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World of Symbolism

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How will we ever break the news to Simple, Sloth and Presumption's families?

"Everything represents, nothing is."
Ingmar Bergman, from The Magician

Fiction often works on several levels. On the one hand, you have the story that's actually being told, and the characters the story involves; on the other, you have the meaning behind the story, abstract ideas represented by the characters and symbols reflecting the story's view of the world. Even if the writer didn't intend for the story to have a deeper meaning, applicability may give it a resonance and context that goes beyond the basic plot. Moby-Dick is a story about an obsessed whaler hunting down a monstrous whale, but it's also about humanity railing uselessly against an uncaring universe. The Lord of the Rings may have been intended just as a fantasy epic, but it has symbolic applications ranging from World War 2 to the loss of innocence.

But then sometimes you have stories with no literal level. At all.

These are the stories where the only answer to "why did the main character turn into a hawk and fly into a volcano at the end" is "because the hawk represents his desire for freedom and the volcano is the burden of free will". There is no straightforward, realistic storyline masking the symbolism, there's not even a Magic A Is Magic A sense of logic tying it all together. This is subtext without the text; subtext as text. The characters are complex self-representing archetypes and the events that unfold make no physical sense whatsoever unless you take the whole thing as a semiotic play of some kind.

Needless to say, this sort of plot can prove frustrating for literal-minded audiences who expect a more concrete answer to a plot hole than "because the plot hole symbolizes our inability to define existential truth". Such complaints about the story's lack of narrative logic are often dismissed by its fans with Viewers Are Morons, with fans and non-fans talking past each other and on entirely different levels. Literary allegory has been a respected genre since about as long as myths have been written, and it got its start in myths and folklore meant to both explain and symbolize the forces of nature and humanity's place in the world. On the other hand, one can argue that a modern-day author whose story doesn't hold together on every level has only written half a story; Shakespeare's plays may be full of symbolism, but they also work just as well as straightforward comedies and tragedies.

Such stories are often a source of incurable Mind Screw, since there's really no way to make narrative sense out of them, and an Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory outlook is just about required. When most people think of True Art books, movies and so on, this is usually the sort of thing they're thinking of, though it can all fall down if it's mixed up with too much gratuitous Faux Symbolism. If the fandom insists on coming up with a literal explanation for what's happening, Through the Eyes of Madness or All Just a Dream are common rationales.

See also Rule of Symbolism, which is what happens when an otherwise realistic story relies on a momentary suspension of disbelief in the name of symbolism, and Rule of Cool, which does the same thing for the sake of awesomeness.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Anime series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara are often set in this kind of world, and keeping this trope in mind is usually the key to understanding his works. Much of the surreal imagery has a deeper meaning (if it isn't something he decided to add on a whim) and isn't meant to be taken at face value.
    • Revolutionary Girl Utena relies on Jungian archetypes to explain immortal power struggles, with surreal landscapes and a bewildering sword fighting tournament set in an ostensibly modern, ordinary world. It also uses fairy tale archetypes and motifs to examine and deconstruct gender roles, especially ones that are prevalent in shoujo series. If you've ever found yourself lying awake at night wondering how the heck human girls can inexplicably lay eggs or turn into cars, this might not be the anime for you.
    • Penguindrum can also be quite surreal, especially in the case of the Child Broiler, which is treated like a real place by the characters despite how a factory where children are sent to be "broiled" is something no sane government in real life would allow to exist. However, it can also be seen as a metaphor for how unwanted children are forgotten, or how children are crushed by society into becoming generic nobodies.
    • Yuri Kuma Arashi can be seen as a huge allegory for Japan's overall view of lesbians versus how they're portrayed in works from the Yuri Genre. In an interview, Ikuhara has implicitly compared lesbians to bears, in that they're portrayed as cutesy innocents in fiction but viewed with distrust in real life.
  • Serial Experiments Lain has the premise that the real world and the internet are gradually merging. It sounds simple enough, but the way it's depicted is entirely this trope. Anything explained is done as a Genius Bonus, but the vast majority of the plot relies on vague symbolism and inferences.
  • Junji Ito's horror manga usually rely on this sort of explanation for The Reveal. For one low-key example, The Earthbound has people mysteriously losing their will to live and becoming inexplicably rooted to one spot. The revelation that they're being weighed down by the guilt of their secret crimes might not make any literal sense, but it's the only one offered.
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers involves anthropomorphic embodiments of nations living lives that reflect major events in each one's history, initially focusing on World War 2 but eventually moving both forward and backward through history. There are some vague attempts every now and then to flesh out the setting into a more literal, realistic context, but ironically, they only make things more confusing.
  • Angel's Egg is basically a visual poem with no real plot or characters; they are all simply symbols taking part in a huge visual metaphor. What it stands for? Well, it has something to do with Christianity.
  • Haibane Renmei is centered around the mystery of the setting, and ultimately almost none of it is explained. The details of why don't matter, though, because the important part is the extended metaphor for the important questions of life.
  • FLCL. Oh, mamma mia FLCL. One theory is that they took the plot of Neon Genesis Evangelion, removed the depression, and condensed it down to six episodes, without removing a single phallic symbol.
  • Madoka Rebellion amps up the symbolism from the original anime, which mostly included this in the witch barriers. In Rebellion, it's prevalent throughout the whole movie. Justified, because Rebellion actually ends up taking place almost entirely within one of those barriers, which are representations of the mind of the witch during their last moments as a magical girl, and naturally would be heavily symbolic.

