Study Guide

The Return of Chorb Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Vladimir Nabokov

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Orpheus Myth

Read any analysis of "The Return of Chorb" and you’re bound to see a mention or two of Orpheus, the guy from Greek mythology. Where is everyone getting this from? The big tip-off is the STATUE OF ORPHEUS that features prominently in paragraph 33, when the prostitute is looking out the window of the hotel room to the opera house across the street. That sure got everyone thinking.

Now, who is this Orpheus character? In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a famous musician. He played the lyre so beautifully that he could make the animals stop and listen and the trees shake. He was also married to a woman named Eurydice, which was great until she stepped on a snake and was bitten and killed. Orpheus then played really sad music really well, which meant the trees were no longer dancing so much as they were weeping rivers. Since the whole scene was a big drag, the gods gave Orpheus advice: go to the underworld and get your wife back. Orpheus did, and so impressed Hades with his musical abilities that the God of the Underworld agreed to let Eurydice go – on one condition. She would follow Orpheus up out of the Underworld, but he wasn’t allowed to look behind him. If he did, she would be lost to him forever. He just had to trust that she was there. So Orpheus sets out, but just before he reaches the real world he gets nervous, looks behind him, and sees Eurydice for a fleeting moment before she disappears.

By now, you probably see a connection or two between the Orpheus myth and "The Return of Chorb." The live electric wire that killed Chorb’s wife is a little snake-like. Orpheus travels to the underworld and back, and Chorb takes a RETURN journey from France to Germany. If he had to, we could probably draw a parallel between the moment that Orpheus looks back and sees Eurydice and the moment that Chorb wakes in the night and sees his dead wife beside him.

But Chorb doesn’t WANT to get his wife back…right? Well, that’s an interesting question, and one with no clear answer. In a sense, Chorb is trying to conjure up an image of his wife that he can make "immortal" and thus keep forever. That’s a lot like what Orpheus was doing – trying to save his wife from death and make her thus immortal. On the other hand, Chorb is not OK with seeing the ghost of his dead wife. That’s what he’s trying to overcome with his quest. How you choose to view "The Return of Chorb" in light of the Orpheus myth is up to you.

White, Light, and Darkness

We suggest that you go through your text and highlight all the words that have to do with darkness. Words like "black" (there are eleven), "gray," "shadow," or "dark." Then go back and look for words that have to do with light. You’ll find "lusterless" (once in the first paragraph and once in the last – interesting, no?), "gleam," "brightness," "flame," "shimmering," and about two dozen more. (And keep a special look-out for anything "white.") In a short story of 39 paragraphs, this is not an accident.

The imagery of light and darkness sets a great mood for "The Return of Chorb." The blackness of night puts us in scary-movie-mode, and the unearthly appearance of bright lights of course makes us think of ghosts (or UFO’s, but we’re not in a Bradbury tale here). Because of the way Chorb’s wife died, we should already be thinking about whiteness and lights by the time Chorb gets to the creepy hotel room. Check this out: "Her death appeared to him as a most rare, almost unheard-of occurrence […], caused by the impact of an electric stream, the same stream which, when poured into glass receptacles, yields the purest and brightest light." Need we say more?


Parsifal is the Wagner opera which the Kellers go to see in the evening in question. We learn the title when we see a black poodle peeing on the playbill, and the opera is mentioned for the third time at the end of the night when the prostitute is leaning out the window and watching the crowds exit. Again, three mentions in a short story cannot be a coincidence.

Parsifal is a sort of grail-quest story. Lots of religious references, lots of obstacles in the hero’s way, and a big old redemptive ending. We’re tipped off to some possible connections with our story when we see the absurdly epic language used in "Chorb." Chorb is on a "quest," he’s trying to pass a "test," at one point his eye is "burning with a mad flame" – you get the picture. Just like with Orpheus, though, we need to decide whether or not Chorb is a parallel to Parsifal (the opera's hero) or a parody of him. Yes, Chorb is in some ways an epic hero, but he’s also a little goofy. Just look at his moment of victory: "He moved onto the green couch, and sat there, clasping his hairy shins and with a meaningless smile contemplating the harlot." Chorb is also unable to communicate (he can’t tell the Kellers the truth about their daughter’s death, nor can he speak at all at the end of the story) and unconscious of what he’s doing (he’s sleeping and has to wake up suddenly for the story’s climax). So take it as you will.