What Is the Difference between a Metaphor and a Symbol?
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.
|Using Metaphors & Symbols
Movies themselves are metaphors for how humans experience life on a deeper level. Creating a unique language of metaphors and symbols for your film is a big part of being a visual storyteller. Symbolic images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words.
Metaphor = Action/Sound. Visual or auditory representation of a separate action, experience, or idea. A character blows out (action) a candle in a bedroom to show death of a loved one.
How to use metaphor and symbol in your story:
(This chapter is from the book Developing Digital Short Films)
“A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.” – Susanne Langer
Let’s go through a quick definition. A metaphor is a rhetorical device in which the traits of something are attributed to something else, but not in a literal sense. It helps to understand that a simile is a type of metaphor, so let’s take a look at an example:
“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walk o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.
The coming of morning is likened to being clad in a “russet mantle” (where russet is a red-orange tinted brown). Now obviously, this is not literal. Morning does not wear any clothing. The russet mantle is a metaphor for the rising sun and the colour of dawn.
Let’s look at symbols now. These are not used in rhetoric or discourse, and is usually a specific thing that represents some other thing or concept. Symbols, unlike metaphors, are not specific or definitive in their interpretation. They carry a wide range of ideas through generations in an almost meme like fashion. Because of this, the symbol’s meaning must be inferred from context. For example, anything long and roughly cylindrical can be considered a phallic symbol; whether or not it was intended that way depends entirely on the context.
Definition aside, this is what really helps me remember the difference. Metaphors are like similes, they liken the principle term to something else (whether it be a thing, idea or process) to endow the principle term with characteristics reminiscent of that which it has been likened to. A symbol is much more succinct; it can be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison (like a simile/metaphor) but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used. Basically, that means I don’t have to explain a symbol because that’s for the reader to determine for themselves based on what’s been written, whereas a metaphor must be directly explained by the text.