    Comic Books 
  • The Sandman (1989) operates more on a metaphorical level than on a literal one, to the extent that the physical reality can be said to be an extension of metaphors. Rather appropriate for a series centering around the Anthropomorphic Personification of dreams.
  • De Cape et de Crocs: The moon is populated by peoples who behave according to the rules of literature. That is, inhabitants of Palindromia wear symmetrical clothes and speak in, well, palindromes, Litotians speak in Understatements ("a handful" for "thousands", "I hate you not" for "I love you", "The idea is not unpleasant" for "Big "YES!""...), the spooneristic smugglers' every sentence is a filthy joke when decoded, etc.

    Films — Animation 
  • Pretty much every element of Son of the White Horse is symbolically tied to ancient Eurasian folklore, mythological iconography, astrology and the cyclical nature of seasons and days, the criticism of modernity and pollution, heaps of sexuality, and some even think there's a couple jabs at Communism hidden in there. Following only the incredibly basic plot and taking in the abstract visuals at face value means you literally miss over half of the story.
  • While the story of Inside Out unfolds quite realistically on one level, much of the action takes place in the world within Riley's head, which runs on symbolism to the point where the fact that memories can be colored by Sadness is both a Literal Metaphor and a major plot point.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A favorite technique of Charlie Kaufman, especially in movies he both writes and directs. Synecdoche, New York and I'm Thinking of Ending Things are this in spades, with worlds that seem to entirely operate on the logic of the allegories they represent. Somewhat justified in the case of the latter as the film takes place inside the memories of a man slowly dying from hypothermia reminiscing on what he could have done in life, but that framing device still doesn't explain a lot.
  • David Lynch's movies have a reputation for falling into this category. Though some of them do have a comprehensible story, there's simply no way to take movies like Eraserhead and Inland Empire on anything except a very symbolic, fever-dream level.
  • The Shinya Tsukamoto cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man starts off in a realistic world and gradually delves deeper into Body Horror territory. Like Junji Ito's stories, however, The Reveal for what's happening to the protagonist only makes sense only on a symbolic level.
  • Lars von Trier's Antichrist also works on this level. Critical discussions on it range the topics of love and hate, order versus chaos and the nature of guilt. Questions about precisely where the talking fox and the tree with hands came from are a different matter.
  • Identity runs on a symbolic level. The entire world and all the characters are actually nothing more or less than the pieces of a madman's fractured mind, and the struggle between the characters are his internal mental struggle.
  • The ending of Snow In August, where protagonist Michael Devlin is able to summon the Golem of Jewish folklore and has it beat up the Falcons (the teenaged thugs that have been terrorizing him). He then heals Rabbi Hirsch of his extremely life-threatening injuries (inflicted by the Falcons), after which Hirsch reunites with his wife who had been killed in the Holocaust. The whole thing seems to have been an allegory for the healing power of religious faith and may have also been symbolic of Michael's extreme Character Development, though some have interpreted it as an Ass Pull.
  • Pandorum works on this level by being an allegory to the degradation of the human condition in Works and Days and The Divine Comedy.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road can be easy to miss due to the chaos and the fact that it's a never ending chase, but one can pick almost any scene and find some level of symbolism in it. Chains are widely used to represent oppression and slavery, both in connection with Max and Nux, Immortan Joe having his "failed" wives milked like cattle, Nux's chest scars formed into an engine, etc.
  • The John Wick franchise is chock-full of mythological and historical references, usually to Greek myths, fairy tales and Christianity. For example, the concierge of the Continental hotel is called Charon, ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, signaling the parallel between the "world of the dead" of Greek mythos and the world of crime in the movie. Second movie even has two of its primary antagonists be called Ares and Cassian to drive the theological motifs home. One video attempts to collect all the parallels made in the first film and it still leaves quite a few out.
  • Annihilation (2018) is one large metaphor for grief and how it changes you. The Shimmer represents pain, especially in relation to cancer, while each person of the team sent in represents a different self-destructive reaction to trauma and the ways they die or escape are very closely tied to those reactions.
  • American Beauty: Everything. The director goes into great detail in the commentary about it. Its ripe for Media study classes.
  • Gozu: Starts out looking like a typical Yakuza film but slowly turns to Surreal Horror on a level comparable to a David Lynch film as the protagonist encounters increasingly bizarre and seemingly random characters and events. It makes more sense if you realize that a lot of it is references to Japanese and Greek mythology. The consensus is that it is all a metaphor for the main character coming to terms with his homosexuality or something like that.

