By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Signs and Symbols’ is a short story by the Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), originally published in the New Yorker in 1948. The story centres on an elderly married Russian couple who are immigrants to the United States; their son is suffering from paranoid delusions and has been confined to a sanatorium. ‘Signs and Symbols’ focuses on their thwarted attempt to visit their son and its aftermath.
‘Signs and Symbols’: plot summary
The story is about a married couple going to visit their son, who is confined to a sanatorium, for his birthday. They are Russian immigrants to the United States. Their visit is plagued with problems. First, they struggle to find a suitable gift for him, and in the end decide on a basket containing jars of fruit jellies. Next, the underground train stops between two stations and they have to wait there while it was fixed. Then, the bus is late, and when it arrives it is filled with noisy schoolchildren.
When they do arrive at the sanatorium, they are informed that their son tried to take his own life, something he has attempted before, and that a visit might disturb him, so they have to leave. On the journey home, the wife contemplates her son’s mental illness: a form of paranoid known as ‘referential mania’, in which he is convinced that everything in the world is a veiled reference to himself.
So, the clouds in the sky seem to be transmitting important information about him, and even the coats in shop windows are ‘prejudiced witnesses’.
On their way home, the wife sends her husband on home as she wants to get some fish for their supper. However, when he gets home, he remembers he gave her the keys earlier in the day, so he has to wait outside for her, in the thunder and rain. When she gets back, they go inside and the husband removes the dental plate from his mouth and sits and reads the newspaper.
When the husband has retired to bed, the wife sits up and goes through old photograph albums, looking at photos of their son when he was very young, before they had left Europe for the US.
Even from an early age, there are signs of his referential mania developing: at age eight or so, he was scared of the wallpaper in the passage of their house and of an idyllic picture in a book, supposedly because he believed they were communicating information about himself.
After midnight, the husband comes in and says he can’t sleep, and asks for some tea. He says they need to remove their son from the sanatorium before he succeeds in ending his life in there. They agree to bring him home tomorrow and keep the knives out of the way so he cannot harm himself. As they are sitting up, the phone rings several times and a girl asks for ‘Charlie’; the wife tells her that she has dialled the wrong number, dialling the letter O instead of a zero.
As the husband drinks his tea, he admires the jars of jelly they had bought for their son’s birthday, spelling out the labels with his lips. As he does so, the telephone rings again.
‘Signs and Symbols’: analysis
‘Signs and Symbols’ is shrouded in ambiguity and undecidability. Even the title can be analysed in numerous ways: as a reference to the ‘signs and symbols’ hiding within nature, which the son believes are all about him; as an allusion to the symbols on the playing cards which the wife drops; as a nod to the ‘signs’ of her son’s later illness which his mother appears to discern in old childhood photographs; or even, perhaps, as a reference to all of the various images, signs, and symbols in the story as a whole, including those planted by Nabokov as ostensibly casual or throwaway moments or details.
The final telephone call is a good example of how playful Nabokov’s story is with the very ‘signs and symbols’ from which writers create, or at least suggest, meaning. The law of averages leads us to surmise that the third phone call is the girl calling back again for ‘Charlie’, having failed to dial the correct number for a third time. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s the sanatorium calling to deliver the bad news that their son has taken his own life? Alternatively, it might be the son phoning his concerned parents to tell them he has escaped from the sanatorium.
This ambiguity is, of course, deliberate, and designed, we might say, to lure us into the trap of trying to decipher the ‘clues’ in ‘Signs and Symbols’ so that we can piece together some sort of narrative: that the son has died, that he has escaped, or that neither has happened and things remain much as they were before the story began.
In other words, we are encouraged as readers to become versions of the son, trapped in our own referential mania, desperate to see significance in the details provided and extrapolate from them. But such an endeavour may be futile, after all, because Nabokov’s ‘signs and symbols’ may, in fact, be like most of the signs and symbols which surround us every day, coincidental, normal, and unremarkable.
Of course, this is not to say that none of the images or details Nabokov provides in ‘Signs and Symbols’ are devoid of meaning.
Indeed, elsewhere in the story, some of the imagery is anything but obscure: the spectacle of the ‘half-dead unfledged bird’ twitching in the puddle, which the couple witness as they are making their way home, not only refigures the nervous ‘twitching’ of the father’s hands, but also, obviously, symbolises the son himself, who is ‘half-dead’ (from trying to take his life, and from having lost control of his mind) and ‘unfledged’ in that he cannot fly away: shortly after this, the wife recalls how their son had tried to escape from the sanatorium and one of the other patients had assumed he was ‘learning to fly’.
In the last analysis, ‘Signs and Symbols’ is a story which uses its ambiguity against the reader, in order to try to trick us into performing the same acts of futile interpretation which the son in the story is continuously performing. Not everything has meaning, though some things are, like that bird in the puddle, positively twitching with potential significance.