Can a symbol carry different meanings throughout a film or a book? In the film The Shining, the boy is implied to be abused by his father. In one scene, where the boy speaks to a psychologist, there's a teddy bear that seems to symbolize evil, but then in another scene there's a man in a bear costume who seems to be sexually victimized and is caught performing fellatio on a man. So I was wondering if it was common practice to use the same symbol to carry different meanings throughout a novel or a book. Maybe my interpretation is off, but the question is still valid nonetheless.


2 Answers 2


(the previous commenter beat me to it, but here is my interpretation)

The Hunger Games Trilogy has many such symbols

Most of these symbols are simple things whose meanings are changed by the rebels.

1-The three-fingered salute. It was initially used in District 12 as a way to send off their dying tributes, a sort of farewell gesture. For the rebels, it essentially becomes their rallying cry, a show of unity against the oppression of the Capitol.

2-The Mockingjay. The Capitol made horrifying creatures called Jabberjays which could mimic human speech. They mated with Mockingbirds to make Mockingjays. They initially symbolize that the Capitol is not perfect. They never intended such birds to exist, but here they are. Katniss receives a Mockingjay pin from a friend as a sign of their friendship. Many people, even in the Capitol, use this symbol to show their support for Katniss. Much like the Mockingjays, she is a mistake they never intended but cannot erase.

3-The Hanging Tree. A depressing song about a person calling to his lover from beyond the grave, essentially asking him to join them in death wearing a "necklace of rope". The rebels change the lyrics by replacing the word "rope" with "hope" a switch that drastically changes the interpretation of the song. One of the best scenes in the Mockingjay movies is when the rebels sacrifice themselves to blow up a hydroelectric dam, using this song as their rallying cry. They're outmatched and outgunned, but they have numbers. Rather than a depressing song about the inevitability of death, the song becomes a comfort to those who are committing the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom.

So...How can you change the meaning of symbols in your own story?

Two ways: Either physically change the symbol itself, or change the way the characters perceive that symbol.

All it took to change the meaning of the Hanging Tree song was a slight change in lyrics. If we're talking about a physical symbol, though, you can change them over the course of the series.

A tiny sapling can represent the beginning of a person's life, a larger tree can represent adulthood, and a decaying tree could represent the end of life.

In Catching Fire, Katniss is supposed to wear a Capitol-approved wedding dress for her big talk show but (as a publicity stunt for the rebellion) her dress burns away to reveal a beautiful Mockingjay gown. A symbol of oppression burning away to become a symbol of freedom.

Or you can change how people perceive the symbol.

One of the main calling cards of the antagonist, President Snow, is the white rose. When he meets Katniss for the first time in Catching Fire, he gives her a rose and is on his way.

He also leaves roses whenever he hurts or kills the people around her, going so far as to bioengineer monsters that smell like roses just to trigger her PTSD. Something as pretty as a rose has forever been ruined for her because she will forever associate them with her tormentor. The symbol remained the same, but her interpretation of it changes and shifts.

I hope these examples will help you on your writing journey.


Not sure how your symbolism would work for your own story, but I can definitely cite an example of a symbol changing its meaning.

Take the classic series The Hunger Games. At the start of the series, the Mockingbird was a symbol of hope. Then it became a symbol of the rebellion later on, embodied within Katniss. It wasn't a drastic change, but you can definitely change the meaning of a symbol. In my opinion, doing so would add an interesting dimension to your tale.

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