What is symbolism in literature?
Symbolism is a literary device where an object or idea has a symbolic meaning attached to it. These objects and ideas are used throughout literature to convey emotions or to act as omens, foreshadowing events that happen later in the text. For example, if we keep encountering ravens or storm clouds in a text, we have a pretty good idea that something bad is likely to happen. On the other hand, if the sun suddenly shines, or the bird we see is a dove, we feel that peace and reconciliation are the likely outcomes.
Roses, however, can have a wide variety of symbolic meanings. While we most often associate them with themes of love and beauty, this isn’t always the case. The meaning of a rose depends on whether the author is concentrating on the petals, the scent or the thorns. The colour of a rose can also change its meaning in literature. This is why we have to use our knowledge of the text and its context to decipher what the rose is symbolising.
What do the different colours of roses mean?
In Victorian England, every flower was considered to have a special meaning. If you were sending someone a bouquet, you had to take the ‘language of flowers’ into account, to make sure the flowers you sent represented the right emotions.
Roses, in particular, had different meanings attached to them depending on their colour. This language is still used frequently by authors - the colour of a rose’s petals can provide major clues as to what a character is thinking or feeling.
Here are some examples of the meanings of roses according to their colour.
Red roses. Probably the most famous example, we are all familiar with the red rose as a symbol of love in literature. A red rose symbolises romance and passion. If the rose is a deep red, this can be a sign of the giver being ready for a deeper commitment.
Pink roses. Pink roses are often a symbol of femininity, youth and early love. They can also represent thankfulness, gratitude or recovery.
White roses. White roses usually symbolise purity and innocence. This is why they are traditionally associated with weddings. However, white roses can also represent new beginnings. Additionally, they are sometimes used to symbolise death and the next life, as these flowers are frequently found at funerals.
Black roses. Black roses are regularly used as a metaphor for death or dying. They can also symbolise dysfunction in a relationship. At times, however, black roses can have an opposite meaning, representing change in a positive way.
Blue roses. As the most unusual variety, blue roses are given to tell someone they are special and unique. In literature, they can also represent a fantasy or something that is unattainable.
Yellow roses. Yellow is the colour of happiness, joy and caring. A yellow rose represents friendship and freedom. However, in Victorian times, it could also be associated with jealousy, so this is worth bearing in mind when looking for symbolism in Victorian literature.
What are some examples of rose symbolism in literature?
Literature is full of famous examples of rose symbolism. Here are a few of the best-known rose quotes, with meanings.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
This is one of the most frequently quoted passages Shakespeare ever wrote. Here he uses the rose to represent the fact that the name of something doesn’t have any impact on its beauty and goodness of this flowers. Juliet is wishing that her family could appreciate Romeo as an individual, rather than defining him by the name of the family he comes from.
‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
‘Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.’
The prince is comparing his own rose to a field full of rose bushes. He realises that, to anyone else, all the roses would appear equally beautiful. But, to him, his own rose is special because he’s nurtured it. It’s a metaphor for appreciating what you have and not letting your head be turned.
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ by Oscar Wilde
‘He threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it.’
The rose in this sad story represents sacrifice. The nightingale has given her life to create the rose, so that the student could be happy through winning the girl he loves. However, when this doesn’t go as planned, the student can’t appreciate the rose and the sacrifice that the nightingale made to create it. This is another example of roses being used to remind us to be grateful for what we have.
‘A Rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner
In this classic example of naturalist literature, the only time the rose is mentioned is in the title. However, its presence is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book opens with Emily’s death, so the rose represents the idea of her funeral. However, the more we learn about Emily’s past, we see that the main themes of her life have been loss, loneliness and the absence of love. The rose symbolises the hope that she carried - she still believed in love, even though nobody ever bought her roses.
‘The Narrow Way’ by Anne Bronte
‘Earth yields no scents like those;
But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.’
This is a popular rose metaphor in literature - the idea of the thorns being an integral part of the rose. In this poem, Anne Bronte is reminding us that everything has a negative as well as a positive side. If we choose to pursue something because of its positive qualities, we have to accept its negative parts, too.
‘A Red, Red Rose’ by Robert Burns
‘Oh my luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June.’
In what is probably his most famous poem, Robert Burns uses the red rose as the ultimate symbol of love. Through the rose metaphor, we learn that his love is just as beautiful and fresh as a rose that is newly in bloom. This is the most romantic use of rose symbolism in literature.Imagine if you send flowers (red roses) with this poem ….
These varied examples show us just a few of the many different ways that roses can be used as a form of literary symbolism. We can also see how essential the context is when it comes to working out what the rose is symbolising and how it relates to the meaning of the text.
What is symbolism in literature?