Some of the most significant recurrent symbols in Paradise of the Blind are blindness, sickness, water and river. Another is sky; it is tied closely to the river symbol. Being fluid symbols, like the fluidity of life, these symbolic representations can vary with different uses: as symbols they can bend just as a river bends, "like there's no river without a bend."
- Blindness: represents an unthinking, unseeing life devoid of analysis and examination ("blind obedience"); represents the way to go, the path to take (blind soothsayer, blind alleys).
- Sickness: represents approaching death and loss of ability to thrive (psychological as well as physical); represents pretense ("Don't tell them I'm sick" "Uncle Chinh wasn't sick").
- Water (a versatile symbol): represents destiny, muddy world condition, blindness (opaque, cinder manteled), cleansing (silk, rice), spiritual cleansing (death ritual), seeing and perceiving (reflection, "liquid mirror"), murder and death (silk worms boiled, suicide by water), philosophical perception ("reflections deepened with the pitching and tossing of the water").
- River: represents life's course, physical and psychological orientation ("land of my birth"), diverted life courses (dike), ebb and flow of life (rhythm), life's storms (buffeted), life's tranquility (bobbing and drifting), finding your course ("walk eight miles"), intersection of paths (distant shore, near shore), changing courses (motorboat), the route of life and death ("Follow the river").
Looking at the two symbols of water and river in more detail, a couple of examples illustrate their dynamic representations.
River: The features and activity on the river show the different symbolic representations of the river. The journeys show the various directions of life courses. The intersection of life courses is shown by things being on the near shore and the distant shore and by travelers going upstream and downstream and by the changes affecting the river, such as the loss of the old boat and the introduction of a motorboat: "[I looked for] the old boat with the white sail, but all I could see was a motorboat leaving the other bank of the river." An example of life courses is Hang's father's journey away from home and love and out into exile and a strange new life upstream. Another example of life courses through the potent representation of the river symbol is the journey Tam compels Hang and Que to undertake.
[Tam] didn't leave until the barge reached the middle of the river. In the dawn light ... to the east, the clouds glowed like the color of plum blossoms before fusing into a radiant yellow. A swarm of wasps and bees swirled in the air over ... a drowned cat. A fetid odor hung in the air.
Water: Contrasting examples of the versatile nature of the water symbol are when water is used to wash and cleanse rice and new silk in contrast with when water is used to boil newly "plucked" silkworms and again when it is used for purification in the death ritual. Other contrasting examples are when a journey takes place over water that is "opaque and mysterious under its mantle of cinders. [Where] [w]aves shimmered like mercury" in contrast with water's description as showing "a reflection in water; a liquid mirror of the silhouette of trees." These illustrate the opposite symbolic representations of water whereby one symbol points to life and death as well as to blindness and perception with equal magnitude.