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Symbolism vs. Literalism

By Gary R. Hess. Category: Writing

Whether you are writing a paper, doing research, or trying to analyze a poem, it's important to know the difference between symbolism and literalism. The easy answer is that symbolism is non-literal while literalism is literal. Of course, the exact answer is much more complex.

The most mistaken characteristic of literature is that of symbolism and literalism. Symbolism has been used since the very first writing ever made. Cave paintings often symbolized their heritage, hunting, and beliefs.

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As you might know, one of the most symbolic documents of Christianic history is the Bible. Historical and Biblical scholars today argue about the amount of symbolism within the Bible. However, it is generally agreed that certain aspects of the Holy Book are in fact symbolism and not literalism. An example of this is found in Genesis 7:12 stating:

'For forty days and forty nights heavy rain poured down the earth.'

The passage does not necessarily mean it literally rained for forty days and forty nights. Many Biblical scholars agree that forty was a number used in historical writings to mean 'a generation.'

Symbolism is also used in modern writings. Colors such as black, green, and red are often used symbolically to indicate mood or show pre-immanence: black is death; green is re-growth, signs of hope; red is lust, sexuality, or love. Symbolism brings spice to the table away from the boring 'salt and pepper' of old, or so to say.

That's not to say literalism is a bad thing. In fact, it is used as a foundation of most writings. Using the 'salt and pepper' can be as good as exotic spices if the occasion so pleases.

Actually, the only time symbolism and literalism clash is when disagreements on specific passages occur, such as in the Bible. A proponent of literalist can say Jesus was really the "Son of God" while a symbolists might say everyone is the "son of God" as we are his children. Which is correct? Well, it's up to you to decide.

In most cases, the argument is never ending. With classical writings it is most difficult to understand what the authors meant. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is hard.

Symbolism versus literalism is not at war. The two work perfectly together and in most cases compliment each other while making writing what it is today. However, during analysis, it is important to know the context of the passage, the history of the author, typical symbolic words, and finally, making your best guess.