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Assume we have a literary masterpiece that is abundant in symbolism and metaphors. Within this masterpiece, the author uses a brook running through a glade of trees to represent a couple of things within his novel. Here is where I get confused with the true difference between what is a symbol and what is a metaphor.

The brook supposedly represents a character within the book, so to me this means it's a symbol. Yet the path that the brook takes through the glade is also supposed to represent various aspects of the life of the character, which to me is a metaphor.

So here is my question: can an object be both a symbol and a metaphor at the same time? If not, then how does one determine which of the two it is?

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They're related, but generally a metaphor is used to draw a comparison between two distinct objects, whereas a symbol is used a stand-in for a much more complex, and generally more abstract, idea. In literature, a metaphor would typically be used in a specific instance to compare two objects, but a symbol would be used throughout the work as a major part of the theme.

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  • I really like your description of a metaphor and a symbol. – Jagd Aug 18 '10 at 14:51
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I would think that both can be used at the same time because a symbol doesn't necessarily transcribe directly into the novel. It's more of an abstract thought whereas a metaphor is more directly given to the reader.

Think of it this way, if the brook wasn't a symbol for the character, but it still contained the metaphor for his life, who would it apply to? The symbol is required otherwise the metaphor doesn't belong to anyone.

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