Study Guide

Pnin Themes

  • Language and Communication

    There is just no way around it. Whether verbal, signed, or written, language is just how we communicate. So if, like Pnin, your skills are less than optimal, the world is going to look like a much more difficult place to exist.

    In Pnin, the title character's difficulty with English not only makes it hard for him to communicate, but it almost makes it impossible for him to connect to the other characters. In this novel it's not just a way of transferring ideas, but the fundamental way in which people are able to relate with one another.

    Unfortunately for poor Pnin, this means that he's not invited to the party of life in America, and is basically excluded from all social events. That just goes to show, words are pretty darn important.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why do you think Pnin was easily able to acquire French, but he is having such difficulty with English? Why is his progress so different from that of Liza and Eric?
    2. How does Pnin's language difficulty handicap him in communicating with other people? Are there any instances where it is actually an advantage? If so, when?
    3. Pnin isn't the only character in the novel to have difficulty with language. Who else struggles with languages? Why and how do they struggle?

    Chew on This

    Language is just a confusing tangle that does nothing but cause trouble and misunderstandings in Pnin.

    Characters in Pnin are able to communicate with one another despite their linguistic difficulties.

  • The Home

    Home is where the heart is. There's no place like home. If you happen to have some ruby slippers, you can even kick your heels together three times to get there.

    We have all these phrases for home because it's so important to our lives. You might just be thinking about the house where your parents live, but in Pnin, the idea of home is taken to a whole different level. It's not just a house, or a place to put your stuff, but a place where you are accepted and where you are familiar with the customs and culture. While it might seem at first that Pnin's problem is that he just can't get a house, it goes much deeper than that. His problem is that he just can't get integrated into American culture. So no matter where he goes, he'll never be at home.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What relationship does the Russian Revolution and Pnin's exile from his native land have to do with his homelessness? Do you think all of the other Russian émigrés featured in Pnin feel the same way? Why or why not?
    2. Are there any times when Pnin doesn't feel homeless? If so, when? What about these places make Pnin feel at home? Is this feeling lasting, or is it broken up by something else?
    3. Even after she leaves her parents' home, Isabel is able to return to her childhood room. Why isn't Pnin able to return to his own childhood home in the same way? What is the difference between Isabel and Pnin in this respect? (Yes, we know that he is an old man and she is a young girl!)

    Chew on This

    Home is not a physical location in Pnin.

    It is impossible for the Russian émigrés in Pnin to find a place to call home.

  • Love

    What is there to say about love that hasn't been said by every rock, pop, and rap star there has ever been? You know the deal. It's mushy, squishy, and full of pink floating hearts. Or at least that's what they tell us. In Pnin, love is slightly less romantic and a bit more self-destructive and morbid. The two women that Pnin has loved bring him nothing but pain, so much so that he even has a strange heart condition. We are all for romance, but if we were Pnin's friends we'd say, "Romance? It's for the birds." Or in this case, maybe it's for the squirrels.

    Questions About Love

    1. There are two great loves in Pnin's life: Liza and Mira. What is the difference in Pnin's relationship with these two women? Do you think one love is more important than the other? Why or why not?
    2. Are the other romantic relationships between characters in Pnin successful? Or are they doomed from the start? What are the differences between the doomed couples and the successful couples, if any?
    3. What is the relationship between love and death in Pnin? How many of Pnin's loved ones are dead? How many are alive? How many are alive, but might as well be dead? And does all that affect our poor prof's relationship with people?

    Chew on This

    Love is only a source of pain for the characters in Pnin.

    No character in Pnin is able to find a lasting love.

  • Death

    It's just a fact that things die. Most depictions of death are sad and sentimental. Those loved ones are lost forever. However, in Pnin, they're never too far from the present. Sure, Pnin has to have a seizure in order for them to keep him company, but it almost feels like his dead friends and family are more close to him than the people around him.

