Study Guide

Pnin Analysis

  • Tone

    Hilarious, Warm, Condescending

    For the most part, the tone of Pnin is hilarious and warm. It sort of feels like your corny uncle is telling jokes most of the time. So you get things like this: "On the third hand (these mental states sprout additional forelimbs all the time)" (1.12). Pretty funny, kind of cheesy, and not too malicious.

    But as often seems to be the case with Pnin, that's just the shiny face of our narrator. Below that we see a narrator that likes to take a shot at Pnin every chance he gets. So almost everything ends up sounding condescending.

    For example: "Dr. Pnin nimbly walked into the passage, voiced a query, received a quiet answer, and returned with his son Timofey, a thirteen-year-old gimnazist (classical school pupil) in his gimnazicheskiy uniform—black blouse, black pants, shiny black belt (I attended a more liberal school where we wore what we liked)" (7.1.6). Yes, of course he attended a more liberal school where he could wear whatever he wanted. Show off.

    The one-upmanship is actually almost compulsive. When the narrator describes Pnin's simple toy airplane he just has to mention how much more awesome his own was. He says: "I had a similar one but twice bigger, bought in Biarritz. After one had wound up the propeller for some time, the rubber would change its manner of twist and develop fascinating thick whorls which predicted the end of its tether" (7.1.6). We're sure it was also made out of gold.

    Altogether, this tone attempts to lull us into security, and then unsteadies us when it shows its negative side. And we don't know about you, but that makes us feel pretty uncertain about everything the narrator says.

  • Genre

    Postmodernism, Comedy, Quest


    This is the reason why many people who don't appreciate most of Nabokov's works still love Pnin. It's funny! If you ignore all of the creepiness and strange postmodern hallucinations going on, Pnin is thestory of an old man bumbling through life. Who isn't amused by that?

    Take a line like this: "'Our friend,' answered Clements, 'employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopoeic. His slips of the tongue are oracular. He calls my wife John'" (6.11.15). Okay, it's a little mean. Lawrence Clements is always taking a shot at poor Pnin. But didn't you chuckle? At least a little bit?

    But all of this lighthearted joking is just a way to distract you from the serious stuff that lies underneath the surface of Pnin.


    For example, stuff like Pnin's quest. He seems to be looking for something, some kind of meaning to life or the universe, that he never exactly finds. Here's the moment where Pnin's quest begins: "It stood to reason that if the evil designer—the destroyer of minds, the friend of fever—had concealed the key of the pattern with such monstrous care, that key must be as precious as life itself and, when found, would regain for Timofey Pnin his everyday health, his everyday world; and this lucid—alas, too lucid—thought forced him to persevere in the struggle" (1.2.41).

    Whoa, dude. Who is the evil designer? We don't know. (Well, maybe we have a sneaking suspicion.) But apparently Pnin never finds this key because he keeps having these attacks well into his old age.

    You could even say that Pnin's quest is one of belonging. He's been searching for a place to belong for a long time now, and at the end of the novel he has almost achieved his goal. But just at the last moment, his job and any sense of security in America is snatched away from him.

    Not such a funny story now, huh?


    What with all the squirrels, reflections, and time-fracturing hallucinations, there is no doubt that Pnin is a postmodern novel. Pretty much every other chapter we get a passage like this:"Timofey Pnin was again the clumsy, shy, obstinate, eighteen-year-old boy, waiting in the dark for Mira—and despite the fact that logical thought put electric bulbs into the kerosene lamps and reshuffled the people, turning them into aging émigrés and securely, hopelessly, forever wire-netting the lighted porch, my poor Pnin, with hallucinatory sharpness, imagined Mira slipping out of there into the garden and coming toward him among tall tobacco flowers whose dull white mingled in the dark with that of her frock" (5.5.14).

    There's a bunch goin' on up in there. Time is shuffled around, dead people appear and interact with the living, and the past is changed and modernized through Pnin's seizure-inflicted mind. Sometimes it's easy to lose track of who, what, and when of things.

    Generally, postmodern techniques are used to represent what is unrepresentable. For example, how can you explain the despair of knowing that your childhood love was probably killed in Nazi gas chambers? Or how could Nabokov tell us what it's like not to have a home, when chances are the bulk of his readers don't share that experience?

