Levels of Meaning

The Literal Level

On the literal level, words are used by their dictionary definition or denotation.  A hat is simply a hat.

The Figurative Level

Most students have heard the term figurative language or the phrase “it’s a figure of speech.”  Both refer to the same idea—words can take on additional meanings. A writer can use the word hat to mean more than a covering for the head.  Consider “John wore many hats in his lifetime.” John may never have worn a hat.  This example of figurative language tells the reader John has taken on many different roles, jobs, responsibilities, etc in their life.  Similarly, if John “has a lot on his plate,” he isn’t a big eater but a man of many time-consuming tasks; having “too many irons in the fire” implies too many responsibilities, and some of them aren’t being fulfilled just as too many branding irons in a fire means that some might not be heating adequately.  The following are good examples of figurative language.

A simile is a comparison between two things using like or as.  “You run like a giraffe” is a simile.
A metaphor makes the same comparison but it doesn't use like or as; it says one thing is another or implies it. "Her eyes were like daggers" is a simile.  "Her eyes were daggers" is a metaphor using the past tense if is. "Daggers shot from her eyes and I knew I was in trouble" is an implied metaphor with her anger compared to daggers without any form of is.  
An analogy is an extended metaphor.  This means instead of just one similarity, two things have several common traits.
A personification occurs when a writer speaks of an inanimate object as if it were a person or had human qualities.  "The pencil sharpener grew tired of chewing" is a personification.
An oxymoron occurs when two opposites appear together.  For example, take “icy hot” or, in my way of thinking, “summer school.”

The Symbolic Level 

Many literature books classify the symbol as a type of figurative language.  However, the symbol goes a step farther than the other types of figurative language by operating simultaneously on the literal level and the figurative level.  In a story a writer might use a simile to describe a person, Shelly was as cute as a teddy bear, or a metaphor, Shelly is a teddy bear, or an implied metaphor, Shelly’s cuddly stuffing was torn out by their insults.  However, when the writer chooses to use a teddy bear as a symbol, he or she uses it as an actual, literal object in the story and to represent an idea.  If the writer included a scene in which an old lady sits in a rocking chair alone and an old, tattered teddy bear with one eye sits on its own tiny chair in the corner covered with dust, the writer could be using the teddy bear as a symbol of what the woman has become—a discarded, forgotten source of comfort.  The writer wouldn’t state this plainly; consequently, symbols aren’t always easy to spot, but colors are often symbolic in stories as is weather or any source of water.  The flag is a symbol.  On a literal level, it’s a piece of cloth, but on the symbolic level, it is our country.