Related Links

1. Theme

2. Imagery

3. Metonymy

Article of the Week

Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences occur when writers try to combine more than one idea into a single sentence. They cause confusion because readers are not sure when one idea ends and the next one begins. Read our entry and test your knowledge with our quiz!


A symbol is anything (most often an object) that represents more than what it seems to be at face value. Through description, context, and story, a symbol accumulates meaning. Ordinary things like a hat or a watch can stand in for bigger themes such as protection or family.


Symbols are easiest to recognize when they are objects. If you have read The Catcher in the Rye, you may remember Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat. Holden is a teenager who feels disconnected from what he feels is a fake world. The hat symbolizes his ambivalent attitude toward that world: he puts on the hat to protect and separate himself from the world, and sheepishly hides it when he craves connection again. The features of the hat help us understand this meaning better. It is red, which is a color normally associated with danger. In this case, it also reminds us of Holden’s siblings, who have red hair. It is also a hunting hat, which suggests that Holden is “hunting” someone—a tie to other humans with a menacing undertone. The character also uses the hat to showcase his individuality, since it is outlandish in appearance. The hat makes for an effective symbol because it has such a variety of potential meanings, depending on what he is doing with it. The hat is a good indicator of Holden’s mood at any point of the novel. Looking at the hat tells us something about Holden that he, as the narrator of the story, many not be willing or able to admit to us on his own.

Characters can also perform symbolic acts. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck finds himself working with liars, and then subverting their plans through his own form of deception. This pattern repeats several times in the novel. His act of lying to help someone else becomes a symbolic act for Huck, since it shows that he has developed a sense of morality that is not necessarily aligned with the law.

Symbolism in general: Whenever I get stuck in traffic, it feels symbolic of being stuck in terms of my progress and life.

Symbolism in popular culture: The American Flag has different symbolic meaning, depending on how it is used. Some people who wear flag-colored clothing seem to broadcast their sense of independence. Characters who drape the flag around their shoulders may be heroic, or in another context, self-righteous. The act of flag burning can be interpreted as an act of war on American values, or a celebration of freedom of speech.

Symbolism in literature: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” describes in detail what a group of soliders kept on their persons during Vietnam. These items take on symbolic value, thanks to the description and characterization. For instance, we first hear about the letters that Jimmy Cross carries from a girl. He uses these letters as a basis for fantasy about being with her. We later learn from O’Brien that “the things they carried were largely determined by necessity” (O’Brien, 1990). This suggests that the letters, and the fantasy they symbolize, are necessary for Jimmy to survive the war.