    By unsettling us with Pnin's hallucinations and shuttling us backwards and forwards in time, Nabokov lets us feel some of the unsteadiness that Pnin must be feeling. The addition of the strange narrator, VN, also helps us understand how Pnin must feel about his life in the United States. It's as if there were someone orchestrating all of his misfortunes. Though of course, through the magic of postmodernism, there really is.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Admit it. You have no idea how to pronounce Pnin. Maybe Peh-neen? Maybe P-uh-niin? Or how about with a silent P? Yeah, that sounds about right.

    Pnin's name is actually difficult for English speakers to pronounce because it has a cluster of consonants (that's right, p + n) that normally doesn't occur in the English language. So all throughout the novel it's a kind of running joke that no one can pronounce his name. The inability of Pnin's colleagues to get their minds around something even as simple as his name (it only has four letters!) is symbolic of their inability to accept him as a person. And since isolation and the foreign experience is basically what this novel is about, it seems a perfect choice.

    Okay but what about naming the novel Timofey Pnin, or Professor Pnin? Well the last one is out because by the end of the novel Pnin is no longer a professor. And the first one is out because Timofey is actually very close to Timothy, so that's not too difficult to pronounce. Also Pnin kind of hates the American practice of calling people by their first names, so only using his last name as the title also hints at his old school cultural practices.

    What about Nabokov's original title, My Poor Pnin? Well, the whole point of the book is to make you think that very phrase. He's not gonna give it up as soon as the title.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Well, here it is:

    "I hurried past the rear truck, and had another glimpse of my old friend, in tense profile, wearing a cap with ear flaps and a storm coat; but next moment the light turned green, the little white dog leaning out yapped at Sobakevich, and everything surged forward—truck one, Pnin, truck two. From where I stood I watched them recede in the frame of the roadway, between the Moorish house and the Lombardy poplar. Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.
    Cockerell, brown-robed and sandaled, let in the cocker and led me kitchenward, to a British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish.
    'And now,' he said, 'I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women's Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture.'"

    The first paragraph of the ending of Pnin is almost picturesque. Pnin is in his little sedan, driving off into the sunset in a soft golden mist where, as the narrator says, "there was simply no saying what miracle might happen." This is the perfect fairytale ending to Pnin's story. After reading that, we feel as if Pnin's life might be changing for the better, even though he just lost his job and is heading out of town.

    But then there are the last two lines of the novel. There is Cockerell again, a dude who made a little bit too much fun of Pnin before. And now he starts to make fun of him again. Not only that, but Cockerell's joke brings the story full circle by referring to the very first moment that we meet Pnin in the novel. Convenient, ain't it?

    But then it also does something very strange. Think about it: how in the world would Cockerell even know about that incident? Furthermore, he's not telling the story correctly. Pnin actually ended up delivering his lecture without a hitch, even though the narrator wanted him to bring the wrong one. Yet somehow in Cockerell's joke, the narrator's evil dream actually came true.

    So instead of leaving Pnin's story with warm and fuzzy feelings, we are just once again reminded of how creepy VN is and how nothing can ever go right for our poor Russian émigré. Even the story of his messing something up gets messed up. Sigh…

  • Setting

    It shouldn't be surprising that a book with 300 characters has almost as many settings. But mostly, there is one aspect of all of them that brings them together. They aren't Russia.

    The Émigré Community and Experience in America

    Pnin's character can never be separated from the fact that he's a Russian émigré. So his relation to his adopted homeland is not the same as that of a Native American or even of an immigrant who was not forced to flee their country. For Pnin, America is pretty much a constant source of confusion.

    The narrator says: "On the contrary, he was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence" (1.8).

    So for Pnin, it's as if this strange new land is always attacking him. Stuff just keeps going wrong, and he just can't seem to get the handle of living in the United States.

    Waindell (Vandal) College (Wellesley College/ Columbia University)

    Nowhere is this not-being-able-to-get-a-handle thing clearer than at Waindell College. This fictional university was apparently modeled on some kind of combination of Wellesley College and Columbia University. Nabokov himself taught at both of these universities, and based on their portrayal in Pnin,we would assume that the experience was not entirely pleasant. No wonder he has Pnin mispronounce the name as Vandal College.

    Waindell is an all-American institution, which is exactly what makes it a terrible place for our poor Pnin. The narrator describes it: "He taught Russian at Waindell College, a somewhat provincial institution characterized by an artificial lake in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries connecting the various halls, by murals displaying recognizable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Pasteur to a lot of monstrously built farm boys and farm girls, and by a huge, active, buoyantly thriving German Department which its Head, Dr. Hagen, smugly called (pronouncing every syllable very distinctly) 'a university within a university'" (1.4).

