Bend Sinister Summary
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.
Bend Sinister is the story of a philosopher who tries to keep himself remote from the politics of his country by reasoning that he is too well-known a figure to be hurt. He watches his friends disappear and seems to have little concern for what happens to them. Finally, government forces remove Krug and his son from their apartment and separate father and son. Only now does Krug realize that he will do or say anything to save his son. Unfortunately, the son is mistakenly, pointlessly killed, and Krug takes refuge in madness to remove himself from a world become absurd.
A simple summary of the plot of the novel, however, misses most of its thematic and structural complexities and its creation of a surreal, fictional realm where cosmic tragedy and comedy mesh (Vladimir Nabokov once said that the trouble with the “cosmic” was that it was always threatening to lose its “s”) and where protagonist and narrator/author are reflections of each other in a drama in which the terror of dreams intertwines with nightmarish reality.
The novel begins and ends with images reflected in a rain puddle situated in the middle of an asphalt road. Krug sees the puddle first at the beginning of the novel as he looks into the street from the window of a hospital, where his wife has just died unexpectedly. The narrator/author sees the same puddle at the end of the novel as he wonders whether people leave an imprint in the texture of space similar to the imprint made by the depression in the ground that is filled with rainwater. Nabokov himself, in a 1963 introduction to the novel, points out how the puddle reappears in various guises throughout the book. The puddle becomes an ink blot in chapter 4, an ink stain in chapter 5, spilled milk in chapter 11, a ciliated thought in chapter 12, and a footprint in chapter 18.
Such recurring images are representative of the many rhetorical devices that Nabokov uses in the course of the novel to provide the intricate patterning and stylistic play with words that are the basis of his...
(The entire section is 1,458 words.)