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.
The parents attempt to deliver a birthday gift to their son who has been committed to a mental institution. He is suffering from “referential mania,” a state of mind in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” Unfortunately, their visit is preceded by the son’s second suicide attempt, and they are forced to return home without seeing him.
Later that night, the mother looks through an old photo album. Even as a baby, her son looked, she notices, “more surprised” than most babies. The photos provide overwhelming evidence of their humiliation and pain in exile: the many cities, the friends and relatives exterminated by the Germans, her son’s vicious classmates. Reviewing her son’s life she sees, in retrospect, his fear growing until he “hardened,” becoming “totally inaccessible to normal minds.”
After midnight, the father appears, unable to sleep. He cries that he is “dying” and insists that they bring the boy home; the mother agrees. At this point they are frightened by the ringing telephone, but it is the wrong number.
They resolve to bring their son home the next day, and the phone rings again. The mother patiently explains to the caller that he is dialing the letter O instead of a zero. Having decided on a course of action, the father examines the basket of ten jelly jars that had been meant as a present for his son. Just as he reaches the fifth jar, the phone rings again, and the story ends.
Much of the story’s power derives from the ambiguity of the ending. Is the final...
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call another wrong number, or is it a call confirming what they fear most, that their son has succeeded in killing himself? Although the author leaves the story unresolved, he does provide clues that point to the latter interpretation.
Their son’s decline into madness and his wish to escape is at least consistent with a hostile universe, while his parents cling precariously to an existence that offers no reward for endurance--only more fear, debility, poverty, and eventual darkness.
Despite its pessimistic worldview, “SIGNS AND SYMBOLS” emerges as a superbly poignant story told through a scrupulously objective narration; its theme of displacement and victimization is a powerful one.
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