Arbitrary Signs and Symbols
by Alexander N. Drescher

And the LORD said unto him, This the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.
-Deuteronomy 34:4-5, King James Version


The data for this reading of Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols"1 are drawn from three sources: evidence internal to the story, corrections made to the New Yorker version2 when Nabokov regained control of the text from his editors and, as a result of Nabokov's concern that the story was not well understood, helpful hints he imbedded in the novel Pnin.3 Assuming the reader's familiarity with the text, the sequence of the story is not retained so as to unite elements of the argument.

For Nabokov, acclaim for this story's "human interest"4 and argument over its indeterminate ending missed an essential aspect of the story.5 While Toker has suggested that the continuing search for missing elements has detracted from Nabokov's profound concern with man's inhumanity to man,6 the intent here is to the contrary, to propose a reading which extends the tragic content.7

Despite professed indifference to his readership,8 Nabokov probably made this story more difficult than he intended. Counter-intuitive meanings are one problem: literal when metaphor or allusion are implied, and vice versa. Another is the absence of a reliably objective narrator, for almost every declaration may be in some form of indirect discourse, and probably is. Nabokov expected his readers to ponder over the meanings they would attribute to this text and, for this purpose, several definitions from the Webster Second Edition are displayed in the Appendix.9 In reading Nabokov, I assume that there are no extraneous details, nothing is accidental, odd usages and repetitions require particular attention, and some misleading gambits are best refused. As the two main characters lack names, their status as Wife and Husband are capitalized for easier reference.

Nabokov opposed vigorously but without effect The New Yorker's decision to reverse his title to "Symbols and Signs."10 This revision lost resonance with the medical phrase signs and symptoms; an invitation to question the diagnosis of the disturbed young man at the center of this story. Also gone was the division of the story into the numbered sections that underscore its many sequences of three.11

Past History: Time

Although a relative time frame is outlined for the young man's twenty years of life, Nabokov presents a problem in calculation by withholding any fixed point of reference. Stadlen has noted that the first section of the story contains 7 paragraphs, the second 4, and the third 19, which reversed yield 19-4-7.12 For the reasonable reader who finds this a contrived basis for dating the story to 1947, there is amusing confirmation.

In the third section of "Signs and Symbols" as it appers in the Vintage edition of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, the 19 paragraphs include:

[3-12] "Can I speak to Charlie," said a girl's dull little voice.
[3-13] "What number you want? No. That is not the right number. "
[3-14] The receiver was gently cradled. Her hand went to her old tired heart.
[3-15] "It frightened me," she said.
[3-16] He smiled…
But, there were only 18 paragraphs in this same passage in The New Yorker:
[3-12] "Can I speak to Charlie," a girl's dull little voice said to her now
[3-13] "What number do you want? … No. You have the wrong number."
[3-14] She put the receiver down gently and her hand went to her heart. "It frightened me," she said.
[3-15] He smiled…..
In the service of consistent style, Nabokov's editor Katharine A. White had condensed paragraphs 14 and 15 in the original manuscript. Not only did Nabokov restore these paragraphs to their original state in further publications, but five years later--to prod his readers and perhaps have the last word--he placed in "Pnin's Day"13 the incident in which Pnin requests a volume from the library which he has already withdrawn:

"It can't be!" cried Pnin. "I requested on Friday Volume 19, year 1947, not 18, year 1940" …
"Eighteen, 19," muttered Pnin. "There is not great difference! I put the year correctly, that is important!
They can't read, these women. The year was plainly inscribed.

[Emphasis added]

For further emphasis, the library visit occurs on Pnin's own birthday, May 15th, by no coincidence the publication date of "Symbols and Signs."14

Past History: Place

Although not the principal significance of 1947, the fixed point allows the reader to place the family's travels and their son's illness in the historical context of Germany.15 Unlike his brother Isaac who chose to emigrate circa 1909, the Husband was forced to leave Byelorussia after the 1917 Revolution. In 1927 Berlin, the couple in their forties already16 had their only child. Unusually aware of his surroundings as an infant, the boy develops into a wary and avoidant four year old. Nabokov introduces a squirrel and later wallpaper, as he will do in Pnin, as signs of potential danger. With Nazi power increasingly evident in 1933, the child has insomnia, but is seen by his parents as artistically sensitive. He draws wonderful pictures of sirins, creatures in some traditions lethal on sight, but which also allude to Nabokov's own German experience. The character Luzhin, ominously associated with windows and death,17 is a cousin of the family. Even in 1935, the parents minimized the impending danger but also their son's odd behaviors. The Wife, blind to irony, recalls a frightening picture as merely… show[ing] an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the branch of a leafless tree. The allusion is to The Triumph of Death by Peter Breughel the Elder. The cart wheel is an instrument of torture.18

