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Nabokov's Tyranny in The Book 'Bend Sinister'

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In the following tyranny essay, I will analyse the way by which Vladimir Nabokov exerts his authoritative power in his book ‘Bend Sinister’, performing the role of a tyrant. I will link this with Aristotle’s teachings on tyranny and poetry or other forms of storytelling, in order to evaluate and justify Nabokov’s use of tyranny. I hope to show, that Nabokov’s aim differed to the “ideas” based stories such as Orwells’ “1984” that were popular at the time, he doesn’t want to drive a person to a state of subhuman, or give big speeches about morality or philosophical theories. Nabokov wants to, through a simulated police state, explore the dignity of citizens, and in particular the protagonist, Krug in the face of such tyranny. Firstly, I will look at Aristotle’s theory of “tyranny” and ethics and morals in fiction, and how these compare to Nabokov, which will be reflected throughout the essay. Secondly, mainly focusing on the Introduction and final chapter of the book, I will look at the link between an author and authority, how the metafictional factors of Nabokov’s writings show his need for control, and its purpose. Through examples I will show how Nabokov exerts said power over his characters.

Firstly I want to look at how Aristotle’s theories come into play when analysing Nabokov’s works. The phrase ‘Tyranny can also change into Tyranny’, was written by the Greek Philosopher in his book ‘Politics’, and its considered one of the 6 forms of government. Although Aristotle doesn’t dwell too much into Tyranny in comparison to the other five forms, we can grasp the concept that he was putting forward. He defined it as ‘arbitrary power of an individual responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or better, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will. No freeman, if he can escape from it, will endure such government’. We can see how Nabokov, in his exploration of tyranny and its effects on individuals, results to Tyranny to simulate that environment. The last sentence of the quote is also interesting, as the protagonist, Krug, is not able to escape Paduk’s tyranny, here one can infer to meanings, firstly that he’s not a ‘free man’, because he’s heavily emotionally attached to his son. Secondly one can also conclude that the real escape is from Nabokov’s grasp, thus he’s unable to escape. Bend Sinister is highly special, as it holds two serape worlds, which I will reference two throughout the essay, one Paduk’s nation, which lives within the lines of the book, and the other one being Nabokov’s creation.

This duality calls for a further analysis into Nabokov’s intentions, which I will relate to Aristotle’s theory on the relation between ethics and poetry. Nabokov’s novel follows the Aristotelian rules for a tragedy and one can also observe how the former’s approach to writing is very much in line with Aristotelian theory. Bend Sinister is harsh, its filled with cruelty and unjust scenarios, where the reader can imagine itself as a participant of the Milgram experiment, testing our limits and making us complicit in its iniquity. The reason being that Nabokov wants to highlight the sins of lethargy, and how one’s silence can lead to a tyrannical government. This is also seen in the novel, represented by the character of Krug, whose dismissal of the rise of Paduk, as well at his inability to see him as an opponent given their past history, gives way for the dictators’ victory. This theme is also present throughout the book. This follows Aristotle’s approach to Poetry, contradicting Plato’s, the former arguing, ‘Through pity and fear effects the proper purgation (or catharsis) of these emotions’. The philosopher called for the need to experience these extreme emotions through fiction, the same way Nabokov is experimenting and looking at human response to tyranny through his own works. Although the author, claims to neglect the influence of the epoch’s politics on his literature, he does admit to using ‘infamous models’, but he does far more than just mimic the discourse surrounding the political state of the world at the time, he also claims and satirises the tyranny whilst pushing a classical liberal framework.

This is why the second world appears and its present throughout, and here is where Nabokov exerts his tyranny, through language and metafictional characteristics, and performance.

