Short Story Day 5 – Symbols and Signs

5. – Symbols and Signs, by Vladimir Nabokov

This is day five of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Today we have another little jewel – this one published by the New Yorker in 1948, Signs and Symbols, by Vladimir Nabokov.

It reads so up-to-date, it’s hard to believe the story is sixty-five years old, published almost a decade before Lolita.

I don’t know if anyone else gives a damn, but I have been enjoying reading, researching, thinking about in depth, and writing a bit about each work… even if I am essentially doing a homework assignment each day for fun.

This story is an interesting one – much more complex and deep than it appears at first. It’s well known and a lot has been written about it:

It fascinates me how a great work of literature can spawn so many analytical studies – each one several times longer than the story itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept spelled out in the last article in the list – that of the difference between Story and Plot. The Story is what actually happens in the work of literature, in real time chronological and casual order. The Plot consists of these same events presented in the order and manner that they are in the narrative. The way the reader learns of these events is irrelevant to the Story – but the wide variety of Plots that can be applied is essential to the artistry and emotional impact of the work.

What Nabokov does with the plot – with the way he presents the story – is what makes Symbols and Signs resonate with a power and complexity hidden in its short length. He is telling multiple stories with the same plot – at least two and maybe three.

One trick he plays is to withhold from the reader certain key information that is needed to make the story complete. There are many questions:

  • Exactly how did the son attempt suicide?
  • Why is there a wagon wheel hanging in a tree in the painting he is afraid of?
  • There are subtle changes in the story (the title for example) between the New Yorker version and the subsequent versions – what is the meaning behind this?
  • What is the meaning of the specific cards mentioned in the deck that falls to the floor?
  • What are the rest of the ten flavors of jelly?

…. and so on. But the biggest mystery and the most perplexing for the reader is – Who makes the third phone call at the end of the story? Is the girl making another wrong number? Is it the hospital calling to report their son’s death? Has the son escaped and is begging to come home?

There are clues throughout the text to help answer these questions – though they are hidden and impossible to be sure about. Remember, that in addition to being a famous writer (and expert on butterflies) Nabokov took great joy and interest in the composition of Chess Problems. He says, “The strain on the mind is formidable; the element of time drops out of one’s consciousness”. Nabokov believed that the “originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity” of creating a chess problem was related to his writing. We should not be surprised to find riddles within riddles hidden in the story.

But even without the mysteries and puzzles and mental gymnastics the short story is a compelling one. It is so sad – you feel so much for the old couple – poor, waiting to die, buying a birthday present for their mentally disturbed son. There is an air of helplessness, leavened slightly by Nabokov’s keen sense of dark humor.

Here was Aunt Rosa, 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, together with all the people she had worried about.

I think about the boy’s rare and terrible mental problem. He is crippled by the thought that the entire natural world is a series of coded messages and communications about him. He must examine everything carefully and completely, all the time, under the horror that the whole world is purposed simply to defeat him.

But what of the opposite? The son is paralyzed with the belief that he is the center and purpose of the universe – but isn’t it more of a horror to believe that the universe is completely uncaring and even unaware of your existence?

That’s the terrible truth of the parent’s life. And there is nothing they can do about it.

All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.
—-Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabokov