Study Guide

Spring in Fialta Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Vladimir Nabokov

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Weather

Over the course of the story, the weather in "Spring in Fialta," shifts from a "cloudy and dull" start to a "saturated with sunshine" finish. It’s also interesting to look at the hints we get; this sunshine doesn’t just come out of the clear blue sky (Ha!). It’s actually apparent from the get-go. To start, Victor notices a bunch of sponges "dying a thirsty death," a.k.a. drying up. Not so common in humid, rainy weather. Next he sees a man with dry, bloodshot eyes and dry lips – again, an indication of the weather shifting. Later, Segur starts complaining of the weather, but Victor "[does] not understand what he [is] talking about," and he mentions without comprehension that "a bit of tin-foil someone had dropped [is] shining in the […] street." We, if we’ve been paying attention, knew this was coming – much like the effect of the circus posters.

In many ways, the weather in "Spring in Fialta" has to do more with the way the story is being told and the nature of memory than it does with the actual content of the narrative (that is, the relationship between Victor and Nina). The idea of seeing everything, of having all the pieces, but of not realizing what they mean is a familiar one. Often, it’s not until after the fact that you can piece together the significance of a past series of events. (Think about Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense.) And that’s the whole nature of "Spring in Fialta" – a look back at past occurrences with the added benefit of retrospect. This functions doubly, since Victor-in-Fialta looks back at his past meetings with Nina, while Victor-the-narrator looks back at Victor-in-Fialta. Victor-the-narrator knows what Victor-in-Fialta did not – that Nina is going to die. The interesting question is, do WE, the reader, know anything that Victor-the-narrator hasn’t yet pieced together?

The Circus Posters

Much like the hints we get as to the shift in Fialta’s weather, we get a number of indications that the circus is a big deal in "Spring in Fialta." We counted five. But we probably missed one, so you should go through the text and find them yourself. ☺ In this way, the circus is another piece of the memory puzzle, another example of the way that, in retrospect, we can remember the details that turned out to be important, though at the time we had no way of recognizing their significance.

But the circus serves a second purpose in "Spring in Fialta": it combines the tragedy of Victor’s relationship Nina with the absurdity of his feelings for her. Look at it this way: Victor barely knows Nina. He didn’t know her name or anything about her when they first hooked up, and they seem to have had no meaningful conversations whatsoever. As he explains, they "never [think] of each other during the intervals," and each of their marriages continues "unimpaired" despite their various rendezvous. So what could possibly explain his "’What if I love you?" comment? Victor’s feelings are absurd. They’re absurd for existing at all, but they’re even more absurd for their intensity. When Nina casually greeted and then ignored him at a party, Victor says his "heart felt like breaking." But he sums it up best when he says that he learned "with a ridiculous pang" that Nina was going to marry Ferdinand. Ridiculous pang – the absurd, and the tragic, right there in one phrase.

So…what does this have to do with the circus? Easy. Circus = entertainment. Clowns, smiles, candy, laughter, elephants – everything Victor saw on those circus posters. The circus is about the comic. Then there’s the whole nature of Nina’s death; her car crashes into a circus truck. Come on, that’s a little nuts. That’s quite a way to die. "How did she die?" "Oh, you know, she crashed into the circus." It’s almost funny. Of course, it’s also unbelievably tragic. Victor reads about the death of the woman he loves shortly after he told her of his feelings. He has just celebrated their past, only to find that they have no future. And all because of a traveling circus that he never saw coming.

Trains and Train Stations

In a story about transience, train stations are going to be important. There isn’t much to add to Victor’s comments, which pretty much speak for themselves. Victor first introduces Nina to his wife "in a big railway station where everything is something trembling on the brink of something else, thus to be clutched and cherished." This is Nina in a nutshell, a woman who "had always either just arrived or was about to leave." In his mind, the quintessential Nina image is of her "leaning upon a counter at Cook's, left calf crossing right shin, left toe tapping floor, sharp elbows and coin-spilling bag on the counter, while the employee, pencil in hand, pondered with her over the plan of an eternal sleeping car." So it’s fitting that Victor reads about her death while standing "on the station platform of Mlech," and that Nina died while she was traveling.

Color

We argue in "Style" that "Spring in Fialta" is sort of like a painting or mosaic; it’s a piece of art. If this is true, then its palette has two basic color groups: blues/purples, and reds/oranges. Nabokov, being Nabokov, finds about fifty different ways to express the former, including: "pale bluish," "glaucous," "marine," "slate-blue," "violaceous," plain old "blue," "violet," "aquarium," "sea-blue," "purpures," and "hazy blue." Once you start looking, you’ll see that a lot of the story’s details come in blue, from the Englishman’s wandering eye to the vases on the table to the rug in the Paris hotel where Victor and Nina once hooked up. Anything related to the "somnolence of [Fialta’s] humid lent" is blue or purple. It’s calming, or, as Victor says, it "especially anoints one’s soul."

