Signs, Symbols, Meaning, & Interpretation

This discussion is intended for students in my literature classes. I hope it would interest anyone who happens to browse into it. The ideas in this page are based in part on writings by Paul Ricouer, Hans-George Gadamer, Wolfgang Iser, Gregory Bateson, S. I. Hayakawa, and others. It was originally written as a handout for The Bible as Literature, hence the examples from biblical literature.

See also

Signs, Ciphers & Symbols

Sign and symbol are important concepts to understand in discussing literature. Even experts define and use them in different ways. I will provide you with some definitions that we can use in this class.

A sign is anything that stands for something else. A sign represents something—an idea, an experience, a feeling, an object, etc. Words as ordinarily used are signs in this sense. The object referred to by a sign does not need to be present for the meaning of the sign to be understood. Context helps define the specific meaning of a sign. (Dictionaries list only general meanings). The word tree generally stands for a large class of plants; if I say, "Look at that tree," I am designating a specific meaning for the word.

As I have defined it, a sign has literal meaning; that is, its meaning is simple and straightforward, a matter of conventional agreement among people who use that particular sign.

A symbol has complex meaning; it has not only "literal" meaning, but also additional meaning(s) beyond the literal. Sometimes the literal meaning of a symbol is absurd, so that the symbolic meaning over-rides and cancels out the literal meaning. A symbol may have more than one meaning. In fact, the most significant symbols do convey an indefinite range of meanings.

In the context of Christian symbolism, a tree can refer to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Thus, in the right context, a tree can suggest a much wider range of meaning than its simple, literal meaning.

Symbols with fairly fixed meanings can be used as ciphers; that is, the symbols can be arranged to encode a meaning that only someone who understands the cipher system can decode. (Symbols used in this way are not really signs because the literal meaning is not intended; the reader is supposed to decipher the symbolic meaning). In using symbols in this manner, the author has a clear "story" (set of ideas) already in mind; the author simply transposes that pre-existing story item by item into a symbolic system, matching each element in the story with an appropriate cipher. The reader then decodes the cipher by transposing back into the original meaning.

People often treat literature as a cipher, although that works with only a limited number of literary works. Allegory is closest to cipher, but good allegory is richer in meaning and feeling than limited cipher systems.

As I have defined it, a symbol is similar to a metaphor. A metaphor is a statement that means something different, or more, than its literal meaning. For instance, Psalm 103.14 says that God "remembers that we are dust." Literally, human beings are not dust; metaphorically, to call us dust is to express the transiency and humility of human life. Psalm 103 continues, using a familiar simile: "As for mortals, their days are like grass" (103.15a). (A simile is like a metaphor, except that it uses the words "like" or "as" to make a more explicit comparison).

A symbol is different from a metaphor in that a symbol is used more consistently and widely than a metaphor. Also, a metaphor is a statement (even if implied), whereas a symbol need not be a statement. The common element in symbols and metaphors is that the literal, conventional meaning is exceeded or negated by a nonliteral meaning.

Symbols may have very narrow or quite wide ranges of meaning. The range may be limited to an individual, or perhaps to a small group. People other than the individual or group will not understand that meaning of the symbol. A symbol's range may be cultural, meaning that it is known by members of cultural groups: ethnic groups, religious groups, national groups, and so on.

Some people believe that some symbols have a universal range of meaning; that is, like C. G. Jung, they believe that some symbols occur with the same meaning across individual and cultural boundaries. These universal symbols are often called archetypes, especially by followers of Jung. While there is much evidence to support the existence of universal symbols, or archetypes, one must remember that any use of a symbol is specific, and that makes its meaning specific. Just as the word "tree" used in a sentence has a specific meaning, rather than the general meaning given in the dictionary, so an archetype used in a work of art has specific meanings, rather than a general meaning one might find in a dictionary of archetypes. (Such dictionaries exist).

Archetypes include more than symbols—they also include character types, basic plots (cf. the Monomyth), scenes, and so on. Essentially, archetypes are universally meaningful, nonliteral elements in the arts and culture.

Understanding, Explanation, Meaning, & Interpretation

Interpreting literature often seems arbitrary or mysterious to students. Actually, there is an essential mystery to the human ability to understand symbolic communication. In this section, I will discuss some of the basic aspects of interpretation.

Starting at simplest point, one needs to understand the text at a literal level—to know what the plain sense of the text is. Explanation can help one's understanding by defining words, supplying background information, or otherwise supplying the reader with necessary information for understanding the text.

Meaning in this context designates the significance of the text for the reader: the impact or value the text has for the reader. One can read a text with understanding but find that it has no meaning, since it makes no impact on one.

It is important to grasp that a text can have meaning for a reader without that reader's being able to explain the meaning. Meaning comes first; explanation of the meaning follows.

Read the following verse from Sirach (40.1). It probably does not present any problems for your understanding. Each of you should be able to explain its literal sense, although even explanations of literal sense will differ, since each person reads differently. The meaning of the verse, its significance for you, its impact on you, will vary much more widely.

Hard work was created for everyone.
and a heavy yoke is laid on the children of Adam,
from the day they come forth from their mother's womb
until the day they return to the mother of all the living.

An Experiment

After reading the verse, write briefly on its meaning for you. Try to relate its meaning to elements of your world as a reader, as well as to the world of the text.

The meaning of a piece of writing can be further amplified with a variety of techniques. Some of these techniques involve analysis, such as working out the form or structure of the text. Other techniques involve associating imagery and feelings with the text. Further techniques could make use of research that would extend understanding as well as explanation of meaning.

I want to emphasize that both understanding and meaning can, and often do, come before explanation and interpretation. Explaining and interpreting make clear and explicit what may only be implied as one reads with understanding. People often mistakenly assume that one must be able to explain and interpret a text before it has meaning.

Surplus Meaning

Since literature is symbolic, its meaning is not simple or single. Because of the nature of symbols, literature has what is sometimes called "surplus meaning": one can never really exhaust or completely state the meaning of a piece of literature. Another reading, or another reader, will produce new meanings, or new shades of meaning.

Surplus meaning does not imply that a literary text can mean anything at all. Although the limits to what a text can mean are vague, those limits do exist. They are established by discussion among readers of the text, by the text itself, and by its cultural and historical context. A reader must be able to convince other readers of the validity and reliability of his or her interpretation. Even so, not all readers will agree.

While the surplus or multiple meanings of literary texts may frustrate those who want single, clear meanings, in fact surplus meaning should excite readers, since it opens the text to reading, rereading, and discussion that continually develop insight and meaning.

Sometimes what is meant by interpretation is "mapping" features of the text onto features of another system of ideas. For instance, some literary critics map texts onto Freudian psychology, or onto existential philosophy. Using the Pentad or the Pollution Cycle can be seen as this kind of mapping.

If the author intended such a mapping of his or her text onto another set of ideas or events, the text itself is an allegory. Biblical allegory may be found in Ezekiel 17 or Hosea 1-3. (Any text may be read allegorically by a clever reader; however, unless the author's intent was allegorical, such interpretations can be very misleading).


The meaning of a piece of literature resides in the reader's freedom to respond. Discussion of literature assumes a community of those discussing the poem, novel, essay, story or whatever. For a reader's response to be more than idiosyncratic, the reader must engage in dialogue with other readers of that piece of literature. The dialogue may be face to face, it may be electronic, or it may be in print. For a reader's understanding of a piece of literature to succeed, it must survive in the continuing dialogue of readers.