Essay on The Literary Works of Vladimir Nabokov

Essay on The Literary Works of Vladimir Nabokov

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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...


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...ov, Vladimir. “The Vane Sisters.” The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Dmitri Nabokov. N.p.: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1997. Print. Vintage International Series.



Wood, Michael. “The Cruelty of Chance: Bend Sinister, ‘The Vane Sisters,’ ‘Signs and Symbols.’” The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. 55-82. Rpt. in Short Story Crticism. Ed. David Siegel. Vol. 86. Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2006. 158-267. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.

Wyllie, Barbara. “Memory and Dream in Nabokov’s Short Fiction.” Torpid Smoke: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Mallin. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 5-19. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 86. Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2006. 158-267. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.

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