The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Pnin is an Old World scholar misplaced in a New World academic community; his charming scholarly habits go unappreciated among his colleagues, most of whom are inadequate to their tasks (the head of the French Department cannot speak French and believes that Chateaubriand was a great chef). It is a mistake, however, to label Pnin as a typical absentminded professor. The narrator describes him as overconscious of his surroundings, attentive to details, inconveniencing only himself as he struggles to adjust to the bewildering world of reality. His digressions on details of information constitute an attempt to be helpful, and despite his confusion over the American idiom, he knows intuitively when his help is needed.

His former wife, Liza Wind, every bit as restless as he, moves from husband to husband as Pnin moves from place to place, living a desperate version of romance, possibly begun by a brief affair with the narrator in their youth. On the surface unworthy of Pnin’s affection, she is equal to his ardor because her quiet intensity, aimless but complete, echoes Pnin’s own aimlessness and intensity. It is appropriate that her son by the man who stole her from Pnin should appear, like a gift, in Pnin’s life just when it is most inappropriate and, at the same time, touching.

Young Victor, unsporty, part-orphan, awkward in Pnin’s presence, shy and gracious at the same time, shares an uncanny resemblance to Pnin without sharing blood, as...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Timofey Pavlovich Pnin

Timofey Pavlovich Pnin (tih-moh-FAY PAV-loh-vihch pnihn), the protagonist, fifty-two years old in 1950, a Russian emigrant who teaches Russian language and literature at Waindell College. Bald and thick in the neck, he has a powerful torso but spindly legs. Because of his difficulties adjusting to American culture and the English language, Pnin often appears awkward and bungling, yet among his fellow émigrés, when speaking Russian, he is shown to be adroit and even erudite. Pnin is perpetually in search of “discreteness,” a safe haven where he can feel insulated from both the horrible memories of his past and from the people who mock him and intrude on his privacy. Most prominent among these intruders is the narrator of the book. Pnin experiences several attacks, probably heart attacks, throughout the story. At the time of these attacks, he experiences a loss of discreteness and a feeling of melting into his surroundings and approaching death.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (vlah-dih-MIH-roh-vihch nah-BOH-kov), the narrator of the book, a front man for the author, who lends him his name and persona. He portrays himself as Pnin’s friend but reveals, obliquely, that he has seduced Pnin’s wife-to-be, Liza, and has meddled in his private life on other occasions. The action of the book shows how he pursues Pnin, attempting to capture images of him and transmogrify them in his fiction. His role in the book becomes more obvious as the story progresses, until, in the final chapter, he has become almost...

(The entire section is 706 words.)