Then you’ve got your reds and oranges, which we see most prominently in the circus posters. From the "tomato-nosed clown" to the "red hussar and […] orange tiger," these colors are associated with energy, change, activity, and because the circus causes Nina’s demise, death. Once you know the ending, reds and oranges pop out of "Spring in Fialta." We see them in the oranges the little boy is carrying, and the "crimson" drink resembling "pigeon’s blood" which Ferdinand sees the Englishman drinking and orders himself, right before Segur discusses a woman named "Ruby Rose." All of these are more and more hints of the impending ending to "Spring in Fialta."

(And if you like this sort of thing, you should go through your text and look for the word "yellow.")

The Passage of Time in the Narrative

Time is going to be a little off in any story that largely features memory. But notice that things start to get really screwy towards the end of "Spring in Fialta," in the scene where Victor and Nina walk to the hotel and she points out Segur’s yellow car. Until now, we’ve jumped back and forth between the present in Fialta and the past. Within each of those, time has been consistent: happenings in Fialta go in order, and happenings in the past come in order. But now it gets weird. Victor and Nina hang out by the yellow car while Ferdinand and Segur approach. Then we go BACK in time to the lunch they had earlier that day, followed by Victor’s foppish declaration of love, and then we SKIP FORWARD again to the trio’s departure in the yellow car. Victor also claims to have had a premonition of Nina’s departure while they were standing motionless by the car outside the hotel. And in the story’s final paragraph, we move without explanation from Victor standing with Nina on the terrace to his realization that the sky is sunny to his standing on a train station platform.

Accompanying this funky time stuff, the action gets a little more magical as well. After Victor declares and then retracts his feelings for Nina, "from somewhere a firm bouquet of small dark, unselfishly smelling violets [appear] in her hands." From somewhere? Appear?

In a way, this funny business – both with respect to time and to realism – reflect that Victor is losing control. This is where we really get a sense that our narrator’s artistic memory has taken over and is manipulating the story; reality is now cloudy, and his descriptions can’t be trusted as "real."

The Yellow "Icarus" Car

When Victor sees the car that will later bring Nina to her death, he describes it as "a long yellow-bodied Icarus." He’s referring to the model, it seems, but of course it’s the name itself that’s important.

Does "Icarus" sound familiar? We’re thinking of Daedalus and Icarus, of Greek mythology fame. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this: Daedalus was a famous maker of stuff (also known as a craftsman), which was working well until this woman got a hankering to have sex with a bull, and Daedalus crafted a way to make this possible. (We are not kidding.) As punishment, Daedalus was imprisoned in the labyrinth he designed himself (and very foolishly neglected to equip with secret emergency exits). Anyway, Daedalus was imprisoned with his son Icarus, and being a master maker of stuff, he made them some wings out of wax and feathers. The happy duo flew off in to safety, but not before Daedalus portentously warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. (Note: if you ever find yourself in a Greek myth, try to avoid warnings; they always turn out badly.) Icarus of course flies too close to the sun, melts the wax, and falls to his death in the ocean below.

So how about that "Spring in Fialta" story? Does Nina, perhaps, in her own way, fly too close to the sun? Does she try to be immortal, like the gods, which was a big no-no? It seems like Victor, at least, tries to make her immortal. He certainly sees her as mystical, as something more than human, which is why he’s so surprised by her death. (One ballsy critic argues that "Spring in Fialta" is so steeped in water imagery because Nina is like a mermaid. That’s certainly one way to skin the Nabokovian cat.)

Oh, and lastly, Victor describes the yellow Icarus car as looking "like a giant scarab." In Ancient Egyptian culture, the scarab was a hieroglyph that meant "to transform" or "to come into being." It was also a symbol of death. DEATH. It looks like we have more and more evidence supporting the theory that Nina’s death is a transformation from an ideal in Victor’s imaginative memory to a real and mortal person in reality. And for more on that, you should read her character analysis.

The Cypress Tree

The cypress tree is mentioned twice in "Spring in Fialta," in the very first paragraph, and again in the very last. Funny how that works. Victor says that it "indicat[es] the way" to Fialta, which is a bit morbid when you remember that cypresses have been a symbol of death since way back in the Greek day when, according to mythology, they made up most of the Underworld’s foliage. Since "Spring in Fialta" is fatalistic and tells us over and over that Nina is going to die, this isn’t too surprising a portent. The second time we see the cypress is when Victor and Nina are standing on the terrace after lunch. Right before he tells her he loves her, Victor describes the view for his reader: "the smoke of an indiscernible train undulated along [Mount St. George’s] rounded base—and suddenly disappeared; still lower, above the jumble of roofs, one could perceive a solitary cypress." His declaration of love, like Nina’s life, is doomed.