When one mentions ethical issues in a work by Vladimir, one immediately thinks of Lolita and its main character’s inappropriate relationship with a minor child. However, while trying to find an American publisher for Lolita, Nabokov published another work, Pnin, which also deals with serious ethical issues, but in an academic setting. What is most interesting about the work is that the title character, Timothy Pnin is an unremarkable man. A Russian emigrant who teaches Russian at a minor college, Pnin’s life could mirror the life of hundreds of similar man. While the world of academia is described brilliantly and accurately in Pnin, it is unlikely that any of the readers believe that they will encounter any significant ethical dilemmas in the foreign-language department of a little-known college. The reader will then be surprised to discover how complex, ethically, Pnin is as a novel. It touches on issues ranging from the seemingly mundane issue of whether or not to befriend someone who is socially awkward to weightier issues such as genocide. Even more tellingly, the novel reveals that human behavior can be at its least ethical in the minutia of daily life, and not solely in the major events.
Before discussing the ethical issues present in Pnin, it is important to look at the novel’s structure. Most third-person narrative accounts feature a narrator who is either omniscient or at least apparently honest in how he relates the events in the story. However, Pnin features a narrator who does not appear to be omniscient. For example, the narrator finds himself unable to relate half of a telephone conversation, because he was only present to hear one half. Furthermore, the narrator does not appear honest. At first this lack of honesty is subtle. The narrator clearly finds Pnin’s character amusing, and is inviting the readers to be amused as well. That gives the readers the first substantial clue that the narrator is biased. The narrator says, “Some people- and I am one of them- hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 17). This allows the reader to glimpse the fact that the narrator is not telling this story to make the reader happy, and certainly does not want Pnin to have a happy ending. That puts the reader on alert. Would it be ethical for one’s enemy to be able to narrate and create one’s life story? If not an enemy, is it ethical for a narrator who simply does not like the main character to narrate one’s life story? A modern movie, Stranger than Fiction, features a man who discovers that he is a character in a book and that the narrator intends to kill him off at the book’s end. Something about Pnin reminds the reader of this movie, or perhaps the movie reminds the viewer of the novel, but there is something compelling and uncomfortable about seeing someone’s life story told by an unsympathetic narrator.
Knowing that the narrator is unsympathetic to Pnin, one then begins to wonder about the narrator’s descriptions of the man. In the beginning of the novel, the narrator tries to convey the idea that Pnin is somewhat paranoid. In fact, the describes Pnin’s life as “a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence” (Nabokov, 1955, p.7). However, rather than attributing this to Pnin’s tendency to have bad luck, the narrator tries to convince the readers that Pnin is somewhat too-fussy, and that he has brought this bad luck into his own life. That characterization is at odds with the character that is later described by the narrator. While Pnin is undoubtedly fussy, and humorously so, his fussiness seems warranted. For example, after carefully planning a train trip to give a guest lecture, Pnin discovers that the train no longer stops at the station he needs, and he is forced to travel by bus in order to get to his destination. While waiting for the bus, Pnin decides that he is going to go get something to eat. Pnin leaves his bag with a boy at the information booth, relying upon the boy’s assurances that he will have no problem retrieving his bad. However, he is unable to retrieve it because the boy is unexpectedly called away, and is replaced by someone who does not know of the arrangement (Nabokov, 1955, p.11). Now, Pnin’s concern that he get some kind of claim check for his baggage, which seemed somewhat obsessive when he was asking for it, makes perfect senses. The narrator is revealed as unethical for trying to make it seem that Pnin is too fussy, because, had Pnin demanded some type of claim check, he would have been able to retrieve his valise and get on the bus. Instead, he chooses to leave his valise, but is later forced to depart the bus when he discovers that he has placed his lecture notes in his bag.
Because the narrator treats Pnin in such an unethical manner, one anticipates that the characters in the novel will treat him that way as well. While the novel is set in an academic environment, this paper will not focus on the ethics of the stereotyping and judgmental behavior that Pnin’s peers in academia use to judge his behavior. That is because the narrator seems to clearly be a member of that group, so that his treatment of Pnin can be attributed to most of Pnin’s peers, save the few who actually grow to appreciate him as a person. However, it is clear that it is inappropriate to be around a person solely to be amused by life’s poor treatment of that person. What is even clearer is that this is a continuing part of human nature. All people, at some point in their lives, find themselves in the position of laughing at the misfortune of others. The readers is left to ask himself whether or not he would continue to laugh at Pnin, like the characters in the story, or if he would rise above it and see Pnin’s innate decency and wish to be his friend.
