Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Appearances

By Vladimir Nabokov

Appearances

A pale little girl in a white sailor suit, with a side parting in her chestnut hair and such merry eyes that everyone kissed her there, she was deemed a beauty since childhood. The purity of her profile, the expression of her closed lips, the silkiness of her tresses that reached to the small of her back—all this was enchanting indeed. (1)

If you've read Lolita and have Humbert Humbert on your mind, this description of a young Olga might be a little creepy. Why is the narrator focusing on Olga's appearance so much?

Well, then, in 1919 we have a grown-up young lady, with a pale, broad face that overdid things in terms of the regularity of its features, but just the same very lovely. Tall, with soft breasts, she always wears a black jumper and a scarf around her white neck and holds an English cigarette in her slender-fingered hand with a prominent little bone just above the wrist. (3)

Yes, the narrator did just say that Olga is a little too pretty. You read that right.

At the Zotovs', in their overheated rooms, she languidly danced the fox-trot to the sound of the gramophone, shifting the elongated calf of her leg not without grace and holding away from her the cigarette she had just finished smoking, and when her eyes located the ashtray that revolved with the music she would shove the butt into it, without missing a step. (8)

Okay, so Olga is pretty, fashionable, and super graceful but she still doesn't have a boyfriend? Something's fishy here.

She was still the same beauty, with that enchanting slant of the widely spaced eyes and with that rarest line of lips into which the geometry of the smile seems to be already inscribed. But her hair lost its shine and was poorly cut. Her black tailored suit was in its fourth year. (10)

How do you think Olga looks to most people at this point? Do you think she still looks beautiful, or does she look ugly now because she can't maintain her beauty regimen?

Now she avidly took up arranging Olga's fate. "The matchmaker within you has been aroused," joked her husband, an elderly Balt (shaven head, monocle). (13)

There are literally four words Nabokov uses to describe Vera's husband, and two of them are about his appearance. Why do you think it's so important that we know what he looks like?

Olga arrived on a bright August day. She was immediately dressed in one of Vera's frocks, her hairdo and make-up were changed. (13)

Notice how easy it is to change Olga's appearance. All she needs is a new dress and a little makeup and she's the bell of the ball. Is it that easy to change her social status?