“Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov

220px-Vladimir_Nabokov

Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov is best known for Lolita, of course. This week we’re taking a look at one of his short stories, “Symbols and Signs,” in which a couple goes to visit their son in a mental institution. They’re turned away, however, because he has recently attempted to commit suicide (again). Questions for discussion:

1. Nabokov composes this story without dialogue until the final section, the final third of the story. Why do you think he does this? What effect did this technique have on you/your experience of the story?
2. The New Yorker published this story in 1948. What do you think of Nabokov’s treatment of mental illness in this story? What might we do similarly and/or differently when writing about mental illness today?
3. What is the significance of the phone ringing?
4. In an article recently published in The Telegraph (which I am not linking here, because it will spoil much of our discussion for the next published piece I’m going to give you) the writer notes, “Among the cryptanalytic interpretations of [“Symbols and Signs”] is the suggestion that referential mania is contagious, and has been passed on to the story’s readers, who are compelled to read clues into its every aspect (the title, of course, being nothing but an encouragement).” Discuss.
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