Symbol and Allegory

A symbol is something concrete that represents or stands for something else, usually an intangible concept or idea. It can be an action, a sound, a thing, a movement.  It must be seen heard, felt, tasted, or touched.  Certaintyof something concrete used as symbolism is often somewhat ambiguous, but their may be clues: frequent repetition within the contest of the work of art, or an appearance of it at a pivotal moment, or at a prominant place--as in the beginning and/or the ending may be clues  to pay attention to the suggested level of meaning.


A conventional symbol is a symbol that has an understood or widely accepted interpretation. The heart, for example, is a conventional symbol of love. There are other conventional symbols that are easily recognizable. For example, we pledge allegiance to the flag, which is a physical, tangible representation of our country. Even as children we know that the flag isn't the country, but that it stands for our country. The pledge is a statement of loyalty to the country, and not a statement of loyalty to a piece of decorated fabric. (Candace Schaefer)


An archetypal symbol is one that supposedly conveys the same meaning in all cultures from the time of earliest civilization.  The circle, for instance, is an ancient symbol of wholeness or perfection; the sea has for centuries symbolized the voyage through life (McMahon, et. al.72)


Phallic and Yonic Symbols are two important and common symbols associated with human sexuality.  A phallic symbol suggests the potency of the male or the force of male dominance in a patriarchal society.  Common phallic symbols are towers, spurs, snakes, sleek cars, jet planes, motorcycles--objects resembling in shape the male sex organ. A yonic symbol suggests the fecundity of the female or the allure of female sexuality.  Common yonic symbols are caves, pots, rooms, full-blown roses--round or concave objects resembling the shape of the primary sex organs of the female.  Remember, though, that these objects will not always be charged with sexual significance.  You must be sure than in context the image can be reasonably associated with sexuality.  (McMahon, et. al.72-73)


A literary symbol is a symbol that has a possibilty of multiple interpretations. The interpretation of a literary symbol is determined by the way the symbol is used in the text. For example, water could be used in the same story as both a redemptive and destructive force. Multiple interpretations of a symbol in a story, then, can and do exist. The job of the analytical writer is to prove the likelihood or probability of his or her interpretation of a symbol in a story. (Candace Schaefer)


An allegory is a concrete representation of an idea or concept in a direct, one-to-one relationship. No ambiguity exists at this level. There is a clear interpretation of each allegorical element. For example, in "Young Goodman Brown," Faith is the name of Goodman Brown's wife. Faith, the character, equals faith, the concept, in an unambiguous relationship. The character of Faith, then, is an allegorical element of the story and not a symbolic element of the story.(Candace Schaefer)


Elizabeth McMahon, et. al.Literture and the Writing Process.5th ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1999. 

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