A symbol in most general terms is a technique used in literature (and other forms of art – like film) to signify something else of abstract merit or meaning that the author, artist, or filmmaker realizes that the audience will instantly recognize and understand. Symbolism adds depth to the understanding of the message and creates meaning on several levels.
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In literature and poetry specifically, a symbol is understood to be either a word or phrase that signifies an object or event, which in its concrete form becomes associated with a more abstract and deeper allusions.
Some symbols an audience will widely recognize. These have become known as archetypes because they are universally understood and the audience realizes the meaning behind them. Some of these include rings or circles (Olympic symbol) or a cross, (Christianity) or the sun versus the moon. There is sometimes a use of colour symbolism in artistic work such as white for purity, yellow, light blue, green with youth, or crimson with passion (red roses) for example. In society symbols have other applications – they may be of national significance; for example the maple leaf for the Canadian flag, or the fleur de lis on the French or Quebec flag or they may have personal importance such as a company logo or personal monogram, shield/coat of arms (Graydon Shield and motto).
Often connected to the connotative understanding of language, symbols depend on a much wider body of knowledge to be effective for the reader. For example, if a reference were made to a hawk, circling majestically over a horse-mounted knight, the reader would need to know something about medieval history. Such things as falconry, the connection and relationship between falcon and falconer and how this suggests the hierarchy of the feudal, medieval period and the power of institutions over innate nature (of people and specifically free spirits) – which the power and beauty of the hawk represents.
Symbols are often connected and compared with positive or negative messages or biases in a text. The use of connotative adjectives and adverbs and the presence of symbol within personification or pathetic fallacy also go a long way toward implying additional information or message to the reader. For example, a circle, a symbol of all that is eternal and continual, is the shape used for the making of wedding rings. If a wedding ring is made from polished gold, and encrusted with gem-stones that glitter with light, the truth or promise made with the ring, signifying eternal commitment, is seen to have equal commitment for light, worth, and good fortune in the relationship. If the ring’s metal becomes tarnished, badly scarred by dents and scrapes – the bond of troth or promise is seen to be in need of polishing or renewal. If this second description were used in a story in connection with a character and his or her current circumstances and situation, it would be fair to assume that the marriage were in need of repair and care.
Repeated use of symbol, in a series of application regarding parts of the original (the parts of a single stem rose and its relationship to the plant and root can be understood as an extended metaphor – where each part symbolizes another aspect or part of the thing being symbolized. In this regard, extended metaphors and layered personifications become the lifeblood of the genre – allegory; some literary examples are Watership Down, Animal Farm, and Alice in Wonderland.
source: A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams – Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981