The Defense Characters
by Vladimir Nabokov

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin

Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin (ee-VAH-noh-vihch LEW-zhihn), a world-class chess player. Growing up in an aristocratic Russian household, the solitary Luzhin develops into a brilliant chess prodigy. Estranged from his parents, who do not understand his unique talent, he travels extensively to compete in chess tournaments in Europe. After several years, he becomes so immersed in a cerebral world of chess strategies that he loses contact with everyday reality and suffers a mental breakdown during the final match of a major tournament in Berlin. Although he recovers from this breakdown with the assistance of his fiancée, who tries to keep him away from any reminders of chess, he gradually falls prey to a new obsession: He believes that the events of his life are manipulated by an invisible chess opponent. Trying desperately to foil the relentless control of this unknown opponent, Luzhin increasingly acts in irrational and unpredictable ways. Frustrated by his inability to escape the snares of his opponent, Luzhin commits suicide by jumping from his bathroom window. His last vision is of a vast chessboard, which he takes to be a sign of his future existence.

Mrs. Luzhin

Mrs. Luzhin, a young woman with an independent mind and a compassionate spirit. She meets Aleksandr at a German resort and finds him so unusual that she decides to accept his abrupt and unmannered marriage proposal. She nurses him carefully after his breakdown, but because he never shares his inner fears with her, she remains unable to help him resist his suicidal anxiety.

Ivan Luzhin

Ivan Luzhin, Aleksandr’s father, a writer of children’s books. Although concerned for his son’s well-being, Ivan does not know how to communicate with him. He had hoped that his son would turn out to be a musical prodigy, and he finds his son’s chess genius unsettling. The senior Luzhin also has a difficult relationship with his wife, and he causes her pain when he enters into an adulterous affair. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Ivan lives alone as an émigré in Berlin. He plans to write a novel based on his son’s life, but he dies with his plans unfulfilled.


Valentinov (vah-lehn-TIH-nov), Aleksandr’s manager during the youth’s rise to international fame. A shameless promoter, Valentinov exploits Aleksandr’s talent when he is still young, then returns at the end of the novel, causing Aleksandr to take his paranoid suicide leap.

Aleksandr’s aunt

Aleksandr’s aunt, a coquettish young woman who enters into an adulterous relationship with Ivan and introduces Aleksandr to the mysteries of chess.


Turati (tew-RAH-tih), Aleksandr’s opponent in the climactic championship match that triggers Aleksandr’s mental breakdown.

Mrs. Luzhin’s parents

Mrs. Luzhin’s parents, Russian émigrés living in Berlin. Mrs. Luzhin’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s marriage to the eccentric chess player, but her husband provides financial resources to support the couple after their marriage.

A lady from the Soviet Union

A lady from the Soviet Union, a garrulous visitor who visits the Luzhin household in Berlin during the period of Aleksandr’s recuperation from his mental breakdown. Her comments about Aleksandr’s aunt crystallize his anxiety about being attacked by an invisible opponent, and her presence prevents Mrs. Luzhin from paying full attention to her distraught husband.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Vladimir Nabokov once referred to his characters as “galley slaves,” thus denying them the human credibility that realistic literary figures supposedly display. On the surface, Luzhin would seem to be an exception. Nabokov himself describes his lumpish, overweight, inarticulate hero as “uncouth, unwashed, uncomely—but...[with] something in him that transcends both the coarseness of his gray flesh and the sterility of his recondite genius.” This contrast between the master of the beautifully elegant, abstract world of chess and the inept, doomed human being stirs...

(The entire section is 1,154 words.)