Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

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The relation between reality and art lies at the bottom of this peculiar manipulation of a banal tale of a wandering husband destroyed by his love for a worthless woman. From the beginning, Nabokov builds the story up to something more than its plot, and at the same time, tears it down, showing the reader that it is “just a story” with which he, as artist, can do as he pleases. Coincidence occurs throughout the novel, undermining its credibility. Conrad, the novelist, provides the idea which brings Albinus into contact with Rex, and later it is Conrad, met by chance, who precipitates Albinus’ discovery of Rex’s betrayal. Rex happens to be Margot’s great love, although she does not know really who he is, or even where he is, until he suddenly appears at a dinner party given by Albinus. The poster outside the motion-picture theater in which Margot works prefigures Irma’s experience of watching the man from the open window. There are several of these doublings, all placed cleverly, and without comment, throughout the novel. Indeed, this cleverness is part of the point of the novel, which uses a story that ought not to have any aesthetic power at all.

Real life is not romantic enough for Albinus; he must have the kind of romantic adventure which occurs only in films. Appropriately, he has modest connections with the films, Margot wants to be a film star, and Rex has the technical skills to provide Albinus with his dream film. It is, quite deliberately, too coincidental and too often full of cinematic echoes. The reader is made aware of the way in which Nabokov “dresses” the set, and the seemingly awkwardly and irrelevantly placed objects against which the characters act; Rex, in particular, cooperates with the author in manipulating the environment, much as a film director might do. Nabokov is exaggerating and pointing out the role of the author in making the tale as theatrical as possible. If Albinus wants drama in his life, he truly gets it, and then some: The agony is literally piled on at the death of his innocent daughter, who dies of natural causes but with a hint that she died of a broken heart while waiting to see her father; in the various ways he is betrayed and made a fool; in his accident and blindness; and in the ultimate cruel joke of his being killed by his own gun.

Nabokov makes art out of the fast shuffle of art and life, and where one begins and the other ends is unclear. If Albinus, the betrayer of the family, deserves his punishment, there is also a sense that he receives more than he deserves. Albinus, the man of feeling, comes up against Rex, the man of coldly amused sensations, and is torn to pieces. This result may be the obvious, simplistic moral of the story, but the reader is left with a nagging sense that such excessive punishment is almost irrelevant, that Nabokov does not really care about such a pious idea. In a sense, the title is a guide to the intellectual indifference that pervades the novel. Albinus is a fool to think that this young girl could love him, and his blind love makes it impossible for him to see the real relationship between Margot and Rex. Albinus is, in a sense, no blinder after his accident than he was before it.

The way in which Nabokov works out parallels and patterns is also important. Albinus wants to be an artist, but he must use another man’s ideas, and he is not, as he thinks, even a very good critic of art. Rex is amused, for example, by the fact that one of his forgeries hangs in Albinus’ house. Margot is also inclined to be an artist but proves to be a terrible actress. Rex has the talent, but not the determination, and he fritters away his gift in his cruel teasing of undistinguished Albinus.

Yet the pattern is complete only if Udo Conrad and Paul are remembered. It is Conrad’s idea that Albinus would use, it is Conrad who sets Albinus on the scent of the guilty conspirators, and it is Conrad who lives a sober—even boring—life, making real art, rather than playing at it. Paul, the sensible, long-suffering, unattractive brother-in-law, rescues Albinus from the dream turned into a nightmare. Nevertheless, Albinus cannot resist the grand gesture of the romantic lover betrayed and is killed for his presumption.