29 pages 58 minutes read

Vladimir Nabokov

Signs and Symbols

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1948

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Character Analysis

The Mother

Content Warning: This section of the guide contains outdated references to psychiatric conditions, including the concept of “madness.”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 mother is the primary protagonist of “Signs and Symbols,” and the narrative largely revolves around her experiences during the course of a single day. She is a round character who embodies the considerable suffering of a life of exile and demonstrates forbearance in the face of her family’s troubles. The narrative refrains from revealing the mother’s actual name, which allows her at times to stand in as the archetype of a grieving mother concerned for her child.

A poor Russian immigrant to America, the mother embodies the story’s theme of Alienation and Loneliness, and the story’s mood and tone are often reflected through the lens of her isolated existence. For example, her fixation on her husband’s “old hands,” the “weeping” (Paragraph 5) girl on the subway, and the struggling “unfledged bird” (Paragraph 4) convey a melancholy in which the outside world mirrors the mother’s internal feelings.