What Is Symbolic Imagery?

G. Wiesen

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.

An ice cube could be used as symbolic imagery to represent a character's "frozen" emotions.
An ice cube could be used as symbolic imagery to represent a character's "frozen" emotions.

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.

Symbolic imagery is often used in fiction and poetry to create a more dynamic scene for the reader.
Symbolic imagery is often used in fiction and poetry to create a more dynamic scene for the reader.

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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Discussion Comments


@burcinc-- Yea, that's true. There have been a few times where I came out of a film having no idea what the various images and symbols meant. It's mistake to use symbols assuming that the viewer can see inside one's head. If symbols are to be used, it's a good idea to use basic or easy to grasp ones that everyone is familiar with.

I watched a great film recently, an adaptation of Hamlet. But the film was set in 1990s Kashmir. Some of the promotional posters an imagery involved a drop of red paint on a white background. The image immediately made me think of blood and that was the whole point. It symbolized the bloodshed that occurred in Kashmir in those circumstances. That's the kind of symbolism I'm talking about.


@candyquilt-- I completely agree with you.

For example, I first read The Great Gatsby in high school. Recently I read it again and was surprised by how much symbolism I missed the first time around. The green light has a meaning and so do the eyes. I did definitely surprise myself when I started seeing the symbols and what they stood for.

This also made me realize however that writers need to use symbols that are fairly easy to understand by others. I mean, if I'm not seeing the symbols until the second or third read, I'm not sure that that's such a great use of symbolic imagery.


I love it when films or literature use symbolic imagery. I think it makes everything far more exciting. Plus, it gains repeat value. One may not understand the meaning of all the symbols in a novel or film for example and may want to read it or see it again and again to understand it better. And when one discovers a new "hidden" meaning, there is a rush of excitement, a sense of accomplishment. It can be difficult to use symbolic imagery, but when it's done well, it can add a lot of meaning and value to a piece of work in my opinion.

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