Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Chess has often been used as a metaphor for life. Nabokov uses it as a metaphor for art and art’s relationship to life. Inept in life, Luzhin is a near-genius in the supremely abstract, elegant world of chess, that is, art. He is so immersed in chess that he perceives life only in terms of chess patterns. Sensing a chesslike attack being mounted against him for the second time, he correctly recognizes the unfolding pattern but mistakes the very nature of the game. He prepares the wrong defense and dies. Luzhin ultimately understands chess (art) no better than life. It is not by chance that he fails to reach the pinnacle of the chess world. Luzhin falsely believes that he is a player in a chess game with death, a game he can win if he can find the correct defense. His misconception is that he is a player, a king in the game. In reality, he is merely a pawn in a chess problem conceived by his author. The game is “fixed” by the outside, controlling artist, its creator.

The Defense displays a strategy common to many Nabokov novels which take the relationship of art and life as their theme. The fictional characters think that their artificial world is real. There are, however, small signs that their universe is not real, but created and controlled from outside—that is, from the world of their author. In some Nabokov novels, the protagonist, often an artist figure, senses the presence of the author-creator and is “saved.” Luzhin, the failed artist, does not and is destroyed.

In some ways, this tightly constructed chess novel resembles a mystery. Like Luzhin, the reader must be on the lookout for clues, the key repetitions that form the mounting attack on the hero’s sanity. Almost every event in the second part of the book subtly echoes an aspect of Luzhin’s life before he learned chess. Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator and almost entirely without dialogue, The Defense superficially mimics a traditional realistic work but proves to be simply an elaborate game.