Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Tone

By Vladimir Nabokov

Tone

Humorous, Silent Judgment, Deadpan

This story is all over the place. One moment it's funny, and in the next someone's dying. Some moments are heartwarming, and in others our hearts get crushed. It's really an emotional roller coaster ride.

But even through this emotional roller coaster ride, no one could deny that the narrator is pretty funny. Especially when he describes Olga: "She was religious, but at times a fit of giggles would overcome her in church" (5). That's kind of humorous and endearing, which is an interesting thing to feel in the middle of what really should be a tragic story. But we never get to feel too sad, because the narrator makes us laugh even over the bad things. Here, he describes Olga in poverty: "And we'd best pass over in silence the state of her stockings…" (10). It feels bad to laugh, but you can't help it, can you?

Sometimes it's not just humor. The narrator is actually mocking Olga and the other characters. For example:

She spoke French fluently, pronouncing les gens (the servants) as if rhyming with agence and splitting août (August) in two syllables (a-ou). She naively translated the Russian grabezhi (robberies) as les grabuges (quarrels) and used some archaic French locutions that had somehow survived in old Russian families, but she rolled her r's most convincingly even though she had never been to France. (5)

If you don't speak French, you might not understand what the narrator is saying, but let us assure you that it's not good. He's basically making fun of how bad she is at speaking French, even though she thinks she's absolutely fluent. But notice that he never outright says that. He just presents the facts and let you decide for yourself. He's totally not judging her (except he totally is).

This "just the facts ma'am" attitude even extends to the sad things in "A Russian Beauty." When we learn that Olga's family has died, there is no mourning or drama to be found. Instead, the narrator tells us this: "All these are ready-made formulae, of course, the usual dreary small talk, but it all did happen, there is no other way of saying it, and it's no use turning up your nose." (2) We're not allowed to be sad, or mourn, or be shocked. These are just the facts, and we have to deal with them.

The tone that Nabokov uses in "A Russian Beauty" completely changes the story. It's almost analytical and even humorous at time. If we got the normal way of dealing with death and exile instead, "A Russian Beauty" would be a real sob story. But it's not. Olga's story is an almost lighthearted interpretation of the Russian émigré experience, and in this way, Nabokov's tone opens the story up to be understood from a variety of angles.

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