Signs and Symbols: a Study Guide
She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or the world, the phone ringing at the end, the sleep problems of the man. Gaitskill equates “ Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov's preferred title, . I enjoyed it as a stand-alone, and felt the focus was on the relationship between the couple: how. 'Signs and Symbols' () is one of the shortest of all Nabokov's The second is the connection offered by the implied ending to the story. Signs and Symbols" is a short story centering on the severe mental debility of a young Doubleday and Company republished the story in Garden City, N.Y., in in Nabokov's Dozen, a collection of Nabokov's short stories. Plot Summary.
The son suffers from "referential mania", where "the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence".
Real people are excluded from this paranoiaand the condition is worse the further he is away from familiar surroundings.
Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” | A Just Recompense
The son's condition is based on a real condition—compare ideas of reference. Textual changes[ edit ] The New Yorker wanted to make many changes. Nabokov objected strongly, supported by his friend Edmund Wilsonand the story was printed mostly as he wrote it.
One was that the title was reversed as mentioned above. The second was that instead of numbers for the three sections, the sections were separated by ellipses. It has been noted that the boy's cousin, a "famous chess player""is perhaps a projection of Luzhin in Nabokov's Defense, who is also a victim of referential mania. There is also a strong hint at a divinational code, as the three cards that slip from the couch to the floor are conspicuously named knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades and form a standard fortune-telling packet or triad.
If interpreted according to a traditional Russian system, they seem to foretell some tragic loss ace of spadesgrief and tears nine of spades with respect to a single young man knave of hearts.
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Yet in cardomancy, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the same 'lie' of the cards may be diversely interpreted to meet different cases" and much depends on the position of a card representing the object of fortune telling. It is significant that Nabokov's divinational "packet" of three cards is "laid" side by side with photographs of the couple's German maid Elsa and her "bestial beau," who in the context of the story personify forces of evil responsible for the suffering of the innocent, for the death of Aunt Rosa and "all the people she had worried about," and for the Holocaust.
Their representations then should be regarded as an integral part of the whole "lie"--as quasi-cards standing for the "inquirers" of fortune telling. It is to the dismal fate of blondes Besties at the end of the World War Two that the ominous combination of spades refers: The sequence of three cards and two photograph, however, brings us to the last potential code suggested by the text--to numerical cryptography and numerology.
From the very start the narration in "Signs and Symbols" registers and emphasizes numbers cf.: The couple lives on the third floor; they go through three misfortunes on their way to the hospital Underground, bus, rain and encounter three bad omens on their way back a bird, a crying girl, and misplaced keys ; the name of Soloveichik from the Russian for nightingale the old woman's friend, is echoed twice in the truncated, Americanized versions Solov and Sol; 15 as we have seen, three cards fall to the floor and, of course, there are three telephone calls in the finale.
The story begins on Friday, the fifth day of the week; the life of the couple has passed through five locations Minsk, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig, New York ; the woman looks at five photographs of her son that represent five stages of his descent into madness--from a sweet baby to a sour insane boy of ten, "inaccessible to normal minds"; in the end the father reads five "eloquent labels" on the fruit jelly jars--apricot, grape, beech plum, quince, and crab apple: At last, there is the longest and singular sequence of "ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars"which is connected to a theme of birth after all, it is the birthday present and is mentioned five times in the text.
The only thing we can more or less safely bet on is that the jellies in the jars from no. If projected upon the life-stories of the insane boy and his parents, this duality infers a jarring question: As in the case of the ten jars, we know the meaning of the five stages in their lives but do not seem to have any clue to their future. However, I believe that there is such a clue in the story and that it is succinctly "spelled out" by the old woman when she answers two after-midnight telephone calls from a nameless girl: The telephone rang for a second time.
The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Charlie. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. It is a narcissistic world losing itself in a megalomaniac "I". The patient suffers from paranoia since he feels superior to others and since he feels hostility and malignity from the persecuting world which, represented by a nature evoking that of the British Romantic poets, spies him wherever he goes and interprets his actions.
Reality loses the brilliance of its reference to become a mere sign. The relationship between the patient and reality is dual, not split by either the triangular caesura of the referent separating the signified from the signifier, or the otherness of the other cracking the fusion of the "I" with the world. Imprisoned in a closed world, he fails to be aware of the gaping chasm of meaning which regenerates with the remainder, the law of the other and of the world.
This is what Derrida tries to explain when he writes: What I call " exappropriation" is this double movement whereby I direct towards meaning and try to appropriate it, but both knowing and desiring, whether I admit it or notdesiring that it remains strange to me, transcendent, other, that it remains where there is otherness.
If I could totally reappropriate meaning, exhaustively and with no remainder, there would be no meaning. If I do not want to appropriate it, there would be no meaning either.
Madness is silence because it is deprived of the space of speech. White, Nabokov alluded to "Signs and Symbols" by mentioning the story of an old Jewish couple and their sick boy, saying: Literature would be, in some way, analogous to but also different from madness. It is indeed possible to compare literature to madness as both are linked to the issue of reference--the perception of reality and its restoration in the imaginary world--as well as the issue of meaning. The madman, as exemplified in the short story by the son, tries to interpret the world.
As for readers or literary critics, they may sometimes give evidence of an interpretative frenzy resembling the experience of a delirium and characterized by a deviation from the straight line of meaning as we know from the etymology of the word "delirium" that it is formed of the Latin word "lira" which means a furrow and the prefix "de" which may signify "out of".
The short story is indeed a narrative which expands within a certain time. The reader is given information which is sometimes hidden in the text.
- Signs and Symbols
- The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov
For example, one may wonder where or who the telephone call at the end of the story comes from. Is it due once more to a wrong number or is it the hospital announcing the death of the son? Death is foreshadowed throughout the story thanks to repetitive details. The mother is indeed dressed in black.
47 – Signs and Symbols
On their way back home, the couple encounter "a tiny dead unfledged bird" evoking the son as we had been informed he had tried to fly when he attempted to commit suicide.
Symbols which are mentioned in the title of the story become signs the reader has to decipher. The interpretative activity of the reader resembles the experience of madness which, according to Derrida, is "adventurous, perilous, nocturnal and pathetic" 13 Literature keeps its secret--we shall never know who telephoned at the end of the story--and madness its mystery--the son is unable to communicate with sane persons. The short story unfolds therefore within a lapse of time which, although shortened into a brief day in the life of a couple, is lengthened by waiting and memory.
Thus, the couple waits in the underground train because of a breakdown; they wait for the nurse at the hospital. They are facing an uncertain and threatening future.