Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Vladimir Nabokov’s title, “The Return of Chorb,” points to his major theme. Chorb’s return takes place on two levels: the geographical and the psychological. The former merely frames and provides a set of cues for the latter’s world of memory. Nabokov’s central theme, one common to much of his work, is the relationship of the memory of things past to present reality. If Chorb succeeds in re-creating his bride in memory, he thinks, he will have exorcised the tragedy and possess her forever; he will be able to live again. This is the goal of his reverse journey through space and time. However, reality proves him wrong. Although momentarily relieved of his tragic burden when he awakes, he immediately faces the tragicomic denouement with his in-laws. One cannot successfully live in a world of idyllic memories, no matter how richly reconstituted.

The story also has a subtle undercurrent of the supernatural. The bride dies the purest of deaths, killed by that same stream of electricity that pours into glass bulbs and gives the brightest light. It is not by chance that Chorb is unaccountably distressed by the gently swaying light bulb in his hotel room. As Nabokov once remarked in a discussion of the occult: “Electricity. Time. Space. We know nothing about these things.” The always laughing wife may have returned to play a joke on the husband (the comic fiasco of the ending) or to try to jolt him into the loving realization that he must live in the present, not in shared memories of their brief past.

Chorb is perhaps not fated to be a great writer, for he lacks the toughness of mind to live in the present. There is a hint that his mind has snapped as he sits peeping out with his mad, flame-filled eye and then gazes at the prostitute with “a meaningless smile.”