The Return of Chorb
by Vladimir Nabokov
The Orpheus Myth
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Read any analysis of "The Return of Chorb" and you’re bound to see a mention or two of Orpheus, the guy from Greek mythology. Where is everyone getting this from? The big tip-off is the STATUE OF ORPHEUS that features prominently in paragraph 33, when the prostitute is looking out the window of the hotel room to the opera house across the street. That sure got everyone thinking.
Now, who is this Orpheus character? In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a famous musician. He played the lyre so beautifully that he could make the animals stop and listen and the trees shake. He was also married to a woman named Eurydice, which was great until she stepped on a snake and was bitten and killed. Orpheus then played really sad music really well, which meant the trees were no longer dancing so much as they were weeping rivers. Since the whole scene was a big drag, the gods gave Orpheus advice: go to the underworld and get your wife back. Orpheus did, and so impressed Hades with his musical abilities that the God of the Underworld agreed to let Eurydice go – on one condition. She would follow Orpheus up out of the Underworld, but he wasn’t allowed to look behind him. If he did, she would be lost to him forever. He just had to trust that she was there. So Orpheus sets out, but just before he reaches the real world he gets nervous, looks behind him, and sees Eurydice for a fleeting moment before she disappears.
By now, you probably see a connection or two between the Orpheus myth and "The Return of Chorb." The live electric wire that killed Chorb’s wife is a little snake-like. Orpheus travels to the underworld and back, and Chorb takes a RETURN journey from France to Germany. If he had to, we could probably draw a parallel between the moment that Orpheus looks back and sees Eurydice and the moment that Chorb wakes in the night and sees his dead wife beside him.
But Chorb doesn’t WANT to get his wife back…right? Well, that’s an interesting question, and one with no clear answer. In a sense, Chorb is trying to conjure up an image of his wife that he can make "immortal" and thus keep forever. That’s a lot like what Orpheus was doing – trying to save his wife from death and make her thus immortal. On the other hand, Chorb is not OK with seeing the ghost of his dead wife. That’s what he’s trying to overcome with his quest. How you choose to view "The Return of Chorb" in light of the Orpheus myth is up to you.