The most obvious way to read the novel, as several critics have suggested, is to see Mary as Russia and Ganin and the others as those Russians who can never go home again. Ganin, with his history of fighting in the Crimea in 1919, suggests an anti-Bolshevik attempt to retrieve Russia from Communism. His final repudiation of Mary can be read as a recognition that the old czarist Russia is lost forever.
This narrowly symbolic reading is aesthetically thin, however, and does little justice to the richness of the work. Mary has also been seen as one of the best novels on the plight of Russian emigres, often at loose, inconsequential ends in the early 1920’s. The economy with which Nabokov fleshes out the secondary characters in their maundering fragilities shows in this, his first novel, the promise that would culminate in his formidable reputation.
Old Russia is a theme in Mary, but a minor theme which forms the background to Ganin’s exploration of his past as an innocent lover whose love has been lost. He must arrive, through reliving the experience in his memory, at that mature, if sad, awareness that the past is no more than memory, however idyllic it still seems to be. If Ganin dare not go home again physically, he also learns that he cannot go home again emotionally.
The most unformed aspect of Nabokov’s gift lies in the rather blatant way in which symbolic motifs and patterns are used. The novel begins with two men in the dark who are closer than they know, and ends with Ganin making his decision not to meet Mary as he watches a group of carpenters erect a new building. That he decides to leave for the south has equally obvious suggestions of new life, of emotional renewal and fructification. The setting of the novel in April and occasional references to rebirth in the plant life of the city provide a background for the refugees who are attempting to renew themselves.
Nabokov is successful in conveying that peculiar air of hopelessness, ennui, and somewhat limp angst and frustration in this group of admirably civilized outcasts which reminds the reader of the Chekhovian exploration of the prerevolutionary Russians in their failures to make sense of lives of self-pity and fecklessness. Ganin, at least, escapes, not only the hothouse enfeeblement of the pension but the past as well, and he attempts to do it without going back for passport or visa, repudiating the old identities.