  • The Pilgrim's Progress, though it narrowly averts the trope by presenting itself as a dream, remains one of the most famous "pure" allegories in literature. Just in case there's any confusion over the matter, the characters are actually named things like Christian, Good Will, Hypocrisy and Ignorance.
    • Bunyan also wrote a less well-known allegorical novel called The Holy War, in which King Shaddai and his son Emmanuel fight against Diabolus for rulership of the town of Mansoul. This one dispenses with the All Just a Dream disclaimer, and is considered much less successful.
  • C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress, being a sort of personalized version of Pilgrim's Progress, has this.
  • The works of Franz Kafka are also famous for not making sense on anything but the metaphorical level. In his case, though, even the metaphor's very much up for debate. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa turns into a giant bug. Why that happened and what it represents, if anything, is entirely up to the reader. The most trusted interpretation is that Gregor has become literally what he had been figuratively in his creeping submissive personality and in his exploited role in his family, though a more popular and mundane modern rationalization is that the transformation represents mental illness so Gregor is just imagining his transformation due to insanity. This symbolism-vs-mundanity argument is still debated among high school and college students.
  • Modernist literature in general approaches its stories from this perspective, most famously in T.S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land. The images are bizarre, disturbing and can only begin to make sense if the reader takes every everything symbolically.
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, about a shephard boy's journey to Egypt, works on this level.
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge mixes some supernatural elements into the story, though if you're left wondering why birds are such incredibly Serious Business, remember that it's all an allegory about faith and atonement.
  • Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth has the tollbooth leading to a world of pure allegory and language come to life (often in puntastic form). There might be magic involved with the tollbooth itself (it's not made clear), but once Milo crosses it, he's off to places like the island of Conclusions (that you arrive at only by jumping) on a quest to return the princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason to the kingdom of Wisdom. Yeah.
  • The Power of Five: Matt is Jesus, the dream world is Heaven, and the lady that Scar saw in the Library is the Virgin Mary. Scott could also be seen as Judas.
  • The Things They Carried is modern Surrealism that reaches this level, just about everything is symbolic, and the Unreliable Narrator makes it clear that fiction is sometimes truer than the truth.
  • In the Paarfi novels set in Dragaera's historical past, Zerika's journey through the Paths of the Dead is depicted in this way, with every obstacle or environment she encounters reflecting the fundamental nature of one of the 17 Houses.
  • Dave Barry had some advice on what courses to take in college, such as English:
    Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland.
    Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby-Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Prisoner (1967) similarly more or less defies a literal explanation, as one early episode after another seems intentionally designed to blow away any rational theory about The Village's nature. The Gainax Ending certainly didn't help matters; it's notable that the 2009 remake resolved the setting by placing it within a literal world of symbols... i.e. a dream world.
  • Many of the episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959) occur on a purely symbolic level as well, mixed in with more straightforward science fiction and fantasy stories. For instance, in "I am the Night, Color Me Black", why hasn't the Sun risen and why is darkness spreading all over the world? Because all the hatred in the world has blotted out the light.
  • Twin Peaks, being created by David Lynch, also approaches pure allegory at times. There might be supernatural forces at work in the town, or the whole thing might be a prolonged allegory about something else entirely.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Mage: The Ascension has a few elements of this in various places, as well as in its general mechanics. Notably, there is the Astral Umbra, which Mages can access with the sphere of Mind. In this realm, literally everything is the symbolic made manifest, with dream logic, mythopoetic structure, and metaphor acting as the rules of the realm.
  • Mage: The Awakening is similar in many respects. Not only in its Astral Space, but many aspects of the "real" world are implied to be purely symbolic abstracts made manifest (most strongly in the sourcebook "Keys to the Supernal Tarot"), and Imperial Mysteries depicts the Supernal World as utterly requiring the imposition of symbolism on it to make interaction that does not utterly obliterate human existence to be possible.
  • Nobilis is built around this trope. In the game, players enact Nobles, figures of power that stems directly from the aspect of reality that they embody. They wield these powers through symbols and thoughts that act on a world that is completely a World of Symbolism. By manipulating these symbols, they are able to create acts in the physical realm which are truly massive.

