Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

Stylistic techniques are never sharply separated from the themes in Vladimir Nabokov’s work. “The Vane Sisters” is an excellent example of his interest in the playfulness of fiction for its own sake and his joy in the potential for deceitfulness in art. His main thematic and stylistic device here is...

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Stylistic techniques are never sharply separated from the themes in Vladimir Nabokov’s work. “The Vane Sisters” is an excellent example of his interest in the playfulness of fiction for its own sake and his joy in the potential for deceitfulness in art. His main thematic and stylistic device here is the use of an unreliable narrator. The events of the story of the Vane sisters and D. probably occurred much as the professor says they do, but his interpretations of characters and events are not always fully accurate. In this regard, he resembles Charles Kinbote, in Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), who ostensibly is explaining a poem by John Shade but is actually writing about himself.

Nabokov presents his protagonist ironically because the narrator thinks he is far more capable of understanding than he truly is. At one point, he considers himself “in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket.” He feels that he must ridicule others to elevate himself. Thus he emphasizes how Sybil’s face was scarred by a skin disease and was heavily made up and how Cynthia’s skin had a “coarse texture” masked ineptly by cosmetics applied even more slovenly than her sister’s. He glories in calling attention to Cynthia’s body odor and to the fading looks of her female friends. At Cynthia’s parties, even though everyone is connected with the arts, “there was no inspired talk,” so he amuses himself by poking “a little Latin fun at some of her guests.” He will not accompany Cynthia to séances conducted by professional mediums because he “knew too much about that from other sources.” He does not need to experience something firsthand to be able to dismiss it.

The narrator will not consort with two of Cynthia’s friends until he is satisfied “that they possessed considerable wit and culture.” How he determines this sophistication is not explained; the reader must simply take his word for it. Cynthia rightly accuses him of being “a prig and a snob” and of seeing only “the gestures and disguises of people.”

Nabokov grants the sisters a measure of revenge by having them control the story that the professor thinks he alone is telling. The narrator, who once peruses the first letters of the lines of William Shakespeare’s sonnets to discover what words they might form, is the victim of an elaborate literary joke. Later, the narrator vaguely recalls a message from the dead concealed in the final paragraph of some novel or short story. His own final paragraph in this story is itself an acrostic in which the first letters of its words spell out “Icicles by cynthia meter from me sybil”:I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.

The dead sisters thus select the very words and images used by the pompous narrator, who has laughed at the powers of the dead. Nabokov himself explains that the sisters use the acrostic “to assert their mysterious participation in the story” in his preface to the story in the collection Tyrants Destroyed, and Other Stories (1975).

Cynthia, whom the narrator describes as “a painter of glass-bright minutiae,” does this by causing the professor to describe icicles and other prismatic images throughout the story. On a walk near a place where D. once lived, the narrator admires “a family of brilliant icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house.” He tries to spot the shadows of the falling drops, but they prove as elusive as ghosts because he lacks the proper angle of vision: “I did not chance to be watching the right icicle when the right drop fell. There was a rhythm, an alternation in the dripping that I found as teasing as a coin trick.” The trick played by the Vane sisters mocks his lack of perception into the true nature of what he encounters. When he arrives at D.’s former home, he finally sees what he wants: “the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast.” Sybil is also present later on his walk: “The lean ghost, the elongated umbra cast by a parking meter upon some damp snow, had a strange ruddy tinge.”

The pun on parking meter and the meter of language is typical of Nabokov. He enjoys playing games with his readers, whom he expects to pay attention to every detail, such as the description of the exclamation mark in Sybil’s suicide note and Cynthia’s delight in her sister’s punctuation. This incident, like others in the story, also questions the randomness of events. Do things happen by chance or design? Nabokov and Cynthia, controlling artists, endorse the latter.

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