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What Is the Difference Between Imagery and Symbolism?

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  • Written By: N. Swensson
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 June 2014
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Imagery and symbolism are two literary conventions used in a variety of genres including poetry. They are both used in similar ways to enhance an author’s message or theme, and may sometimes be confusing for this reason. Imagery is a technique that uses strong sensory words to create a vivid mental picture for the reader, so that he or she can see something as the author sees it. Symbolism, on the other hand, is the use of a concrete object to stand for a concept, idea, or situation. Many authors use imagery and symbolism together to enhance the overall theme of a literary work, but they can also be used separately.

Use of imagery in a poem or other fictional work may be for the straightforward purpose of conveying to the reader a full and thorough description of something. For example, instead of telling the reader outright that a thunderstorm was severe, an author may attempt to show this fact by using colorful words like “booming thunder,” “piercing lightning,” or “pelting rain” to allow the reader to draw the conclusion on his or her own. Many times, a writer will use imagery to signal the reader that the description of a particular object is an important part of the overall story or message that is being conveyed.

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Imagery and symbolism are often used together, which can sometimes make it difficult to identify them as two separate literary conventions. A thunderstorm which has been thoroughly described using imagery could also be used to symbolize, or stand for, a concept like chaos or discontent among characters or in a certain situation. An author may also begin a scene by telling the reader about the thunderstorm, then progress to an argument between characters or a major plot twist in the story. In this case, the thunderstorm is used to symbolize the characters’ negative feelings and emotions.

Sometimes, imagery and symbolism can be recognized through careful analysis of a poem or other literary work. When an author is using imagery, there will be a large number of adjectives and adverbs used that appeal to many different senses. These words will be very specific and give the reader a mental picture of the object that is being described. Symbolism, on the other hand, may be accompanied by a great deal of description, or sometimes by very little. The object being used as a symbol will often appear repeatedly throughout the writing, such as the appearance of ravens in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which symbolize impending misfortune.

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browncoat
Post 3

@KoiwiGal - I think there's room for everyone's take on it though. You can certainly write a story or a poem with as little imagery and symbolism as possible. It might contain only conversation for example (I have read stories like that, where the whole thing is just a phone conversation).

I think it's possible to tell a good story in almost any fashion, although I have to admit I prefer not to have too much heavy imagery. A light touch is much better, as less is more. The right combination of imagery and symbolism though, not too obscure, not too clever, just enough for me to see a greater depth in the story, is pure pleasure.

KoiwiGal
Post 2

@pleonasm - The best paintings are ones where they have symbolism that works as part of the painting, rather than just being put there haphazardly and the same is true of writing. Sure, they might put a thunderstorm in to symbolize the stormy relationship between the protagonists, but it's also there in order to keep them inside the house so they will fight and anyone who doesn't care for symbolism doesn't have to look any further than that.

As for imagery, it would be difficult to tell a tale worth telling without rich imagery in my opinion. Without imagery you're left with a dark and stormy night, rather than the vibrations from the thunder and the smell of the rain.

pleonasm
Post 1

There are people who would argue against using either or both of these techniques in writing and they have a good point. Use of symbolism can often feel like the author is blowing their own horn, trying to pack too much meaning into what should be a clear and simple scene.

My mother once told me that she doesn't like looking at paintings because she doesn't understand them. She knows enough to know that they put objects into the frame in order to stand for things like the fragility of life, but it makes her feel like she's not smart enough to understand it, when in reality most of the time symbolism is based on convention, rather than an inbuilt knowledge or universal meaning.

And I think that's just too elitist for writers. I would rather that everyone feel welcome to my work and that everyone has the chance to understand it, rather than trying to be clever and locking half the population out.

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