29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Signs and Symbols”

“Signs and Symbols,” by Russian American author Vladimir Nabokov, is a short story that uses irony, complex symbolism, and an ambiguous ending to address the themes of Responses to Suffering, Alienation and Loneliness, and Death, Life, and In Between, while also providing meta-commentary on the process of literary analysis. These themes are mainstays of Nabokov’s fiction, including his best-known novel, Lolita.

Published originally as “Symbols and Signs” in the New Yorker magazine on May 7, 1948, Nabokov reversed the story’s title back to “Signs and Symbols” when he republished it as part of his 1958 short story collection, Nabokov’s Dozen. This guide refers to the original version of the text from The New Yorker.

Content Warning: This guide and the source text contain outdated references to psychiatric conditions, including the concept of “madness.” This guide and the source text also discuss suicide and the Holocaust.

“Signs and Symbols” follows a single day in the life of an unnamed elderly couple, a mother and father, as they attempt to visit their son in a psychiatric hospital and then return home. The story, which uses the third-person omniscient point of view, opens with the couple trying to decide what to bring their son for his birthday. For the fourth year in a row, they are having difficulty thinking of a present for him, since his psychiatric condition means that many potential gifts offend or frighten him.

Settling on a set of 10 fruit jellies in jars, the couple sets off for the hospital. The mother has grey hair and wears inexpensive black clothing. They are Russian immigrants to America who are dependent on the father’s brother Isaac for financial support. Isaac is a “real American” (Paragraph 2) whom they call the Prince.

After running into some obstacles on the way—their train and bus are both delayed, and it is raining—the couple arrives at the “sanitarium” (Paragraph 3), expecting to see their son and give him the gift. Instead, however, a nurse tells them that their son has once again attempted to die by suicide. The nurse says that their visit might bother the son, so they are unable to see him. As they leave, upset, they notice a small bird twitching in a puddle of rain. The mother and father do not speak to each other on the way home. On the train, the mother notices a woman who reminds her of an old acquaintance from before they left Europe.

The narrator describes the nature of the son’s mental health condition. He would have died on his last suicide attempt, except that another patient thought that he was “learning to fly—and stopped him” (Paragraph 6). The son’s real desire was to “tear a hole in his world and escape” (Paragraph 6). The son suffers from “Referential mania” (Paragraph 7), a condition in which he believes everything in the world is intimately connected to his own beliefs and disposition. For example, he thinks that the clouds, trees, and pebbles are talking to each other about him. He is always worried and spends all his time trying to decipher these secret messages.

Returning to their two-room apartment after the failed visit to the psychiatric hospital, the mother prepares dinner while the father removes his dental plate and reads the Russian-language newspaper. They do not speak to one another. After the father goes to bed, the mother examines some old photographs of their son from his childhood in Europe. She thinks that he looked “more surprised than most babies” (Paragraph 10) and remembers that he had insomnia “like a grown-up man” (Paragraph 10) as early as age six. The other people in the photos, including Aunt Rosa, remind the mother of the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust. She contemplates the “incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world” and how that tenderness is always “either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness” (Paragraph 11).

After midnight, the father joins the mother in the living room, saying he is unable to sleep. He tells her they must get their son out of the hospital. She agrees and says they will bring him home the next day. In higher spirits now, the father devises a plan for them to take turns watching over their son at night once he returns home. He says Isaac won’t mind since it will be cheaper to have the son living with them.

The phone suddenly rings, and the mother answers it, since her English is better than her husband’s. On the phone, a girl’s voice asks to speak to someone named Charlie. The mother tells the caller that she has the wrong number and hangs up. As the father continues his planning for their son’s return, the phone rings for a second time. Again, the same voice asks for Charlie. The mother repeats that the caller has the wrong number and hangs up.

The couple sits down together for some late-night tea. The father puts on his glasses and examines their basket of jellies, which sits on the table in front of them. He reads through the different flavors. When he gets to crab apple, the phone rings for a third time.