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On Signs and Symbols

Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov's short story Signs and Symbols.

Published April 2019 in Bilkent News.


The luminous glass years of life, their warm, thick and inaccessible faces, stare out of Nabokov’s writing. They watch images of living, people’s movements and fears, as these people look back at their years and feel a strange relief. What is seen becomes part of the narrative, the endless flow of things made I. The stream is arrested and a sign picked clean. The sign is the picker and I.

“Signs and Symbols” centers around three people: a mother, a father and their son. We learn that the boy feels that all things around him – pebbles, mountains, flecks of light – are constantly watching and communicating with him, passing him information he is obliged to decipher. The parents live dilute lives, all the paler in contrast with their son’s grandeur: “The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains,” while “[the father] read his Russian-language newspaper, [ate] the pale victuals that needed no teeth… [the mother] remained in the living room with her pack of soiled playing cards.” These ideas of living are a central and yet unclear theme: the son has a large, wide existence – a distended, unbearable sort of being – which we are shown in two ways is not life. The first derives from his father’s complaint: “I can’t sleep because I am dying,” he says, not a page past a mention of his son’s insomnia. The second lies in the beginning: “Desires he had none.” This creates an image of the boy as a pale, suffering creature who, too full of everything around him, is stripped of the ability to want; he is overexamined and overwhelmed, unable to draw limits to his self by choosing signs. At the other extreme lie his parents, empty of myths and gestures, living such ordinary, indifferent lives that they must at times “[look] around, trying to hook [their minds] onto something,” opening their eyes to a stream of symbols that give shape. “We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible…. Responsible!” the father cries, and this responsibility is not to the son, but to himself: the last quarter of the story is injected with color, signs and details that the parents now see. To follow chosen signs is his responsibility, and once he intends this the symbols are seen: “the knave of hearts, the nine of spades, the ace of spades, the maid Elsa and her bestial beau…the Prince,” the telephone call, Charlie. The unexpected, festive midnight tea, yellow, green and red little jars. Now we are introduced to the signs chosen by the parents and carried by their son, and the contrast between them: the calm and quantized shapes of fruit jelly – tame, manmade nature – clash with the unbearable clouds and trees. The son as a child drinks in everything around him, makes everything symbolic while his parents sleep. His mother thinks “of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness.” It is wasted for her and makes her son mad. His sensitivity, his readiness to find signs creates a delusional world that he wants to “tear up… and escape [from].” Once the parents choose to see signs also, a delusion springs up between them: “They would fetch him as soon as it was day… even at his worst, he presented no danger to other people.” The only thing left to the son, devoid of life, is death. The parents are interrupted by Charlie.


This part of the story is most obscure because there is no history or future for Charlie. We hear only once the “toneless, anxious young voice” that we cannot connect to any character. At this point we realize that we, too, are looking at the signs of the story like the father, the mother, their suffering son: we pick symbols from playing cards, dead fruit, tall mountains. We choose them according to what fits best with our personal narrative, a self we expand to understand things around us: drawing from experience, literary or otherwise, to wring a clear message from the story; drawing from what we find significant to set a course for our lives. To the son so much is significant that he has no life; he has no self to discriminate between all he can make signs. For the parents, signs emerge from a bland continuum once they commit to changing, altering the self and so watching for whichever shadows agree: fruit jellies, sweet and contained evidence of past life; festive teas; the moist mouths of age. We examine the text, hoping to connect the images of mania and Charlie, the disruptions of death and Charlie, and can only make half-guesses: the last call is news of the son’s death, piercing his delusion and his parents’; the calls are from the weeping girl; the calls mean nothing at all. We give them sense according to what we want to see. We find nothing in literature beyond what we already know, because it is our selves that make what we see significant, and our expectations that build their narratives. We distill truth from stories as from vast plains and honeybees, just as the son finds in mountains the ultimate truth of being.

In the end, what Nabokov places in “Signs and Symbols” are whatever symbols the reader will see. This stream of impressions becomes significant through filters of personhood, creating a unique sense of life that could be the mother’s loss of joy, the father’s pleasant distractions, or the deadness of a son who wants to die. Who must intercept the clouds’ messages, trapped in extended, expanded communication, such is the lot of the writer in literature: what is preserved in a story is the entirety of the author in a certain time of creation. We draw from it meaning like we eat the tenderness of life, inducing it from signs and shadows. Just what the son does with the clouds and streams, we do in literature. Choosing playing cards, fish, jellies. Like life.

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