‘Symbols And Signs’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov, Vladimir 1948

Symbols And Signs by Vladimir Nabokov, 1948

The magic trick:

Possibly mocking the notion of literary symbolism even while providing a beautiful example of literary symbolism

I can’t decide if this is a sendup of short-story symbolism or a heartbreakingly beautiful example of short-story symbolism. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s both, which is probably why it’s ranked by many among the best stories ever written.

Let’s first consider the satire. We have a young man who is “incurably deranged in his mind.” His problem? He obsessively sees everything in the world as a never-ending set of symbols and signs sent for him to decipher. Is this a not-so-subtle shot at critics and the over-analyzing lit nerds ready to find double meaning in every word of a short story? Possibly. Maybe even probably.

Nabokov follows up with some pretty obvious symbols. We get a brief mention of a small bird struggling to get out of a puddle. We get a brief mention of a man lying prostrate in a room across the tenement building. These can be seen as powerful or laughable, depending on your own degree of cynicism.

And then finally, of course, the story famously ends with the ringing phone – the ultimate treat for the over-analyzing reader. But who could blame the reader? The ambiguity begs for analysis. Is it the hospital calling with awful news? Or is it a wrong number and nothing of consequence?

It’s as if Nabokov is just playing with the reader, mocking our need to analyze and interpret everything, while at the same time encouraging us. So, really, the story is a win-win. If you’re a cynic and you to want to enjoy it as dark satire, have at it. If you want to buy into the symbolism and read it as an emotionally earnest piece, interpret away!

The story is full of symbols and signs, both real and imagined. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.

The selection:

Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.


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