Signs and Symbols

Signs and Symbols

"Signs and Symbols" is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, written in English in 1946, and first published in "The New Yorker" and then in "Nabokov's Dozen" (1958: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York).

It has also been published under the name "Symbols and Signs".cite web |url= |title=Audio: Sign Language: Online Only: The New Yorker |format= |work= |accessdate=]

Plot summary

An elderly couple tries to visit their mentally deranged son in a sanatorium on his birthday. They are informed that he attempted to take his life and they cannot see him now. After their return home, the husband announces his decision to take him out of the sanatorium. The story concludes with a series of three mysterious telephone calls. The first two apparently misdialed calls are asking for "Charlie"; the story ends when the phone rings for the third time.

In the course of the story the reader learns many details of the couple's life: the unnamed couple is likely to be Jewish, had come from Russia, live probably in New York, depend financially upon the husband's brother, Isaac, had a German maid when they lived in exile in Germany, had an aunt, Rosa, who perished in the holocaust, and have a nephew who is a famous chess player. The elderly man feels that he is dying.

The son is unnamed, suicidal, and suffering from "referential mania" where "the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence". "Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme". Real people are excluded from this paranoia, and the condition is worse the further he is away from familiar surroundings.


Nabokov commented that beneath the outer story is an inner story. The ending at the third telephone call leaves the nature of the call open to speculation. Perhaps someone calls from the sanatorium about their son and the news is not good. The reader is challenged to decipher this story. The text contains numerous signs and symbols throughout: numbers, images, events – including the terminal phone calls – that cry out for interpretation. The reader is placed in the position of having to relate these "signs and symbols" to the story being aware of what happened to the son who connected all the ciphers around him to himself.


:" -for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another,..."


External links

* [ English text]
* [ Alexander Dolinin: The Signs and Symbols in Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols"]

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