The "Right" versus the "Wrong" Child: Shades of Pain in Bend Sinister (with Reference to Pnin)

Elena Sommers, University of Rochester

As the reader finishes the last page of Bend Sinister, he might find himself on shaky ground. After being made a silent witness of an elaborately thought out and staged torture of the eight-year-old David, the curtain is drawn and one is left on his own to deal with the haunting mental picture of the little boy's terrible end. While trying to determine why Nabokov chose to go into such excruciating detail in his portrayal of violence against the most vulnerable, this essay will analyze the means by which the writer communicates the most "language-resistant" phenomenon--"the intense physical pain of another."

Brian Boyd argues that "only through the imagination can we mortals act with sufficient thought for another's pain, and on this level of our real lives even a novelist's or a novel-reader's imagination--this novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, this reader, you and I--will often fall short" (AY, 287). In Bend Sinister and Pnin Nabokov forces one to picture the circumstances of the victims' deaths by providing different scenarios of what could have happened. I will show how Nabokov deconstructs the process of torture in order for the reader to then reconstruct it in his imagination, which results in a literal, physical feeling of pain.

Continuously upsetting the reader's world, in Bend Sinister Nabokov transforms a nanny, a nurse and a female doctor, the figures traditionally associated with nurturing and mothering, into the members of a fine-tuned murder team. Followed by a curious reader, the trio of the Bachofen sisters (Mariette, Linda and Doktor Amalia), will carefully and professionally carry out specifically assigned roles instrumental to David's torture and murder.

According to Richard Rorty, the inability to notice someone else's suffering (an echo of Humbert's failure to notice Charlotte's mourning the death of her two-year old son, and Lolita's dealing with the loss of her brother) is the ultimate example of incuriosity--a form of cruelty which concerned Nabokov the most. Bend Sinister tests the level of the reader's curiosity by briefly introducing the figure of another child, who is brought to Krug by mistake after he agrees to cooperate with the government on the condition of his son's immediate release. The cruel irony of the situation is that for desperate Krug, "a thin frightened boy of twelve or thirteen," obviously beaten, with his head "newly bandaged," is just "someone else's child," the "wrong boy," who being labeled as one ends up being disposed of just like David himself. Crucial details of the novel may be missed during the first reading, something Nabokov no doubt realized. Writing his introduction in 1963, seventeen years after completing Bend Sinister, Nabokov makes sure Arvid Krug is mentioned. Pointing out the accompanying theme of the novel, "the theme of dim-brained brutality which thwarts its own purpose by destroying the right child and keeping the wrong one" (165), the writer is setting up the disturbing "right" child/"wrong" child opposition, challenging the reader's attention to detail--a challenge which in Nabokov's terms should translate into curiosity and therefore compassion.

"You know what's so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own," says Lolita referring to her little brother who died at the age of two. In Bend Sinister Nabokov does not patronize us with a happy ending and does appear to leave David and Arvid completely on their own without suggesting any otherworldly or emotional way out. Ellen Pifer notes that in Nabokov's world "betraying the child's innocence signifies the greatest evil known to man or constitutes nothing less than a crime against the cosmos." Struggling with the issues of pain, death and afterlife Bend Sinister makes a point of challenging our sense of compassion, testing the level of our curiosity and exposing our sensitivity to the graphic images of torture, so that after finishing the novel, the image of David peacefully looking into the reader's eyes before going "down the few steps that remained" to meet his eight executioners, is still with us as the image of the ultimate betrayal.