Symbolism adds meaning to a story, often beyond the scope of the characters in that story. Symbolism within a story is usually linked to the theme. It could be connected to a character, but could also be used to support the general idea of the story. Authors almost always use symbolism implicitly. As a reader you need to be able to identify the symbolism by general knowledge or by understanding the message of the story.
Purely speaking, a symbol represents something beyond itself. It is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. The image of scales represents justice, a red rose love. The thing represented is often abstract, but it can be concrete as well, for example scales symbolize justice, a dove peace, and the Cross Christianity. Actions and gestures can also be symbolic, the clenched fist symbolizes aggression and arms raised surrender.
Symbols are windows to deeper messages within a story, broadening its applicability. By use of symbolism a story can be lifted from a story about a certain character to a message about life, everyone’s life.
A metaphor makes a comparison between two things or objects. Metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherein, which means to transfer. So in essence a metaphor is transferring meaning from one object or saying to another. “He is the black sheep of the family” is a metaphor because he is not a sheep and perhaps not black. However, we can use this comparison to describe an association of a black sheep with that person. A black sheep is an unusual animal and typically stays away from the herd, and the person you are describing might share similar characteristics. Another example of a metaphor is “The assignment was a breeze”. This implies that the assignment was not difficult.
When we use a metaphor with the words ‘as’ or ‘like’ we talk about a simile: “The assignment was like a breeze on a warm spring day.”
Metaphor and symbol: difference
Whether something is a symbol or a metaphor is not always clear cut. However, symbols are used for complex, abstract ideas. Also they are consistently used throughout a story. The mockingjay in The Hunger Games symbolizes the resistance which echoes through the district. It also symbolizes the resilience of something that the Capitol wishes to destroy.
A metaphor is, generally, local; they are used in specific instances in the story in which usually two objects are compared. When we read ‘Katniss is the mockingjay’, her personality is in that instance compared to the (symbol of) the bird. Katniss and the symbol of resistance become one by shared characteristics.
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