Symbolism: Finding Sources for that One Essay
By Emelyn Ehrlich
There will come a time in your academic career when you have to write a paper involving symbolism. Maybe you want to use the color white to show the supposed purity of Daisy from The Great Gatsby. Maybe you want to discuss the ways in which melancholy is represented in Twelfth Night. Regardless of what the paper itself is on, this day will undoubtedly come. And when it does, you will likely encounter the same problem I did: sources.
Yeah, we KNOW that white symbolizes purity, but we also can’t just say that without citing a source. But most of the sources that pop up on Google are EXTREMELY unreliable. So, you go to your teacher or professor for advice. Chances are, they’ll tell you the same thing they told me: symbolism is fluid, and they can’t really give you one source to go to. You should rely on context. There isn’t really a scholarly symbolism dictionary.
Which, fair. But not really helpful for an essay. There are cases where you can infer a symbol’s meaning based on context, but a lot of the time? You don’t fully understand what a symbol means without extensive background information which most students just don’t have. That background information may be in relation to historical or religious context, but either way, most students don’t have the time to immerse themselves in such information before an essay’s deadline.
So, if you’re like me, and you struggle to find sources for symbolism, here are some very reliable places you can go to:
The Medieval Bestiary - http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastalphashort.htm - This might seem like kind of an odd choice. However, a lot of writers, like Shakespeare, draw on symbols from medieval times. There are all sorts of symbols on this website from animals to gemstones.
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend – Now, this source is a little more specialized. It focuses specifically on symbols from fairy tales and mythology. Plus, it was published in 1949, so it is a bit outdated. That being said, the book contains literally HUNDREDS of symbols from gold to birds. This book singlehandedly saved me when I needed a source to cite.
A Dictionary of Literary Symbols 3rd Edition by Michael Ferber – This is a GREAT book to have if you ever need to look up symbols. Like the last source, it has hundreds of entries, but is much less focuses on one particular genre. There’s stuff from the Bible, Shakespeare, and even Shelley. This book includes symbols from various types of trees to colors to flowers. It has everything you could ever need.
So, if you need a source to cite, and you have no idea what to do, consider these sources. They are all considered scholarly. They have various options and cover many different time periods. These have been my savior in times of trouble during college, so I can only hope that they will do the same for others.
Edited by Nicole Suprak