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Rule of Symbolism

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Vanitas by Pieter Claesz
So why would anyone put a candle about to go out, a skull, a withering flower, a watch, a cracked nut, and a letternote  on a table together?
"He went back until he was ninety to see a hat? Why didn't he just go back to the store and buy a new one?"
Mother's eyes hardened. "The story isn't about the hat, Jimmy."
"Sure, it is. The hat, the hat, that's all you talked about. Every other word was 'hat.'"
The Man in the Ceiling by Jules Feiffer

Essentially, this is when something would normally stretch Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but it is so central to the themes or premise of the story that it is allowed so that it can be used as a symbol.

A Natural Spotlight is often this.

This rule is also related to the Anthropic Principle. What Anthropic Principle is for the existence of a work, Rule of Symbolism is for the core meaning of a work.

A Super-Trope to:

Compare Does This Remind You of Anything?.

Contrast Faux Symbolism (when something only appears symbolic), What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?, Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory (when people see symbolism in everything, including meanings the author never intended). See also Stock Monster Symbolism and compare Magi Babble ('It doesn't have to make sense as long as it sounds mystical').



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    Anime and Manga 
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion is infamous for this... although what's actually symbolic and what's just window dressing is under considerable debate. Word of God states that not even the producers are sure what's intended to be symbolic and what isn't. The only thing that Anno is sure of, is that the crosses are only there because they looked badass.
  • This trope is almost entirely responsible for anime Hair Colors and Personality Blood Types.
  • One Piece
    • It has a ton of things mostly justifiable by the symbolism involved. One example that stands out is the Rumbar Pirates' last song together: the entire crew getting up and singing while all suffering fatal arrow wounds then dying one by one is patently absurd, but it works because it drives home the sense of loss that the scene calls for.
    • Blackbeard is named Marshall D. Teach. Whitebeard is named Edward Newgate. By killing Whitebeard and stealing his Devil Fruit, Marshall has truly become Blackbeard.
  • The Revolutionary Girl Utena series and especially the movie run on this, containing such outrageous examples as constantly moving, modernist-esque buildings, surreal video sequences, and its main character turning into a car for a final, dramatic chase sequence- the whole movie is intended to be just one big symbolic story about maturation and adolescence.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica is full of this. Especially in the sequel Rebellion movie, which is justified given as it takes place almost entirely within a witch barrier, which is an Eldritch Location that is entirely made of the mental state of a magical girl at the time of their demise.
  • Magic in A Certain Magical Index practically requires this trope to work, since magic relies on "idols" which use symbolism in order to draw power from the original. It's more obvious with the Roman Catholic Church's magic, especially that of God's Right Seat, in which each member represents an archangel of Christianity and has a unique power which draws from God.
  • Descendants of Darkness sure loves its Cherry Blossoms of Death, whose short lifespan is apparently reflective of humanity, to a shinigami.
  • Loveless has the butterflies. The manga is about growing up and/or leaving behind the past to become something new.
  • The Survey Corps in Attack on Titan have wings on their crest, representing freedom. Fitting, considering they are the division that spends the most time outside the Walls and scouting the world for humanity. And thus we explain the anime's second opening theme by Linked Horizon.
  • Casshern Sins gives us Casshern's flesh and Luna's blood, both set up as a twisted version of the Eucharist.
  • For Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, the cover for chapter 200 shows is a double spread, with characters on the right side looking sad while the characters on the left page looking peaceful and happy. This foreshadows the chapter having all these characters on the left dying.
  • Your Lie in April has its main heroine, Kaori Miyazono have a black cat as her Animal Motifs as well as her symbolism. Later in the story it turns out not to be good symbolism for her. In Episode 20, Kousei and Watari visit Kaori only to see her health take a sharp turn for the worse. Later, a traumatized Kousei on his way home sees the black cat that Kaori usually played with fatally run over by a car, symbolizing Kaori's ultimate death two episodes later. Another black cat appears at the railroad tracks in the final scene of Episode 22 and disappears behind a passing commuter train symbolizing the loss of Kaori.
  • Many of the New Cards As The Plot Demands in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise are set up to allow actions in the game to reflect something outside of it. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, Kurosaki uses a combo that puts a mark on Dennis' Performage Trapeze Magician, which would force Dennis to reveal his hand (and the Polymerization he was holding, which would out him as an agent of Academia) when he was destroyed. This makes Trapeze Magician a representative of Dennis' false persona, and his ensuring destruction would force Dennis to 'show his hand' in both a figurative and literal sense.
  • Kamina's V-shaped shades in Gurren Lagann are somewhat ridiculous, especially in light of the fact that he originally started wearing them while living underground. However, they symbolize the facade of bravado he often wears to inspire others (and himself), and when not wearing them he is quieter and less confident but also more sincere. In particular, the shades fall off before both his brief Heroic BSoD and his heart to heart talks with Simon. When Kamina comes to help him escape the Lotus-Eater Machine, the shades are nowhere to be seen.
  • Pokémon relied on this in one episode of Sun and Moon to clue viewers in to Stoutland's rapid decline and eventual death. There are far less leaves on the tree near its home as there were a few episodes ago, and when Litten realizes its mentor's offscreen death its couch bed suddenly breaks followed by a sudden downpour. After Litten comes to terms with the event, its face is seen in the clouds...and a rainbow above its underpass home, possibly symbolizing the rainbow bridge.
  • The actual plot of Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is largely absolute nonsense, but in ways that communicate the story's feminist themes in satisfying ways. It doesn't make much sense in terms of logic or drugs for the primary antagonist to turn out to be an experimented-upon child who has aged to death while bedridden in a gothic castle, with a plan hinging on a cult surrounding a hallucinogenic drug which makes people appear to have owl heads; but the fact that she can only exist by vicariously watching Shameless Fanservice Girl Fujiko Mine is a Deconstruction of the Male Gaze.
  • Beyond all the sexually suggestive imagery in FLCL, there's sweet flavors being regarded as childish, while sour, spicy and bitter flavors are adult. Naota being a kid trying to act like an adult is accentuated by him hating sour and spicy things, while Amarao being an adult who likes sweets is shorthand for him being a Manchild.
  • Jojos Bizarre Adventure:
    • In Battle Tendency, Caesar Zeppeli is crushed by a Crucifix-shaped roof tile while nearly succumbing to their wounds. Which is strange given the fight that lead to their death did not cause any building damage that would've caused a roof tile to fall.
    • In Vento Aureo Narancia's death precedes their Stand flying into the air for an extended period of time before disintegrating, leaving Fugo to notice, symbolic of their relationship with eachother. That Stand does not have enough range to have been seen by Fugo who was at the other side of Italy. In addition, Giorno is the character that keeps the group in good spirits and preserves both their and Abbachio's corpse with vines using his Stand so they do not decay before their funeral. Although vines would do absolutely nothing to prevent a corpse from decaying and may actually accelerate the process.
  • The final battle against Asura in the anime version of Soul Eater is entirely this, which irritated many fansdue to the rest of the series not being like this at all. To make a long story short... the entire team pull out all of their most powerful attacks against the kishin without doing any damage at all, until Maka and Soul are all alone. Maka pulls progressively more desperate techniques, including willing herself to fall asleep and fight him while sleeping so that she won't feel afraid. In the end, however, Maka gives him a speech about bravery and then destroys him with one punch. The symbolism comes into play when you remember that Asura is the Anthropomorphic Personification of fear and paranoia - more power won't make you feel less afraid, and you can't sleep to escape because you'll eventually wake up; the only way to defeat fear is to be brave.

  • Artwork in general tends to employ this, depending on what the artist wants to depict.
  • Vanitas paintings, about the transitory nature of life, are usually still lives of the most incongruous objects, all chosen to reflect some aspect of it.
  • Frida Kahlo's paintings tend to involve a lot a symbolism, especially the ones when herself and her feelings in them (i.e Las Dos Fridas being an example, symbolizing her feelings during a divorce from her husband Diego Rivera ).
  • Venus and Cupid by Lorenzo Lotto was created to be a wedding gift in the later Renaissance, so much of the picture is symbolic of this.
    • The garland of myrtle is a symbol of marriage.
    • The roses, seashell and rose petals are all yanic symbols used to represent Venus' femininity.
    • The ivy represents eternal love.
    • Cupid is portrayed in puer mingēns; a Putto urinating through a crown of laurels of myrtle suspended on a blue ribbon with an incense burner onto Venus herself (who is portrayed as a bride). In this circumstance, the act is portrayed as a symbolic act of male fertility.
    • The fact that Venus looks directly at the viewer was meant to act as the goddess of love giving her approval to the wedded couple.
  • Guernica: While Word of God denies any intentional symbolism, artistic scholars have still tried their best to make sense of it anyway.
    • The Cubist chaotic bramble of the various character's anatomy is meant as an artistic act of protest against the war.
    • The collapsed buildings represent the destructive rewards of war itself.
    • The light bulb in the painting represents the sun.
    • The broken sword near the bottom of the painting symbolizes the defeat of the people at the hand of their tormentors.
    • The bull and horse are both animals who have strong cultural ties to Spain and have been used in various other of Picasso's pieces. With both of them in the piece, they have often been read as two differing aspects of Spain itself in conflict with each other; bull representing Fascism, the horse representing the people of Guernica, the war their rampage.
  • In The Temptation of St. Anthony, the titular temptation manifests in the form of a voluptuous naked woman who seems to act as a symbolic replacement for God. She is tied to the cross in the same manner as Jesus, her expression one of elation instead of the idea of agony being a redemptive tool. Behind the cross, we see an Obviously Evil demon in red carrying Jesus - who's position implies him to be an effigy of the real deal that was originally on that cross. The inscription INRI (initials for "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum", or "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") is replaced by the word EROS, the name of the Greek God of desire and sexual pleasure. This all implies that the temptation is replacing his piety for God with the pleasures of the sin of Lust, St. Anthony's horror in this vision being him attempting forgo the sins of the flesh in-favor of his piety.
  • The Rape of Proserpina: Venus and Cupid — both gods of different forms of love and sexuality — seem to be on opposing sides of this conflict, with Minerva (goddess of war and wisdom) and Ceres (goddess of motherhood and Proserpina's own mother) trying to separate them. This would imply that the painting is symbolic of Love at First Sight, a passionate and spontaneous form of love opposed by those with prudence and who's love for the querents is familial in nature.
  • Dawn (Bouguereau): The lily is a flower most associated with devotion and purity, Ancient Greek culture in particular associating it with rebirth and motherhood. Dawn is the time that represents the start of a new day, implying that the Allegorical Character is the youngest of the four. This can also be connected to the white of the fabric she is dressed in, white representing both purity and youth in women.

    Comic Books 
  • Amazing Fantastic Incredible: The various artists who left Marvel are shown doing so in ways that homage characters they worked on: Steve Ditko fades from the public eye and gradually becomes Invisible, while Jack Kirby is transported via Boom Tube into the offices of the Distinguished Competition.
  • A lot of Watchmen, but especially Rorschach's mask. It's impossible, even with today's technology, but it's such a great symbol of a variety of things (ranging from Rorschach's disconnect from his real identity to his black and white viewpoint) as well as looking so cool that it fails to mess with the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
  • The climax of Grant Morrison's New X-Men features a Bad Future that's essentially a sci-fi take on The Book of Revelation. Just to drive the point home, the Big Bad is the body-snatching microorganism Sublime, who spends the story possessing Dr. Hank McCoy—literally making Sublime "The Beast". It's never explained how, exactly, Sublime managed to take over the world in Beast's body—and it strains Willing Suspension of Disbelief a bit, considering Beast's limited powers, and the fact that Sublime earlier failed to conquer the world when he possessed two of the most powerful mutants on Earth—but the inconsistencies are excused because they fit with the Revelation-inspired imagery.
  • The Transformers: Combiner Wars: When Optimus Prime opens his chest to unveil the Matrix, it shines out through his chest panels and looks like a cross. At this point the Matrix was basically empty and incapable of shining (which was later retconned), and the Transformer mythology had changed to make it resemble Christianity less in this continuity; but the message of Optimus being a Messiah-like figure and the Matrix as a holy object come across easily.
  • Batman: White Knight: During his meeting with the GCPD, the cured Joker breaks free of his cuffs, and the following panel where he rests his arms on the table in front of him as he tears down Batman and the police force piece by piece makes it clear that Jack Napier has the upper hand whereas the GCPD no longer has any power over him.
  • Dark Night: A True Batman Story, an autobiography about a horrible mugging and a series of bad relationships Paul Dini experienced and his recovery from them, sees various Batman characters represent aspects to his reaction to them with Bruce Wayne himself as The Spock, either berating Dini for not thinking of ways to defend him or telling him to go back to work; The Joker as mocking him and encouraging procrastination; Two-Face as the physical and mental scars the mugging left him; Poison Ivy acting as his failed relationships; The Scarecrow as, of course, the fears about life and his trauma; The Penguin as Dini's alcoholism; The Riddler as Dini questioning himself and making excuses for him not to go back to work; Clayface as the possibility of a repeat of a mugging; and Harley Quinn, Dini and Bruce Timm's biggest contribution to the Batman mythology, as his motivation and creativity.
  • In Rise of the Third Army, the Green Lantern Corps lampshade this in the titular army, created by the Guardians to eradicate The Evils of Free Will: They have no mouth, so they can not object to orders. They have no eyelids, so they can only watch and receive orders. Their brain is exposed, so the Guardian always knows their thoughts. They have no hearts, so they feel no emotion.

    Fan Works 
  • In Arc-Ved Protagonists, right when Yuya get's what Yugi is saying about something having vanished, doesn't mean it is gone for good, during “Coming Right Back”, the next card he draws is Monster Reborn.
  • Contact at Kobol:
    • Several Colonials take this as a sign when Earth is asked to bring its ‘world animal’ and ‘world bird’ with them; the owl chosen to represent Earth eats all twelve of the signature birds of the other colonies when it’s put in a cage with them (the Colonies’ world birds all being songbirds rather than predators), and the wolves chosen as Earth’s world animal are slaughtered as a symbolic early stage of the war.
    • After Aquaria is ‘accidentally’ destroyed by a Tau’ri weapon, some argue that the continued existence of a statue of Hermes on the planet shows that the Colonials must keep fighting as the Lords of Kobol will help them survive, but Sharon Valerii (still unaware of her Cylon status) offers the observation that it could also be a reflection of the fate that will await them if they don’t stop fighting.
  • In Robb Returns, when Robert uses Stormbreaker in a practice fight against Jaime Lannister, the latter's sword rapidly rusts from the inside, even while the surface remains untouched and perfectly polished.
  • In Furious Angels, when Harry first snaps Malfoy's wand after defeating him in a brief duel, Professor Dumbledore notes that this is the equivalent of Harry stating that he feels Malfoy isn't worthy to possess magic.
  • In Did I Make The Most Of Loving You, it is explained that twelve individuals retained their memories of the future to guide it onto a better path, with each time traveller symbolically representing one of the twelve Lords of Kobol (Cavil can be seen as representing the thirteenth tribe of Cylons);
    • Zeus=William Adama as the fleet’s benevolent yet powerful leader.
    • Hera=Laura Roslin as the fleet’s female ruler, who can be ruthless when the situation calls for it.
    • Poseidon=Saul Tigh, the loyal brother to Zeus.
    • Demeter=Caprica Six.
    • Athena=Sharon “Boomer” Valerii.
    • Apollo=Kara Thrace, who dominated the skies and lived a life ruled by destiny.
    • Artemis=Lee Adama.
    • Ares=Doctor Cottle, the soldier who has seen more war than any of the others.
    • Aphrodite=Gaius Baltar.
    • Hephaestus=Leoben.
    • Hermes=Billy Keikeya, the loyal messenger of the gods.
    • Dionysus=Tom Zarek, who sought to liberate his people from their perceived oppression.
      • There is also a deeper symbolism in the new prophecies of Pythia; rather than the original prophecy of the Dying Leader, in this timeline the scrolls tell of two leaders who will lead the Caravan of Heaven to a new home and will have a daughter to represent the new life humanity will find at the end of their path, despite Roslin being post-menopause when the Cylons attack.
  • In A Thing of Vikings, it is noted that dragon attacks in China are interpreted as symbolic of the emperor losing their heaven's mandate of their right to rule.
  • In The Power of Seven, Hermione determines that the horcrux in Harry can be destroyed if Harry forms a spiritual bond to seven witches. When analysed from a certain perspective, each member of the subsequent 'harem'- Ginny, Hermione, Luna, Demelza Robbins, Susan Bones, Katie Bell and Fleur Delacour- is in some way symbolically 'connected' to one of Voldemort's horcruxes;
    • Diary=Ginny. Her previous connection with it is brought up fairly often, most notably when Bill accuses Harry of manipulating her the same way the Diary had; Ginny fires back that, having actually been controlled by dark magic, she's in a position to know what she and Harry are doing is anything but. Harry forms his first bond with Ginny; the Diary was the first horcrux to be destroyed.
    • Diadem=Hermione. Both representing intellect. The Diadem is found in this story when Luna simply asks the Room if it can help them find a horcrux. Hermione and Luna are very yin-yang, both brilliant in opposite ways (Hermione being logical and methodical, Luna being, well, Luna). The Diadem is destroyed by Ginny with a basilisk fang, and Ginny has expressed. . . penetrative interest in Hermione. Harry forms his second bond with Hermione, the Diadem is the second horcrux to be destroyed by Harry's actions in this story.
    • Ring=Luna. Both seem innocuous but both hold hidden power, the Ring having a lethal curse and the Resurrection Stone, Luna being a shining example of The Cuckoolander Was Right and Beware the Silly Ones. The Ring has been destroyed before the fic even begins, and Luna was such an obvious candidate for the ritual that Harry, Hermione and Ginny approached her directly rather than taking the time to 'feel her out' as an option like with the other four. The Ring and Stone currently remain in Dumbledore's possession, reflecting Luna's outsider status, in general and within the harem. While the other girls like Luna well enough, they don't quite get her. Luna is also the only harem member not to have had least some time as a POV character.
    • Locket=Demelza. The Locket is kept safe under a potion that makes you relive your worst memories, Demelza submerges herself in the fantasy world of her romance novels. The Locket, when worn, exaggerates the wearer's worst qualities and defends itself by preying on its attacker's greatest fears; Demelza is The Heart who brings out the best in the people around her. The Locket was stolen from Voldemort's hiding place by Regulus Black who told Kreacher to destroy it, Demelza was "stolen" from Harry by Voldemort as bait in a trap to destroy Harry. Harry escaped Voldemort's trap and rescued Demelza, though her parents died in the process, Kreacher failed to destroy the Locket and suffered greatly for it. The Locket was finally destroyed by Bill and Dumbledore, who then turned their attention to "destroying" the harem.
    • Cup=Susan. Both connected to Hufflepuff. The Cup is safely locked in the Lestrange vault at Gringott's, while Susan is the most sexually guarded and repressed of the girls. The Lestrange vault is filled with treasures useless to anyone not hunting a horcrux, Susan is alone in a house filled with treasures she doesn't care about or are painful reminders for her. A Gringott's vault like the Lestrange's is supposed to be impenetrable; Hermione is investigating how to ward a place (such as Susan's home) to make it safe from Voldemort.
    • Nagini=Katie. Nagini is the only living horcrux Voldemort made (so far as he knows), Katie is the most independent and free-spirited of the girls. Voldemort uses Nagini as an Attack Animal bodyguard and to frighten his Death Eaters into submission, Katie is very protective and nurturing towards Harry and inspiring the others with her Team Mom tendencies.
    • Harry=Fleur. Harry is the horcrux Voldemort never meant to make, Fleur was brought up a few times but never considered for the ritual because of her engagement to Bill. Harry became a horcrux through a unique set of circumstances and an act of true love, Fleur became embroiled in the goings-on through a series of coincidences. Voldemort made Harry a horcrux by accident, Harry and Fleur have an "accident" of their own their first time together.
  • In Avengers of Panem, Katniss being entrusted with Captain America's old shield, repainted gold and black with a Mockingjay rather than a star in the centre, represents how she has become the new symbol for her country just as Rogers represented America back in his day.
  • In Ice Fury, the relationship between Toothless and Wintergale can be seen to represent the new alliance between Berk and Arendelle, considering that the two dragons are each the only known living Furies- regarded by many as the most intelligent species of dragon- and also belong to the rulers of both kingdoms, even if Hiccup and Elsa do not have that kind of relationship themselves.
  • The Mountain and the Wolf: Each of the Wolf's targets corresponds with an aspect of the Chaos Gods: Clegane for Khorne (War), Ramsay for Slaanesh (Sadism), Baelish for Tzeentch (Treachery), the Night King for Nurgle (Decay), and Euron for Chaos Undivided (Nihilism).

