Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

“Displaced” by the circumstances of his youth, Pnin spends his life trying to find a little corner where he can be comfortable with his books, his eccentricities, his loneliness. Nabokov indicts much of the academic community in this portrait (he was a professor at Cornell University when he wrote the novel), sparing individuals who harbor Pnin from moment to moment, but exposing the callousness and political self-preservation of the majority.

Oddness is never popular, but in theory a liberal arts institution should have a corner or two for the more fragile souls who seek refuge in the academic world. Nabokov’s delightful sensitivity to words gives the reader a metaphor for Pnin’s more universal difficulty with communications of all kinds; he can understand a squirrel’s needs, but not his own. Among the recurring motifs is the presence of a squirrel on certain occasions of Pnin’s loneliness, a symbol, according to some scholars, of his lost love, a victim of the German concentration camps. One particular squirrel anecdote adds a special clarification to the reader’s understanding of Pnin’s dilemma. He holds the water fountain faucet down so that a squirrel can take a drink. The squirrel drinks and goes off without gratitude, and that detail speaks for the thematic thread of Pnin’s life: The nurturing and nourishing Pnin finds only ingratitude from those whose thirsts he tries to quench. Every time Pnin looks at an out-of-date timetable, shoves the wrong notes into his pocket, or otherwise relies on an unreliable permanence, the theme of miscommunication that runs through the novel is reinforced. Even Pnin’s anguish is untranslatable: “Emitting what he thought were international exclamations of anxiety and entreaty,” he lives his life from misunderstanding to misunderstanding, until it is knit together by the narrator.

Nabokov’s narrative style is uncommonly complex. Eschewing the simple omniscient narrative form, the narrator assumes, gathers evidence, projects possibilities, and invents isolated incidents based on conjecture, in a complicated style that complements the themes of the novel itself. The author’s own remarkable control of the English language, a language he learned under circumstances similar to Pnin’s, adds a final layer of irony and pathos.