Short story: “Symbols and Signs”

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“Symbols and Signs” (sometimes printed as “Signs and Symbols”), by Vladimir Nabokov

Appeared in the May 15, 1948 issue of the New Yorker (read here); read in the June 2008 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (here)

2,232 words

The cool thing about well-known stories is that you can check around and see if anybody else has figured out what the story is about. Surprisingly often, no one has. There are interpretations of this one, but the interpretations are more confusing than the story. (For example, this essay, which seems to argue that the misdialed number is a coded message or prophesy about the son’s future. Maybe the author did intend that meaning. If so, I feel that his time could have been better spent.)

I guess I usually think of Nabokov as kind of a cold, cerebral writer, but I really like the emotional content of this story. The couple’s helplessness, their quiet intimacy, their dependence on a rich relative they resent, the sight of a stranger crying on the subway, the wild plan of bringing the son home, everything.

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.

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