    Can't you just taste the disdain? So Waindell's not a top-ranked university, it's kind of fake, and its idea of itself as a splendid educational institution is incredibly bloated. Just the way the narrator talks about attempting to teach "monstrously built farm boys and farm girls" such things as Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Pasteur sounds completely ridiculous.

    It is out of exactly this kind of overblown ego that the majority of professors at Waindell get their hatred for Pnin. They see him as some kind of intrusion into this all-American institution, and feel that he doesn't belong. Other professors make fun of him, avoid him, and call him an idiot. Not because he's actually done anything wrong, but because he's kind of strange and foreign.

    Cook's Castle

    Then, on the other hand, there is Cook's Castle. This is the place where Pnin visits some friends during the summer, and it's the first and pretty much only time in the entire novel that Pnin seems to be right at home. And it makes total sense, since he is surrounded by other Russian émigrés.

    The narrator describes it: "Within, the diversity was as great as without. [...] In the half a dozen rooms of which each of the upper floors consisted, and in the two wings in the rear, one could discover, among disparate pieces of furniture, some charming satinwood bureau, some romantic rosewood sofa, but also all kinds of bulky and miserable articles, broken chairs, dusty marble-topped tables, morose etageres with bits of dark-looking glass in the back as mournful as the eyes of old apes. The chamber Pnin got was a pleasant southeast one on the upper floor: it had remnants of gilt paper on the walls, an army cot, a plain washstand, and all kinds of shelves, brackets, and scrollwork moldings" (5.4.1).

    In other words, Cook's Castle is a kind of giant mishmash of a building. A bunch of elements from all different eras were taken and smashed together to create one giant mansion.

    If you think about it, what could be a better place for a bunch of Russian émigrés than a building that doesn't actually adhere to any place or time? After all, they aren't really at home anywhere. They aren't at home back in their homeland of Russia, because of the Bolshevik Revolution. They also aren't at home in their new lives in America. They also seem to be living in some kind of mishmash of the past and the present. So why not a building that withstands countries, eras, and architectural styles?

    Thinking about it this way, it's no surprise that Cook's Castle is the only place that we see Pnin actually enjoy himself and win at something. It makes sense. After all, it is a setting made just for him.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    You'd think that a novel about a guy with bad English would be easier to read. Think again. What with going back and forth in time, the occasional lapses into Russian, and the verbose writing, sometimes it's hard to make heads or tails of things. And did we mention the vocabulary? Even we had to dig out the dictionary when words like "desuetude" (1.5.1) popped up. Don't worry, it's a word that's fallen into desuetude.

    Besides just the language, to really understand this novel you have to have a decent understanding of the Russian Revolution and the émigré community. Of course, it's possible to read Pnin without this knowledge and still get the general gist and a lot of the humor of this story about a silly old man. But just like the people around Pnin, then you'd miss the deeper and darker implications of his life story.

  • Writing Style

    Baroque, Too Smart for Its Own Good, Sort-of English

    What would a Nabokov novel be without some literary pyrotechnics?

    At times while reading Pnin we almost feel like Nabokov is just playing games with his writing ability. That's what we mean by too smart for its own good. Take a look at this passage: "When Joan with a bagful of provisions, two magazines, and three parcels, came home at a quarter past five, she found in the porch mailbox a special-delivery air-mail letter from her daughter" (2.7.1).

    Did you catch it? Nabokov is counting. He wanted to see if he could make a reasonable sentence where he just counted to five. Who does that?

    Then there are the completely unnecessarily baroque (a.k.a. super-duper detailed) descriptions. The narrator says: "Technically speaking, the narrator's art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes" (2.1.6).

    That's basically a whole paragraph to say that the narrator isn't very good at explaining telephone conversations. Did we need to talk about minarets to get that?

    While the first two seem more or less just aspects of Nabokov entertaining himself with his literary skills, the last part of Pnin's writing style seems to serve a thematic purpose. There are times in the narrative where the writing almost reads as if it's not English.

    For example: "Pnin and Clements, in last-minute discourse, stood on either side of the living-room doorway, like two well-fed caryatides, and drew in their abdomens to let the silent Thayer pass" (6.11.3). Um, okay. Normally someone would just say Pnin and Clements sucked in their bellies to let Thayer pass. Or even if you wanted to keep the animal motif, you could say that their stomachs were stuffed as pigs. But Nabokov does neither.

    He compares them both to bugs and uses highly scientific terms instead of vernacular to describe them. The effect of this makes us feel kind of unsettled. It doesn't exactly read like English, because no one speaks this way. (If you know anyone who does, send 'em our way). By doing this, Nabokov kind of mirrors Pnin's issue with speaking and understanding English. So for a few brief moments, we are put in his shoes.

