An idea can be represented by a person, an object, or a group. Symbols may be presented graphically or representationally. They may involve associated letters or they may be assigned arbitrarily. Symbols are devices by which ideas are transmitted between people sharing a common culture. Every society has evolved a symbol system that reflects a specific cultural logic; and every symbolism functions to communicate information between members of the culture in much the same way as, but more subtly than, conventional language. Symbols tend to appear in clusters and to depend on one another for their accretion of meaning and value. Similarly we have symbolism in literature. In literature the systematic use of recurrent symbols of images in a work to create an added level of meaning. For example: most of the characters and incidents in Melville’s Moby Dick can be interpreted symbolically. Similarly, the raft, the river, the towns, and “the territory” combine to provide a pattern of symbolic meaning in Twains’ Huckleberry Finn.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, symbolism refers to all indirect and figurative representations of unconscious desire like symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc. This conception of the unconscious symbol depends on a relation of general substitution where one thing takes the place of another; as for as symbolism in psychology is concerned the contribution of Freud and Jung cannot be excluded.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Symbol is an object, sign, or image that is used to stand for something else; Symbolism can be distinguished from allegory in that an allegory commonly invents a world in order to comment on the real world. In symbolism, a writer usually presents what we view as the “real” world and through that reveals the higher truth of an external world. Also, an allegory normally has a system of equations in which this equals that, and something equals something else. In a symbolic representation, the concrete world is seen as a natural reflection of the eternal, and it is only through the real that the external can be seen. Reality, then extends through the symbolic to the external.

Origin and Development of Symbolism

Symbolism began as a literary movement that developed from Romanticism in France in the second half of the 19th Century. The poet Jean Moreas gave the term in his manifesto ‘LeFigaro’ in 1886. The idea of suggestion, ambiguity and symbolism rather than direct conveyance of meaning is developed by the poet Stephane Mallarme. Like romanticism, symbolism favoured feelings over reasons, but was more intellectual in its conception. This technique is brought to novel by Huysmans in his novels A Rebours and La bai.

Symbolism was largely a reaction against Naturalism and Realism, movements which attempted to capture reality in particular. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams; the path to Symbolism begins with that reaction. Some writers, such as Joris- Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before moving in the direction of Symbolism; for Huysmans, this change reflected his awakening interest in religion and spirituality.

The Symbolist movement in literature has its roots in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire. The aesthetic was developed by Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 70s. During the 1880s, this was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images.

Distinct from the Symbolist movement in literature, Symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the more gothic and darker sides of Romanticism; but perhaps of the several attempts at defining the essence of symbolism, no work was more influential than Paul Verlaine’s 1884 publication of a series of essays on Tristan Corbiere. He spoke about Arthur Rimbard and Stephane Mallarme.

Verlaine argued that in their individual and very different ways, each of these poets were highly neglected. They were isolated from their contemporaries, in this conception of genius and the role of the poet, Verlaine referred obliquely to the aesthetics of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, who held that the purpose of art was to provide a temporary refuge from the world of blind strife of the will. A number of important literary publications were founded by Symbolists. They became associated with the movement. The first journal was La Vogue found in April 1886. In October of that same year, Jeam Moreas, Gustave Khan, and Paul Adam began the magazine ‘Le Symboliste’. One of the most important symbolist journals was ‘Le Mercure de France’, edited by Alfred Vallette, which succeeded ‘La Pleiade’ founded in 1890 this periodical lasted until 1965. Pierre Louys founded La Conque, a periodical whose Symbolist leanings were alluded to by Jorge Luis Borges in his story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Other Symbolist literary magazines included La Revue Blanche, La Revue wagnerienne, La Plume and La Wallonie.

Remy de Gourmont and Felix Feneon were literary critics associated with the Symbolist movement. Drama by symbolist authors formed an important part. Theatre des Arts is notable production. The Symbolist and Decadent literary movements were satirized in a book of poetry called Les Deliquescences d’ Adore’ Flouptte, published in 1885 by Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire. Symbolism’s cult of the static and hieratic adopted less well to narrative fiction than it did to poetry. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel A Rebours (English title:

Against Nature) contained many themes which became associated with the Symbolist aesthetic. This novel in which very little happens is a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive antihero. The novel was imitated by Oscar Wilde in several passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Paul Adam was the most prolific and most representative author of Symbolist novels. Les Demoiselles Goubert co-written with Jean Moreas in 1886 is an important transitional work between Naturalism and Symbolism. Few Symbolists used this form. One exception is Gustave Kahn who published Le Roi Fou in 1896. Other fiction that is sometimes considered Symbolist is the cynical misanthropic tales of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. Gabriele d’ Annunzio wrote his first novels in the Symbolist vein.

Edmund Wilson’s 1931 study Axel’s Castle focuses on the continuity with symbolism and a number of important writers of the early twentieth century, with a particular focus on Yeats, Eliot, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein is notable. Wilson concluded that the Symbolists represented an dreaming retreat into:, “…. things that are dying- the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven inon itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer.”

The romantic period of English literature began in the late 18th century and lasted until 1832. This age favoured the development of symbolism. It was largely reaction against naturalism and realism. Symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the more gothic and the darker side of romanticism but where romanticism was impericous and rebilious symbolism was staticand intrincic. The works of Edgar Allan Poe has a great deal in promoting symbolism. Apart from him Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and D.G. Rossetti had too played remarkable role in this respect. As for as novel is concerned the service rendered by Oscar Wilde and Paul Adems are remarkable.

In English speaking world, the closest counterpart to symbolism was Aestheticism, and Pre-raphaelites These were contemporaries of the earlier symbolist and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on modernism and its traces can be seen in a number of modernist artists, including T.S.Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Henrik Ibsen has used this technique in his work “ A Doll’s House”. This trend has spread in Indian writing in English too. Krish Karnad’s play “Naga Mandala” is largely symbolic. Similarly the novels of Anita Desai too have symbolic elements.

The symbolist manifesto:

Symbolists believed that art should aim at implying meanings in indirect methods. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphysical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. Symbolists were hostile to plain meanings, declamation, false sentimentality and matter of fact description. Instead they were to clothe the ideal to a symbol. Yet their from sole purpose was to express the ideal.



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