Study Guide Prepared by
Michael J. Cummings..©
and Symbols” is a short story centering on the severe mental debility of
a young man and on the struggle of his elderly parents to cope with it.
of Publication and Title
and Symbols” was first published in the May 15, 1948, issue of The New
Yorker magazine. Before publishing the story, the editors of the magazine
changed the title to "Symbols and Signs." After the story appeared, Nabokov
changed the title back to its original wording. Doubleday and Company republished
the story in Garden City, N.Y., in 1958 in Nabokov's Dozen, a collection
of Nabokov's short stories.
action takes place in a large American city in the apartment of an elderly
couple, on public transit systems, on streets, and in a mental hospital.
The time is 1947 or 1948. The atmosphere, including the weather and the
scenes that the elderly couple see, is bleak and cheerless.
The Mother and Father:
Russian Jews who lived in Minsk (formerly a city in Russia and now the
capital of Belarus). They migrated to Germany and then, during the rise
of Adolf Hitler, to the United States. They have a son and live in a big
city, probably New York.
The Son: Mentally
deranged twenty-year-old who was born when his mother was in middle age.
He suffers from a rare form of paranoia in which he believes that natural
and man-made objects are conspiring against him.
Nurse: Staff member
in a sanitarium where the son is under treatment.
Woman who telephones the mother and father late at night and asks for a
person named Charlie.
mentioned in the narration. These include the following:
father's brother, whom the mother and father refer to as "the Prince."
Isaac, who also lives in the U.S., supports the mother and father.
Mrs. Sol: Next-door
neighbor of the mother and father. She wears a lot of makeup.
Girl With Dark Hair:
Bus passenger whom the mother and father observe. The girl is crying on
the shoulder of a woman.
Minsk acquaintance of the mother and father.
Woman in Minsk who married a member of the Soloveichik family.
Herman Brink: Person
who identifies the mental illness of the son.
German Maid: Servant
of the mother and father in Leipzig, Germany.
Fiancé of the
Aunt Rosa: Mother's
relative, who was killed by the Germans.
Dr. Solov: The physician
of the mother and father.
of the mother in the old country.
Boyfriend of Elsa
author tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling
him to present the thoughts of the mother, father, and son.
Michael J. Cummings...©
is Friday, the birthday of a twenty-year-old man in a sanitarium in a large
American city. He suffers from a rare form of paranoia called referential
mania, in which he believes nature and certain man-made objects conspire
against him. For example, he imagines that clouds make signs to one another
to exchange detailed information about him. At night, trees use sign language
to convey to one another his deepest thoughts.
parents—Russian Jewish immigrants—had been married many years before he
was born. (The author does not identify them or their son by name.) Now
the parents are old. This year, as in the previous years, they are taking
him a birthday gift carefully selected to please him. He generally interprets
fabricated objects—those considered gadgets, for example—as either
evil or useless. So they purchased him a basket containing ten small jars
of different jellies. The mother dresses for the occasion in a black dress
with no makeup.
coming to the U.S., the father had been a successful businessman. Now,
however, he depends on his brother, Isaac—an American citizen for almost
forty years—for money. He and his wife call him "the Prince."
they are on their way the sanitarium, the subway breaks down; they must
sit in silence for fifteen minutes. After leaving the subway, they wait
a long time for a bus to take them the rest of the way. It is loaded with
noisy high school students. After reaching their destination, they walk
through pouring rain to the sanitarium entrance. Once inside, there is
more waiting. Finally, a nurse they do not like arrives to inform them
their son had attempted suicide. He is all right now, she says, but a visit
is out of the question; it might upset him. Since the sanitarium is understaffed
and items left for patients tend to get mixed up, they take the gift home
On the bus ride back to
the subway station, the mother notices a girl crying on the shoulder of
a woman. The girl reminds her of Rebecca Borisovna, a woman she knew in
Minsk, Russia, long ago.
son's last suicide attempt to escape the prison of his mind was “a masterpiece
of inventiveness,” a doctor observed. One patient who thought he was trying
to learn how to fly intervened, out of envy, inadvertently saving his life.
In addition to believing that clouds and trees are plotting against him,
he perceives pebbles, flecks of sunlight, or stains as symbols and signs
forming messages that he must intercept. Pools of water and glass surfaces
are spies. Coats in store windows are “prejudiced witnesses,” the narrator
says, and storms and running water “have a distorted opinion of him and
grossly misrepresent his actions.” He spends every waking moment decoding
the meaning of what he sees. However, he poses no threat to people, for
he does not perceive them as part of a conspiracy. Besides, he believes
he is superior to them.
home after supper, the father retires to bed while the mother looks at
a photo album with old pictures. A photo falls out. It is a picture of
her German maid in Leipzig and her fiancé. The scene reminds her
of places and events: Minsk, the Russian revolution, Berlin, and her house
in Leipzig. There is a picture of her son when he was four and one of Aunt
Rosa, “a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady," the narrator says, "who had
lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents,
cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all
the people she had worried about.”
photo of her son shows him at age six, when he sketched pictures of birds
with the feet and hands of humans and suffered bouts of insomnia. Another
shows him at age eight, when he was afraid of wallpaper in their home and
of a picture of a landscape. Still another shows him at ten, when the family
emigrated to America. She then remembers the time when he was recovering
from pneumonia and became delusional. No one could reach him. He had slipped
into a world of his own.
accepted his fate and, the narrator says,
She thought of the
endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband
had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable
fashion; 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;of neglected children humming to themselves in
unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and
helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers
in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.
midnight, her husband staggers into the living room and says he is dying.