  • Squirrels

    Did you notice that squirrels are mentioned 11 times in Pnin? Every single chapter has a moment where Pnin encounters a squirrel. Isn't that just nutty? (We apologize for that terrible joke. We just couldn't help it.)

    What is up with those squirrels?

    Well, let's start at the beginning. Here is the very first moment that the squirrels appear: "Near his bed was a four-section screen of polished wood, with pyrographic designs representing a bridle path felted with fallen leaves, a lily pond, an old man hunched up on a bench, and a squirrel holding a reddish object in its front paws. Timosha, a methodical child, had often wondered what that object could be (a nut? a pine cone?), and now that he had nothing else to do, he set himself to solve this dreary riddle, but the fever that hummed in his head drowned every effort in pain and panic" (1.2.41).

    So what is happening? Little-kid Pnin is sick with a fever and confined to his bed. He's so sick that he's basically hallucinatory, and what catches his eye is a squirrel on the screen in front of his bed.

    So Pnin is in a moment of tragedy when a squirrel appears. It just so happens that every other time we see a squirrel, something terrible has either just happened or is about to happen to Pnin. A squirrel appears right before he slips on ice and falls. Another one appears right after Liza forces him to give money to Victor, and it's just as bossy as she was.

    It seems safe to say that for whatever reason, Nabokov has decided to have a squirrel as the harbinger of Pnin's doom. So be careful next time you shout "Squirrel!"

  • The Bowl

    For most of the novel, the whole squirrel thing is kind of like a fun game. Sort of like Where's Waldo. But then there's the dinner party. The conversation that brings it all together is kind of intense, so we'll just quote it here for you.

    Margaret Thayer admired it in her turn, and said that when she was a child, she imagined Cinderella's glass shoes to be exactly of that greenish blue tint; whereupon Professor Pnin remarked that, primo, he would like everybody to say if contents were as good as container, and, secundo, that Cendrillon's shoes were not made of glass but of Russian squirrel fur—vair, in French. It was, he said, an obvious case of the survival of the fittest among words, verve being more evocative than vair which, he submitted, came not from varius, variegated, but from veveritsa, Slavic for a certain beautiful, pale, winter-squirrel fur, having a bluish, or better say sizily, columbine, shade—from columba, Latin for "pigeon," as somebody here well knows—so you see, Mrs. Fire, you were, in general, correct.
    'The contents are fine,' said Laurence Clements.
    'This beverage is certainly delicious,' said Margaret Thayer.('I always thought 'columbine' was some sort of flower,' said Thomas to Betty, who lightly acquiesced.)

    Got it? What Pnin is saying is that Cinderella's shoe was probably actually made out of bluish squirrel fur, not glass. This would just be another moment of Pnin spouting random information if it wasn't for the bowl that Victor sent him. Victor's bowl is supposed to be the exact same blue as Cinderella's shoes. It's made out of glass, not fur, but thanks to Pnin we see that it still has some kind of connection to our squirrel friends.

    If squirrels mean something terrible is happening to Pnin, this gorgeous blue bowl probably means that something really bad is about to happen. And it does. After the bowl appears, Pnin learns that he has lost his job and the home he thinks he's about to move into. After this whole fiasco, Pnin is washing the bowl and appears to have broken it with a nutcracker. However, miraculously, the bowl is intact. The other facts of his life, however, not so much.

    So what does that mean? We would assume the bowl would break, being a sign of terrible things after all. But it doesn't. So does that mean good things are in the future for Pnin? Or does it mean the worst is yet to come? Or that it's his only comfort in a world of woe? Or something totally different?

    What we do know is that Nabokov originally wanted to kill Pnin at the end of the novel, but he wasn't allowed to (by his editors). So maybe the bowl surviving its destruction symbolically represented Pnin surviving his intended literary death.

  • Reflections

    Reflections—be they in mirrors, windows, what have you—are almost as ubiquitous in Pnin as those rascally squirrels. We'll forgive you for not noticing, but there are a couple of things about the way reflections are depicted in this novel that mean they deserve more than a passing glance.

    Perception, Time, and Memory

    If you weren't meticulously jotting down every single moment that potentially could have symbolic meaning (um, not that we do that, of course), the first time you might have noticed the attention given reflections was when Victor appeared. He's all about art, and in particular about reflections and distortions, which makes sense because those are some of the hardest things to replicate on canvas.