The suspicion that this novel is going to describe gravely unethical behavior is hinted at early in the novel, when Pnin has a brief memory of a childhood love. Later in the novel, the reader comes to understand that Pnin’s childhood sweetheart, Mira Belochkin, was a victim of the Nazis. The narrator reminds the reader that concentration camps, occurred in the heart of Germany, where so many great German thinkers had developed their ideas. He contrasts the idea of this greatness with the profound horror of the Holocaust, by describing the place of Mira’s death as “only five miles from the cultural heart of Germany, where so many intellectuals and artists produced immortal masterpieces” (Nabokov, 1955, p.135). Any mention of a senseless killing by the Nazis makes the reader aware that a novel is going to discuss ethical issues, some of which simply will have no resolution. There is cruelty in the world, the narrator seems to be reminding the reader, and there is nothing that the reader can do to remedy that fact.
Unfortunately, the most disturbing and heart wrenching story in the entire novel may be the description of Pnin’s marriage to Liza. Pnin clearly adores his wife, but she has merely settled for marrying him, since her friends have convinced her that Pnin is the right choice to make if she wants children. Having settled for Pnin in marriage, because of a desire to have a baby, it seems that she never actually wanted to be married to him and she begins to treat him with a heartbreaking cruelty that is familiar to anyone who has suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of the venom of one who has fallen out of love. When Liza decides to run off with her lover, she informs Pnin by telephone, not even displaying the courtesy of informing her in person. Her lover, Eric Wind, sends Pnin a sympathy letter, in which he informs Pnin that he is eager to marry Liza (Nabokov, 1955, p.32). Wind is apparently already married, and, after impregnating Liza, does something that makes her leave him. Seven-months pregnant, she returns to Pnin, informing him that “it had all been a mistake, and from now on she was again Pnin’s faithful and lawful wife, ready to follow him wherever he went- even beyond the ocean if need be” (Nabokov, 1955, p.32). However, it is only a ploy by Liza and Wind. Not content to merely break Pnin’s heart, the two decide that they will continue to use him. Wind is on the boat with them as they travel to America, and reveals to Pnin that the couple simply took advantage of Pnin’s going to America to simplify Liza getting there as well. What is interesting is that Wind appears to believe that he is acting in an ethical manner by informing Pnin of their plot, rather than surprising him with it when they reach America. Wind also seems to think that he is being generous and ethical by offering to pay for half of Liza’s ticket to America, though why he would only offer to repay Pnin for half of the passage is an ethical question no reader could answer. He intends to take Pnin’s entire wife when they reach America, and she is pregnant with Wind’s child. Why offer to pay any part of Liza’s passage, if Wind is not willing to pay her entire passage.
Liza’s interactions with Pnin continue to be bizarre and unethical. She cheats on her husband Eric with a lover named George. Eric is aware of the affair and is willing to forgive the affair, but Liza feels that Eric has never been able to bond with their child. Therefore, she asks Pnin to set aside money for the child and send it to him. She does this with every expectation that he will comply, though the child was never his, he has no relationship with the child, and he has no obligation to the child. However, Pnin reveals himself as a very good person, clearly aware that this child will not find stability in Liza or Wind. He does send the boy money and involves himself in the child’s life. The pair has a sweet but tenuous relationship, fraught with difficulty, but clearly one of the areas of Pnin’s life that offers him some succor from life. That relationship reminds the reader that sometimes the greatest gifts in life come from exceeding one’s ethical and moral obligations.
Though the novel describes a series of slights and cruelties directed at Pnin, it is actually Pnin who manages to triumph over the narrator. As described above, the narrator thinks that it is unethical for a story to have a happy ending, when the circumstances of the story suggest otherwise. Towards the end of the novel, Pnin has a ruined marriage, a strained relationship with his son, and has just been informed that he is going to lose his job. There is no way to anticipate a happy ending for Pnin. However, the novel actually has a very happy ending. Pnin manages to actually escape from the novel and evade whatever unhappy ending the narrator has in store for him. The end of the novel literally has the narrator pursuing Pnin, but unable to capture him. Fans of Nabokov’s work realize that Pnin may have escaped into a happy ending; he turns up in Pale Fire, another of Nabokov’s novels, working at a better college and presumably happy.
Nabokov, 1955V. (1955). Pnin. New York: Alfred a. Knopf.
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