The beauty and power of this story, which may be Nabokov’s best, is conveyed through scrupulously refined and repetitive images, details, and motifs. These are intricately designed and fashioned so that reading the text is also an experience of working through an interlocking network of signs and symbols.
The dominant point of view is the wife’s, who is fully aware that she presents “a naked white countenance to the fault-finding light of spring days.” Her and her husband’s experiences are uniformly hostile: the stalled subway train, his brown-spotted (cancerous?) hands, the boy’s acne-blotched face, the half-dead bird, her concept of people as comparable to beautiful weeds who “helplessly have to watch the shadow of [the farmer’s] simian swoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.” This darkness destroys her aunt’s, her son’s, and the couple’s lives.
The story constructs an elaborate referential system to pit the realm of creative imagination against the threatening pattern of realistic experience. Nabokov uses incidental details to form an active synergy of designation. Thus, Aunt Rosa’s world is destroyed, as the baby bird’s is: brutally, irrationally, fatally. The boy avoids squirrels as he does people. When six years old, he draws birds with human hands and feet, reminding the reader of the dying bird’s spasms and the husband’s twitching hands. Slowly, detail by detail, the trappings of life accumulate, only to be annihilated.
Thus, from the intricate and circuitous structure of “Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov goes on to incandescent, imaginative compositions that establish mirror-image relationships between the physical, tangible world and the shadowy, shaped, invented world.
Artistically, “Signs and Symbols” is nearly flawless: It is intricately patterned, densely textured, and remarkably intense in tone and feeling. For once, Nabokov the literary jeweler cuts more deeply than his usual surfaces, forsaking gamesmanship and mirror-play and other gambits of verbal artifice to enter the frightening woods of inassuageable, tragic grief.