The short story “Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov opens with two parents fretting over what to get their mentally unstable son for his birthday. It’s revealed that the couple had their son when they were middle-aged. They had emigrated from Russia, where they were fairly successful. However, they have relied solely on the husband’s brother Isaac (who they call The Prince) for money for the past forty years that they have lived in America. The day they go to visit their son at the sanatorium, everything seems to go wrong. It’s raining, the bus is late, and they receive the news that the son had tried to kill himself (again). He’s okay, however, the hospital refuses to let them see him as they think it could possibly upset him even more. The son is said to have referential mania, an illness where the patient is certain that everything they see is a relative to them and is some sort of cryptic message about their personality. This results in immense paranoia and discomfort in places that the patient is unfamiliar with, hence his unhappiness in the sanatorium. When they get home, the wife goes to get some fish and the husband stays, thinking he has the key to get into the house. He remembers he left them with her and sits in the rain until she gets back. Later, before bed, the wife looks back onto old photographs and memories from when the couple lived in Russia. Being Jewish and living in the midst of the Holocaust, the husband and wife managed to escape to America with their ten-year-old son. The wife becomes gloomy as she reflects upon how the deaths of their relatives influenced her child’s mental state at this time, and how that ultimately impacted the rest of his life. While contemplating their previous life, she comes to terms with their fate. The husband comes in saying he can’t sleep because the guilt of having his child locked away is too much for them. The couple then agrees to take him out of the sanatorium the following day. As they discuss this, the phone goes off. On the other line, a monotone girl asks for Charlie. The wife says she has the wrong number and hangs up. This repeats once more. As the father is looking at their son’s present of the ten fruit jellies, the phone rings a third time and the story ends.
The chronic tension in this piece is the son’s altered mental state and the parents’ depressing reality. The acute tension of this piece is the son’s attempted suicide, the decision to take him out of the sanatorium, and the repeated mysterious phone calls.
There are great elements in this story that make it such an exquisite, deep and intriguing piece. The two that I decided to track were cryptic, ambiguous or foreshadowing details, which I highlighted in purple, and mentions of numbers or lists, which I highlighted in yellow. Cryptic, ambiguous and foreshadowing details are crucial elements that were utilized to their maximum potential in this piece. Vague symbols and omens are present in nearly every paragraph of the piece, from representations as obvious as the bird in the puddle, the woman on the bus crying and the man in the window, to some of the more enigmatic ones, such as that in the fortune telling cards that fall on the ground:
the knave of hearts, the nine of spades, the ace of spades, the maid Elsa and her bestial beau.
The interpretation of these cards according to a traditional Russian system is that it’s foretold for there to be a great loss, grief and tears, all applying to a single young man. Arguably, the most significant of these symbols is the final phone call, of which no explanation is left as to who was calling or what they were calling for. One could assume that the strange girl could be calling again, but foreshadowing and the sudden ending suggests that the call contains news of the son, most likely concerning a suicide attempt that was probably successful. There are too many symbols and signs in this piece for me to possibly decode, but if you’re really interested in looking into the ones in this story, which I recommend you do because they’re interesting and contribute to the meaning more than I could describe myself, looking up an interpretation online yields many essays and in depth analyses.
The other element, or recurring topic/theme I should say, that I tracked was the usage of numbers or grouping of objects. Numbers and lists are also utilized to form messages that require deep thought in order to decode. Particular importance is placed on the numbers 10 and 3. Again, there is too much meaning behind the numbers for me to go in full detail, but usage of such symbols parallels with the way the son views the world, seeing everything as having some hidden meaning personal to him. Tying into the idea that the encrypted messages in the story are comparable to the boy’s condition, it’s possible that Nabokov prompts the audience to read into these ‘pseudo symbols’ in hopes of creating the reader’s own referential mania.
Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions.
Could the audience possibly be represented in this quote commentating on how he attempts to decode every little thing? Possibly. In fact, Nabokov has even admitted to having woven a second main story into the initial superficial one. However, this theory is up to interpretation.
After analyzing this story, I can strive to utilize the technique of weaving a submissive second storyline underneath a transparent but visible initial storyline. I can do so by distracting the reader with seemingly necessary details in order to hide the deeper plot of the piece. Although a seemingly bad technique, it is evident that doing so works in this case, as it requires the reader to think deeper than what’s given to them and to put together the pieces of the puzzle themselves, which can prove to be very entertaining, although frustrating at times. I also want to use more symbolism in my pieces. As I stated with the intertwining stories, having representations of things can cause your reader to be more intrigued by the piece and overall improves your writing.
- Why do you think that Nabokov decided to include the names of every character in this story, but leaves the husband, wife and son unnamed?
- Who do you think was on the other line of the third call? What did they have to say?
- Do you think that Nabokov intended to have the codes in the story act as distractors from the underlying plot, or do you believe that each symbol plays a part in the puzzle?