29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Responses to Suffering

Content Warning: This section of the guide contains outdated references to psychiatric conditions, including the concept of “madness.” This section of the guide also discusses suicide and the Holocaust.

The major characters of “Signs and Symbols” are each marked by the intense suffering and misfortune in their lives. The story’s focus on this suffering suggests that hardship and grief are inherent aspects of life. At the same time, however, the characters’ diverging reactions to their misfortunes indicate that suffering need not be crippling—that it may be possible to forge ahead despite the cruelty of nature and human society.

Suffering is everywhere in the narrative. The son is confined to a psychiatric hospital because of mental delusions and attempting to die by suicide. His parents struggle to address their son’s mental condition amid the backdrop of other ongoing problems—they are poor, aging, and estranged from their family and homeland. Their lives have been shaped by the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust, and now their small family unit has fallen apart. Reinforcing and amplifying their experience, the world around them suffers as well. The pounding rain, helpless bird, foul subway air, and dingy apartment make clear that hardship and difficulty are inescapable and ever-present.