29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Important Quotes

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“For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind.”

(Paragraph 1)

Right from the opening sentence, the story highlights the family’s Alienation and Loneliness, stressing the separation that the parents have from their son. His psychiatric condition has taken him away from them both physically and mentally, to the point that they struggle to even pick out a suitable birthday present for him. The fact that this is the fourth year in a row that they face this difficulty underlines the parents’ ongoing suffering, while also showing their unwavering devotion and love for the son.

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“She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring.”

(Paragraph 2)

The direct comparison between the mother and her next-door neighbor thematically develops the family’s Alienation and Loneliness, presenting a stark contrast between their lives and the Americans around them. The mother’s drab, colorless appearance outwardly marks her poverty, while also hinting at the inner sadness caused by her life’s troubles and her son’s condition. The personified “faultfinding light of spring,” emphasizes the mother’s feeling of oppression by making the world appear judgmental and harsh.

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“A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.”

(Paragraph 4)

The image of the twitching bird underlines the mother and father’s feelings of helplessness, occurring just after they have failed to deliver their son’s gift to him in the “sanitarium” (Paragraph 3).