Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
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 quest, the “longing” to reach the top and whatever the perceived goal suggests. For the protagonist, it is a desire to be free of traditional restraints—first her mother and then her sensible marriage. It is a longing to transgress conventional boundaries like the male explorers in her family—her Anglo-Indian uncles and cousins. This family is a blend of the West and the East, of British pragmatism and Indian spirituality, a mix conducive to successful exploration. The young alpine explorers, distinguished in the past by their valley graves and in the present by being roped in their upward climb of the mountain, are not so different from the woman’s own uncles and cousins in their quest for the unknown. The protagonist, through apparently limited by gender expectations, manages to eke out a life of adventure through her role as writer/observer—the onlooker who records the life and death of the young explorers as well as the ups and downs of her own emotional life.
Many of Woolf’s characters, particularly in her novels, are imaged as being on literal and symbolic journeys leading to something that continually beckons and eludes the human imagination. The symbol, like the quest, escapes definition and summary. The suggestive and abstract significance of a mountain, cloud, letter, or death depends on the changing context of the perceiver. When the protagonist is responsible to her dying mother, she says that a cloud signifies freedom as well as a mountain and that death itself becomes a symbol of release. For Woolf, the process of questing, of scaling the mountain, of writing the letter seems more important than the goal itself. Indeed, the process of discovery seems to take precedence over physical death as the protagonist closes her comments on the young male mountain climbers with the unfinished line, “They died in an attempt to discover . . . ” This inconclusive ending reaffirms death as yet part of the discovery process that may continue beyond material life as humans know it.