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What Is the Difference between a Metaphor and a Symbol?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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The difference between a metaphor and a symbol is that a metaphor is a direct substitution of one idea or object for another, while a symbol is used to imply something else. Metaphors change their surface meanings, but the inner meaning is unchanging. The surface meaning of symbols is less important than the inner meaning.

A metaphor and a symbol can be included in many forms of art and literature. A difference between them is that symbols are not used in rhetoric or discourse, whereas metaphors are. In rhetoric, metaphors are usually used as a story or as an extended anecdote. They are used to provide an example of the point the speaker or writer is trying to make.

Metaphors are continuous and can form parts of narrative. A long metaphor is known either as an extended metaphor or as an allegory. Films, poems and novels can include symbols, but only metaphors are used as a narrative device. Sometimes entire films, poems and novels are metaphors such as “Animal Farm,” which is an allegory about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

One difference between a metaphors and symbols is that symbols are more succinct. The symbol can be a single person or object and can be inserted within a larger piece or narrative. Short metaphors, where there are like for like word substitutions, are not metaphors or symbols. Examples of these include metonymy and kennings, where words are replaced by others with the same basic meaning.

Carl Jung believed there was a separation between signs and symbols. His ideas on symbols relate to his ideas on archetypes. For Jung, Christ is a symbol for the self. In this sense, symbols are culturally specific, but also deeply personal. The meanings held within symbols are put there by humans .

The differences between a metaphor and a symbol in art is demonstrated by comparing a pair of paintings. Sandro Botticelli pained “La Primavera” in 1482, while Hans Holbein the Younger painted “The Ambassadors” in 1533. “La Primavera” is ostensibly about spring using a cast of mythological beings. “The Ambassadors,” on the other hand, is about a meeting between Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve.

On the surface “La Primavera” provides like for like substitutions of mythological figures for spring. It also may hark back to ideas concerning the blossoming of the whole world and the Garden of Eden. Others, such as Marsilio Ficino, see it as a metaphor for neoplatonic love. The difference between a metaphor and a symbol here is that the whole painting is one metaphor or allegory.

“The Ambassadors” uses symbols to provide additional information concerning who the figures are and the story behind their meeting. It does not attempt to tell a second story, but to provide additional information. For example, the lute next to Georges de Selve’s knee is a symbol of peace, but the cord is broken to symbolize discord.

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Discussion Comments

By Talentryto — On Feb 07, 2014

Understanding these terms is also important for students enrolled in literature classes Heavanet. Often, tests in these courses require students to know what terms like metaphor and symbol means and to be able to relate them back to the works they have read in class. This article is a good source for students who need to know these terms.

By Heavanet — On Feb 06, 2014

Understanding symbol vs metaphor will help creative writers make the most of their talents. This is especially important for college students who often must take creative writing courses as part of their curriculum. During such courses, these students often have to write original pieces that include metaphors and symbols.

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