The Triumph of Death (detail)
Peter Breughel the Elder

The Triumph of Death
Peter Breughel the Elder

How the family obtained papers to leave Germany for the United States in 1937 goes unsaid, but they avoided thereby "concentration" at the newly opened camp at Ettersdorf. This extraordinarily unlikely event19 can account for the couple's resentment of Isaac, the real American.20 Even though his generosity is sparing--Isaac supports the couple (albeit in a walk-up), provides the Husband's false teeth (albeit ill-fitting) and pays (complainingly) the considerable fees for their son's long hospitalization21--his penny-pinching fails to explain their intense ingratitude. Mocking him as the Prince for his pre-occupation with money in analogy to a 'Jewish-American Princess,' they suppress that Isaac negotiated and purchased their flight from the Holocaust. The Prince had worked a Machiavellian favor too great to repay or to forgive.

After four years in America, the 16-year-old is hospitalized; the family suffering continues; in Germany, unthinkable atrocities. Summarizing, the Yiddish-inflected syntax with which the Wife partakes in the narrative gives way to Nabokov's rhythmic, alliterative prose as the sensibilities of author and his character merge22:

She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband 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 and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches. [601]

Examination and Diagnosis

The story begins with a conclusion: the young man …[is] incurably deranged in his mind. However, since this text challenges the convention of objective narration, Nabokov's 'good reader' needs ask "says who?" For poorly shaved, acne, shuffling, uncommunicative might indicate no more than unhappy adolescence, although disinterest and wariness of gadgets are more worrisome. The narrative tone is uncomfortably judgemental and the gift is described in fairy-tale language, as for a child in need of coddling: …dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars. The patient is not taken very seriously, despite two attempts to jump from a window. Additionally, Nabokov wished to mark the word ten, which occurs six times in the story.23

His parents accept the doctor's conclusion: the boy's thoughts may be dismissed as delusional. A priori, it is unlikely that Nabokov is equally confident. Even the reader favorably inclined toward psychiatry may wonder if Dr. Herman Brink in his paper projects some of his own foibles onto his patient: grandiosity, self-reference, impersonality, superiority.

But then a transition occurs in the text from the language of clinical studies to the subjective voice of the young man. In parallel with the poetic passage joining the Wife and author, Nabokov's prose inhabits the internal confusion and external incomprehensibity of the boy's thinking:

Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings - but alas it is not! With distance the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being. [599-600]

Durantaye reviews and extends the literature on the everyday details by which the author or his favored characters discern patterns of benevolent openings from the present world to something beyond.24 Following this formulation, the boy's thinking can be interpreted as the result of extreme hyper-attunement, a matured version of the "surprise" he experienced as an infant. He is uncontrollably flooded by distant, horribly malignant images of the Holocaust. Those patterns which otherwise would have given him artistic entry beyond himself are entirely blocked out or distorted; for example, one of Nabokov's "signature" details, the standing, reflective puddle becomes hysterical…running water. Lacking protective moral dullness, he is overwhelmed by the distant reality and can blunt his vicarious suffering only through the bizarre substitutions of madness. As measure, mirror and amplifier of an unbearable world (his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times), deciphering the images he protectively encodes would be fatal.

Laboratory Data:

Yet, an existential illness should improve along with the world it mirrors. It is 1947. Even the cynical narrator of Pnin allows that things can go well:

Some people — and I am one of them — hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. [25]
On close examination, Nabokov provides a number of veiled counter-signs that doom will be cheated.

1) The principal importance of 1947 to Nabokov: It is springtime, Mrs. Sol's hat, the fault-finding light, and a Friday holiday, school children on the bus, and the underground train lost its life current between two stations but continued on. This particular Friday, when everything went wrong (known by its antonym: Good Friday), was the fourth of April.25 That Friday evening the couple did not celebrate the Sabbath after sundown. Moreover, they were unaware of an historical/solar/lunar convergence: this Good Friday was also Nissan 14 in the year 5707, the evening before the Passover.

