Nabokov and the Torture of Children: Shades of Pain in Bend Sinister and Pnin

Elena Sommers, Rochester Institute of Technology

Trying to determine why Bend Sinister goes into such excruciating detail in its portrayal of violence against the most vulnerable, the paper will analyze the means by which Nabokov communicates the most language-resistant phenomenon--the intense physical pain of another. The presentation will show how the writer deconstructs the process of torture in order for the reader to then reconstruct it in his/her imagination, the result of which is a literal, physical feeling of pain. Continuously upsetting the reader’s world, Bend Sinister transforms a nanny, a nurse and a female doctor into a fine-tuned murder team, with each assigned a specific role in the death of eight-year-old David.

According to Richard Rorty, inability to notice someone else's suffering is the ultimate example of incuriosity -- a form of cruelty which concerned Nabokov the most. Bend Sinister tests the level of the reader's curiosity by briefly mentioning another child, Arvid Krug, brought to Krug by mistake after he agrees to endorse the regime on the condition of his son’s immediate release. The cruel irony of the situation is that for desperate Krug, “a thin frightened boy of twelve or thirteen,” obviously beaten, with his head “newly bandaged," is just “someone else’s child,” the “wrong boy,” who being labeled as one ends up being murdered. Writing his introduction in 1963, seventeen years after completing Bend Sinister, Nabokov points out "the theme of dim-brained brutality which thwarts its own purpose by destroying the right child and keeping the wrong one" thus setting up the disturbing "right" child/"wrong" child opposition, challenging the reader's attention to detail.

Brian Boyd argues that "only through the imagination can we mortals act with sufficient thought for another's pain…” Nabokov forces the reader to picture the circumstances of the victims' deaths by providing detailed scenarios of what could have happened. In Pnin the image of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner Mira haunts her childhood fiancé. In his mind she "kept dying a great number of deaths" and "undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again….” In Bend Sinister, the reader is informed of the "know how" of torture at the Institute for Abnormal Children and vividly pictures the executioners themselves as they leave their cells for the "venting exercises."

Saturated with human suffering, Bend Sinister in a sense lets the reader down, as it provides no real closure in regards to the violence committed against the most innocent and vulnerable. Haunting our imagination with graphic images of torture and death, the novel challenges the readers’ sense of compassion and urges us to acknowledge that the issue of a child's suffering cannot and should not bring emotional or intellectual closure.