Part I: Close Reading and

Vladimir Nabokov – “Signs and Symbols”

 

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KEY TERMS:

Formalism (New Criticism) – In literary theory, formalism refers to critical approaches that analyze, interpret, or evaluate the inherent features of a text. The formalistic approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context.

Formalism rose to prominence in the early twentieth century as a reaction against Romanticist theories of literature, which centered on the artist and individual creative genius, and instead placed the text itself back into the spotlight to show how the text was indebted to forms and other works that had preceded it. Two schools of formalist literary criticism developed, Russian formalism, and soon after Anglo-American New Criticism. Formalism was the dominant mode of academic literary study in the US at least from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s.

Features? – word choice, symbolism, POV, setting, tone, metaphor, diction, etc., etc.

Reader-Response Criticism – is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader (or “audience”) and their experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work. Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts “real existence” to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader’s role in re-creating literary works is ignored. New Criticism had emphasized that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of a text.

TEXTUAL EVIDENCE:

Protagonists:

· “At the time of his birth they had been married already for a long time” (1108)

· “now they were quite old” (1108)

· “She wore cheap black dresses” (1109)

· “Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the fault-finding light of spring days” (1109)

· “Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years standing. They seldom saw him and had nicknamed him ‘the Prince’” (1109)

 

Referential Mania: (a fictional illness)

· “The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, which the doctor at the sanitarium had given to them to read. But long before that, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in-most 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 that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like 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” (1109-1110)

Plot events:

· “That Friday everything went wrong” (1109)

· “The underground train lost its life current between two stations” (1109)

· “The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children” (1109)

· “It was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium” (1109)

· “instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne, ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life” (1109)

· “They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle” (1109)

· “The last time he tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness” (1109)

· “he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him” (1109)

· PHOTO ALBUMS – “As a baby he looked more surprised than most babies. From a fold in the album, a German maid they had had in Leipzig and fat-faced fiancé fell out. Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig, a slanting house badly out of focus” (1110)

· “Aunt Rose, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans had put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about” (1110-1111)

· “Age six – that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man” (1111)

· “This, and much more, she accepted – for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case – mere possibilities of improvement. 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” (1111)

 

 

The ending:

 

· “The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring” (1112)

· Wrong number – “Her hand went to her old tired heart” (1112)

· “It frightened me,” she said (1112)

· “The telephone rang a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Charlie” (1112)

· “You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of zero” (1112)

· “While she poured him another glass of 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” (1112)

 

 

 

 

 

 

JQ – How does this story manipulate the reader’s interpretation through the use of “signs and symbols”? How does Nabokov put the reader in a “suicidal” state of mind by the end of the story?

Analysis

You must do a close reading and analysis of 2 of the 4paragraphs below (300-400 words for EACH Q). You should explain key aspects of the quote, cite it directly in your answer, and explain its relationship to the larger topics/themes/ideas/contexts discussed in class. Each question will be marked out of 25 for a total of 50% of the exam grade.

1) “Well, clear this out now!” said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all. Into the cage they put a young panther. Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere it its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not ever want to look away.

3) “Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment building near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to love in Westchester. Irene Westcott was a pleasant, rather plain girl with soft brown hair and a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written, and in the cold weather she wore a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink.”

SECTION II: Short Essay Question (50 marks)

Please write a short essay (400-500 words approximately) on 1 of the following 3 questions. Successful essays will have a clear introduction, arguable thesis, logical essay structure, and be grammatically sound. Strong papers will also be able to provide direct citation from the stories as supporting evidence for their claims. Essays should have a minimum of two body paragraphs and four direct quotes. A Works Cited is not required. Each essay will be marked out of 50 for a total of 50% of the exam grade.

3) In his story “Signs and Symbols,” Vladimir Nabokov uses the setting of the story, and the objects contained with in it, to produce a feeling of looming disaster in the mind of the reader. With as much specificity as possible, and by quoting the story directly, please explain how Nabokov’s use of these signs and symbols is related to his support for the Formalist school of literary theory. Do you think that an interpretation of a story should exclude contexts outside of the text, why or why not?

 

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