The more times I read Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”, the more I believe that this just might be one of the most perfect short stories ever written. It’s so carefully constructed that it stays with you long after you’re done reading. And while I could go on and on about how wonderful this piece is, (Nabokov’s prose is so polished, the story just shines off the page), I want to take a moment to look at “Signs and Symbols” as a horror story.
The story of the parents of a deranged son and what happens when they go to visit him at the mental hospital on his birthday is tragic and overflowing with symbolism. But the way the piece is littered with so many offhand morbid details is what makes it so horrific.
Here are some examples:
They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.
Straining the corners of his mouth apart by means of his thumbs, with a horrible masklike grimace, he removed his new hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate and severed the long tusks of saliva connecting him to it.
He again, aged about eight, already difficult to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book which merely showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the branch of a leafless tree.
Then there is the story itself, one that is drowning in hopelessness and regret. The despair of the parents who want to save their son from the horrors of his own mind, but at the same time would find relief in the son’s death.
And most frightening of all is the way Nabokov lists details like numbers or colors, which reinforces the “system of delusion” the son suffers from, and how the father keeps examining the ten little jars of fruit jellies, either an echo of his child’s madness or the surfacing of something more. The reader then joins in, searching for clues in the story, seeking out connections in the signs and the symbols Nabokov so carefully constructed…
Are the symbols meaningful?
Does the fact that the caller who dialed the wrong number mistook the letter o with the number 0 have any significance?
And who is on the other end of the phone when it rings at the end?
We want – need – to know. The more we look, the more we scrutinize, the more we become like the mad son in the story.