Signs and Symbols Themes
by Vladimir Nabokov

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Displaced persons and madmen recur in Nabokov’s fiction, with these people finding no joy in his universe. The central thematic question this story asks is whether one is necessarily demented to conclude that nature and society are hostile to humankind. Although the son is certifiably deluded, the real world presented by the narrator and observed by the parents is fully consistent with the boy’s vision of it. These parents have made great sacrifices for their son; they have poignant memories of his disturbed childhood and are now willing to care for the hopeless boy in their cramped, two-room apartment. However, all creatures and phenomena in this story—humans, birds, flowers—are linked to one another in an ineluctable chain of suffering. The parents have been forced to leave their homeland, where the husband had been a successful businessman, and are now totally dependent on his seldom-seen brother, whom they call “the Prince.” The wife recalls endless waves of pain that, for reasons unknowable, she and her husband have had to endure. She remembers her Aunt Rosa who endured bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths only to be murdered by the Germans. The boy, the bird, the aunt, and the parents all testify to a universe of inexorable and implacable powers that snuff out the lights of life, imagination, creativity, justice, and happiness.