Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Woolf constantly experimented with style, searching for ways of presenting character that explore the unconscious self. Dissatisfied with the summary treatment of character in terms of external events, she was primarily interested in character as a fluctuating interplay of the mind in response to ordinary experience. Physical sensation, as described in her fiction, provokes thought and memory, and the latter also nudge each other, unfolding in a series of images. In “The Symbol” the protagonist is suggested largely by her thoughts and memories, which are spurred initially by the view of the mountain and the village life and subsequently revealed in the letter. For her, the past, present, and future clearly shape who she is. As she reflects on the mountain and the aspiring climbers, she remembers an earlier balcony on the Isle of Wight. There she entertained her mother by describing the travelers who disembarked on the isle after an ocean journey. Like a dutiful daughter, the young protagonist attended to the requests of her dying mother, perceiving death then as a symbol of freedom, of unlimited possibility to be explored.

The protagonist’s past and present experiences, subjective and objective reality, are connected by her musing on the symbol and trying to understand its significance. Woolf’s characteristic style is to shift the narrative back and forth between memory and present experience, as mediated through the protagonist’s perceptions and the omniscient narrator’s description. The shifting narration symbolizes Woolf’s notion of how to describe character in terms of a fluctuating play between external sensation and internal reaction. Ultimately, the story itself can be read as a symbol of how character depends on, and is shaped by, imaginative desire and longing.