Signs and Symbols Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An elderly, poor Russian émigré couple intend to pay a birthday visit to their son. He is institutionalized in a sanitarium, diagnosed as afflicted with referential mania. It is an incurable disease in which the patient imagines that everything that happens around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He is certain that phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he may be, that trees can divine and discuss his inmost thoughts, that coats in store windows want to lynch him—in short, that he must be on his guard every minute of his life. The boy’s most recent suicide attempt was brilliantly inventive, as he sought to “tear a hole in his world and escape.”

On the parents’ way to the sanitarium, the machinery of existence seems to malfunction: The subway loses its electric current between stations; their bus is late and is crammed with noisy schoolchildren; they are pelted by pouring rain as they walk the last stretch of the way. On their arrival, they are informed that because their son has again attempted suicide, their visit might unduly agitate him, so they do not see him.

While awaiting their bus on their way home, they observe a tiny, half-dead baby bird twitching helplessly in a rain puddle; it is doomed to die through no fault of its own. On the bus, they are silent with worry and defeat; the wife notices her husband’s hands twitching, like the bird’s body, on the handle of his umbrella.

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Signs and Symbols Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Originally published in The New Yorker in 1948, “Signs and Symbols” illustrates Nabokov’s talent for enfolding closely observed details of everyday life into a larger conceptual framework.

An aging Russian immigrant couple are making a difficult trip by subway and bus to their son’s sanitarium to give him his twentieth birthday present, a selection of jellies in a basket. The young man is suffering from “referential mania” and imagines that every object and event has something to do with him. Upon arriving, however, the parents learn that their son has once again tried to commit suicide and should not be disturbed. The weary couple return home with the basket, but cannot sleep. They decide that despite the difficulty involved, they must bring their son home to care for him.

As they work out the details of their decision, the telephone rings, and the wife answers it with trepidation, for it is now past midnight. When a voice she does not recognize asks for “Charlie,” she explains with relief that the caller has the wrong number. Moments later the phone rings again, and the same young girl asks for Charlie again. The wife explains that the caller is still misdialing, after which the couple return to the simple pleasures of their late-night tea. The telephone rings a third time, at which point the story ends.

Although Nabokov describes the aging couple and their travails in homely detail, most readers’ initial reactions to “Signs and Symbols” focus on the telephone calls that end the story. Given the condition of the young man and the late hour, it is natural that readers share the couple’s trepidation over the calls, for the sanitarium may be trying to inform them that their son has finally succeeded in killing himself. It is at this point that careful readers may think back on the condition from which the son suffers—a mania in which he believes that everything relates to and revolves around him. In their response to the telephone calls, his parents share a version of the same mania, as do the story’s readers, who not unnaturally assume that every detail of the work before them must somehow relate to its “meaning.” Nabokov seemingly leaves the issue unresolved, yet the lack of a resolution merely heightens the impulse to find a pattern where there may not be one.