    Films — Animation 
  • Disney films:
    • The Little Mermaid: Ariel symbolizes purity, while Ursula symbolizes lust.
      Ursula: And don't underestimate the importance of "body language"!
    • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White symbolizes kindness, while the Queen symbolizes envy.
    • Cinderella: Cinderella symbolizes humility, while Lady Tremaine symbolizes pride.
    • The Princess and the Frog: Tiana symbolizes diligence, while Facilier symbolizes sloth.
    • Aladdin: The Genie's bracelets aren't just a cool accessory, they're handcuffs binding him to the lamp. When Jafar becomes a genie, the bracelets show up simultaneously with the lamp that sucks him in (and in the sequel, the metaphor becomes visual as when Jafar tries to fly away, the bracelets glow holding him back), and once Aladdin wishes the Genie to be free, his wrists become bare - though the sequels and series have him wearing them back, as in the Genie's words, "I'm only a slave to fashion".
    • In The Lion King:
      • The symbol that Simba has overcome his unnecessary guilt is that the torrent of the cleansing rains pouring down on Pride Rock after the final battle wash away a wildebeast skull.
      • The directors stated that the image that sums up the movie is Simba's little paw stepping into his father's huge pawprint. To the point the remake downright used it as its first poster.
    • Frozen: According to one of the directors, Olaf symbolizes the love between Anna and Elsa.
    • Robin Hood: Richard's crown is much too big for John, and wearing it makes him look like a prat. The crown gags are symbolic of John's unfitness to rule, of him being too "small" a person to step into his big brother's shoes. And headgear.
    • Moana: The Reveal that the lava demon Te Kā is the nature goddess Te Fiti makes perfect sense, as the Hawaiian islands are created from volcanic soil, which is incredibly fertile. Strip out the life-giving aspect, and you're left with just the volcano.
  • The Book of Life:
    • Jorge says when Manolo trips on the stairs as a kid, it symbolizes that he’s the kind of person who stumbles but keeps getting back up.
    • Jorge explains why Joaquin lost his eye.
  • In Sing, after Meena's singing literally brings down the house at the end of the show, instead of seeing a regular open-air stage with the theater's signature crescent moon, the audience (both in-story and out) are left with a view of a clear night sky, illuminated by a full moon.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Matrix and its sequels are meant to be interpreted symbolically, namely in regards of the allusion to a Messiah (Neo), mathematical concepts (the Matrix itself, its structure, and Neo's presence rendering the mathematical equations unsolvable) and existentialism (Agent Smith's desire to escape the false reality of Matrix).
  • Citizen Kane is lauded by critics and hated by others for extensive use of this trope.
  • Julie Taymor's version of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
  • Equilibrium: Probably the only reason the drug ampules looks like bullets and the drug is injected with an apparatus that looks like a gun.
    • Viviana's execution robe is blood red, the color of martyrs.
    • Father extolls Prozium as the "opiate of the masses", a frequent variation on Karl Marx's view of religion as the "opium of the people".
  • Takashi Miike's Gozu makes almost no sense at all without the realization that, not only is nearly everything symbolic, it uses symbols and tropes drawn from several entirely unrelated sources ( mainly Japanese and Greek mythology, as well as psychological metaphors for the main character's coming to terms with his homosexuality).
  • Roger Ebert made an observation regarding the controversial ending of Taxi Driver: "The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level."
  • Star Wars is rife with incidents of symbol-intensive, yet belief-defying events.
    • The final battle between Anakin Skywalker note  and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith takes place within an active volcanic caldera of Mustafar, much to the chagrin of the scientifically adept. According to Lucas, the setting was meant to remind us of something else.
    • The planet-destroying space station known as the Death Star is often criticised for the ridiculous idea that such a powerful weapon would have the obvious weak point of an exhaust port that goes all the way down to the main reactor—anyone could drop a bomb down there and blow the whole thing to pieces. However, the Empire's Fatal Flaw is Pride, and the whole series is based on David vs. Goliath: it makes plot-sense that the big, powerful terrifying superweapon could be destroyed by tiny one-man fighters, and that most of the Empire would be arrogant enough to think they were indestructible.
      • Adding to the symbolism, the two key pieces in its destruction are things the Empire doesn't understand. The first, of course, is the Force, which one Admiral had dismissed as archaic and useless. The other is loyalty — not the kind of loyalty that can be bought with fear, as the Empire tries to do, but a true loyalty born of respect and friendship that would lead a man to risk his life when he could have just walked away.
  • Inception is filled to the brim with more things that could possibly be symbolic than you'll ever see. However, since most of the film takes place in peoples' dream and it's explicitly mentioned that artificially-created dreams only provide the frame, which is then filled in by the dreamer's subconsciousness, it's mostly justified.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy: Batman watches over Gotham from high ground once per movie, combines with Cue the Sun across the films: Batman Begins is at pre-dawn, The Dark Knight is at daybreak, and The Dark Knight Rises is in morning twilight.
    • The Dark Knight Rises when bats randomly appear just before Bruce attempt the jump that will succeed and finally climb out of the Pit.
  • Done In-Universe by the eponymous heroine of That Lady in Ermine wears an ermine coat to show her majesty to an invading army, along with bare feet to show humility.
  • Black Swan would also invoke this trope. For instance, Mila Kunis's character Lily wears her hair out during ballet training and doesn't bother to do any warm-ups. It's to demonstate her free-spirited nature, even though no ballet studio on Earth would let her get away with either of those things.
  • Sucker Punch, when you have a metaphor/fantasy scene, inside another metaphor/fantasy scene, which all reverts around another metaphor/meaning.
  • From The Sixth Sense. Would you really expect a woman to wear a bright red dress to a funeral? You would if she's the killer.
  • In the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a scene takes place in a bathhouse which produces an usually high amount of steam. The symbolism comes from the fact that in this scene Rosencrantz first notices that one of the players is an Expy of himself, and he begins to suspect that things might be more than they seem. In essence, Rosencrantz is finally seeing through the fog.
  • The film version of Being There ends with Chance The Gardener walking on water.
  • Two paintings play a symbolic role in Skyfall. When Bond first meets Q in an art museum, Q talks about the painting of a once-powerful warship, now in decrepit shape, being towed to the breakers, with the obvious insinuations about the aging Bond. At the end of the film, when Bond has gotten his Bond-esque confidence and skills back and meets Mallory/M in his new office, there a painting of another warship in the background. This one is in its prime and furiously blasting away in battle.
  • In Batman (1989), the Batwing flies into the air directly in front of the moon to make the Batman symbol, then flies back down, with no explanation as to why Batman would just fly up for a second.
  • TRON: Legacy:
    • Kevin Flynn is God to the programs, and Jesus in terms of artistic direction. One noticeable scene is when he puts up his hood and walks into the wild after Clu's rebellion, kinda like how Jesus walked into the desert to be tested. Also, if Flynn is God, Sam and CLU are Jesus and Lucifer, respectively, and the ISOs are humanity.
    • Clu's Carrier is different from Sark's; when viewed from the side, it looks an awful lot like a sword.
    • The arrival of the son of the creator is heralded by a star in the east. At one point, Sam mentions they're going "east" to the portal.
    • Flynn's confrontation with Clu has hints of the parable of the Prodigal Son (a father figure accepting/welcoming back his wayward son).
  • The Last Circus works as an allegory of the Spanish Civil War with the protagonist and antagonist representing the Republicans and the Fascists respectively.
  • In the Donner Cut of Superman II , Clark gets his powers back by Jor-El giving him the last of his life energy or something through a shiny projection of himself...or something. Irrelevant as the scene is designed to bring full circle the words spoken by Jor-El back in the first Superman film and furthering the Christ/God/Father/Son themes. "The son becomes the father, the father becomes the son."
  • Throughout The Bourne Series, water symbolizes death. In The Bourne Identity, Jason was discovered in the middle of the ocean after having been shot by Wombosi's men, without any memory of his life beforehand. In The Bourne Supremacy, Marie gets shot while driving, taking their jeep off the bridge to the water below, and we later learn that Jason's first Treadstone mission took place on a rainy night. And in The Bourne Ultimatum, it's shown in flashbacks that, as David Webb, he was waterboarded into becoming Jason Bourne when he first joined Treadstone, and in the end, he falls into the water after apparently being shot, mirroring his first appearance.
  • Gareth Edwards says that the HALO jump scene in Godzilla (2014) was meant to resemble "angels descending into Hell".
  • X-Men Film Series
    • X-Men: Days of Future Past:
      • The presence (or at least the desire to have it) or absence of Magneto's telepathy-blocking helmet is a fairly good gauge of how unhealthy or healthy his relationship with Professor X is. As writer Simon Kinberg puts it, the finale marks the beginning of the characters' Friendly Enemy dynamic:
        "At the end of the movie, [Magneto] flies away without his helmet, with the implication that he'll go off and continue to be Magneto in some form, but not be able to hide it from Charles, who'll be able to read his mind and track him. There's a truce of some kind between Charles and Magneto, but there's a part of Magneto that will always be the Magneto we know from the comics."
      • This article has made the following observation about the elderly Erik:
        "From the photos, we see that Ian McKellen's older Magneto has no need for his iconic helmet that protects him from mutant telepaths since he's once again allied with old friend Charles Xavier."
    • X-Men: Apocalypse:
      • The Four Horsemen represent four different aspects of a cult's power to attract and recruit new members.
        Bryan Singer: It has a political faction, and I'd always felt Magneto could fill those shoes. It always has a military faction, so Archangel could fill those shoes as the guardian. There's also a youth faction. Those that you're trying to seduce and grow into your cult—the young, whose minds are malleable [such as Storm]. And lastly, the sexual component, because cult leaders tend to sexualize their position and have sex with half the people in their cult. And the Psylocke character, who was a very bright character in the comic, but is always looking for guidance and leadership, always trying to find the right guy, so she ends up with Apocalypse in this one.
      • There are bookends in Charles' study which are shaped like the mythological figure Atlas, and they symbolize his heavy burden of trying to save the world.
        We look around Xavier's school some more, exploring every nook and cranny of Prof. X's office. We spot a couple of Atlas-themed book-ends, with two muscular men carrying planets on their backs. It makes us flashback to that dark room, where we saw McAvoy cry. If ever there was a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, it's James McAvoy's Professor X.
      • Charles and Erik have at least one costume which was strongly influenced by Miami Vice, and they are basically dressed as Detective Crockett and Detective Tubbs, respectively. Like Crockett and Tubbs, Xavier and Lehnsherr are Heterosexual Life-Partners.
      • An In-Universe version when Magneto signals his Heel–Face Turn by slamming down two huge girders in Apocalypse's path in the form of an X.
  • Victor Frankenstein: Victor dresses with a bit more flair than the other men (even in the case of Finnegan's dandyism, Victor's outfits are still more vivid colour-wise, plus the patterns on his vests are more elaborate and eye-catching). It represents him feeling out of place with the rest of society and wanting to challenge its oppressive rules. Moreover, Victor wears his emotions on his sleeves, so he doesn't adhere to the Stiff Upper Lip norms of British culture—his choice of clothing is as "expressive" as he is.
  • James Bond:
    • The World Is Not Enough: At the casino, Elektra King picks the Queen of Hearts card. She manipulates men by making them fall in love with her.
    • In all of his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Ernst Stavro Blofeld uses a black octopus as SPECTRE's logo, symbolizing its omnipresence and behind-the-scenes reach to tilt geopolitical events to its side like a pinball machine. Blofeld also cultivates the image of phantoms as a way to show how he operates from the shadows through proxies. Even in Spectre, where his grudge against Bond has escalated to personal levels, he cultivates the imagery of skeletons and the dead. Like a specter, Blofeld came back to haunt Bond by orchestrating the numerous tragedies 007 faced over the years. And being the Trope Codifier for Diabolical Mastermind, Blofeld is usually seen with a fluffy, white Persian cat and employs cat-like mannerisms himself, such as playing with his victims before killing them.
  • Beyond the Lights: A pop star wearing outrageously revealing clothing is nothing new, but all of Noni's clothes in the first half of the film either have chains incorporated in them or some form of bondage. This is to represent how she feels caged in her life. Once she starts to take control of her life and deal with her depression, her style in clothing is looser.
  • In-universe example in The Draughtsman's Contract: Mrs. Herbert points out the significance of pomegranates in Classical Mythology when Mr. Neville brings her some.
  • The Spanish film Hasta la lluvia ("Even the Rain") revolves around a film crew that flies to Bolivia to film a movie about Christopher Columbus, because it will be cheaper. Unfortunately they arrive during the Cochabumaba Water War, a series of civil uprisings meant to protest the government's decision to sell the country's water rights to a foreign multinational. One scene revolves around Spanish conquistadors using hunting dogs to track down rebellious Indians, and later, in the story proper, one of the producers helps the mother of one of the child actors look for her daughter, they drive through town in the middle of a massive demonstration, where they spot police in riot gear using attack dogs to control the demonstrating mob.
  • Schindler's List uses smoke to represent The Holocaust victims; The opening scene shows a candle being lit representing hope and life, then the candle flame is extinguished and the smoke plume then transitions to the smoke billowing from a train steam engine that has just delivered a group of deported Jews to the Nazi authorities.
  • DC Extended Universe:
    • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Lex Luthor's mop of red hair is like the plainclothes equivalent of a supervillain's mask. Once his crimes go public, it's all shaved off.
    • Justice League (2017): Cyborg spends the bulk of his screentime angry and self-doubting, with his cybernetic implants appearing ugly and erratic. By the film's end, Cyborg has found inner peace - having a group of friends, learning to accept his changes and patching things up with his father - and his enhancements become streamlined.
    • Wonder Woman (2017):
      • Diana (a woman) being the first person to cross No Man's land.
      • Until her last scene, Doctor Poison never takes off or loses her mask. The mask finally coming off symbolizes Diana's newfound insight into humanity. Like Doctor Poison, humanity covers up its ugliness. However, also like Doctor Poison, that imperfection is merely an aspect of humanity as well.
      • Wonder Woman using her bracelets instead of her sword to finish off Ares means that war can't be fought with more war (when she uses the God-Killer against him, it instantly shatters). Using a defensive weapon to protect others by redirecting his attack back to him represents Diana using love and compassion to defeat Ares, by redirecting his aggression back to him.
  • Deewaar: At Anand's funeral, the lighting changes drastically (i.e. between daytime shots and pitch-black backgrounds) from shot to shot depending on who's in frame and what state of mind they're in.
  • Thor: Ragnarok:
    • Costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo explains the significance of Loki's blue outfit on Sakaar, which is one of the very rare instances where the character's signature green is absent from his attire.
      Rubeo: Loki and his [blue] color when we first see him in Sakaar, it's because Loki [...]'s [joined] the Grandmaster, who is some sort of like a tyrant. Loki's there, betraying his own people. [...] So he adopts the same kind of colors, which is uncharacteristic of him and of his actual [green-hued] costume. Then he goes back to his original costume when he finds his senses to help Thor and being a good brother again.
    • On the ceiling mural of the Asgardian Royal Palace, Loki's position in front of Frigga and his forest/dark green robe with gold highlights parallel her pastel green gown with gold accents. They impart visually that he's Frigga's Junior Counterpart (their similarities) and Shadow Archetype (the darker shade of green of his clothing, its sharp, V-shaped lines juxtaposing the softness of Frigga's fabric, plus his more sinister facial expression).
  • Joker (2019): Arthur Fleck's apartment building is located at the top of a very long flight of stairs. The first two times we see him on the stairs, he's drearily walking back home in drab clothes and in the dark, the weight of the world on his shoulders. The last time we see the stairs, he's descending them, wearing bright face paint and a vibrant red suit on a sunny day, dancing his way down without a care in the world. At this point he has fully embraced his murderous clown persona and leaving behind his old life, he is finally happy for the first time.