    But there's something extra curious in this passage: "In the chrome plating, in the glass of a sun-rimmed headlamp, he would see a view of the street and himself comparable to the microcosmic version of a room (with a dorsal view of diminutive people) in that very special and very magical small convex mirror that, half a millennium ago, Van Eyck and Petrus Christus and Memling used to paint into their detailed interiors, behind the sour merchant or the domestic Madonna." (4.5.4)

    So he's hallucinating? Not unless you can hallucinate fine art. These paintings are considered some of the very first depictions of mirrors in art. Not only that, but also these are no ordinary mirrors.

    All of these mirrors have something more than meets the eye. For example, the mirror in the Van Eyck painting shows two people who would not otherwise be visible in the painting. The painting by Petrus Christus has a mirror that doesn't show the main scene at all, and actually contrast the virtue in that scene with a depiction of pride and greed in the world of the mirror. Finally, the Memling painting is possibly the weirdest because it depicts a world that could not possibly exist as the two paintings are portrayed.

    Okay great, so these are some pretty weird paintings, but what do they have to do with Pnin? By now, you should know that nothing in this book is unintentional. So we have these mirrors that do not simply reflect reality, like we would imagine them to. And we have this kid who's obsessed with looking at painting and things through distorted reflections.

    And then we have Pnin.

    The narrator says: "He was beloved not for any essential ability but for those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present."(1.5) So finally we get the link between reflections (glasses and lenses) and memory (the past and the present).

    It's not too far of a jump to connect these reflections of memory with Pnin's sometimes-distorted view of the past. Essentially, it's saying that just like the strange mirrors in these paintings and Victor's distorted images, Pnin's view of the past and sometimes even the present isn't exactly a simple reflection of the truth. It's been changed to mean something that was never really "real."

    Reflecting the Bowl

    So we have this beautiful blue bowl made out of glass. It's connected symbolically to those dangerous squirrels, but it's also got a link to Victor and to reflections. So what does that mean?

    You could perhaps imagine that the glass represents the danger of the squirrels being transformed into a bright and shiny future for Pnin. Or maybe it is a representation of Pnin's entire life and memory, distorted and made into a beautiful shiny object that is much nicer than the life full of trauma that he has actually led.

    Either way, it's pretty certain that If Pnin had actually shattered the bowl it probably wouldn't have been a good sign. We would guess that the end of that bowl would have been the end of Mr. Timofey Pnin. Not that his not shattering it is that much better—but still, it reflects that there's at least some glimmer of hope left in his life.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person (Peripheral Narrator):

    Um…How about first-person omniscient? A character in the story who knows (or says he knows) everything going with everyone else? Okay, don't put that down for a test. We're not responsible for what might happen if you do. Even when it's about Nabokov.

    The narration is the great mystery of Pnin. At first the novel might just seem like a comedic character study of an aging Russian émigré, but then things get twisted. In the beginning, the narrator is unobtrusive. You might be tempted to think that it was written in the third person omniscient, since the narrator seems to be able to listen to all of Pnin's innermost thoughts.

    But then the narrator starts talking directly to us. And then he starts talking about himself, and even his own relationship to Pnin. That's when things get really weird.

    First of all, who is this guy? All we know about him is he is Pnin's "friend" and a Russian lecturer. And we're not even so sure about the details of that. What does he want with Pnin? Are they really friends or does the narrator just keep insisting that? Why is he telling us Pnin's story? Unfortunately, we don't have answers to any of these questions.

    The one thing that we do know is that the narrator is almost certainly a liar. Remember how we said it seemed that we had a third person omniscient narrator? That's because the narrative new things that a first-person narrator could not possibly know. For example, how could he know anything about Pnin's childhood? Or his hallucinations of his parents? Or even his love for Mira Belochkin? Those are things that only Pnin or his very close friend would know. And the narrator is neither of these.

    Actually, Pnin tells us that the narrator is a liar several times. He says: "I tried not only to remind Pnin of former meetings, but also to amuse him and other people around us with the unusual lucidity and strength of my memory. However, he denied everything. He said he vaguely recalled my grandaunt but had never met me. He said that his marks in algebra had always been poor and that, anyway, his father never displayed him to patients; he said that in Zabava (Liebelei) he had only acted the part of Christine's father. He repeated that we had never seen each other before" (7.3.2).

