Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is Symbolism?

...and how can it be used to strengthen a novel’s mood?

I could spend several paragraphs singing the praises of M.H. Abrams and his famed Glossary of Literary Terms, but I won’t. Simply put, a symbol is a word or object that represents the idea of something else.

For all the years I spent teaching English, I found that using poetry to illustrate a point or element within literature is most effective.

To illustrate the use of symbolism, I’d like to focus on “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. I have been thinking of this fabulous writer of suspense and horror lately because of the new movie, The Raven. I have not yet seen it--too busy writing!

The stanza I think of most when I envision how powerful symbolism can be is after the persona of the poem is awakened, opens the door, and lets in a bird.

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Poe, E. A. (2012). Retrieved from

There are two specific elements of symbolism that are particularly powerful within this stanza.
  • The bird, The Raven is black which in itself symbolizes or represents evil, the underworld, death, mystery and secrecy.
  • The “bust of Pallas” upon which the bird perches. Pallas is truly Pallas Athena the Goddess of Wisdom in Greek mythology. This bust represents or symbolizes truth and knowledge.
The bird Poe chose to use instills a sense of dread and death in the reader. The location Poe placed the bird within the poem--on the bust of a statue that represents wisdom--solidifies to the reader that whatever the dark, evil bird says will be true because it has a knowledge others do not.

In the span of six short lines Poe uses many literary devices: rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, allusion, but it is the power of his symbolism that creates a mood of dreary, hopelessness.

To fellow writers: so when we return to our writing, and we’re trying to convey a certain sense of mood for our readers, perhaps we can take a page or rather a line from Poe’s poetry.

To fellow readers: when we again open the pages of our favorite novel or even click open the new book on our e-readers, we can look for the subtle, yet powerful ways the writer conveys a mood for us to appreciate and thrill in.

We, The Chanting of Muses, are always interested in what you’ve found as readers and writers that has been powerful to you. Please share your findings on symbolism.

Rionna Morgan holds a bachelors in English Literature as well as a masters. She spent a decade teaching English and theatre in the public schools of Colorado, Oregon and Montana. She also briefly taught English at the university level. Rionna writes romantic suspense and her book, The Wanting Heart, is set to be released July 9, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I literally live in symbolism; mountains (wild, untamed, cold, touching the sky), wild birds (free flight, environment, nests, constant chatter-twitter!) and rivers (uncontained, flooding, wild currents, danger, navigation). I LOVE symbols and so collect them in my "archtype" journal!


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