Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

06 Jul 2012

(Short Story) Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov

(Reaction) Signs and Symbols by: Antonio Conejos

Symbols and signs deals with individuals who are at a loss to explain the world around them. The trick of Nabokov's story is how this premise is explored through the differences between the people who cannot understand the world.

On one hand we have the unnamed son. His is a world where everything is loaded with meaning. Indeed, it is in the very minutiae of life that he obsessively focuses on, Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.

On the other hand, the unnamed parents live in a world where nothing has meaning. They have never integrated into American society and as such see themselves as perpetual immigrants. They can only attempt to make sense of America through references back to the old world, Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks - in Minsk, years ago... He read his Russian-language newspaper while she laid the table.

For the son, the littlest speck has meaning, The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away... The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains.

For the parents, even the loud, obnoxious things of life, like the subway and children, have no meaning, are dissonant, 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 and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children.

For the son it is his environment he does not understand, reacting to objects as if they were alive, as if they were animated by motivations and desires.

For the parents it is people they do not understand, the people who are now their neighbors in their new country, Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring.

Ironically then while both son and parents share the characteristic of finding their worlds meaningless (either because of too much meaning or too little), they differ in almost everything else. As such, Symbols and Signs may be suggesting that regardless of our situation the world is inherently meaningless.

Indeed, a great factor of this meaninglessness is the apathy of the people around the son and the parents. In the son's case, his doctors are more interested in studying him than helping him, 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 doctors treat the son as a sort of amusement as well, The last time the boy had tried to do it [suicide], his method had been, in the doctor's words, a masterpiece of inventiveness.

The parents too have no one to turn to in America. While they live on the support of the father's brother his distance from them is clearly established in the parents' nickname for their patron - the Prince.

Thus, Symbols and Signs illustrates through comparison and contrast how sane and disturbed alike see the true state of the world as meangingless.


An innocuous enough short story upon first reading but its implications are quite daring once the story has been explored.

An online copy of Nabokov's work can be found here.

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