‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’ This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required.
In the opening paragraph of her second novel, Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her central character, Florence Green: ‘She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.’ Bracketing this description, there are passages of studied ambiguity: it is one of the nights when Florence is ‘not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not’; and ‘Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.’
A little later, we read that, ‘The weather was curious, and reminded her of the day she saw the flying heron trying to swallow the eel.’ One more reference, a dozen pages further on, seems to emphasise dreaming rather than thinking in that first instance: ‘Completely tired out by the time she went to bed, she no longer dreamed of the heron and the eel, or, so far as she knew, of anything else.’
Some fifteen years later, in an essay on the voices of fictional characters, Fitzgerald quoted from that opening and commented, ‘I now think this was a mistake, because dreams in fiction are just as tedious as people’s dreams in real life.’ True enough: but the reference to the form rather than the content seems a little disingenuous – or am I oversimplifying by seeing the heron and the eel as a symbolic conjunction relevant to Fitzgerald’s entire corpus? One of her critics, enlarging on this ‘remarkable, predatory image’, remarks that, ‘As if borrowed from the sphere of sleep’s hauntings, the image, Darwinian and predacious, will be recalled more than once in the course of the novel, and it sets up, right at the start, the theme of survival—and the challenges that make survival, especially for the less fit and self-assertive, a chancy matter.’
(Blue heron, via The Telegraph)
Yes, just before the second reference to the heron and eel, we find: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ And elsewhere, reflecting on V. S. Pritchett’s warning against writing one’s life away, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions – I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?’
The heron and the eel—together—comprise then an image, and surely a symbol, of the battle that life entails for a certain kind of person, with that particular balance of courage and confidence, who will never triumph yet will never quite give up either. How conscious, how deliberate must the use of a symbol be to qualify as a symbol? It seems absurdly patronising to suggest that so accomplished a writer wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of what she was doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if some writers—having produced such images, or symbols, capable of such strong and varied interpretations—hold them at a distance, play down their ownership with its implied rights of sustained control, concerned to allow those images room to breathe, to expand and flower in their readers’ minds.
‘I think you are playing a dangerous game,’ Patrick White wrote to Manfred Mackenzie in 1963, ‘fascinating to the player, no doubt – in all this symbol-chasing. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it leads up the wrong tree!’ He added, ‘I am sorry not to be able to confess to most of the influences you suggest. I may have arrived at certain conclusions via other writers who had read those you mention. Otherwise I suppose symbols can pop out of the collective unconscious.’ Two years earlier, replying to James Stern’s queries about his religious development, White replied: ‘Certainly in my own case I did not return to orthodox Anglicanism, but the Anglican church is a feeble organisation compared with the Jewish faith. I made the attempt, found that Churches destroy the mystery of God, and had to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship.’
White did sometimes use symbols quite deliberately, often foregrounding them, as with the mandala that becomes part of the title of one of his novels, though circles and other figures of wholeness are everywhere in his books (as are roses). Linked to this, a sense of the wholeness of the world, certainly the artist’s world, perhaps not rationally apprehended but felt, sensed, known, is conveyed by the figure of the dance: Arthur Brown dancing the mandala for Mrs Poulter, or the young musician when she first enters Hurtle Duffield’s house: ‘As she continued turning within the conservatory’s narrow limits, she began also to hum. A golden tinsel of light hung around her lithe, mackerel body; while out of the dislodged tiles and shambles of broken glass her shuffling feet produced discordancies, but appropriate ones: Kathy Volkov would probably never teeter over into sweetness.’ William Butler Yeats, mindful of the interconnectedness of every part of both a tree and a work of art, famously asked at the end of ‘Among School Children’, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ And the novelist Richard Hughes, in his introduction to an edition of a William Faulkner novel, mentioned the story told of ‘a celebrated Russian dancer, who was asked by someone what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, “If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?”’ It occurs to me that the title of Poussin’s painting that Anthony Powell adopted for his novel-sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, could hardly have comprised three terms more mysterious and more difficult to grasp with confidence and conviction.
(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)
The gap that uncertainty—as to whether a literary image or motif is deliberately designed to perform a more substantial symbolic function—allows can carry a good deal of force. I’ve reflected more than once on Ford Madox Ford’s multiple references to cooking and gardening. They are almost always, in the first instance, actual cooking and actual gardening—both arts that Ford practised and regarded as hugely important. But, of course, they also offer extraordinary scope for symbolic interpretation. Ford uses more explicitly symbolic images too, which occur less often but with a more focused aim. So Christopher Tietjens characterises his wife and his lover thus: ‘If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it . . . The two types of mind: remorseless enemy: sure screen: dagger . . . sheath!’ Later, the suffragette and pacifist Valentine Wannop will acknowledge her ‘automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism.’
For literary critics, psychoanalysts and many others, the world is a seething mass of symbols—in the index to my Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘symbol’ runs into three columns, offering no end of joyous examples: asparagus, burglar, nail-file, zeppelin—but they would probably be the first to agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a pipe a pipe, a rose a rose. And surely sometimes a pie is just a pie.
 Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 452.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 5, 29, 40.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Hearing Them Speak’ (1993), in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 499-500.
 Christopher J. Knight, ‘The Second Saddest Story: Despair, Belief, and Moral Perseverance in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 42, 1 (Spring 2012), 70, 71.
 Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air, 480.
 Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 216, 217, 196.
 See Patrick White, The Solid Mandala ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 265-267; The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 443-444.
 W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 245.
 Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), vii.
 Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 160, 284. Related images occur in many of Ford’s other works.