The Literary Works Of Vladimir Nabokov

2237 words - 9 pages

More so than that of most other comparably illustrious writers, a number of Vladimir Nabokov’s works beckon near polarizing discrepancies in interpretation and actual author intent amidst literary circles. In a letter to the editor of The New Yorker, he concedes to constructing systems “wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one” (Dolinin). In practice, such an architectural premise is complicated further by his inclination to dabble in the metaphysical and occasionally, in the metafictional. Nabokov’s inclusion of meticulous description and word choice coupled with his reliance on unreliable narrators—in “Signs and Symbols,” “The Vane Sisters,” and “Details of a Sunset”-- permits him to explore the boundaries surrounding objective versus subjective realities, creating conscientiously woven narratives multi-layered and possibly cryptic in meaning.

Perhaps his most widely renowned and frequently debated short story, “Signs and Symbols” recounts the story of a boy diagnosed with “referential mania” (Nabokov, “Signs” 600) and his immigrant parents struggling to cope with his condition and recurrent suicide attempts during his residence in an insane asylum. The boy is afflicted with a strain of intense paranoia that leaves him to believe everything external—trees, pebbles, clouds—are malevolently conspiring against him, that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence…Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme” (Nabokov, “Signs” 602).

The assumption that every detail is a clue, a cipher leading towards some sort of truth or resolution is projected onto the reader (Andrews 142) whose “insistence on pattern and meaning…is followed by a frustration of that desire” (Dolinin). Nabokov generously sprinkles some ostensibly random and others ostensibly suggestive details within the text which may be easily interpreted as foreboding, a clear cipher to the ominous fateful conclusion of the story (in which the telephone rings for the third consecutive time, and the reader is never told whether it is indeed the asylum notifying of the son’s death or the same recurrent wrong caller). So did the son die, finally successful at his attempts to “tear a hole in his world and escape?” (Nabokov, “Signs” 601). According to some of the conspicuous motifs present throughout the story—the stopping of the train, the tardy bus, the relentless rain, a crying girl, misplaced keys, a graphic description of a dead bird, the family’s tragic history of misfortune, the three playing cards symbolizing death---the answer seems almost indisputable. Nabokov’s pessimistic word choice in specific descriptions—“hives of evil,” “malignant activity,” “swollen veins, brown-spotted skin,” “darkly gesticulating,” “monstrous darkness,” etc. (Nabokov, “Signs” 598-604) only serve to confirm such a response. Still, other details may be present purely by random chance, ultimately...

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