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Incredible Deadly Viper offering the Baudelaires an apple to cure the medusoid mycelium in The End.
  • The book of Revelation/The Apocalypse of St. John in The Bible: It was primarily an indictment against Rome, and wouldn't have made it past the Roman censors had its author(s) not hidden their message under a heap of symbolic language. ("The seven heads are seven hills").
  • Call Me by Your Name: In the books, as he embarks on a passionate sexual affair with Elio, Oliver falls in platonic love with a little girl named Vimini, who represents the dying of childhood innocence by literally dying. Vimini was Adapted Out for the film, most likely to avoid unfortunate implications. In the book, it is clear that Oliver has no sexual attraction to the little girl but in visual media it might not have been quite so clear.
  • The Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment relies on this a lot. The events and reveals near the end of the book rely heavily on the fact that they are extensions of the premise.
  • The Toni Morrison novel Sula has the Deweys - three unrelated boys who are all given the same name and treated as interchangeable, subsequently becoming Single Minded Triplets who are somehow all child-sized after a decade or so. The bizarre, unlikely biology at work here is that they represent the larger social effects of stereotyping.
  • The weird... meteor... giant "A"... THING that appears in the sky about midway through The Scarlet Letter.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has Chief Bromden's role as narrator and the specifics of his hallucinations. Bromden's hallucinations (his belief in everyone receiving mechanical implants, his Mind-Control Conspiracy theory "The Combine," etc.) guide the book's symbolism.
  • Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is so rife with symbolism integrated magnificently into the story (even much of the squick is symbolic!) that there's plenty of symbolism to be seen even when it might not be there at all!
  • The Wheel of Time has symbolism from almost every mythological source around, and somehow integrates it into the story all the time without sounding pretentious.
    • The series could easily be accused of Faux Symbolism, since it tends to throw in names from dozens of mythologies without always drawing meaningful parallels to the myths. However, due to the nature of the series's cosmology, even the meaningless symbolism has meaning, since it ties into the theme of how myths are misremembered and misinterpreted as they fade over time.
  • William Golding had a plane evacuating children from England crash in the Pacific rather than the Atlantic Ocean in Lord of the Flies specifically so that he could contrast his setting with that of another book, which also featured an island in the Pacific.
    • Lord of the Flies is loaded with this. Why does Piggy's hair remain short and neat while the other boys sport shaggy, unkempt hair? Because he is the symbolic embodiment of reason and intelligence.
  • In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen Meany himself seems to base his actions on this principle; for instance, he repeatedly uses the loss of limbs in symbolic gestures
  • In the first Harry Potter book, Harry is trapped by Professor Quirrel, but Quirrel is unable to kill Harry because the love from Harry's mother, who sacrificed herself to save him had a lasting effect on him that prevented a loveless, heartless person like Quirrel from being able to touch him. Normally, this could be seen as a flawed Deus ex Machina ending, but the symbolism of Lily Potter's love, and the moral message that it brings to readers, makes this more than acceptable. It helps that it's not simply dropped, and remains a major plot element throughout the series. In fact, we later find out that there are are at least six different factors involved that had never been combined before.
    • Same with Harry pulling Godric Gryffindor's sword out of the Sorting Hat in the second book, to demonstrate that a person's choices are what ultimately determines what kind of person they are. Again, this plot point isn't dropped; two other people achieve this feat later in the series, showing that this is just something that can happen, but in both cases the scenario is symbolic.
    • In the fourth book, Word of God has confirmed that the challenges of the Triwizard Tournament were chosen to represent the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, with the Maze representing Earth, the lake Water, and the dragons Air and Fire (there would have been two different tasks for each element, but it was decided that combining them both with the dragons was more straightforward).
  • In The Pale King, The IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, which represents those who are stuck doing the difficult and unpopular work.
  • The Fractured Fairy Tale short stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Everything in them. Almost none of them make any sense at face value.
  • The book The Rules of Survival deals with a teenage boy and his younger sisters living with their abusive mother. The cover? A picture of a bowl of broken glass with a spoon sticking out of it.
  • During a flashback to his college years, Stuttering Bill Denbrough, one of the heroes of Stephen King's It lampshades this trope by asking the professor (and students) in his creative writing class, "Why does everything have to have hidden meaning? Can't you guys just let a story be a story?" When the Professor sarcastically asked the exasperated Denbrough if he thought people like Shakespeare and Hemmingway were "just writing stories", Denbrough replies, "Yeah, pretty much." The professor suggests Denbrough "has a lot to learn".
  • In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon during one important conversation, a white peacock randomly walks through, despite the conversation taking place in an ordinary suburban neighborhood. No mentioned is ever made of how it got there and it has no plot relevance, but it was probably supposed to be symbolic of something.
  • John Green has this to say about The Fault in Our Stars's final sentence ("I do"), which he sees as marital symbolism.
    "Shakespeare's comedies end in marriage and his tragedies end in death, and I was rather fond of the idea that my book could end (symbolically, at least) in both."
  • The Hunger Games: Katniss, once she decides to rebel, invokes this trope, turning her every action into a symbol meant to add fuel to the rebellion.
  • In the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, after he begins his seduction of Anakin in earnest, Darth Sidious is treated more like a walking shadow than a living being. Likewise, during their duel Yoda is portrayed as an "avatar of light" set against the shadow—until he realizes that he is incapable of winning.
  • Invoked in a Secret Histories novel when an ordinary butterfly is on auction for a staggering sum because it was captured under just the right circumstances to make it a perfect symbol of chaos theory, potentially giving its owner power over the very concept of For Want of a Nail... and then the field suspending it in time is broken, and an ordinary butterfly carries on its way.
  • In one of his books, I Have Landed, Stephen Jay Gould discussed how many critics thought there was a symbolic meaning to the references to butterflies in Vladimir Nabokov's novels.
  • The Greek poet and Literature Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis once attended a celebration in his honor, where samples of his work were read and then had their meaning analyzed in detail by distinguished scholars. When his turn came to speak and thank everybody, he put his tongue in his cheek and gave special credit to the scholars for finding more depth to his poetry than even he had thought of.
  • Words of Radiance (second book of The Stormlight Archive):
    • In-Universe, the red eyes of the Voidbringers are seen as a very bad sign.
    • Symbolic Wings occur out-of universe, since the image doesn't exist in Alethi culture. Kaladin's ascension to a full Knight Radiant is coupled with frost behind him forming into the shape of wings briefly. In Universe, the 'wings' are most likely the glyphs that make up the oath he just swore, but since birds are exceptionally rare in this world, wings don't have any special symbolism attached to them.
  • Night of the Assholes: In the ending, Todd and Barbara have escaped from the assholes in the wilderness. Both are naked, having escaped by their love-making and are content now that they have a break from the assholes with a means of keeping them away. Right after Todd helps himself to an apple from a nearby tree, he flips the bird and shouts at the assholes, only for an asshole to appear and destroy their chances at living Happily Ever After.
  • This pretty much describes the cornerstone works for genres such as Theatre Of The Absurd (Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco) and literary Surrealism (Franz Kafka). Works like Waiting for Godot, The Bald Soprano, and The Metamorphosis are unrealistic and only make sense on a symbolic level.
  • Each of the Twilight novels has a cover that, while symbolic, doesn't really tell you what the book is about.
    • The first novel has an apple, which Word of God says can represent both the "Forbidden Fruit" of Bella and Edward's relationship or the conflict that it causes, a la the Apple of Discord in Classical Mythology.
    • New Moon has a tulip with one petal falling. The artist says that the petal represents the drop of blood that Bella loses at the beginning, which kicks off the plot. Fans sometimes see it as representing her loss of Edward or the tears that she shed in his absence.
    • Eclipse has a red thread that is almost but not entirely frayed in two, representing Bella's desire but inability to break free from her human life.
    • Breaking Dawn has a chess set with a queen in the foreground and a pawn behind it, meant to represent how Bella goes from the weakest to the strongest person in the conflict.
    • Life and Death and Midnight Sun hearken back to the first book in different ways. The former has a green apple to fit the "same story, but different" angle, while the latter has a pomegranate, trading in the Biblical symbolism for Classical Mythology's Hades and Persephone.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A lot of the criticism leveled at Battlestar Galactica (2003) came from the tendency of the writers to draw thematic and symbolic parallels to real-world events, even when it didn't make sense for the world of the show. Many saw the show as a 9/11 allegory, even though the damage the Cylons inflicted on the humans was incalculably greater than that of the terrorist attacks on America. The absurdity of a room full of reporters questioning the president was pointed out many times — it was meant to resemble the real-world political situation, but a population of less than fifty thousand could not possibly need that many competing news organizations. The abortion storyline was meant to challenge the audience's ideas about real-world abortion, but the fact that the fleet would have a very hard time supporting a bunch of helpless infants clearly made Roslin's decision unfeasible.
