A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.

Symbols and Signs(originally intended to be published under the title ‘Signs and Symbols’) is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov that so gently tries to make sense of the existential crisis faced by an immigrant elderly couple. The story opens when the couple(who are Jewish Russians that have moved to NewYork), are on their way to visit their son, “a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind”, at the sanitarium.

The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts

Nabokov picks his words with intelligence, and fits each word perfectly in the jig-saw puzzle of a story. The elderly couple’s hearts are described to be “dutifully beating”, a fitting description given that at their age, they seem to be living out of mere obligation. There’s also the guilt-filled affair of having to financially depend on the old man’s brother Isaac.

On arriving at the sanitarium, “instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life”. The couple decides to leave and on their way out, “a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle”. Nabokov again uses descriptive symbolism ominously, reflecting both looming and past disappointment.

Part of the reason Nabokov had insisted that his story be published under its original title ‘Signs and Symbols’ is that being the lover of words that he was, I suspect he wanted to deliberately call to the reader’s attention the subtle difference between the two words ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’, and that ‘signs’ in many cases are not symbols since a symbol carries a definite and fixed meaning. What the elderly couple run into on their journey to the sanitarium are mostly ominous signs but not symbols of any particular fate. It is from this angle that the story is told, the couple seems to be fighting to figure out whether the signs they’ve encountered in their painful and long life are symbols of some sort.

The elderly couple’s son had been taken to a sanitarium because he had referential mania. Nabokov explains this condition extensively and dedicates a whole paragraph to it.

The patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him.

The young man’s condition seems to be a subliminal reference to human being’s flawed perception. There can never be true objective understanding because each of us interprets the world through their own life’s contextually-crafted lens so that we can exist in entirely separate realities. It would seem, in fact that the world is within us more so than we are in it.

Later in the story, the elderly woman observes restrospectively as she flips the pages of her old photographve album, that her life had and still was a perpetual development of disappointing events. Nabokov captures this skillfully by alluding to the woman’s aunt Rosa’s life and describes her as “a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death.” The story is a continual worsening of life’s existential crises but it is also somewhat a cure for the search for meaning. By recognizing the difference between signs and symbols in our lives, we readily interpret our life’s events. Despite the subjective and often vain manner in which we make these interpretations, we can get better at it by properly making this distinction.

For the elderly couple, life seems bleak, devoid of the metaphorical sunshine and Nabokov summarizes the old woman’s view of life as “accepting the loss of one joy after another”. Towards the end of the story which is brief but beautifully crafted, Nabokov takes the story from the search for meaning to the elderly couple trying to form their own meaning of life, while they still can. They decide to bring back their son from the sanitarium and take care of him themselves regardless of what the older brother Isaac(also nicknamed the Prince) might say. While the couple discusses how such a life might be, the telephone rings. Twice the caller has the wrong number. As the old man amuses himself with the labels on the fruit jelly jars(jars that had been the intended gift for their son), the phone rings again. Nabokov ends the story here but there is no hopelessness in the end, no confusion. Nabokov has so skillfully taken us on a journey of coping with the confusion of life and finding clarity out of times that can sometimes be so maddeningly foggy.

The short story was originally published in the Newyorker’s 1948 issue and you can read it from their online archive.

Book Details

  • Author: Vladimir Nabokov
  • Published in: 1948
  • Pages: 5


Mutsinzi is majoring in Computer Science. He likes reading, listening to music and creating.