  • The Summoning of Everyman, an English morality play. God sends Death to summon Everyman, who represents mankind, and Everyman meets characters like Good Deeds and Knowledge. 15th century morality plays weren't known for being subtle.
    • Imitated in the early 20th century by Everywoman and Experience.

    Video Games 
  • Genesis Noir is, on the surface, a detective story where the hero is trying to stop a woman from getting murdered. It is also a metaphor for the origin of the universe. The characters are personifications of various concepts and the shot that's supposed to kill the woman is the Big Bang.
  • Killer7 makes no sense whatsoever on a literal level. Just to begin with, there's the fact that the main character physically turns into their split personalities. Think it's just Through the Eyes of Madness? If said split personalities die, they turn into their own severed head in a paper bag which can then be retrieved by a different personality. Even more obviously metaphorical is the fact that two of the main characters, who represent the West and the East and their conflicts, are immortal, because of the futility of war.
  • Journey (2012). While the story obviously resembles The Hero's Journey, you may feel free to interpret it whatever you want, as no words are heard at all here, even when you communicate with a companion. The backstory is told through confluences and glyphs. The only voices you hear in the game come from cloth creatures and machines, and still no words.
  • Metal Gear is a notorious example.
  • The Path runs wild with this trope, as it's a metaphorical horror take on the Red Riding Hood story. Why are six girls named after different shades of red each visiting their creepy grandmother one by one, walking through the woods alone and confronting a shapeshifting being that leads them to a nightmarishly transformed version of grandma's house? Well, it's because the wolf represents temptation, grandma's house symbolizes death (or adulthood), the path is a metaphor for obedience, the girls embody different stages of adolescence...
  • Rule of Rose has got symbolism coming out its ears, and it's never made clear what most of it means and what actually happened to Jennifer.
  • The Silent Hill series is famous for working, to some degree, on this level, though how much of it can also be explained via supernatural phenomena varies from game to game theory to theory. The second game in particular presents its story almost solely on a symbolic level. What is Pyramid Head? A reflection of James' guilt, sexuality and need for punishment. Who is Maria? An idealized yet distorted memory of his dead wife. Yes, but, literally, what are they and where did they come from? At the very least, you'll need information from the other games to even start making guesses.
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is full of this trope, since the various scenarios that AM creates for his 5 victims are deliberately designed to exploit their past weaknesses. At the endgame, Surgat explains that symbolism is AM's Fatal Flaw, because he turns his own code into symbolic objects that the characters can use to defeat AM once and for all.
  • Neverending Nightmares justifies this with the game taking place in the main character's head. Everything from the environments to the enemies to every individual line of dialogue has some subtext to it representative of his mental state and his wide variety of real-world issues and worries.note 
  • OMORI: Headspace is an exotic locale entirely contructed out of Sunny's dreams, and everything that happens in it is connected to his trauma, although there is some random nonsensical dream stuff here and there.
  • Anodyne is seemingly representative of the protagonist's mind, so the whole thing is different degrees of this. The endgame is particularly symbolic.
  • The Binding of Isaac tells, very symbolically, the story of a very creative young man and the abusive fundamentalist mother who believes God has ordered her to abuse and eventually sacrifice him.
  • In a lighter example, many of the jokes in Neptunia rely on the characters as the embodiments of video game companies and concepts.
  • Stories Untold initially appears to avert this, with four separate episodes with different gameplay mechanics and settings each time. The fourth one plays this straight, explaining that everything that came before was simply a series of dreams that James Aition had after an accident. Doubled upon in that his therapist, Dr. Alexander, wants James to re-explore his own dreams to find out what really happened.
  • The Myst games often play this to a degree, with elements in each of the Ages relating to what the Age was about. Myst III: Exile runs deliberately on this trope, given that the 4 Lesson Ages in the game were written by Atrus to teach Sirrus and Achenar about how Ages are written.
  • Yume Nikki is all about this trope. There's no real plot or dialogue, just the journey of a little girl in her Mental World. Though it does have an ending, in which she commits suicide.
  • In LISA: The First, all of the strange things seen throughout the game can be interpreted as evidence of Lisa's terrible life, however, some of them are left ambiguous as to how exactly they fit into the bigger picture.
  • Psychonauts, being a game built upon diving inside of people's minds, naturally runs with this. Everything from the the level layouts to the NPCs you encounter has a deeper insight into the psychology of whoever you're mentally exploring.

