The Symbol Summary
by Virginia Woolf

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The Symbol Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This brief story begins with a description of the mountain, the focal point of the alpine village in which the story is set. The mountaintop is like a crater on the moon, filled with iridescent snow whose color changes from dead white to blood red. The mountainside is a vast descent from pure rock and a clutching pine to the village and graves in the valley.

An elderly English woman sits on her hotel room balcony. She starts to write to her sister in England that the mountain “is a symbol,” but she pauses to observe the mountain, as if to think about its symbolic significance. While the woman is musing, the omniscient narrator comments on the theatrical nature of the alpine resort: The hotel balcony is like a box at a theater and human behavior appears as “curtain raisers.” From this omniscient perspective, life looks artificial and temporary: “Entertainments to pass the time; seldom leading to any conclusion.” When the English woman sees young men on the street below, she recognizes one of them as a relative of the mistress of her daughter’s school. She remembers that young men in the past have died climbing the nearby mountain and becomes again mindful of its symbolic presence and power.

Continuing her letter to her sister, the woman recalls the time that she spent with their dying mother on the Isle of Wight. This remembrance stirs her to disclose that she longed to hear the doctor say that her mother would die soon, when in fact she lived another eighteen months. She writes that she regarded the mother’s death as a symbol—a symbol of freedom. She goes on to say that “a cloud then would do instead of the mountain” as a sign of having reached the top. Her memory then turns to her Anglo-Indian uncles and cousins who were explorers, and she reveals her own great desire to explore, though marrying was a more sensible choice.

After turning her attention to a woman routinely shaking out a rug on another balcony, the woman resumes her letter to her sister. After mentioning the local villas, food, and hotel, she returns to the subject of the mountain and what a splendid view she has of it, as well as of everyone else in the village. She says that the mountain is always the center of conversation; people discuss...

(The entire section is 601 words.)