  • In Breaking Bad, the plane crash at the end of Season 2 and Gus' death and last moments of life at the end of season 4 are somewhat out of place in an otherwise subtle and highly realistic show, but the symbolic point they make, especially of the former, are very important to the series.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • In "Innocence", where Buffy loses her virginity, she dresses as a Virgin in a White Dress and red sheets are on the bed where she sleeps with Angel. Whenever Buffy takes a new lover in Season 4, red sheets are shown in a Call-Back. In Season 6 she begins her Destructive Romance with Spike in a building which collapses around them as they have sex for the first time.
    • At the start of season 3, in "Anne", Buffy leads the trapped young people forced to work for a demon in an extradimensional factory in a revolt, she does so armed first with a hammer, then gets attacked by a demon guard with a sickle like weapon. She ends up Dual Wielding a hammer and a sickle - a long-standing Communist symbol, of the workers uniting and rising up against those exploiting them.
    • Buffy starts Season 6 by clawing her way out of her grave into the night, beginning a year-long Heroic BSoD. She ends the season climbing out of another grave into the light, having rediscovered the value of living.
    • In "Bargaining Part 2", Buffy returns from the dead in time to see the sweet innocent Buffybot permanently destroyed when it's ripped apart by demons, showing Buffy's loss of innocence and the need to build herself anew.
  • In the Columbo episode "A Friend Indeed", Mark Halperin gets this when he's already in the midst of his Establishing Character Moment of being in a club, gambling with a pretty girl draped over him rather than being at home with his wife. The symbolism comes from him sitting beside his reflection in a mirror during his conversation with his friend, Hugh, hinting that he's two faced and duplicitous. Sure enough, he is.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "The Time of the Doctor": What happens just as the 11th Doctor is given a new set of regenerations and effectively begins the regeneration into the 12th Doctor? The clock strikes twelve.
    • "Demons of the Punjab" is set at the time of the Partition of India, and features a young couple, Muslim Umbreen and Hindu Prem, about to get married. The new border is drawn so Umbreen's house is in Pakistan and Prem's house is in India, and they get married across the border.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • The only time we see Lord Renly Baratheon garbed in something other than House Baratheon black in Season 1 is at the Tourney of the Hand. He covers himself with a green brocade cloak (green is one of the colours of House Tyrell) when he watches his boyfriend Ser Loras Tyrell joust to subtly display his affection and support for the man he loves. Renly is essentially copying the Westerosi wedding practice of the bride being draped in a cloak featuring the colours of her husband's sigil, so his richly decorative green cape is a symbol of his commitment to Loras.
    • At the dinner table in "Valar Dohaeris", Margaery Tyrell and her brother Loras are seated next to each other, while Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey are positioned at the opposite ends. To maintain symmetry, the Tyrell siblings would normally have been placed across from each other. Not surprisingly, Margaery and Loras are a harmonious Brother–Sister Team, whereas Cersei and Joffrey exchange veiled insults against each other.
    • Loras is the only Tyrell in the first three seasons who sports green-and-gold attire. In "Kissed by Fire," he is sparring with various Tyrell squires, so being adorned in his house's true colours represents his honesty as a knight (as opposed to being a pawn—albeit one with a deceptive mask—in his family's political machinations) in this scene.
    • More so than any other House, the Tyrells are frequently seen in a lush, garden environment. It's a visual reminder to the audience of the Reach's fertile lands and its culture of romanticism, the family's floral theme, their cautious nature (gardens require careful maintenance), their preoccupation with beauty, and their preference for peace.
    • Margaery and Ellaria Sand's choice of wardrobe tends to be very modern for the setting, and it often display their chest and back. They're the only two prominent, non-prostitute female characters in Westeros who typically expose a fair amount of skin. Dorne (where Ellaria is from) and Highgarden (Margaery's home city) are the two most liberal regions on the continent, so the avant-garde/risqué cuts of their outfits signify their respective culture's relatively progressive attitudes.
    • Joffrey hates flowers because he considers them to be effeminate, yet the new crown he has fashioned for his wedding features several entwined rose buds. This represents his bride Margaery's strong influence on him, as her house's sigil is a rose.
    • The pink rose patterns on Loras' sleeves and Prince Oberyn Martell's wrap around belt at the Purple Wedding are identical. Only the fabric's background colour is different, and in Oberyn's case, it's actually green, one of the House Tyrell colours that is missing from Loras' outfit. This subtly hints at the two characters' attraction towards each other and their similarities. (Oberyn serves as a Foil to Loras). It's not a coincidence that the five-petal floral design on Oberyn's necklace is a simplified version of the embossed/enameled five-petal flowers on Loras' armour.
    • Margaery, Loras and their grandmother Lady Olenna Tyrell's mourning attire in Season 4 is actually dark grey and dark green instead of black (with the exception of Margaery's shawl), which signifies that their "grief" over Joffrey's passing is insincere. Lord Mace Tyrell doesn't even bother to put on dark clothing.
    • The first four seasons end with a scene relating to a symbol of fire or ice, alternating between the two each season. They also seems to have a bi-seasonal switch between a Supernatural ending and a Mundane ending.
      • Season 1: Daenerys' dragons hatch (fire), (supernatural).
      • Season 2: The White Walkers attack the Fist of the First Men (ice), (supernatural).
      • Season 3: Daenerys Targaryen (of a family strongly associated with fire) frees the slaves of Yunkai, a city that is located in a desert (fire), (mundane).
      • Season 4: Arya Stark (of a family strongly associated with ice) sails (on water, aka ice) away from Westeros. (ice), (mundane).
    • In "Winter Is Coming", the Starks find a stag and a direwolf Mutual Kill. This is seen as a disturbing omen in-universe. The direwolf also has six pups which map directly onto the Stark children (including Heroic Bastard Jon Snow, who gets an albino that was separated). Theon is also quick to accept the idea of killing the pups, which foreshadows his future.
    • Tywin Lannister is introduced in "You Win Or You Die" butchering a stag (the sigil of House Baratheon) while his army assembles for what will become the War of the Five Kings. A Deleted Scene from Season 3 also shows Tywin catching fish (the sigil of House Tully).
    • In the midst of a melee, it is Non-Action Guy Magnificent Bastard Littlefinger who holds a knife to Ned's throat to underscore his backstabbing.
    • Sandor "The Hound" Clegane wears a snarling dog helmet and is Joffrey's human Right-Hand Attack Dog until he gets tired of being kicked and bites back. He also develops a Morality Pet relationship with both Stark girls that culminates in him being mortally wounded protecting Arya from a perceived threat.
    • Just before the arrows start flying, Roose Bolton shows Catelyn Stark what he has "up his sleeve".
    • The house sigil of House Baratheon of King's Landing is a quartering (the process of combining sigils; specifically, two sigils are impaled - i.e. given equal space) of the Baratheon Stag and the Lannister Lion—and yet the tail of the Lion hovers menacingly above the Stag's own field—subtly emphasizing that it is really House Lannister calling the shots behind them.
    • The three heads on House Targaryen's dragon sigil symbolize Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had a few of these. One of the most significant in the later seasons was the baseball Captain Benjamin Sisko kept on his desk in his office; when the Federation was driven from Deep Space 9 in the final episode of the fifth season, Sisko left his baseball behind to inform his long-time rival Gul Dukat that he would be coming back to the station, while at the end of the sixth season, when Sisko took a leave of absence to grieve the death of his friend Jadzia Dax, Major Kira observed that the baseball being taken from his desk proved that Sisko wasn't sure if he was coming back. At the conclusion of the series, when Sisko had become one of the Bajoran Prophets, the baseball remained on his desk as a sign that he may return to his human state at some point.
  • In Wizards of Waverly Place, when Justin and Harper find Alex who is painting in an artists alley she's painted her first initial surrounded by a circle. That symbol also happens to be the universal symbol for anarchy. Symbolic much?
  • The "Two Cathedrals" episode of The West Wing features a tropical storm arriving at Washington D.C in the middle of May. Much is made of how impossible this is; a tropical storm is a specific kind of weather event, the season for tropical storms begins in June and ends in November, and an event of this nature hasn't been recorded in a century. Furthermore, this all happens to be taking place at a point where President Bartlet is at his lowest point, having to deal with not only the revelation of his MS diagnosis to the public (and his guilt at keeping it a secret), but also the death of his beloved secretary and mentor, and he's consequently a bit guilt-ridden, anxious and angry, culminating in an epic Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter moment at the National Cathedral. Of course, this is all build up to give us the sight of Bartlet, the most powerful man in the world, eventually having a Redemption in the Rain moment as a tropical storm, a freak event he cannot control, washes over him.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Mage: The Awakening has a lot of this, mostly because it internally posits magic that works according to symbolic principles. Most monsters and phenomena, several organizational principles, and the Supernal Realms operate according to symbolic logic. There's even a Sourcebook filled with plot hooks referencing Tarot Motifs (such as a man who overcame his addictions and became a stable, fulfilled and productive family man and community paragon who makes a metal sculpture of a T-Rex that can come to life and will serve whoever defeats it, representing Strength).
  • Mercadia from Magic: The Gathering is topsy-turvy compared to most of Magic's settings: humans are subservient to intelligent goblins, who are usually very dumb. So naturally, Mercadia City is located atop an inverted mountain.

