Rule of Symbolism

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"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.

It's considered deep and profound for some, dumb and pretentious for others.

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 Crucified Hero Shot, World of Symbolism, Purple Is Powerful, Symbol Motif Clothing.

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). See also Stock Monster Symbolism.

Examples of Rule of Symbolism include:

Anime and Manga

  • This trope is almost entirely responsible for anime Hair Colors and Personality Blood Types.
  • One Piece 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.
    • They also pull the "fate's intervention" bit, although some fans argue that the scene in question is an as-yet-unfired Chekhov's Gun.
  • The Revolutionary Girl Utena movie runs almost entirely 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.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion... depending on who you ask.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica is full of this.
  • Ergo Proxy... maybe.
  • 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.
  • Yami no Matsuei sure loves its Cherry Blossoms of Death, whose short lifespan is apparently reflective of humanity, to a shinigami.
  • Loveless. Butterflies, anyone? Since the manga is essentially about growing up and/or leaving behind the past to become something new.

Comic Books

  • 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 Matrix is allegedly meant to be interpreted symbolically.
    • 'Allegedly'? That's half of what makes the first one so great. On the other hand, this trope is largely what did in the sequels, which sacrificed plot for thematic indulgences, meaningless symbolism and pointless digressions that just slowed the pacing to a halt.
  • Citizen Kane is lauded by critics and hated by others for extensive use of this trope.
  • Julie Taymor's version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
  • Equilibrium had plenty of this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • American Beauty: Everything. The director goes into great detail in the commentary about it. Its ripe for Media study classes.
  • 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.
  • 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 Disney animated feature film, The Lion King, the symbol that made sure Simba overcame his unnecessary guilt, was during the cleansing rains pouring down on Pride Rock after the final battle, a wildebeest skull is washed away by the torrent.


  • The book of Revelation/The Apocalypse of St. John in The Bible is arguably the best example in all of Western civilization. It had to be; 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.")
  • 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 Magnum Opus 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.
  • 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.
    • 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. Of course, it could have just been sent to Harry by Dumbledore. If this is the case, then it's a subversion.
  • 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.

Live-Action TV

  • A lot of the criticism leveled at the new Battlestar Galactica 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.


  • 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.
  • Arguably 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.

Video Games

  • Cryostasis Sleep Of Reason 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 include 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.
    • You're slightly off the mark. That room with the deceased man in front of the television isn't meant to be taken as a suicide, especially given the Suspiciously Specific Denial in the conversation that follows. Given Eddie's downward spiral into sociopathy as -he- murders more and more people — and the only human corpses you find are in his wake, it becomes increasingly apparent that Eddie murdered that man and is vomiting in the toilet due to his initial, short-lasting revulsion at his own actions. The character model is James' simply because — and they've admitted this — they got lazy and didn't think anyone would notice.
  • 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 (series), 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. One wonders how a huge stone head found its way from downtown Washington DC to a building several miles away, but the symbolism of re-attaching Lincoln's head is more important.
    • Actually the head was sculpted by Caleb one of the slaves, that's why he asks you to find a poster with its image on it.
    • Actually, the head is there from the beginning. The poster is merely used as a reference for... Uh... Showing that the head is supposed to be atop the neck, or something.
    • 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.
  • 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...
  • Likewise, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 MindScrewy, 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. A lot of this overlaps with Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory style symbolism.

Web Animation

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: Snake Eater, 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.

Web Original

  • On their episode on Metroid: Other M, the guys at Unskippable had fun pointing all the obvious mother/child related symbolism (The title being an anagram of Mother, forming the abbreviation Mom. The baby's cry alarm. The bottle station shaped like a baby's bottle) in the intro. Paul eventually declares "I am starting to think this is just a symbolic dream Samus is having."

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.
    • And that's just the Roman perspective. Consider the Jewish perspective: crucifixion is hanging a man on a tree until dead. The Torah says, "God's curse is on the one who hangs upon a tree." Thus, to be hung on a tree was the most horrible fate imaginable to a Jew, because it meant being cursed by God. In Jesus' case, the New Testament accepts this notion and uses it in light of Isaiah 53: "It was our iniquities He bore, and by His stripes we are healed." Therefore, the position of the New Testament is that God's curse DID fall upon Jesus while He was on the Cross (which is why He said, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?") but that's because He took the curse of our sins onto Himself.
  1. Technically it was between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but The Vade isn't truly transformed until he dons the suit