Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov, 1958

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by Vladimir Nabokov, 1958

"Signs and Symbols" was first published in 1948 in The New Yorker and later collected in Nabokov's Dozen. The story describes a Friday afternoon and night of an elderly Jewish immigrant couple in an American city. This is their son's twentieth birthday; the boy is incurably deranged, and it is with great care that they have chosen an inoffensive gift for him, a basket of fruit jellies. Yet on reaching his sanitarium they are told that he tried to commit suicide that morning and should not be disturbed. They take the gift back home so that it does not get mislaid in the office. Unable to sleep at night, the father declares that they must remove the boy from the sanitarium: the doctor can come to see him at home, and they will take turns watching him at night. The monologue is twice interrupted by mistaken telephone calls from an anxious girl looking for someone called Charlie; the second time the mother explains to the girl that she had been dialing the letter O instead of zero.

Having made the decision to bring the boy home the following morning, the couple sits down to "unexpected festive midnight tea." Yet while the father is spelling out—with difficulty and pleasure—the labels on the jelly jars, the telephone rings again. The reader is left wondering whether this third call is another unlikely case of the wrong number or whether it carries the message that the couple have reason to fear.

In a few spare strokes the author sketches the history of the couple's leaving Russia after the revolution, their relatively affluent life in Germany, and their difficult move to the United States on the eve of World War II. In their new country they are financially dependent on the husband's younger brother, an American of 40 years' standing. The "signs" to which the title refers are the telltale code that evokes their way of life amidst an alien culture, in straightened circumstances but not real poverty: the father's Russian-language newspaper, his new yet ill-fitting dental plates, his toothless, wordless helplessness with strange phone calls, the old overcoat that he prefers to his bathrobe; the mother's cheap black dresses, plain hairstyle, absence of makeup, her worn pack of cards, and the picture album with snapshots of her child who is now largely beyond her reach and a relative who has perished in the Holocaust. These narrative details are signs rather than symbols. Black clothes, for example, are versatile and convenient. And the third landing on which the couple's two-room apartment is located functions mainly as a reminder of the minor discomforts that make up their daily life. The story, however, tempts its readers to see the black dresses as symbols of mourning and the third landing as the third country in which the exiles must make their home.

Even stronger is the readers' temptation to interpret the recurrent motifs of death (the subway train loses its "life current" for a while between two stations, a half-dead unfledged bird is twitching in a puddle) as symbolic of the boy's suicide at the end of the day. Such a reading, however, is dangerously in tune with the boy's own "referential mania." His disease consists in a logically intricate conviction that everything in the outer world "is a veiled reference to his own personality and existence": clouds transmit information about him, at nightfall "darkly gesticulating trees" discuss his innermost thoughts, pebbles and stains are coded messages about him, storms misinterpret his acts, and "the very air he exhales is indexed and filed away."

The boy's radical paranoia can be seen as an extreme literalization of the Jewish experience in Europe under Nazi rule, when the whole universe seemed to be alertly hostile. Yet it is supplemented by his belief in a mysterious transcendent reality that can be found in the metaphysical background of most of Vladimir Nabokov's works. The boy wishes "to tear a hole his world and escape." Gifts of gadgets or other handmade objects distress him by evoking the gross malevolent utilitarianism of the artificial second-order reality in which he feels trapped.

Nabokov believed that people live in individual worlds that are at least partly of their own making. The world of the boy's mother contains "immense waves of pain," yet it also contains tacit understanding and family feelings, as well as an "incalculable amount of tenderness," which evidently keeps resurging on being "crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness." The symbols of the story are images, whether seen by the characters (the half-dead young bird), or vaguely remembered ("neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners"), or imagined ("beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stool leave mangled flowers in its wake"). Unlike the polysemous yet decipherable "signs," these symbols pertain not so much to the plot or the problematic open ending as to the ineffable coloring of genuine emotion, the only treasure that the unhappy old refugees have managed to retain.

—Leona Toker