Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The meaning of the thousands of little gold fishes that Colonel Aureliano Buendía makes shifts over time. At first, these fishes represent Aureliano’s artistic nature and, by extension, the artistic nature of all the Aurelianos. Soon, however, they acquire a greater significance, marking the ways in which Aureliano has affected the world. His seventeen sons, for example, are each given a little gold fish, and, in this case, the fishes represent Aureliano’s effect on the world through his sons. In another instance, they are used as passkeys when messengers for the Liberals use them to prove their allegiance. Many years later, however, the fishes become collector’s items, merely relics of a once-great leader. This attitude disgusts Aureliano because he recognizes that people are using him as a figurehead, a mythological hero that represents whatever they want it to represent. When he begins to understand that the little gold fishes no longer are symbolic of him personally, but instead of a mistaken ideal, he stops making new fishes and starts to melt down the old ones again and again.
The railroad represents the arrival of the modern world in Macondo. This devastating turn leads to the development of a banana plantation and the ensuing massacre of three thousand workers. The railroad also represents the period when Macondo is connected most closely with the outside world. After the banana plantations close down, the railroad falls into disrepair and the train ceases even to stop in Macondo any more. The advent of the railroad is a turning point. Before it comes, Macondo grows bigger and thrives; afterward, Macondo quickly disintegrates, folding back into isolation and eventually expiring.
At first, the English encyclopedia that Meme receives from her American friend is a symbol for the way the American plantation owners are taking over Macondo. When Meme, a descendant of the town’s founders, begins to learn English, the foreigners’ encroachment on Macondo’s culture becomes obvious. The concrete threat posed by the encyclopedia is later lessened when Aureliano Segundo uses it to tell his children stories. Because he does not speak English, Aureliano Segundo makes up stories to go with the pictures. By creating the possibility for multiple interpretations of the text, he unwittingly diffuses the encyclopedia’s danger.
The golden chamber pot that Fernanda del Carpio brings to Macondo from her home is, for her, a marker of her lofty status; she believes that she was destined to be a queen. But while the gold of the chamber pot is associated with royalty, the function of the chamber pot is, of course, associated with defecation: a sign of the real value of Fernanda’s snooty condescension. Later, when José Arcadio (II) tries to sell the chamber pot, he finds that it is not really solid gold, but, rather, gold-plated. Again, this revelation represents the hollowness of Fernanda’s pride and the flimsiness of cheap cover-ups.