2) The sanatorium is suspect: the nurse's report of a second suicide attempt so unfeeling as to be possibly false or even vindictive. The doctor's report of the first no better, glibly offensive, a masterpiece of inventiveness. Even that of a witnessing patient is questionable: he was learning to fly, if like a bird, hallucinatory but possibly only envious of a flight towards freedom. What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape is equally ambiguous, escape life or the sanitarium; the self-important really can belong to no one but Dr. Brink.

3) The Wife's old, worried, wild-eyed Aunt Rosa and friend Rebecca Borisovna have been killed by the Germans26:

some playing cards and a photograph or two … had slipped from the couch to the floor: knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades, Elsa and her bestial beau. [602]
Given that Nabokov would not write the impossible cliché a photograph or two, the phrase must denote simultaneously two distinct entities. Excluding one photograph as the servant and her Nazi boyfriend, the three playing cards must be just that, and also metaphorically a second photograph: Rebecca's two dead grandchildren, aged nine and one, and her "knave of hearts" son-in-law. The Wife unjustly holds him a guilty rogue for retaining his family in Byelorussia.

But despite the sad memories evoked, the three cards are auspicious. Dolinin alludes to the magical three card sequence in Pushkin's The Queen of Spades, given to the scoundrel protagonist by the ghost of the old noblewoman whose death he caused. Their play (3 - 7 - Ace) wins the first two hands, but loses the third; the winning Ace turning into the image of the dead Countess, the Queen of Spades. Hermann, his fortune gone, goes over the edge into madness.27 However, played in the same three games, the series of cards that fall to the Wife (J - 9 - Ace) result in two near losses and a final win.28 Consistent with Nabokovian fate, this favorable omen has been influenced by Aunt Rosa and Rebecca, meddling with chance from the beyond.

4) The husband is fragile and upset; distinct from his son's adolescent disarray, he shows signs of wear: his old hands (swollen veins, brown-spotted skin), clasped and twitching. Readers have taken the image of a tiny half-dead unfledged bird… helplessly twitching in a puddle to foretell the unfledged son's death, but twitching connects to the father. Although it may be hyperbole, he says as much, I can't sleep because I am dying. The stated cause of his anguish is believing himself accountable for his son's suffering: Otherwise we'll be responsible. Responsible!, but his history suggests another equally irrational idea, that he is guilty of his own survival.


Section 3 presents the three, potentially ominous phone calls. In response to the second, a reminder of two unsuccessful suicide attempts. The Wife explains:

"You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of the zero." [602]

I read this as Nabokov's caution to the reader--in the next paragraph avoid making the same error as this unsophisticated caller, mistaking one arbitrary sign for another:

They sat down to their unexpected festive midnight tea. … he put on his spectacles and re-examined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars. His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again. [602-603, emphasis added]

Festive is not a cruel irony, even unrecognized it is Passover. The Husband re-examines the jars with pleasure, perhaps expecting an illumination or something that will speak out to him (and the reader) through their eloquent labels, which he (and the reader) must not read, but spell out. Doing so, the careful reader finds that the old man misreads the third label, beach plum as beech plum, an example of typographic free indirect discourse.29 For the poor linguist with enough German for business, under the pressure memory, beach becomes beech which recalls Buchen, beech trees.30 Likewise, plum associates to Pflaume and Pflaumenbaum, literally flame and burning tree. Unable to free his thoughts from the past, beach plum jelly returns him to thoughts of Buchenwald, the beech forest site of the Ettersdorf camp. Nabokov repeats this hidden allusion, almost metonymic for the Holocaust, in Pnin:

…because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget — because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed … burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood. … … she was selected to die and was cremated only a few days after her arrival in Buchenwald… [135]

However, this quietly righteous Husband can not forget. The history of his escape and flight approaches Pisgah.

* * *

The third phone call is not the dim girl again, not the hospital reporting a suicide, not an indeterminate ending focused on the couple's suffering, nor a meta-literary statement on the impossibility of certain knowledge, and certainly not Nabokov tempting the reader into a referential mania. The first born son has leaped through a window, landed on his feet, run to a nearby gas station, negotiated a once fearful gadget and telephoned his parents: Mama, can I come home?31

Unobserved, the Angel of Death passed over.

