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The symbols Hagopian mentions have been planted in a sequence so as to be interpreted to form the possibility of that conclusion, but the argument of it being the absolute conclusion is dogmatically wrong. Because there is no definitive conclusion – the story ends with: ‘He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again’ – we cannot say with certainty whether the boy killed himself or not. Like Pynchon, Nabokov offers no final revelation; it is only by our joining together of certain symbols that bring about the boy’s death.
Indeed, Nabokov suggests that to endow every symbol with meaning is a subtler kind of ‘referential mania’. When the parents are called by virtue of the wrong number, the mother says ‘’I will tell you what you are doing. You are turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero.’’ Here is a mistake from interpretation of semblances, but it is also someone finding a symbol (‘the letter ‘o’’) instead of a nullity (zero). Like Pynchon, Nabokov forces us to be cautious of being too analytic, to look for symbolic meaning and revelation when there might be none, or very little. Thus, when the narrative voice states that ‘All around [the boy], there are spies’, some which are ‘hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions’ – this is not just the mania of the boy but the embodiment, as Carroll points out, of overzealous ‘literary analysis’. Hagopian’s conclusion: ‘John Shade in Pale Fire nicely articulates Nabokov’s aesthetic: “Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense”’ is thus dubious not least for its use of Pale Fire as evidence for his argument (this claim of Shade’s is severely undercut by Charles Kinbote’s, a man who also can be said to exhibit symptoms of ‘referential mania’, commentary on his poem who finds, fallaciously, ‘a web of sense’ connecting the poem and Kinbote’s life) but also because it claims that there is meaning in everything, that everything is connected. Hagopian is emblematic of the spies surrounding the boy that bring about his suicide not only within the story (them being the source of his mania), but by the eager construction of meaning purely with symbolism.
Both Nabokov’s short story and Pynchon’s novella, by testing and satirising conventions of reading, as well as teasing and withholding revelation, reminds us that not all literature is clue-spotting and tenuous dot-joining. Of course, this article itself has a tint of irony in that it has amalgamated ‘clues’, ‘symbols’, ‘hints’ that coalesce to a certain meaning. But the salient point to take from these works is that they force us to realise that texts do not have single sacred meanings, but instead are open to possibilities of interpretation.
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