  • The Rose Tattoo has roses and rose-flavored things everywhere, starting with the names of Rosario delle Rose, the original owner of the tattoo, and his daughter Rosa.
  • The overbearing Winter versus Summer in Celebration, the Spiritual Successor to The Fantasticks.
  • There were a few instances in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem which stretched the audience's Willing Suspension of Disbelief but had symbolism instead. For example, when Johnny ("Rooster") beats the bongo drum heavily in the last scene to "summon giants", after a few moments, the audience then hears three loud stomps in a similar style to footsteps, then on the last stomp the stage blacks out instantly, ending the play. It's unlikely there were actually giants in context to the rest of the play, so it can be interpreted more easily as a metaphor (which carries symbolism) rather than a literal event.
  • In John Milton's Comus, the spirit makes a point that the dull herb that can break magic has a golden flower "in another country".

    Video Games 
  • Cryostasis might be the single greatest example of this in video games, much of the plot is symbologically told through a fairy tale. The monsters quickly turn from Ice Zombies to weird abstract demons, and God help you if you attempt to make any non-symbolic sense of the ending, hell, God help you if you attempt to make sense of anything after you enter the Prison.
  • The whole of Silent Hill 2 itself is pretty much 80% symbolism. Another notable example — one of many — is when, near the beginning of the game, James stumbles across a bloody corpse that looks exactly like him slouched in an armchair, in front of a TV blaring static; a splatter of blood is also present on the TV, implying suicide. This would later be some pretty huge (and not to mention tragic) foreshadowing, when James watches a tape near the end of the game that reveals he murdered his wife, Mary. Fittingly, one of the several endings available includes poor James drowning himself. In addition, Freud would have had a field day with Team Silent — don't even mention how Pyramid Head essentially looks like a walking penis.
  • In The World Ends with You, Joshua's air attack stance looks like a crucifixion pose, and he attacks with beams and spears of light surrounded by glowing cherubs and angelic wings. Also, his name is derived from the same name from which the name of Jesus comes. At the end of the game, it turns out he is the Composer, which is essentially the god of the UG, and that he has decided to destroy Shibuya because the people have faltered, a la God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Megumi refers to him, the pronouns are always capitalized; a tradition usually associated with the Abrahamic God.
  • Corpses show up in crucifixion poses all over Bioshock, but a half dozen show up in the lobby of Andrew Ryan's office. Appropriate, since the player spends the game listening to the audio logs of how Ryan goes from Anti-Villain to It's All About Me through a series of characters with a desire to stop Ryan, only to find all their corpses mounted to columns.
  • In Final Fantasy VII the name of our very The Ace is a symbol: Zack (of course short for Zachery...) means "Memory", ...
  • The Final Boss of Final Fantasy IX, Necron, is one of the biggest cases of Giant Space Flea from Nowhere in the industry, but fans of the game justify his appearance with this. The main theme of the game is that everyone and everything wants to live, and even the Big Bad Kuja is only trying to kill everyone because his own life has been robbed from him by his father, Garland. Necron is the Anthropomorphic Personification of death, and shows up in the end to give the heroes a chance to literally defeat Death itself.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2 - just about the whole game from Raiden's capture onward, but with special emphasis on the "She is Lady Luck!" scene. Hideo Kojima has stated that the scene where the miraculous bullet strikes Snake's handcuffs and allows him to break out of them, but Raiden remains struggling as Snake dives into the sea, is the most blatantly symbolic scene in the game. Metal Gear Solid 4's ending probably falls under this trope as well, since it revolves around (implausibly) killing off the older generation to make way for the new generation, the game's main theme.
  • Fallout 3 has Abraham Lincoln's head missing from his memorial, which was taken over by slavers. The head is in the possession of a group of escaped slaves who want to take it back to the memorial and use it as their headquarters. If you talk to the slavers, they'll explain that they defaced the statue to erase Lincoln from known history. It's hard to incite a slave rebellion if your fellow slaves think that nobody has ever successfully abolished slavery.
  • Fallout 4 has the Institute's main symbol looks like a stylized Vitruvian Man, which seems befitting for their Mad Scientist origins. What's not often pointed out is that it's also reminiscent of a Synth during construction. Additionally, it also bears a not-insignificant resemblance to a breaking wheel.
  • Persona 3 - The Mole reveals himself and captures the heroes, and then sets them up on crosses while he flaunts his victory. Seems to come from nowhere at first, but when you consider the ending in which the protagonist sacrifices his life to save mankind from a being that arose because of the collective sins of man...
  • The powerful shadows in Persona 4 represent sides of the characters' inner selves that they would prefer to keep concealed so naturally, when you finally see them, the symbolism just slaps you around with a fresh tuna. A caged bird? A gigantic over-muscled *thing* with flowers for a head? A half-man half-woman robot thing? Yeah.
  • This tends to be the only strong defense for Red Dead Redemption's ending. John Marston's death makes the entire game essentially a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story and leaves the player to play as a character who is widely considered to be The Scrappy, but the symbolism of a large number of government agents shooting down one of the last aging gunslingers ties into the game's theme so well, it works.
  • Red Dead Redemption 2: Occurs toward the end of Chapter 6 with the final two choices: "Go with John" or "Go for the loot" (combined with Friend or Idol Decision). If you choose "Go with John", you'll get a bit of a boost to your Honor Meter and you'll fight off the Pinkertons while climbing up toward the mountaintop in Grizzlies East where a fistfight with Micah Bell awaits (all of which symbolizes Heaven itself). On the other hand, if you choose "Go for the loot", you'll suffer a bit of an Honor loss,note  and you'll fight your way back down to the camp in Beaver Hollow that is being engulfed by flames as a result of the Pinkteron attack, where a knife fight with Micah awaits after you take the money from the chest (thus symbolizing Hell itself).
  • The Neverhood abounds with symbolism related to the Garden of Eden, from the setting itself (which is a kind of Eden-gone-sideways) to the main villain's plot (he stole his leader's crown—the only thing in The Neverhood he wasn't allowed to have—and therefore corrupted it). There's even the fact that said villain, Klogg, is actually the protagonist's older brother. If this sounds heavy-handed, though, don't worry—despite the symbolic story, the game itself is mostly just randomness, slapstick, and cool claymation.
  • The old RTS 7th Legion has much symbolism related to the Apocalypse.
  • Yume Nikki takes place in a Dream Land. Being more dream-like than usual, the game is composed entirely of this and Rule of Scary.
  • In Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, this is how fans think of the Ruling Ending: Even if you end the Console Wars by having one Super Console that plays everything, piracy will always continue to exist. With only one super console, the industry will stall without competition. And the gaming world will not improve without competition, will fall apart sooner or later.
  • The Ancient Cistern in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has a deep symbolic relation with Eastern folklore, subtly referencing the events of the story The Spider's Thread. To a lesser extent, there is also a religious allegory in the process to enter that dungeon (Link must cure Faron by delivering sacred water to her).
  • What Braid is seemingly about is a man called Tim trying to rescue a princess from an evil monster. What Braid is really about, and who or what Tim, the Princess and the Monster represent is a topic that is heavily debated, with ideas ranging from the game being about one man's slip from sanity, the relationships between men and women in general, a man trying to fix a crumbling relationship, a man learning that some mistakes cannot be reversed, a man stalking an innocent women etc. It's kinda Mind Screwy, you see. The most accepted theory is that Tim is a scientist on the Manhattan Project and the Princess is the Atom Bomb but even that is contested. However, what the game is actually about is entirely up to you, as Word of God refuses to elaborate.
  • The boy that Shepard sees killed at the start of Mass Effect 3 and repeatedly dreams about is outright stated to be the symbol that this time Shepard can't save everyone. The appearance of the boy as a visual representation of the Catalyst symbolizes that Shepard can end the war but still can't save everyone: either the friendly A.I.s like EDI and (possibly) the geth, Shepard, or Shepard's physical body and humanity, have to be sacrificed.
  • Resident Evil 6: At the end of Leon's campaign, when Simmons is Impaled with Extreme Prejudice on the monument in the Quad Tower, his blood floods the floor of the courtyard and ends up forming the Umbrella Corporation logo, symbolizing that Simmons was just as bad as Umbrella.
  • OFF. Is it a straight After the End story? Is it a deconstruction of blank-slate protagonists with a goal to defeat everything? Is it the story of a man fleeing from his abusive, clingy girlfriend? Is it a look at single-minded obsession, perhaps even obsessive-compulsive disorder? Or is it, as the LP claimed, all about a male stereotype systematically destroying femininity and what he perceives as negative male stereotypes? Worse still, the author refuses to comment on it, preferring to go on about his boat.