    Questions About Death

    1. Which characters in Pnin are associated with death? Which are associated with life?
    2. How is death depicted in Pnin? Does this differ from traditional depictions of death? If so, how?
    3. Why do you think Pnin hallucinates about dead people? Are there any times where he hallucinates about living people? If so, when?

    Chew on This

    Death is everywhere in Pnin.

    Death is something only in the past in Pnin.

  • Memory and the Past

    People tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses. After all, everything was better when you were younger, right? Well, things are no different in Pnin. Pnin constantly looks back at his past as the best period in his life. At times, his focus on the past is so obsessive that it almost seems like the present doesn't even exist. Even though most of us would probably agree that it's nice to be nostalgic once in a while, in Pnin, some of the characters seem to live more in their rosy memories than in the present unfolding before them.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What impact does the knowledge of Pnin's past have on our understanding of his character? How would you see him if you knew nothing about it? How do you think the other characters see him?
    2. Why do you think Nabokov constantly allows the past to intrude into the present in Pnin? Why not just set the book in the past? Or why not just focus on the present? What effect do these intrusions of the past have on your understanding of the novel?
    3. Pnin is not the only character with a past in Pnin. What do you know about the other characters pasts? How important are they to their characters? Are they as obsessed with it as Pnin is?

    Chew on This

    Memories and the past are more important than the present in Pnin.

    Memories in the past are uncertain and changeable in Pnin.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    What is othering? It's basically looking at someone and thinking that they are not like you and people in your group. Often, this ends up with feeling those people (the others) are somehow inferior, maybe even less than human. This kinda happens a lot to foreigners. So it's not surprising to see it happen in Pnin. However, in Pnin the othering is almost nonstop and seems to erase all of Pnin's value as a person. Basically, it turns him into a joke. While many people might find this funny, it's probably something that's pretty close to home for people like Pnin's author.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. In what ways do the other characters in the novel "other" Pnin? Is he the only character who is treated in this way? If not, what other characters receive this treatment?
    2. Which characters in Pnin are not othered? Why do you think they are treated differently than Pnin?
    3. When does Pnin seem the most at home, or the least othered? Anything similar about these situations? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    A character can be foreign but not get othered in Pnin.

    All of the foreign characters in Pnin are othered by the American characters.

  • Visions of America

    So who gets to determine what and who is American? Well, besides the American government, we mean. Do you need to know how to make the perfect apple pie? Or should you be able to recite all of the presidents backwards while hopping on 1 foot? In Pnin, America is a wild and unpredictable land. Immigrants like Pnin try to become a part of it and fail. There are so many different ideas of what America is in the novel, that we're not even sure what the word means to the characters. But we do know one thing: whatever it is, it's definitely not Pnin.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What things are associated with America in Pnin? Are they negative or positive? What does America and being American mean in this novel?
    2. Who is allowed to be American in Pnin? What is the difference between them and the people who are clearly marked as foreign? Is it possible to go from one state to the other and back?
    3. Who are the Americans in Pnin? How can you tell? How are they depicted differently from the foreign characters?

    Chew on This

    In Pnin, America is a dangerous, irrational, and unpredictable place.

    In Pnin, America is a land of dreams where anyone can fit in.

  • Isolation

    Humans are social creatures, so isolation is basically the worst thing ever. There is a reason why solitary confinement is considered cruel and unusual torture. Unfortunately for Pnin, he is isolated from all of the other characters for the majority of the novel. But the strange thing is, most of the time he doesn't seem to mind. We guess for him, isolation is just a way of life.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. It seems pretty obvious that Pnin is very isolated in this novel. But why is he isolated? And who isolates him? Does he do it himself, or do other people do it to Pnin?
    2. Are there other characters who experience isolation in Pnin? If so, who? Why are they isolated?
    3. Is isolation always a bad thing in Pnin? Either any moments where isolation is considered good? If so, when? Why?

    Chew on This

    Pnin is isolated throughout the whole course of Pnin.

    Pnin is responsible for isolating himself in Pnin.