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When a Picture is Not a Picture

Using symbols: how to write analysis

Your English teacher definitely taught you one of these acronyms: PEE, PEA, PEEL, PQE, PQA... or a version of it. At their core, they all mean the same thing: when you write an analytical paragraph in English you should follow a structure. The structure is this:

Point - say what you have found; usually this will be a literary device,‘alliteration/metaphor/simile’ etc.

Evidence / Quote - put a quote in from the text.

Analyse - talk about how that quote proves your thesis, and how it reflects the emotions in the text, in the reader, or in the writer.

The last part, analyse, is where some students get stuck. Not only can it be difficult to isolate the emotions in the text/reader/writer, but trying to link it back to the point/device you made can seem impossible. It can also be frustrating, because most of the marks you will get in the exam will be awarded based on your analysis. Don't despair though - there is a way into analysis if you are struggling to do this part well - and that is symbolism.

Symbolism isn’t too complicated once you get the gist of it. In symbolism, there is a symbol - the object/text on the page front of you, and the symbolised - the things you think that this symbol represents. In the example below, the angel is my symbol; the words around the angel, marked by arrows, are everything I think of when I think of an angel - they are the things symbolised by the angel.

Of course, in text you aren’t going to find pictures. Look for the images represented in words instead. These will tend to be either objects (e.g. moon/trees/water), or colours (e.g. the symbol of the colour red symbolises passion, love, anger, danger, luck). Here are some common symbols in literature, and what they tend to represent:

  • Trees - life, growth, strength.

  • Moon- the feminine, the supernatural, mystical, cold.

  • Sun - the masculine, life, passion, heat.

  • Fire - cleansing, wisdom, knowledge, life, rebirth, destruction, purification.

  • Water - emotions, purity, fertility, power, change, transformation.

  • Blue - loyalty, sincerity, faith, intelligence, calm, serenity, stability.

  • Black - death, power, evil, despair, darkness, strength.

  • White - purity, innocence, light, goodness, safety.

If you would like to use symbolism more, but you struggle to think of representations for symbols, then I strongly suggest reading a dream dictionary! The concept of viewing objects seen in dreams as symbols is very old, and you’ll find some great interpretations in there. There are dream dictionaries available online - a quick Ecosia search will take you to a good one

When you are interpreting the symbol, remember to take account of the context that the symbol has been used in. What do I mean by context? Well, make sure that you take into account what the poem is about before deciding on your meaning for the symbol. For instance, imagine you have a poem about Valentine’s Day which references the colour red - in this case we can agree that the colour red is symbolic of love. However, now say you have a poem about the Chinese New Year which references the colour red; we know that red is a lucky colour in China, so now we may argue that the red here is symbolic of prosperity and good fortune. That means that making sure that you understand the themes in your text is an important step in using symbolism!

To begin to use symbolism in your analysis, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the themes in your current passage/piece of text where you will discuss symbolism.

  2. Find the quote you want to use (and try to label it with a literary device).

  3. Find the symbol in that quote. Remember, it is likely to be a colour or object.

  4. Think of what that symbol represents. Try to make these link with the themes you have identified for the piece of text.

  5. Now write up your sentence as a two part analysis. You can use this formula to help you:

The use of (literary term) in (quote) shows (what the quote means). Furthermore, the (symbol you have chosen) represents (symbolised).

Let’s analyse a section from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Moon and The Yew Tree’ as an example:

‘This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

The grasses unload their griefs at my feet as if I were God,

Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.

Fumy spiritous mists inhabit this place

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply cannot see where there is to get to.’

Step 1: What themes are in this text?

Well, the text feels very ominous. There are references to the supernatural (‘spirituous mists’), death (‘gravestones’) and nature (‘trees’). We will have these as our themes.

Step 2: Find a quote you want to use and try to label a literary device.

I like, ‘the trees of the mind are black’. I know this is a metaphor.

Step 3: Find the symbol - this is likely to be a colour or object.

Here we have two symbols: trees and black.

Step 4: Think of the connotations of the symbol. Try to make it link with the themes identified in step 1.

Black - death, nothingness, void, absence, decay, depression.

Trees - life, growth

Step 5: Write it all up, using the formula:

The use of the metaphor in ‘the trees of the mind are black’ symbolises the way in which the speaker’s healthy mental state is being degraded and decaying. Furthermore, the use of ‘black’ here represents the surging despair of the speaker, and even brings to mind notions of death.

Make sure that you alter your linking words when you are writing so that the formula doesn’t feel too used! Other words you can use instead of ‘shows’ are: highlights/depicts/reinforces/ suggests etc. Instead of ‘furthermore’, try; equally/subsequently/consequently etc.; for ‘represents’ how about: denotes/portrays/illustrates etc.

Remember, English is a subject in which, as long as you have argued your point well, it is very difficult to be wrong. There is no correct interpretation of a text or a poem. Be confident in your thinking, and know that, as long as you have identified the themes correctly in the text, it is unlikely that your interpretation of symbols will be so off that an examiner could definitively call them ‘wrong’.

Is this helpful to you? Let us know below!

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