    Web Animation 
  • The web series Broken Saints is loaded with this.
  • Red vs. Blue:
    • Being that the series is a Machinima and filmed in Halo, the first five seasons - The Blood Gulch Chronicles - have Endless Daytime whenever the story's events are taking place in Blood Gulch (much to the confusion of multiple characters). The only time we see it get darker in Blood Gulch as if the sun's about to set? When The Blood Gulch Chronicles are about to end on a Sudden Downer Ending.
    • The Chorus Trilogy has a few.
      • When Locus performs their Heel–Face Turn in the penultimate episode of Season 13, they and the Reds and Blues are all positioned around Felix in a near-identical replica to how Locus' "trial" in the Jungle Temple looked during "Locus of Control".
      • invoked According to Word of God, the Reds and Blues using Hargrove's trophies from Project Freelancer against him in the Season 13 finale is meant to represent them taking back their history from Charon and them reclaiming "what is rightfully their's".
      • The Dark Reprise of "Contact" - "Contact Redux" - which plays during Season 13's end credits is almost identical lyrically to the original song, but has one noticeable change: "Contact" has the line "One of us won't be forgotten", while "Contact Redux" has the corresponding line of "One of us will be forgotten". This can be seen as an allusion to that Wash being kidnapped by Locus and the Feds became Tucker's primary drive to be a competent leader throughout the first half of Season 12 (Wash wasn't forgotten), and now Epsilon has deliberately erased his own memories so as to give the Reds and Blues a fighting chance in the finale (Epsilon has now forgotten himself).