* * *


Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition

cipher, n. … fr. ar. sifr, empty, cipher, zero
1. Math. A character or symbols [written 0] denoting the absence of all magnitude or quantity however small; naught; zero. In the decimal notation …it is used to fill out, and so to specify, the blank spaces, in the absence of any digits, which if present would occupy these places. Thus, in 5,070 the two ciphers signify that there are no units and no hundreds; …
5. a] a method of secret writing that substitutes other letters or characters for the letters intended…. b] a substitution alphabet so used. c] a writing having the letters so substituted or transposed. Cf. CODE

fly, v. Intransitive
1. a] To move in or pass through the air with wings, as a bird. b] To flee; as: [1] to run from danger; to take flight; to flee; … [2] To vanish; disappear; fade; as, a shadow flies.

knave, n.
2. a tricky, deceitful fellow; an unscrupulous person; a rogue; a rascal…
3. a playing card marked with the figure of a servant or soldier, a jack.

sign, n.
I. A symbol
1. A conventional symbol of emblem which represents an idea, as a word, letter, or mark; as the sign of the cross.
4. a] A motion, an action, or a gesture by which a thought is expressed, or a command or a wish made known.
6. In writing and print, an ideographic mark, figure, or picture … conventionally used to represent a term or conception, usually technical. See Arbitrary Signs and Symbols.
II. Indication
8. Something serving to indicate the existence of a thing: a token; as, a sign of grace, wit, fear….
9. A remarkable event, considered by the ancients as indicating the will of some deity; a prodigy; an omen; … a miracle; a wonder.
10. Presage; portent; omen; as, a sign of rain, of death, of victory.
III. Technical senses
14. Math. A character indicating the relation of quantities. or an operation performed on them; as the signs + [plus]…etc. …See Arbitrary Signs, in Appendix.
15. Med. An objective evidence of disease; that is, one appreciable by some one other than the patient….

symbol, n.
2. That which stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental but not intentional resemblance; esp., a visible sign of something invisible, as an idea, a quality or totality…
3. In writing or printing, an arbitrary or conventional sign, …used instead of a word or words …See Arbitrary Signs and Symbols, in the Appendix; …


1. Vladimir Nabokov, "Signs and Symbols" in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Vintage, 1995, pp. 598-603. Page references are to this edition.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, "Symbols and Signs," in The New Yorker
24: [May 15] 1948 pp. 31-33.

3. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin, New York: Vintage, 1989 [1957]. Page references are to this edition. Between 1953 and 1955, Nabokov submitted six of the Pnin stories to The New Yorker; episodes (later chapters) 1, 3, 4 and 6 were accepted; 7 was not offered.

4. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 115.

5. On Nabokov's letters to Katharine A. White, see: Alexander Dolinin, "The Signs and Symbols in Nabokov's 'Signs and Symbols'", Zembla, November 2004.; and also: Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters 1940-1977 [Ed. by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli], San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, p. 117.

6. Leona Toker, "'Signs and Symbols' in and out of Contexts". In Charles Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo (eds.), A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction, New York: Garland, 1993. The present study follows much of Prof. Toker's thinking and is indebted to her for her comments on an early draft.

7. Because the words interpreting "Signs and Symbols" exceed those of the story by several orders of magnitude, the general literature is not reviewed here; readers are referred to the bibliographies of Dolinin, ibid. and Joanna Trzeciak, "Signs and Symbols and Silentology." Nabokov at Cornell (ed. Gavriel Shapiro), Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2003.

8. Leland de la Durantaye, "The Pattern of Cruelty and the Cruelty of Pattern in Vladimir Nabokov," Cambridge Quarterly, 35[4]: 2006. pp. 301-326.

9. Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged, Springfield MA: C. G. Merriam, 1944. Nabokov's own dictionary.

