Is symbolism needed in novels or short fiction? I would say yes--if a writer wants his or her work to have quality and stand out.
Here are some tips on creating symbolism:
First, decide on an overall theme or idea that unites your work. It should connect setting, plot and characters in some significant way.
Second, recognize that a symbol is an image which is repeated. Consider it as an association cluster presented in many ways.
Religious writings are fraught with symbolism. Shakespeare used it effectively in his plays as did the early Greeks. In novels, the symbol can take a variety of forms. For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the first American symbolic novel, the author used the “A” as a symbol in many guises to emphasize the difficulties of overcoming the past, its institutions, and the values of family and society.
In Moby Dick, Melville also used symbolism in a varied manner. The great white whale is symbolic of numerous sociological ideas. Melville examines the nature of good and evil through images of light and dark. Ahab’s unyielding aloneness is emphasized by images of the heart and head.
In the twentieth century, writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were masters of symbolism. Color imagery was often used. For example, in the bullfight in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses the colors red and green to create a vivid, violent scene. The images symbolically connect to his theme of the manly or macho code of behavior which was what Hemingway considered most important in life.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald developed a theme he had earlier used in a short story entitled “Winter Dreams,” the love story of an American upper class girl and lower middle class young man—insider vs. outsider. Dexter Green is a romantic and his loss of Judy Jones causes him permanent pain because of the loss of his illusion of her more than the physical loss. She is a symbol of romance, just as Daisy is for Gatsby. In the novel the color green appears repeatedly and becomes a symbol for Daisy and all that she represents. For example, Gatsby looks longingly at the green light on Daisy’s dock across the water.
In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the image of the
becomes a tragic symbol of the lack of communication and connection
between two brothers. Living as I do not far from the Brooklyn Bridge , I can particularly appreciate this. There have
been many suicides of people jumping to their death from the bridge. Yet
although the bridge can be considered a symbol of death and failure to connect
and misunderstanding, it can also be a symbol of life and hope. Not long ago, one
Port Authority policeman was able to stop a jumper. On that very same day in
September 2014, PA police helped to deliver a baby near the toll booths on the
upper level of the bridge. George Washington Bridge
Contemporary authors often use symbolism. Consider Harry Potter’s scar—a symbol of his being the “chosen one”, as well as his ability to overcome evil. GalleyCat just discussed recent articles written by J.K. Rowling on the symbolism behind Dumbledore and Hagrid's names. Dan Brown even wrote a thriller entitled The Lost Symbol.
In my latest novel Dark Moon Rising, the moon symbolizes romance. However, the moon is also a symbol of night and darkness, fear and hate. Since this is a paranormal novel fraught with mystery, moon imagery and symbolism work well with the underlying theme.
In meaningful writing, symbolism adds depth and perspective to fiction and unites theme with plot, setting and characterization. The final tip: always consider the big picture. What image or images will work best to imply your underlying theme?
As a reader, are there meaningful symbols you recall in what you've read.
Writers, do you use symbolism in your work?