    And then again: "Now, don't believe a word he says, Georgiy Aramovich. He makes up everything. He once invented that we were schoolmates in Russia and cribbed at examinations. He is a dreadful inventor (on uzhasniy vidumshchik)" (7.4.2). Let alone not knowing what "cribbing" at an exam is, that raises some red flags. In our option, that makes the narrator pretty durn sketchy.

    Now, why would Nabokov decide to give us this creepy and potentially evil narrator? Well, we can't be sure, but we could make a wager that Vladimir Nabokov (interesting initials) is using VN (what a coincidence!) to make a comment on the role of the author. After all, authors are completely making up characters, changing their life history, and putting them in terrible situations all for our own entertainment. In other words, writing a book gives them permission to play God. That's pretty creepy, wouldn't you say?

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Pnin's story is just too weird to be categorized.

      If you try to fit Pnin into one of Booker's seven basic plots, you'll find out it's like a puzzle piece that just doesn't fit. Something about it is always a little off.

      You might be tempted to think that Pnin is a comedy since the main character is often confused, and it's a pretty funny story. The only problem is a comedy has to have a happy ending where all of the misunderstandings are resolved. Nothing is ever resolved for poor Pnin, and his ending is definitely not happy.

      Okay then, so what about a tragedy? Those have sad endings and no resolutions. But we have more problems. Pnin doesn't die, and he doesn't make any bad choices that lead him to his inevitable doom. So there's no way he can be a tragic hero. Plus, aren't those supposed to be dashing? Pnin ain't no Romeo

      Let's try one more thing. What about a quest? You could say that Pnin is on a quest for his own American dream, but this model still doesn't work out. There is no call, no journey, no return home (even with that drive into the sunset). Nada. Nyet. Nope, not a quest.

      So what is Pnin? Well, obviously it's a very Pninian story. Thanks a lot, Mr. Nabokov.

    • Plot Analysis

      (Exposition) Initial Situation

      Pnin is Pninian

      We meet Professor Timofey Pnin, our lovable and totally awkward protagonist. All you need to know about his situation is that he's a Russian émigré, he's still not quite at home in America, and other people think he's pretty weird. Basically everything else in the novel derives from these facts.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      A Lousy Life For Pnin

      So we already knew that Pnin is a weird guy, but what we didn't know is how much his life sucks. He has no stable home. No friends outside of Russian émigré's that he sees once a year. His first wife tricked him in order to get into America, and also wants him to pay child-support for a kid who's not his own child.

      The list could go on. But basically if you can imagine it, it's probably happened. That's more than enough conflict to complicate this story. Sure, he's got some pleasant moments. But between nasty ex-wives, getting evicted, the occasional heart attack and horrible memory, and getting made fun of by basically everyone, we spend most of the book feeling sorry for him. And kind of wanting to join in with the mockery.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Bad News: You're Fired!

      There was probably one thing you couldn't imagine. As bad as everything was, you couldn't imagine that he would get fired from his university, right? Wrong. All of the terrible things that have happened to Pnin culminate in his getting the boot from Waindell College, which results in him not being able to finally get a home. This is definitely a game changing moment.

      Falling Action

      Wait, Whose Story Is It?

      VN, our omnipresent and kind of creepy narrator tells his version of Pnin's story. Normally, during this part of a story, loose ends are wrapped up. However, here things just get more and more complicated as time goes on. This happens after the climax, and leads up to Pnin getting out of Waindell, so it's definitely a fall in more ways than one.


      Goodbye Pnin, hello VN!

      So how does this weird story end? Just like it seems that Pnin was kicked out of his own story by VN, the same guy kicks him out of his university position and takes his place. The last image we have is of Pnin driving away into the sunset. So long, Pnin!

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Welcome to Pnin land

      We meet Pnin, our belovedly strange protagonist, and get to learn everything about him. A lot of his family is dead. He has a heart condition. He's super-duper awkward. His English is not so good. We follow him all the way up to the moment that he makes his first real decision. He decides to buy a house, and that's where things get tricky.

      Act II

      Sorry, No Home for You

      Act II is all about the worst possible thing happening, and that's exactly what happens here. Pnin finally has a party where people seem to get along, he's building a space for himself in America, he wants to have a home so that he's not a vagrant anymore. And then it all comes crashing down. Dr. Hagen lets Pnin know that he's fired. It can't get any worse than that.

      Act III

      Pnin 2.0

      This is where things get super weird. The narrator, VN, basically kicks Pnin out of his own story. Suddenly, his whole life story is being retold through this guy's eyes. It's a little creepy.

      The whole story ends with this creepster basically taking over Pnin's life. VN takes his job at Waindell and Pnin drives away.