: if an image occurs three times in a piece, it is likely a source for symbolism.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Franco Nuvolone

The Madonna with child is an archetypal symbol of motherhood.
The Madonna with child is an archetypal symbol of motherhood. | Source

Archetypal Symbols

An Archetype is a symbol that represents the original of a type; it is a pattern of a personality or ideal that spans across history. An example of this would be "mother" or "martyr." A common character archetype is the hero. This character often fulfills a necessary task that restores justice or harmony to the community. In the same vein, the battle between good and evil is an example of an ideal archetype.

When writing about this type of symbol, identify it as the archetype it is. Since an archetype spans history and cultures, you should include other references to this type of symbol. Research carefully: reference reliable, scholarly sources, not someone's blog unless that person happens to be an expert in the field.

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Universal Symbols

A universal symbol is one that would be recognized within a culture or ideology; for example, an eagle symbolizes freedom. An example from literature, from Moby Dick, is Ahab's search for the white whale. Because this quest occurs throughout the book, you can identify it as a symbol; a journey almost always mirrors life, and you can interpret the symbol according to how the trip plays out.

When writing about a universal symbol, reference other examples of the symbol within the culture. Just like with the archetype, take care to reference only scholarly sources.

Melville's Moby Dick features both universal and contextual symbols.
Melville's Moby Dick features both universal and contextual symbols. | Source

Contextual Symbols

A contextual symbol is one that only functions within the text, more likely within a longer text since it takes time to develop. To interpret this sort of symbol, consider the circumstances in which the motif reoccurs. Ask yourself questions about mood as it relates to the symbol, and consider the antagonist's reaction to the symbol. To use the example of Moby Dick again, the whale itself is a contextual symbol; Herman Melville has invested the whale with meaning beyond its cultural significance.

When writing about contextual symbols, all of your support will come from the text. Avoid quoting outside sources stating the meaning of the symbol; the goal is for you to be able to identify and interpret the symbol. Pay attention to the context and the protagonist's reaction whenever the symbol comes up.

The Essay

Depending on the assignment, you may choose one symbol and argue in at least three points why your interpretation is correct. Alternately, you may choose different symbols from the piece and interpret them each in a paragraph. A third method might be to describe symbolism in general, taking examples for different pieces of literature. For the last, limit yourself to one symbol found in different pieces in order to avoid making the topic too broad.

There are a lot of essays for sale on the internet. Guess what: your teacher or professor knows this, too. Don't pay someone to write your essay – you can do it! Once you know what to look for in a work of literature, you can identify and interpret symbolism. Writing an essay is a skill like driving: perhaps complicated and even painful at first, but a skill that will hold you in good stead forever. Go on – give it a whirl!

Types of Symbols

Spans cultures and history
Compare to other examples of same archetype.
Consistent within a culture
Compare to other examples within a culture.
Functions within the text
Use support from the text directly

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Nadia Archuleta


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      • profile image


        19 months ago

        how on earth would you write a thesis statement though

      • profile image


        20 months ago

        kys this makes no sense

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Very good information. Thank you


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