29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Literary Devices

Ambiguous Ending

Content Warning: This section of the guide contains outdated references to psychiatric conditions, including the concept of “madness.” This section of the guide also discusses suicide and the Holocaust.

“Signs and Symbols” ends abruptly, with the mother and father’s telephone ringing for the third time. The son’s fate remains unresolved, and the parents’ future is unclear. This ambiguous ending invites the reader to engage more closely with the text by speculating on what they believe will happen to the family next, as well as who is on the other end of the phone line.

Given the story’s focus on the son’s psychiatric disability, it is possible that the third call involves him. Or it could instead merely be the unnamed girl mistakenly calling for Charlie a third time. By withholding a clear answer, the story lures the reader into carefully studying the narrative to try to work out what will happen next. It is left to interpretation whether the cards that slip to the floor, or the colors of the jelly jars, secretly hint at who is calling. Either way, by trying to find signs in random details, the reader enters in the son’s Referential mania, seeking hidden meanings that may not exist.