Symbolism vs Metaphor – Learn The Difference & Inner Meaning

Do you know the difference between symbolism and metaphors? The truth is…most people don’t. These two terms are not interchangeable terms. They have their own unique meaning and purpose. In this post, we’ll break down the difference between these two literary devices.

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Learn The Difference Between Symbolism & Metaphors

Man thinking about the difference between symbolism vs metaphor

Most writers know the difference between metaphors and similies. But what about metaphors and symbolism? Symbolism and metaphor are often used interchangeably, but there is a big difference between the two.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that allows a writer to compare seemingly opposite or unrelated things.

  • For example, “The world is my oyster” is a metaphor for an opportunity.

Symbolism is the use of an object to represent something else. A symbol can stand for more than just one thing & is usually used to represent a larger more complex idea. It usually involves the use of an object or image to represent something else, such as a character, emotion, or idea.

  • For example, the American flag is a symbol of patriotism. Or in many movies a Red Rose is used to convey love.

While metaphor can be used for light-hearted purposes, symbolism is often used to communicate more serious messages.

Takeaway: Metaphors are used to make a direct comparison. Symbolism is used to convey the meaning of larger and more abstract concepts.

Definition of Symbolism

As we know, symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or concepts.

This literary device is FAR from new. The history of symbolism dates back to ancient times when primitive cultures used gestures and symbols to communicate. I would not expect to see writing with excessive symbolism in serious writing like formal memos.

  • Crown – Symbolzes Monarchy or Meader
  • Cross or Crucifix – Symbolizes Christianity & Religion
  • Owl of Athena – Represents wisdom & knowledge in ancient Greek culture
  • Wedding Ring – Represents marriage or unity.

Today, symbolism is used in many different ways, from religions, books, and even political slogans. While the definition of Symbolism has remained largely unchanged over the centuries, the ways in which it is used have evolved significantly. This natural progression is attributed to the advancement in technology, religious beliefs, and societal norms.

Takeaway: Symbols are used to represent thoughts, ideas, or concepts.

Definition of Metaphors

A metaphor is a figure of speech that typically uses one thing to describe another, often by saying that one thing is the other thing. Metaphors can be thought of as short-form allegories or analogies. But slightly different.

  • For example, you might say “She’s a monster on defense” to describe her skill & intensity at defense in soccer.

Metaphors are often used in literature and poetry to create vivid images or to help readers understand complex concepts. They can also be found in everyday speech. Here is a list of the four types of metaphors.

  1. Standard Metaphor – Commonly used and easily understood
  2. Implied Metaphor – More subtle, and often go unnoticed
  3. Visual Metaphor – Use physical elements to represent abstract concepts
  4. Extended Metaphor – More complex, and often span multiple sentences or even paragraphs

People also frequently get idioms and metaphors confused. Just like idioms, metaphors can also be used to create a powerful image or emotion in a reader. In some cases, a metaphor might even be used to deliberately confuse or mislead someone. The possibilities are endless.

Takeaway: Metaphors are a comparison without using the words “like” or “as”.

Popular Examples

Here are some popular examples of metaphors and symbols used frequently in writing and conversation.

  • Symbolism: The flag is a symbol of national pride and unity. It stands for the values of freedom and democracy and is a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors.
  • Metaphor: Life is a journey, not a destination
  • Metaphor: All that glitters is not gold
  • Symbolism: A skull and crossbones, which symbolize death or danger

What About Extended Metaphors?

Generally speaking, metaphors and symbols are two different things. However, most extended metaphors use symbolism.

By using symbolism to compare one thing to another, extended metaphors can help to illuminate an idea in a way that is both memorable and entertaining.

  • For example, the famous line from Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” This powerful extended metaphor speaks to the human capacity for choice, suggesting that we are ultimately responsible for our own destiny.

Of course, extended metaphors can also be used for more light-hearted purposes. But when used at the right moment, they are very powerful literary devices.

Which Are More Common?

When you review the data provided by Google, it is obvious that metaphors are the most common. Although symbolism is all around us, metaphors are used more frequently in our speech and writing.

  • Books
  • Blogs
  • Magazines

They all frequently use metaphors to make a point. Pay close attention and you will notice for yourself!

Symbolism vs Motif – What’s The Difference?

By now you know the differences between metaphors and symbolism. But what about the difference between a motif & symbolism?

  • Symbolism: Refers to the use of symbols to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
  • Motif: Refers to a recurring element, theme, or pattern that serves a specific purpose within a larger work.

While both symbolism and motifs can be great additions to your creative writing, they are not the same. Symbolism focuses on individual symbols that carry significant meaning, while motifs typically encompass broader recurring elements that contribute to the overall narrative or thematic structure.

FAQs – Symbolism vs Metaphor

Q: What is the difference between symbolism and metaphors?

Symbolism is often used as a stand-in for a much more complex and abstract idea. It can be thought of as a shortcut to understanding something that might be difficult to explain otherwise. Metaphors are similar, but they usually don’t have such an explicit association with an object or event. Instead, they use comparisons to create meaning. Metaphors and symbols are used in many forms of literature.

Q: What is an example of a symbolism?

An example of symbolism would be the use of a white rose to symbolize purity and innocence. Symbolism can be found in many different forms, from simple objects to more complex concepts. In literature, symbolism is often used to give deeper meaning to a story or poem. For example, the book “Animal Farm”. In this story, the farm itself is symbolic of the country of Russia. Although they are unrelated things, symbolism is used to convey meaning.

Q: Is an extended metaphor symbolism?

Yes, an extended metaphor is a form of symbolism. It’s a figure of speech that uses one object or concept to represent another, usually for the purposes of making a point more vividly or clearly.

Q: What are some metaphors for life?

Here are several examples of metaphors for life. All of these examples have a meaning other than the surface meaning of the actual words. In other words, they are not literally applicable.
-“Life is a journey.”
-“Life is a river.”
-“Life is a cycle.”
-“Life is a dance.”

Q: What are 3 famous metaphors?

Here are 3 famous examples of metaphors in the English language. Metaphors are figurative language used to make comparisons between things that have similar characteristics. It is more of a direct substitution of one thing for another. Metaphors change the surface meanings of the actual words used.
1. Life is a journey, not a destination.
2. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
3. There are many fish in the sea.

The Bottom Line

Now you have a firm understanding of the difference between metaphors and symbolism. These two terms are so frequently used incorrectly. These are powerful tools that can explain complicated topics & convey emotion. Be sure to use them correctly in your writing!