She thinks his stomach is the problem and suggests that they call a physician.
But he wants no doctors.
must get him out of there quick,” he says. “Otherwise we'll be responsible.
he believes that if they do not bring their son home, he will kill himself
and they will be to blame.
The telephone rings
and a girl asks for Charlie. The mother informs her that she has the wrong
number. The father then tells the mother that they will get their son the
first thing in the morning. The telephone rings again, and the same girls
asks for Charlie. The mother again tells her she has the wrong number,
probably because she dialed a zero instead of the letter O.
two of them then have tea. The father examines the jars of jelly—apricot,
quince, and other flavors. Once more the telephone rings.
narration ends here. It is up to the reader to interpret the meaning of
the story. One possibility—based on imagery in the story—is that the third
call is from the sanitarium, where a representative is about to inform
the mother and father that their son has successfully committed suicide.
For additional information on the ending, see Signs, Symbols,
and the Third Call, below.)
tone of the story is somber. The son is in conflict with his bizarre illness
and the threatening signs and symbols that he sees. The parents are also
in conflict with his illness, along with the institution housing him.
Living Worlds Apart in the Same World
has cursed the elderly Jewish mother and father with suffering and hardship.
They left Minsk (formerly a Russian city but now a city in Belarus) during
or after the turbulent Russian Revolution and settled in Germany during
the rise of fanatical anti-Semitism. One of the mother's relatives, Aunt
Rosa, died at the hands of the Germans.
the couple had their son to worry about. He was exhibiting frightening
signs of a strange mental illness. After the couple emigrated to the United
States when the boy was ten, they placed him in a special school where
he encountered “ugly, vicious backward children.” In time, after suffering
a bout of pneumonia, he began living in a different reality, one beyond
the accessibility of normal human beings. An article in a scientific journal
described his illness as a rare form of paranoia called referential mania.
By this time, the father—a successful businessman in the old country—was
relying completely on his brother, Isaac, a thriving American citizen,
for financial support. Life was hard.
the couple committed their son to a sanitarium. Inside his mind, “invisible
giants” were assaulting him, and the mother and father were powerless to
help him. So it was that the parents suffered in one reality while their
son suffered in another reality. In his reality, clouds, trees, coats,
running water, and wallpaper were conspiring against him—just as the anti-Semites
conspired against his parents in Europe and just as poverty and other woes
conspired against them in America.
the greatest anguish of all, though, is that they cannot communicate with
him, and he cannot communicate with anyone. And then there are the mysterious
telephone calls in which the caller cannot get through to anyone either.
beings live in worlds apart while living in the same world. And it is not
only mental debility that separates them through differing perceptions
of reality; it is also political ideologies, economic systems, scientific
theories, religious beliefs, and culture.
Symbols, and the Third Call
signs and symbols confront not only the son in his world but also the mother
and father in their world. Examples are their signs and symbols are the
subway that loses “its life current,” the report that their son has attempted
suicide, a dying bird in a puddle, the girl crying on the shoulder of a
woman, the photograph of the relative killed by the Nazis. Do all of these
foreshadow bad news at the end of the story—namely that the third telephone
call will report that the son has succeeded in killing himself?
outcome is a possibility. Nabokov leaves the interpretation up to the reader.
climax occurs when the elderly couple decide to bring their son home to
provide him better care.
are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Repetition of a consonant
things got mislaid
or mixed up so easily
he drew wonderful birds
sipped noisily; his face
Comparison of unlike things
using like, as, or than
train lost its life current between two stations.
Comparison of the train
to a living thing
He removed his new hopelessly
uncomfortable dental plate and severed the long tusks of saliva connecting
him to it.
Comparison of saliva
beautiful weeds that cannot
hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian
stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake
Comparison of weeds to
intelligent beings; comparison of the farmer's stoop to that of an ape
Word that imitates a sound
where the rain tinkled
in the dark
Contradictory words placed
side by side
a kind of soft
Study Questions and Essay
your interpretation of the ending of the story?
modern medicine treat severely paranoid patients like the son?
ask ten artists to paint the same landscape, each will interpret and depict
it differently. In your opinion, does each person in the world have a different
perception of reality than other persons? If your answer is yes, explain
why one person's perception of reality is considered normal and another's—like
identifies several persons by name, such as Aunt Rosa, Dr. Solov, and Rebecca
Borisovna? Why doesn't he identify by name the elderly couple and their
an essay explaining what life may have been like for the elderly couple
in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler?