Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Bend Sinister after he moved to the United States in 1940. His family’s opposition to Leninist rule led them to flee the Soviet Union, and Nabokov largely grew up outside the country of his birth. Bend Sinister, although more political than many of his works, addresses questions of individualism in relationship to the state but also to authorial intent, a theme that later became central in his fiction. While the critique of Stalinism is hardly subtle, the novel also addresses the instability of the reader’s perception, thus undermining the initial impression of realism.

Krug, the protagonist, is an idealist who is forced to navigate a brutally real environment. Obsessed with images, he contemplates reflections of reality every place he looks, such as in a rain puddle at the novel’s beginning. Alternating impressions of light and dark sometimes match with and sometimes clash with the narrator’s emotional moods. At the outset, the narrator contemplates his wife’s recent death. Increasing alienation from the conformist society around him continues to affect his mood.

Believing himself above the political fray, he refuses to participate in state-endorsed propaganda. The fact that his friends are disappearing—probably killed or sent to labor camps—fails to awaken him to his own danger, because he understands his position to be apolitical. His refusal of one specific request to do a public reading from a text in which he does not believe, endorsing the importance of the “average” person, sets in motion a series of events that lead to his downfall. Krug’s determinedly naïve stance fails to account for his emotional attachment to and responsibility for his family. When his son is taken at the same time he is detained, Krug starts to wake up to his vulnerability and the danger in which his ostensible principles have placed those close to him. Unfortunately, the damage is done; the son dies and Krug goes mad.

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