    Web Comics 
  • The Last Days of FOXHOUND uses this in-universe. When the characters are watching one of the last scenes of Metal Gear Solid 3, the white flowers in a field turn red in a dramatic moment. Decoy Octopus questions the reason for such a phenomenon, only to be told it doesn't matter.
  • Hiimdaisy's big long Persona 4 comic uses this, in context of when the Shadow of a character appears, but only got this on Yukiko and Kanji's.
    IT'S STILL SYMBOOOOOLLIIIIICC!!! (You know, because he's gay. Do you get it?)
  • Schlock Mercenary: In-universe. A new human embassy has gardens with sands, pebbles, and polymer chips from every single human world, moon, or habitat.
    Commodore Tagon: That seems like a lot of work for a little symbolism.
    General Bala-Amin: It all arrived in the same crate. There's an entire industry built around these embassy franchise kits.

    Web Original 
  • Each season of the French Canadian post-apocalyptic Webseries Temps Mort could be compared to a period of the prehistoric era.
    • The first is the pre-sapiens era where everybody was on is own.
    • The second the time when humans was nomad.
    • The third the beginning of sedentarism
    • The finale being a clear reference to the myth of Moise, symbolise the dawn of civilisation.

    Western Animation 
  • Lampshaded by Young Man in the final episode of Perfect Hair Forever.
    "I wish that these cats and hot dogs weren't symbolic of anything, and this was all just a big anime mind-EFF!"
  • Takanuva's reanimation at the end of BIONICLE: Mask of Light is one of the biggest ass pulls in the story, but the creators wanted to very blatantly make it clear that three of the main characters each represented one of the story's three virtues: Hahli stood for Unity for uniting the villagers, Jaller represented Duty for doing his work without question, and Takua/Takanuva was all about Destiny, accepting his fate and becoming the hero Takanuva who defeated the Big Bad. In order to drive the symbolism home, he ends up being reduced to his mask, but is immediately brought back to life by Turaga Vakama loudly proclaiming which virtue each of them represented, placing Jaller, Hahli and the mask onto a UDD symbol engraved into the floor. It's never explained how this brought Takanuva back, nor why he lost his body in the first place.
  • During the beach episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender Zuko takes his family's portrait and tosses into the fire without a second thought during the campfire scene. It's a powerful representation of how disillusioned he is with pretending his family isn't dysfunctional. Interestingly enough, Azula doesn't stop him from doing it either.
  • Legend of Korra:
    • At the end of the fourth and final season, Balance, the ten-thousand year old reincarnated soul of a magic being that is able to bend all four elements clasps hands with a non-bending individual that is nevertheless an inventor and industrialist, walking together into the unknown future.
    • When Korra and Kuvira are plunged into the Spirit World, Korra has a vision mirroring that of the one in "Beginnings", with two versions of herself facing each other — purple on the left and blue on the right. In this case, Korra is the one in blue, while the one in purple morphs into Kuvira. This is both a clever shout out to spiritual traditions of the "left hand path" and "right hand path", and also quite suggestive of the fact that Korra finally overcame all her fetters and flaws, and is now a truly fulfilled Avatar.
  • Parodied in the episode "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs" of South Park. When Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny wrote a extremely Nausea Fuel novel just for fun, it ends up being published and became a success. Later, they find readers of the novel interpreting the absurdly disgusting scenes as symbolisms for political issues, while they actually don't had any meaning beyond just being disgusting.
  • In the Wander over Yonder episode "My Fair Hatey", after Lord Dominator shoots down Lord Hater's advances she goes into a Villain Song where she reveals her true motivation: she has no interest in conquest and is just destroying planets outright For the Evulz. During her song she's seen sucking resources out of the heart-shaped planet Lemoria from "The Date", gleefully watching it shrivel up as she simultaneously crushes Lord Hater's hopes that Dominator would want to rule the galaxy by his side and Wander's hopes that Love Redeems.
  • On Ready Jet Go!, each of the main child characters represent an important factor of science. Sydney represents the power of imagination, since she's imaginative, loves science-fiction, and thinks creatively in situations. Sean represents science facts. He's all about the facts and likes to do things the old-fashioned way. Mindy represents curiosity. She's always asking questions that lead to the episodes' plots. And Jet himself is an amalgamation of all of those elements.

    Real Life 
  • Blanket statement: most works that attempt to justify a Deus ex Machina as evidence of fate intervening in somebody's favor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is usually an attempt to use this trope.
  • As much as crucifixion has been used for symbolism through the years, the symbolism of the most famous crucifixion was that the punishment was given to slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state.
    • The crucifixion (as opposed to other methods of execution) was seen by the Roman Empire as too harsh a punishment for actual Roman citizens. Thus, it was used only for slaves (who were citizens of other nations brought to Rome as captives) and pirates (citizens of NO nation) within Roman borders; it was used for non-citizens in Roman-held territories, like the most recognized case. Incidentally, the cruelest punishment for Roman citizens was not considered to be execution, but exile, either to Roman territories away from the centre of power, or (gads!) outside Roman borders altogether, for those particularly heinous offenders. However, exile was much more Serious Business in those days, when travel wasn't as quick and safe and most civilizations weren't as welcoming of new additions to their populace.


Video Example(s):


Barbie: Mariposa

The star that hides the antidote for Mariposa is all alone and by itself, just like how Mariposa is.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / RuleOfSymbolism

Media sources:

Main / RuleOfSymbolism