One must first identify this “second” world or the breaking of the “fourth wall” by the narrator or creator of the situations that the characters find themselves in. In the introduction, Nabokov explains this presence, “an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me [who] experiences a pang of pity for his creature and hastens to take over”. Nabokov manages to keep on foot in and one foot out of the novel, which gives him a “God” like status. The author was prone to control his own narrative, his aim to narrow down the possible interpretations, in this book in particular, this is taken to an extreme. It can be easily observed from the length of the introduction, his need to over explain how apolitical this book is, and the rejection of an interpretation as such. These interpretations would take away the timeless fiction without didactic value that Nabokov seemed to put forward, even in Lolita, a book which has been highly criticised, the author wrote a relatively short introduction, which tells us how important the perception of Bend Sinister was. Even in the translations, he appears tyrannical, in a letter to Wilson, he wrote ‘not going to do any rhymed translations anymore- their dictatorship is absurd and impossible to reconcile with exactitude’, this also highlights the importance he gave to the construction of his story, perhaps more so than the plot alone itself. Thus the metafictional level of this novel should give us a true idea of how Nabokov executed his tyranny and for what purpose. By showing his inner turmoil over what artistic ethos were popular at the time, allowed him to infract pain upon his already unfortunate characters. Perhaps the most extreme example in the book is Krug’s death, or the lack of it. At the end of the book, the voice tries to save Krug by turning him insane, then, the protagonist charges at Paduk however the dictators soldiers are able to shoot at him before Krug can even get close. Its highly anti-climatic, especially if we account for its placement at the end of the novel. The narrator says, ‘it had been proven to him that death was but a question of style’. This execution, leaves us, the reader unsatisfied, decreasing the meaningfulness of Krug’s death to a stylist feature, may appear formalistic and evokes the conditions of a concentration camp or torture chamber. The stripping of someone’s identity, their individuality and political value, leaves them being a ‘homo sacer’ or a man who can be killed with impunity. Whilst in Nazi Germany this pertained to minority groups, such as Jewish people, in Paduk’s police estate everyone is reduced to the ‘homo sacer’ state of being. We see this as Paduk is able to kidnap and execute those closest to Krug to use as leverage.

The circular structure and recurring imagery are also key elements of Nabokov’s writing, and reflect the meaning behind his tyranny. This circular pattern found in Paduk’s police state, mimics a self satisfying prophecy, by which Nabokov draws a connection between political tyrant, and the writer himself, all of which makes the reader question its legitimacy. Thus, redefining the deaths of the characters, as a form of existential protests, pushing the individual forward even after his death, somehow outlasting tyranny. Therefore, this further supports the point that although the lack of the narration of Krug’s death is anticlimactic, its value lays on the word choice and the structure of the narration, which gives it back its meaning.

Foucault argued that “the production of discourse is intimately related to the distribution of political power, by writing fictions, writer have the ability to change their environment, twisting it to fit their narrative”. Nabokov’s inspiration came from Lenin, as he studied the way by which the latter’s political discourse affected his revolutionary authority. Figures like Marx or Hitler used literature to place themselves as the authors of their regimes, as the citizens were left to “homo sacer” state, and become the puppets. Here is what the critics perceive as a major contradiction in Bend Sinister, whether Nabokov is truly able to depoliticise his works. Painting himself as a ‘Swiss-style’ writer, because of the neutrality of his works, ‘Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire orient, symptoms of ‘thaw in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent’. However some of the authors Nabokov admired, such as Shakespeare or Milton, were captivated by the power of the Monarchy and base their plays sorrowing the concerns that arise from that position and hierarchical system. His then use of ‘Lenin’s speeches, and a chunk of Soviet Constitution, and gobs of Nazi Pseudo- efficiency’ betrays his partisanship. Regardless the use of such historical writings is quite light, especially in comparison to other political novels or “Idea” based novels. When looking at the relation between authors and dictators, there’s a sense of distaste from the former to the latter, but also envy. The authors take on the identity of the political figure for their own exploration, however there’s a certain admiration that arises from the dictator’s control of their state. Especially with authors such as Nabokov, who wants his readers, the critics or any other type of commentator, to have the same interpretation of his works as he did when writing them. Risking to become what they set out to destroy. However, Nabokov can also be seen as a “hawk” like figure, perhaps as a result of his constant displacement given the political state of the countries he had resided in.