10. J. Morris, "Signs and Symbols and Signs" The Nabokovian, 32: [Spring] 1994, pp. 24-28.

11. Toker and Dolinin discuss the fatidic implications of triads; The New Yorker divided the sections by ellipses.

12. Anthony Stadlen (private communication) kindly offered this acute observation and questioned whether the calculated date would have been an official school holiday. If the numbered sections of the story are tallied like the floors of an apartment building: first landing = ground floor, second landing = first floor, etc., thus 0,1,2 and then are treated as exponents, the sum of the paragraphs would be:
[7 x 100] + [4 x 101] + [19 x 102] = 7 + 40 + 1900 = 1947.

13. Vladimir Nabokov, "Pnin's Day" (the third Pnin episode), The New Yorker, 31: [April 23] 1955; see: Pnin pp. 74-75.

14. Pnin's birthday is given as May 18 in "Pnin" (the first Pnin episode), The New Yorker 29: [November 28] 1953 and then, having served its purpose, becomes February 5 in the novel. See: Gennady Barabtarlo, Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and
, New York: P. Lang, 1993; and Barabtarlo's essay on Pnin reprinted in Zembla.

15. Nabokov finds this process interesting. Pnin, explicating the chronology of Anna Karenina says, "I can tell you the exact day..." and gives both the exact date and day of the week on which that novel begins, February 23, 1872, coincidently a Friday (p. 122; see also pp. 129-130 in Pnin).

16. John B. Lane, "A Funny Thing about Nabokov's 'Signs and Symbols'." Russian Language Journal 40: 1986, pp. 147-160. Lane notes narrative usages as "immigrant,""scientific," and the heightened diction of privileged passages. The emphatic already is a Yiddishism, derived from the German interjection schon, via the Yiddish schoin.

17. Vladimir Nabokov. The Defense, New York: Vintage, 1990 [1964] [Rus. 1929].

18. I have suggested that Nabokov used this painting as an emblem of the Holocaust in "'That in Aleppo, Once…'".

19. "Vasily Shishkov" (p. 494) and "Spring in Fialta (p. 413) in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.

20. A real American is another Yiddishism, a emesdike Americanishe; see note 16.

21. The hospital was likely Four Winds in Westchester County, a compound of converted homes and cottages. Three other "Winds" appear in Pnin.

22. John V. Hagopian, "Decoding Nabokov's 'Signs and Symbols'." Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, SC, 18:2 (Spring) 1981, pp.115-119. Hagopian, Lane, and Toker note Nabokov's identification with the Wife in addition to her contribution to the narrative voice. Hagopian rejects (correctly in my view) the possibility that Nabokov would create an unsolvable problem.

23. Ten times itself, repeated six times is 106. The word million is associated with the Holocaust in the patient's disturbed thinking, as is the cipher, the Arabic invention [sifr, 0] which permits representation of vast orders of magnitude. See cipher in Appendix.

24. Leland de la Durantaye, op cit.

25. Good Friday was a public school holiday in New York City and Westchester County; between stations recalls "stations of the Cross."

26. The repetitions (Mrs. Sol; Dr. Solov) mark the importance of Rebecca's son-in-law, one of the Soloveichik, where one of the indicates not a family name but a follower of Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik of Brisk, the prominent anti-Zionist, at the time strongly opposed to emigration.

27. i.e. beyond the brink.

28. Dolinin notes that the Ace of Spades is traditionally associated with death; but in the game of faro suit is ignored. See also Lane, op cit. The games:

Game no.
Player loses
Pushkin's Herman
Nabokov's Fate
Player wins

29. The spelling in The New Yorker text is horticulturally correct: beach plum (Prunus maritima); Nabokov "re-corrected" to beech plum. The fruit of the European (Fagus sylvatica) and American (Fagus grandiflora) beech trees are, of course, nuts not suitable for jellies. Thanks are due Mary Bellino for help with this paper and the comment (NABOKV-L, November 12, 2004): "There is a very similar crux in the text of Pnin, where, at croquet, Pnin 'teemed' with Madam Bolotov" (Nabokov's Dozen, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958 [1958]). The passage is from the fifth episode of Pnin which was rejected by The New Yorker. The spelling becomes "teamed" in the Vintage edition (p.130).

30. Buchen as noun or verb translates alternatively as book, particularly in the sense of accounting, another aspect of the concentration camps.

31. This story, which conflates anniversaries, births, escapes, and restorations, was first published--either by design or Nabokov's "cosmic convergence"--on the day of birth of the State of Israel.

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