Comparing Signs and Symbols in Short Stories
Mary Brown ENG 220 Tim O’Keefe October 5, 2011 Topical #1 Vladimir Nabokov’s “Sign and Symbols” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” are both short stories that are composed of several signs and symbols that contribute to the overall meaning of their narratives. The signs and symbols in both short stories are different in meaning but, both allow the reader an insight to the narratives mythos, pathos, characters, and the overall emotion perceived by the reader. The motif Nabokov illustrates is the recurring symbol of death and the darkness of the world that the boy seems to be declined into.
The signs and symbols all relate to the boys condition and offer insight to the characters emotion. The setting Nabokov illustrates is dark and deathlike. The son has attempted to commit suicide twice and a third on a day his parents travel to the mental institution. While on their way to visit their deranged son there was a rainstorm and the underground train “lost its’ life. ” Nabokov’s choice of diction foreshadows that someone will sooner or later lose their life.
Before the parents reach the sanatorium Nabokov describes “ a tiny half-dead unfledged bird that was helplessly twitching in a puddle under a swaying and dripping tree”(599). The “tiny half-dead unfledged bird” symbolizes the son and how he is helpless in his own deranged mind. Later that night, the father expresses that he can’t sleep because he is dying. “We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible” (Nabokov 602). The father cares for the son unconditionally that he takes the responsibility for his condition and is emotionally drained from caring.
Much of the “Signs and Symbols” motifs and themes of death become its strongest towards the end of the story. “ The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring. The telephone rang a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Charlie”(Vladimir Nabokov 602). The three phone calls the parents received symbolize the son’s emotional control and responsibility that he indirectly places on his parents. Nabokov leaves the ending open for speculation from the reader. Is the final call another wrong umber, or is it a call confirming what they fear most, that their son has succeeded in killing himself? Light and darkness are in constant tension throughout “Sonny’s Blues,” and Baldwin uses them to highlight the warmth, hope, gloom, and despair that mark his characters’ lives. “ When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face has been bright and open.. ” (James Baldwin 37). Baldwin uses light to describe Sonny’s face when he was young and the warmth that came from sitting in a room full of adults after church. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside” (James Baldwin 44). Light represents all of the positive and hopeful elements that are a part of life. It also has a religious undertone. Not only does light represent the best elements of life, but it also symbolizes a form of salvation and grace. To live in the light is to live a proper, moral life. In exact opposition to the light is the darkness that constantly threatens the characters in the story.
The darkness, which represents a roster of social and personal problems, can be found everywhere. The darkness literally haunts the figures in the story, something they are acutely aware of once the sun goes down. Sonny’s life in prison, his addiction to drugs, and the general state of life in Harlem are all embodied by the darkness. As pervasive as the darkness is, however, it is always balanced against a measure of light. “…Were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly without thinking, they would perish in flame” (James Baldwin 57).
Light, ultimately, comes to signify salvation, comfort, and love, whereas darkness represents the fear and desolation that always threatens to extinguish it. At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator describes a glass sitting over Sonny’s piano as it was glowing and shaking “ it glowed and shook above m brother’s head like the very cup of trembling”(James Baldwin 59). Baldwin wanted to highlight what a difficult and complicated position Sonny is in. The father of the deranged son is described as being in the similar position as sonny. He feels responsible for his sons illness and life.
The image of the cup is borrowed from the Bible, where the cup of trembling is used as a symbol to describe the suffering and fear that have plagued the people. The biblical passage promises a relief from that suffering, but Baldwin’s use of the cup of trembling as a symbol is less definite. “ …Just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded” (James Baldwin 59). Sonny drinking from the cup of trembling serves as a reminder of all the suffering he has endured, while also offering the chance for redemption and peace.
As a musician, Sonny takes all his suffering and that of those around him and transforms it into something beautiful. Similar to the figures from the Bible, Sonny is moving toward salvation, but his fate remains uncertain. Perhaps he will continue to suffer, suffering being the cost he has to pay for being a musician. There is something Christ like about Sonny’s pain, and suffering for Sonny is at once inevitable and redemptive. At the end of the story, it remains unclear whether he will continue to suffer in order to play his music or whether a greater peace and redemption awaits everyone involved.
Baldwin describes Sonny’s future of suffering through the mind of his brother “yet there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through and would continue to got though until he came to rest in the earth” (59). The fact that the glass is filled with scotch and milk only further highlights the tension and duality Sonny faces. The signs and symbols Nabokov created to portray the deranged son and the strong emotional connection his parents has towards him is comparable to the relation between sonny and his brother.
Sonny’s captivation with darkness and the salvation he is striving for is similar to the deranged son. The son’s own mental darkness he seems to be descend into and the salvation his parents so strongly desire for their son. Darkness is evident in both short narratives, whether it is the setting, motif, theme or symbol. Signs and symbols are open to interpretation, captive the reader’s intellect and develop the narratives distinct literary appeal.