Nabokov’s narrator also draws the reader to want to blame Nabokov for what’s happening to the characters in the story. Whilst in other text that also find themselves filled with torture, one does not draw this conclusion, the appearance of the deity watching over everyone causes this thought. The voice’s self-awareness is present throughout the novel, as well as his seemly carelessness for the lives of the characters makes him complicit in its immorality. This gives way to the Milgram comparison previously mentioned, taking it further, the narrator not only makes himself complicit, but also the reader. By making the reader aware of the fictive genocide the act of turning the page becomes powerful. Achieving more than just a shared feeling of guiltless from the readers, but Nabokov also takes control and uses satire of the political epoch, and turns the act of reading into the conditioning for a liberal conscience. This again supports Aristotelian thought, by showing his distaste towards tyranny. Both Nabokov and Aristotle, agree that the faults in tyranny come from its opposition to nature. It opposes nature because it takes away our ability to develop our ‘virtue’ or robust character traits. The lack of a ‘good polis’, where a certain level of ‘democracy’ and or discussion, halts our growth, as we are not able to practice it though habituation. In this way, we can also look at the need for ‘leisure time’ or private time to think and focus on the things that will improve us. Tyranny eliminates leisure time, as it is a prerequisite for emotional and intellectual development. We can apply this on a superficial level to the way individuality is suppressed in the book, in the changing of the curriculum, or even famous plays such as ‘Hamlet’. But most importantly this is reflected in the way Krug is constantly being interrupted by Paduk’s followers, from being called into a meeting whilst grieving his wife, to the constant kidnaping of his friends, his life becomes all about Paduk. Krug’s actions become therefore the reactions to Paduk’s own actions.

Tyranny is also performed by the creator onto his characters, and in the novel, it seems to appear in a cyclical manner. Leading us to think that ‘Tyranny can also change into Tyranny’, a tyrant gains the masses compassion and empathy, therefore after a strict regime, another one will likely come. Specially when considering that Aristotle also thought that the democracy we know of today, has tyrannical elements, and is arguably harder to escape, as it creates an illusion. Till the end of the book, Krug is living an illusion, stuck in Nabokov’s world. However the author’s thoughts in this case, are seen as a ‘refraction’ rather than a ‘reflection’, we receive them indirectly, and as I have shown throughout the essay, many times they are hidden behind the structure of the text. Taking the puddle as an example, of recurring ‘Tyranny’. One can interpret Nabokov’s lines, “the input we leave in the intimate texture of space”, this line suggests that we as citizens are partially responsible for the recurring patterns of tyranny, as we either give way to them, or neglect to stop them.

However, Nabokov’s tyranny should not be blamed for inciting more tyranny, and that would go directly against Aristotle’s thoughts. In his text, Wood explains, ‘Bend Sinister is pure performance without social comment’, rather than giving direct speeches, Nabokov shows instances of brutality. From Krug’s son who falls victim to an unjust bureaucratic mishap, to the cleaner or spy who gets raped until she bleeds. The barbarian leader represented by Paduk is relentlessly mocked by the narrator in his descriptions, he seems to have been emotionally stunted. Not fully able to develop as nature would like and Aristotle would argue, and therefore his vices are ever so present. Nabokov’s constant mockery, contradicts the dictators cruelty throughout the story, eh wants to render the tyrant impatient through the medium of language, saving the victims with laughter. Krug’s bullying of Paduk when he was a child, has made Paduk a bully, was see this comparison in the final scene, where Krug mistakes the prison for a schoolyard. Paduk’s content silencing and control of dialogue reminds the reader of a bully’s unsophisticated and childish actions.

In conclusion I hope to have showed Nabokov’s tyranny throughout his book ‘Bend Sinister’, as well as his justifications and stylistic features to achieve said effect upon the reader. Reaching the conclusion, that Nabokov was a supporter of liberalism and Aristotelian theory. Although the essay is limiting and I was not able to explore as far as I would have liked to, I believe I have shown how Nabokov performs tyranny through language and metafictional factors. At the end, we are left with the realisation that art cannot solve human situation, Krug dies and Paduk is left to rule.

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Nabokov’s Tyranny in the Book ‘Bend Sinister’. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from
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