What does "The Vane Sisters" reveal about attitudes and beliefs about truth and meaning in the twentieth century?

The story suggests that "truth" and "meaning" as revealed in literature are unreliable, and that the work of the author is to cause the reader to question their assumptions about stories and their production.

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Nabokov's story calls into question ability of human experience (and, particularly, literature) to express truth, or, indeed, any meaning at all. The story operates on a number of levels. On the surface, the story is about the Vane sisters—Cynthia and Sybil—Sybil's suicide in the aftermath of an affair with D. (a teaching colleague of the narrator), and the narrator's subsequent relationship with Cynthia. Thematically, the story has to do with Cynthia's interest in spiritualism, seances, and messages from the beyond in the form of acrostics. The erudite narrator tells the story in an oblique manner, in which the focus seems to be more on his perceptions and attitudes than anything that might be happening to the people around him.

The standout quality of the story is the finely wrought description, beginning with the narrator's keen observation of icicles and their shadows on a house. This description, and the narrator's fixation on his own attention to detail, is meant to establish him as a person who is alert to the things around him; his concentration on how things look (including some uncomfortably close observations on Cynthia's personal hygiene) suggests that, for the narrator, "truth" is in these sorts of details. When he scoffs at Cynthia's belief that Sybil's "aura" is somehow responsible for little events in her life, Cynthia calls him a "prig" and a "snob," and their relationship ends.

In fact, the narrator has been the dupe of the sisters all along. The story has a famous trick ending, in which the final paragraph, if read in the acrostic style employed "by some contemporary writer" mentioned earlier in the story, reveals that Cynthia and Sybil have in fact been controlling the narrative from the beginning. Nothing we have read, in other words, has been what it seems.

There are many ways in which to interpret this ending. Its most destabilizing quality, however, is how it turns the story into a kind of quiz. In a sense, Nabokov is challenging his reader to find this hidden code. Of course, most people don't (including his editor at The New Yorker); if you don't, you are left in the world of the characters, amid the "ripples of mysterious meaning," a kind of bitter joke. If you do, you are suddenly made aware of Nabokov's duplicity in writing the story; not only is none of it true (it is fiction, after all), but it is not even true within the fictive world of the characters.

All of this calls into question, in an extremely sophisticated and complex way, the possibility of literature to contain any truth at all. Even stories that are meant to call into question the value of literature are themselves a kind of trick. One is left, after reading the story, with the peculiar sensation of having read something very beautiful, full of emotion and intellect, but ultimately empty.

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