Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Boors

By Vladimir Nabokov

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Did you guys notice that the only thing we really know about Olga besides that she's pretty and unlucky in love is that she likes to call people boors? What's that about? What does that even mean?

So we wouldn't be surprised if you thought boor was just another way of saying bore. They're pretty similar, but they don't mean quite the same things. A boor can totally be boring, but a bore is not necessarily a boor. Get it? The term boor comes from an Old Dutch word, meaning peasant. So when Olga calls people boors, she's calling them peasants. And besides calling them peasants, she's saying that they're uncultured, ill-mannered, country bumpkins.

Those are great things to call your friends, aren't they? But the weird thing is not just what she says but how she says it. This is the first time we see Olga use it:

The word "boor," by the way, was used by Olga on any and every occasion. "Such boors," she would sing out in chest tones, languidly and affectionately. "What a boor …" "Aren't they boors?" (8)

She uses the word affectionately, not insultingly. And she says it so often that we get the feeling the word hardly has any meaning for her.

All of this wouldn't be so interesting if it weren't for one thing: the Russian Revolution. You see if you wanted to really simplify it, the revolution was an uprising of the peasants versus the nobility. Olga is part of the nobility, and so are all of her friends. So what does it mean for her to affectionately call members of the nobility peasants?

We get the feeling that Nabokov uses this word to show us an unpleasant part of Olga's personality. Her using the word boor to refer to her noble friends is kind of like a white upper-middle-class kid using the word "ghetto" to refer to anything that doesn't fit up to their standards. Olga doesn't know anything about being a peasant. Until the end of the story, she's never experienced financial hardship. It's pretty ignorant and in pretty bad taste for her to go around calling people peasants.

By adding this part of Olga's personality, Nabokov makes her rather sad story kind of difficult to empathize with. Which is interesting, since it's his story as well. We get the feeling that Nabokov is tired of folks whining about the loss of their childhood privileges when there are lots of others out there who never got to be privileged in the first place.

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