    Interactive Fiction/Visual Novels 
  • For A Change goes out of its way to avoid describing much of anything with concrete detail. Symbolic interpretations are therefore easier to make than literal ones.
  • Metamorphoses, mostly, but it has a sort of The Chronicles of Amber thing going on, such that the symbolic explanation is the same as the literal one.
  • War: 13th Day is built beautifully on this as it's Wildfire's dream, and it even explains what everything represents in the True End. It doesn't completely clarify the true version of events, but as the opening act to War (X Playing Pieces), it definitely knows how to whet one's appetite.
  • Once you get past the initial Mind Screw of Umineko: When They Cry, many of the fantasy scenes (i.e, scenes involving magic and magical beings that are narrated by Beatrice) can be seen as symbolic of various things, from aspects of murder mysteries to the characters' inner conflicts.

    Web Original 
  • Alice Isn't Dead: Many of the bizarre supernatural events that take place in the story but never get explained can best be interpreted as being symbolic of something. Some of these include a town trapped in a "Groundhog Day" Loop, a factory where the only worker goes through Rapid Aging which seems to exist only to build and launch the worker's coffin, a restaurant that seems to exist in multiple places at once, and an unmoving Ghost Ship that swallows anyone who gets too close but gets destroyed and leaves no trace behind. An oracle claims that the thistle men are a manifestation of the desire to believe that evil people are not human. The epilogue strongly implies that the Big Bad Thistle is some form of Anthropomorphic Personification.
  • Invisible Games: Done in-universe in The Pentintytär Arcade. All of the arcade games found in Irja Pentintytär's home are loose adaptations of events from the lives of her and her late brother Viljami, starring reoccurring sibling avatars named Sisko and Veikko. By themselves, there's no in-game reason to catch wish-granting fish with Veikko, or for Sisko to collect mushrooms that eventually overwhelm her, or for a flight simulator to be followed up by Veikko walking through a void, but each adventure has a meaning that becomes clearer after matching them with their accompanying Finnish title.

  • Erfworld has an entire branch of magic devoted to this called Signamancy. Just about everything in Erfworld involves a pun and/or a reference to the real world, which implies some deeper meaning about the given entity. For example, when Parson negotiates with a King resembling President Nixon, Parson realizes that this means he is untrustworthy and shrewd.
  • This Subnormality strip is a symbolic take on "the human race."
  • Parodied in the Oglaf strip "Atonement". A man walks the Path of Vengeance, which includes tasks such a physically grappling with Hope and being handed a small basket full of Justice, until he meets the Allegory for Allegory itself.