Characters Discussed

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Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev

Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (FYOH-dohr kohn-stahn-TIH-noh-vihch GOH-dew-nov-chehr-DIHN-tsehv), a young Russian émigré writer who lives in Berlin. As the novel begins, Fyodor recently has published his first volume of poetry, a collection of works about childhood. The collection contains several gems of precise description but is destined never to receive the approval of a broad general audience. Over the course of the novel, Fyodor probes the possibility of using a variety of topics as the subject of a new written work: the suicide of Yasha Chernyshevski, the adolescent son of Fyodor’s friends, Alexander and Alexandra Chernyshevski; the life and disappearance of his own father, the famous Russian explorer and naturalist Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev; and the life and public image of Nikolay Chernyshevski, a famous nineteenth century critic. During this time, Fyodor meets Zina Mertz and falls in love with her. The novel concludes after the publication of Fyodor’s controversial treatise on Nikolay Chernyshevski, a work that exposes the enormous fallacies in the critic’s theories on art but that also depicts the man as eminently human. Despite the generally unfavorable reviews his work receives, Fyodor is pleased, and as the novel ends, he looks forward to spending the night with Zina, oblivious to the fact that both he and she are locked out of their apartment.

Zina Mertz

Zina Mertz, a young woman who lives with her mother and stepfather, Marianna Nikolaevna and Boris Ivanovich Shchyogolev. A quiet and sensitive soul, she responds deeply to Fyodor’s aesthetic talents and serves as his supporter and muse during his work on Chernyshevski.

Konstantin Kirillovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev

Konstantin Kirillovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (kohn-stahn-TIHN kih-RIH-loh-vihch), Fyodor’s father, a famous explorer who never returns from an expedition to the Far East during the period of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.

Nikolay Chernyshevski

Nikolay Chernyshevski (nih-koh-LAY chehr-nih-SHEHV-skee), a radical nineteenth century Russian journalist whose ideas on the relationship between art and life proved influential for succeeding generations of utilitarian critics.

Yasha Chernyshevski

Yasha Chernyshevski, the son of Alexander and Alexandra Chernyshevski, an impressionable youth who becomes caught up in a complex emotional triangle with two friends, Rudolf Baumann and Olya G., and who kills himself as part of a triple suicide pact. The other two, however, are horrified by his act and decide not to kill themselves.


Koncheyev (kohn-CHEH-yehv), an émigré poet whose work Fyodor very much admires. Fyodor conducts two imaginary conversations with Koncheyev on the subject of Russian literature and Fyodor’s own writing.

Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski

Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski (yah-KOV-leh-vihch), an émigré Russian who has become mentally unbalanced after the death of his son. Fyodor imagines how this man might perceive the ghost of his son appearing at regular intervals in their apartment.

Boris Ivanovich Shchyogolev

Boris Ivanovich Shchyogolev (ee-VAH-noh-vihch SHCHO-goh-lehv), Zina Mertz’s stepfather, a narrow-minded individual who relishes long-winded conversations about world politics, during which he reveals a tendency toward ethnic bigotry.

The Characters

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Vladimir Nabokov’s disclaimer to the contrary, Fyodor is in part an autobiographical figure. The young Russian emigre poet and writer in 1920’s Berlin, the aesthete, the admirer of butterflies, the composer of chess problems, the lover—all are recut facets of Nabokov’s life. Although the novel was written only ten years after the period described, Nabokov looks back on his young hero with gentle, often wry bemusement. Fyodor, dreamy, impractical about mundane matters such as money and keys, is preoccupied with absorbing the perceptions and finding the form best suited to his literary gift. The news of the day, the vulgarity of his Berlin surroundings, catch his derisive attention only fleetingly, if at all. Although reverent toward...

(This entire section contains 614 words.)

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the memory of his beloved father, the family, and the settings of his Russian childhood (memorialized in his poems), Fyodor, unlike most of the emigres, is perfectly happy with his marginal, alien existence. Exile affords him a unique freedom for his life and art.

Zina’s lot is less happy. Although she is the daughter of a cultivated, idolized Russian-Jewish father, her stepfather Shchyogolev, a jocular and anti-Semitic philistine, makes her home life oppressive. Employed as a typist ina law office, she loathes the bourgeois atmosphere of her surroundings. Like Fyodor, she carries the treasures of an idyllic past in her memory. Strong-willed and resolute, she is direct, almost imperious. A longtime admirer of Fyodor’s poetry, she quite literally becomes his muse. The dedicatee of one of Fyodor’s finest poems, her “perfect pitch” for Russian prose makes her the ideal auditor for Fyodor’s nightly readings of his Chernyshevski biography as the homeless lovers sit in corner cafes. She is also the heroine of Fyodor’s projected novel, The Gift.

The poet and critic Koncheyev plays a role out of all proportion to the number of his appearances. A “lonely, unpleasant, myopic man, with some kind of unpleasant defect in the reciprocal position of his shoulder blades,” Koncheyev is Fyodor’s envied rival, the sole critic whose esteem he craves. Curiously, the only extended conversations between the two men, both stunning literary critiques, are imaginary. Koncheyev is the secret sounding board for Fyodor’s evaluation of his own work and his reevaluation of all Russian literature. He is Fyodor’s alter ego.

The lovingly portrayed Chernyshevskis are among Fyodor’s few friends. Fyodor’s obvious affection is surprising, for the aging couple represent a very different outlook on life from that of the young aesthete. The Chernyshevskis take their name from the radical, atheist social critic’s father, an Orthodox priest, who converted their Jewish forebears to Christianity. It is they who first propose that Fyodor write about the famous Chernyshevski. Fyodor’s old friend, who dies just as the book about his namesake appears, is the center of one of the novel’s themes: the puzzle of death and immortality. The demented old man believes that he is in touch with the other world. As he lies dying, listening to water drumming outside the heavily curtained window, he murmurs, “What nonsense. Of course there is nothing afterwards.... It is as clear as the fact that it is raining.” In fact, the sun is shining, and a neighbor is watering her plants.

The Gift, Nabokov’s longest Russian novel, contains a rich gallery of human portraits. Each is carefully individuated. In addition to full-length studies of such secondary characters as the vile Boris Shchyogolev, and Fyodor’s adored mother, Elizaveta Pavlovna, there are marvelous thumbnail sketches of dozens of minor figures, the denizens of the world of the Russian emigre intelligentsia—Nabokov’s presciently nostalgic portrait of a world soon fated to disappear.


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Davydov, Sergei. “Nabokov’s Aesthetic Exorcism of Chernyshevskii,” in Canadian-American Slavic Studies. XIX (Fall, 1985), pp. 357-374.

Johnson, D. Barton. “The Chess Key to The Gift,” in Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, 1985.

Karlinsky, Simon. “Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel Dar as a Work of Literary Criticism,” in Slavic and East European Journal. VII (Fall, 1963), pp. 284-290.

Rampton, David. “The Gift,” in Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels, 1984.

Salomon, Roger B. “The Gift: Nabokov’s Portrait of the Artist,” in Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, 1984. Edited by Phyllis A. Roth.




Critical Essays