Signs and Symbols
By Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Publication
Point of View
Plot Summary
Tone and Conflict
Signs, Symbols, Third Call
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Nabokov
Complete Free Text
Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2012
Type of Work

.......“Signs 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. 

Year of Publication and Title

.......“Signs 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.

.......The 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.
Telephone Caller: Woman who telephones the mother and father late at night and asks for a person named Charlie.
Others: Characters mentioned in the narration. These include the following:

Isaac: The 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.
Rebecca Borisovna: Minsk acquaintance of the mother and father.
Rebecca's Daughter: 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 Maid
Aunt Rosa: Mother's relative, who was killed by the Germans. 
Dr. Solov: The physician of the mother and father.
Elsa: Acquaintance of the mother in the old country.
Boyfriend of Elsa
Point of View

.......The author tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling him to present the thoughts of the mother, father, and son.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

.......It 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. 
.......His 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.
.......Before 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."
.......When 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 with them.
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.
.......Their 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.
.......At 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.”
.......Another 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.
.......She 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.
.......After 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.
.......“We must get him out of there quick,” he says. “Otherwise we'll be responsible. Responsible!"
.......Apparently 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.
.......The two of them then have tea. The father examines the jars of jelly—apricot, quince, and other flavors. Once more the telephone rings. 
.......(The 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 and Conflict

.......The 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. 

Theme: Living Worlds Apart in the Same World

.......Life 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. 
.......Meanwhile, 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. 
.......Eventually 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. 
.......Perhaps 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.
.......Human 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.

Signs, Symbols, and the Third Call

.......Ominous 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?
.......That outcome is a possibility. Nabokov leaves the interpretation up to the reader.

The climax occurs when the elderly couple decide to bring their son home to provide him better care.
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. 

Repetition of a consonant sound

things got mislaid or mixed up so easily

her fat-faced fiance fell out

that was when he drew wonderful birds

He sipped noisily; his face was flushed

Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
The underground 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 to tusks

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 (simian stoop)

Word that imitates a sound
the rustling of newspapers 

where the rain tinkled in the dark

Contradictory words placed side by side
a kind of soft shock


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • What is your interpretation of the ending of the story?
  • How does modern medicine treat severely paranoid patients like the son?
  • If you 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 the son's—abnormal.
  • The writer 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 son?
  • Write an essay explaining what life may have been like for the elderly couple in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler?