Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense

Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) wrote The Defense, his third novel, in Berlin in 1929 and published it serially under the penname Sirin in the Paris-based Russian journal Sovremennye zapiski (Notes from the fatherland). The novel was first published in Russian in 1930 and translated into English in 1964. Many contemporary critics, including the prominent Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd, regard The Defense as Nabokov’s first masterpiece. Upon its appearance in book form in 1930, the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich first argued for the importance of The Defense, stating that art itself is the main subject of the novel.

Nabokov accomplishes his meditation on art in The Defense by brilliantly combining the emphasis on interiority of his first novel, Mary (1926), with the virtuosic structural precision of his second novel, King, Queen, Knave (1928). In so doing, he manages to create his first memorable and well-rounded character, the chess player Luzhin, whose tragic story and isolated consciousness anticipate Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote.

Vladimir Nabokov holding a butterfly, 1947. Photograph from Constantin Joffe / Condé Nast / Getty

As a chess player, Luzhin (whose name should be pronounced so that it rhymes with the English word illusion) creates beautiful patterns that attempt to deceive his opponents and, accordingly, is an image of the Nabokovian artist for whom art is a constellation of mysterious and meaningful symmetries. Luzhin’s tragedy is that his consciousness, which is wholly formed by his genius for chess, does not fit into the world inhabited by the other characters in the novel. The reader feels sympathy for Luzhin due to the outcome of his displacement in the world—the suicide that results from the slow disintegration of his genius and inability to relate to other people.

Nabokov creates Luzhin as a sympathetic character by structuring the novel in three parts. In part one, which takes place between the years 1910 and 1912,Nabokov presents Luzhin as a lonely 10-year-old boy straight out of a Dickens novel. Lacking parental love and suffering the cruelty of other children, Luzhin is an outsider and perceives the world as a continual threat. His mechanism for coping with his painful environment is to withdraw into himself. But when he discovers chess at the age of 11, he experiences relief and hope. With the reader now emotionally attached to Luzhin, Nabokov moves to the second part of the novel, which takes place in the summer of 1928 and covers Luzhin’s preparation for the world chess championship. Luzhin now has an attractive and intelligent fiancée, Natalia, who understands and cares for him. But Luzhin suffers a mental breakdown during the tournament when he cannot balance the chess side of his mind with the love that he craves from Natalia.

Nabokov sets the third part of the novel during the winter of 1928–29, when Luzhin’s doctor and Natalia convince him that chess is a danger to his mental health and encourage him to abandon the game. Luzhin valiantly tries to resist the intrusions of chess, but his natural predilection for the game causes him to confuse chess with reality and perceive irrational patterns and attacks in the world surrounding him. At the end of the novel, he commits suicide by jumping from the balcony of his apartment onto a courtyard whose fl agstones look just like the squares of a chessboard. Luzhin’s suicide is his final defense against the frightening and chaotic external world.

Nabokov suggests at the end of The Defense that Luzhin’s tragedy derives from his ultimate inability to tell the difference between art and life. This inability, however, is not Luzhin’s fault; rather, his harsh and cruel experiences as a child and as a rising chess star cause him to seek a refuge from reality in his art, with the eventual result being his confusion of art and life. His suicide—his final defense against the encroaching external world—demonstrates the self-destructive tendency of those who blur the boundary between art and life.

The Defense marks a significant advance in Nabokov’s art because it introduces a subject that continued to fascinate him throughout his career: the relationship between artistic consciousness and the world. Most of Nabokov’s following novels consider this relationship in some way, with his greatest novels—Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962)—finding their dark comedic brilliance in their presentation of the psychotic behavior of their artistically bent antiheroes. Luzhin, however, stands out among Nabokov’s protagonists as a profoundly sympathetic figure whose tragedy evokes a truly pathetic response in readers.

A film version of The Defense, entitled The Luzhin Defense, appeared in 2000. Marleen Gorris directed the film, which was based on Peter Barry’s screenplay and starred John Turturo as Luzhin and Emma Watson as Natalia.

Alexandrov, Vladimir E. “The Defense.” In The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Vladimir E. Alexandrov. New York: Garland, 1995. 75–88.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Fitzsimmons, Lorna. “Artistic Subjectivity in Nabokov’s The Defense and Invitation to a Beheading.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics 24 (2001): 55–60.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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