The river is a big symbol in Once Upon a River. At the verybeginning of the book, it tell us that "Along the borders of thisworld lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place"(Setterfield 1). The river symbolizes the magical aspects of society, and the belief that there are other worlds. In this book, much like in today's, they try to find a scientific way to explain everything.
Eyes are symbolic of the intake and processing of knowledge, and play a big role in the book. Bess’s lazy eye is a literal example of this. Her vision is augmented by its ability to intake information that is not physically visible. Eye's first come into play in this novel when, "He touched the lid with the gentlest of touches, and there was something behind it"(Setterfield 13). Jonathan puts his finger in the little girls eye, believing that she is a doll, but realizing it is actually a little girl. Other characters’ eyes, like Mrs. Constantine’s, seem to have the same effect, the ability to see goes beyond the physical and into the emotional.
The mysterious little girl that Mr. Daunt finds is another symbol of magic and supernatural. In the beginning of the book, they first believe the little girl to be dead. Even the doctor says, "This is all wrong! It should not be so!"(Setterfield 28). After the little girl wakes up, from being dead. Throughout the book, she is off, and different. She especially fascinated with the river in which she almost died.
Each character lives in a state of denial, easing painful realities by telling themselves stories. Setterfield illuminates how such stories can be so compelling that we believe in something fictional. Even amid swirling doubts about the child’s identity, Helena wants to find her daughter so badly that she builds an elaborate new world on top of the ruins of her old life, making the girl the center of the story.
The inn itself is a symbol in Once Upon a River. The Swan at Radcot, located on the Thames river. It symbolizes the history and folklore in the book. It symbolizes the traditions in the book. It's tradition for the townsfolk and the inn guests to sit around the fire, tell stories and drink. "The swan at Radcot had it's own specialty. It was where you went for storytelling"(Setterfield 1).
Rita, the town doctor, symbolizes reason and reality in the book. She try's explain what happened with the little girl, using science. She contemplates how it was possible, and comes up with reasonable answers, that can be backed up by science. "This is all wrong! It should not be so!"(Setterfield 28). She spends an entire night, thinking to herself, and trying to convince everyone that there was a reasonable and scientific explanation.