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What Is Symbolic Imagery?

An ice cube could be used as symbolic imagery to represent a character's "frozen" emotions.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2014
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Symbolic imagery refers to images within an artistic work, often including novels, poems, films, and other works, which are symbolic in nature. Imagery is the use of language or other facets of storytelling that appeal to the senses of a reader or audience, usually through descriptions of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. This type of imagery is often used in fiction and poetry to create a more dynamic scene for the reader, often by showing the reader what is going on rather than telling him or her what happens. Symbolic imagery, however, is imagery that serves a symbolic purpose, rather than a strictly literal one.

The use of symbolic imagery is not necessarily difficult or complicated, though it can be a vital aspect of creative writing or storytelling. Symbolism and imagery can be used independently of each other, and they are neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive. A storyteller can use symbolism to have something within a story represent more than it literally or directly seems to, while imagery refers to descriptions that appeal to the senses of a reader. When symbolic imagery is used, however, descriptions are created that appeal to the sense of a reader and represent more than they may seem to.

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An example of symbolic imagery could be the description of cold weather or an ice cube, to represent the “frozen” emotions of a character in a story. This is typically done to “show” action and meaning rather than “tell” readers or an audience what they are meant to see. For example, a writer could show that someone felt numb due to the death of a loved one as “He walked into the room and sat on the couch, his senses were dulled and he felt numb after the funeral.” While this does effectively make a point and tell the reader what the character feels, it is also somewhat boring.

Using symbolic imagery, this same idea can be conveyed in a more evocative and interesting way. A writer could instead write, “He shuffled into the room and slumped onto the couch, not feeling the keys in his pocket sticking into his leg; the sounds of traffic came through the open front door and he stared blankly at the unlit television screen.” This sentence still conveys the same idea of the character feeling numb or emotionless, but does so through the use of imagery.

Symbolic imagery within the sentence can be found in several different places. The lack of feeling or numbness is shown as the character ignores the feel of keys sticking into his leg. Visual imagery is created through the “unlit television,” which represents an object without meaning or purpose, much as the character feels. The unclosed front door not only indicates the absentmindedness of the character, but also the vulnerable nature of the character and the opportunities behind him that have been forgotten.

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