Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin

Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin (ee-VAH-noh-vihch LEW-zhihn), a world-class chess player. Growing up in an aristocratic Russian household, the solitary Luzhin develops into a brilliant chess prodigy. Estranged from his parents, who do not understand his unique talent, he travels extensively to compete in chess tournaments in Europe. After several years, he becomes so immersed in a cerebral world of chess strategies that he loses contact with everyday reality and suffers a mental breakdown during the final match of a major tournament in Berlin. Although he recovers from this breakdown with the assistance of his fiancée, who tries to keep him away from any reminders of chess, he gradually falls prey to a new obsession: He believes that the events of his life are manipulated by an invisible chess opponent. Trying desperately to foil the relentless control of this unknown opponent, Luzhin increasingly acts in irrational and unpredictable ways. Frustrated by his inability to escape the snares of his opponent, Luzhin commits suicide by jumping from his bathroom window. His last vision is of a vast chessboard, which he takes to be a sign of his future existence.

Mrs. Luzhin

Mrs. Luzhin, a young woman with an independent mind and a compassionate spirit. She meets Aleksandr at a German resort and finds him so unusual that she decides to accept...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

The Defense The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Vladimir Nabokov once referred to his characters as “galley slaves,” thus denying them the human credibility that realistic literary figures supposedly display. On the surface, Luzhin would seem to be an exception. Nabokov himself describes his lumpish, overweight, inarticulate hero as “uncouth, unwashed, uncomely—but...[with] something in him that transcends both the coarseness of his gray flesh and the sterility of his recondite genius.” This contrast between the master of the beautifully elegant, abstract world of chess and the inept, doomed human being stirs the reader’s compassion. Nevertheless, Nabokov remains remote in the treatment of his protagonist. Luzhin acquires a first name and patronymic (the usual Russian form of address) only at the moment of his death. All the actions that give Luzhin’s character the illusion of humanity prove to be part of a developing novelistic chess pattern, not life. They are “moves” orchestrated from above.

Luzhin’s nameless wife, the novel’s only other sympathetic character, is his only link with human reality. Her love for the strange chess master is rooted in compassion rather than passion, but it is, nevertheless, real. For Luzhin, sex is obscurely linked with chess, perhaps because of his aunt’s sensuality and his wife’s quiet acquiescence in their asexual marriage. His wife tries only to protect Luzhin from his past, by building a normal, “chess-free” existence for him. Her...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

The Defense Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Cockburn, Alexander. “Paths of Exile: Nabokov’s Grand Master,” in Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, 1974.

Johnson, D. Barton. “Text and Pre-text in The Defense,” in Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, 1985.

Moody, Fred. “Nabokov’s Gambit,” in Russian Literature Triquarterly. XIV (1976), pp. 67-70.

Purdy, Strother B. “Solus Rex: Nabokov and the Chess Novel,” in Modern Fiction Studies. XIV (Winter, 1968-1969), pp. 379-395.

Updike, John. “Grandmaster Nabokov,” in Assorted Prose, 1965.