29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Symbols & Motifs

Twitching Bird

Content Warning: This section of the guide contains outdated references to psychiatric conditions, including the concept of “madness.”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

The “tiny unfledged bird” (Paragraph 4) the mother and father pass as they return from the “sanitarium” (Paragraph 3) symbolizes the struggling life of the son they have just tried to visit. The bird’s “unfledged” state recalls the son’s suicide attempt, in which he “thought he was learning to fly” (Paragraph 6). Both of them want to fly away, to break free, but are unable to escape their restraints, the son in the hospital and the bird “helplessly twitching in a puddle” (Paragraph 4).

The son and bird are also connected by their liminal state between life and death. The son is on the brink of dying by suicide, while the bird lies helpless in a growing puddle, likely to soon drown. This connection allows the story to explore its theme of Death, Life, and In Between, suggesting that death is an ongoing experience shared by both people and the world at large.

The parents’ response to the bird points toward a grim outcome for the son.