Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Virginia Woolf finished “The Symbol” less than a month before her death in 1941. The story explores the issues associated with her experimental interests in the novel—how to blend objective and subjective reality in ways that capture the sensuous and tangible qualities of experience, while suggesting its ephemeral and elusive nature. In essays such as “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf explores the new aesthetics involved in presenting a fiction reflective of modern behavior. For the twentieth century sensibility, as Woolf and other modernists perceive it, life is in a constant state of flux where nothing is stable and the mind constantly receives “myriad impressions.” Life, unlike its treatment by Edwardian novelist Arnold Bennett, is not a tightly plotted Aristotelian drama with a clean beginning, middle, and end. Instead, life—like character—is always in a state of becoming—a state of uncertainty and change in which decisive moments are internal and subjective, moving the individual upward in a spiritual quest of self-knowledge.

Woolf’s concerns lay the groundwork for understanding how “The Symbol” reflects themes characteristic of her experimental art. Her unnamed woman writer, an outsider in the alpine village who is removed from its street bustle, muses on what a symbol is and how it relates to the mountain—the recurring focus of her thoughts. The mountain becomes identified here with the human...

(The entire section is 561 words.)