Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community

By Kenneth Womack | Go to book overview
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4
Scholar Adventurers in Exile: Nabokov's Dr. Kinbote and Professor Pnin

“I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

Ethical criticism presupposes that works of art necessarily implore us, through their depictions of so many morally disparate heroes and villains, to render value judgments based upon our experiences as readers and members of the larger human community. Yet in his published essays, interviews, and correspondence, Vladimir Nabokov consistently reminds us of the dangers inherent in the application of unexamined moral philosophies to works of literature. In a letter of 24 October 1945 to Professor George R. Noyes, for example, Nabokov notes that only an “uninhibited art” offers the possibility of registering a moral impact upon the reader. “Deliberate moralizing,” he cautions, “does violence to the very notion of art” (56–7). 1 Although he maintains that writers must distance themselves from the influence of socially constructed moral imperatives during the production of their texts, he ultimately manufactures characters in novels such as Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962) who often suffer tangible consequences for their morally reprehensible actions. In the latter two volumes, Nabokov employs the novel as a forum for illustrating the capacity of academic characters to act with cruelty and emotional negligence in their dealings with their peers, and, in some instances, with their students. He also devotes considerable attention to the false prophecy of academic scholarship,

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