The Vane Sisters
"The Vane Sisters" is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, written in March 1951. It is famous for providing one of the most extreme examples of an unreliable narrator. It was first published in The Hudson Review and Encounter in 1959, later in Nabokov's Quartet (1966), Nabokov's Congeries (1968; reprinted as The Portable Nabokov, 1971), Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975), and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995).
The short story revolves around two professors, of which one is the narrator, and their respective affairs with the two Vane sisters, for whom the story is titled. The narrator recounts his experiences with the two sisters, and ultimately meditates upon the possibility of intervention by ghosts into his reality.
The story begins on a Sunday night as the narrator, a French literature professor at a girls' college, runs into his former colleague D. whom he has not seen for the past four years. Amidst his usual afternoon stroll, the narrator, who prides himself on his sharp eye, fixes upon icicles dripping from a nearby eave with such intense meditation that he follows their watery trail to Kelly Road, where D. used to live. Fixated and in raw awareness, he continues walking, until his observations lead him towards the edge of town, where he catches the glimpse of reddish shadows cast by a parking meter and restaurant sign. There, he sees D. who is passing through on his way from Albany to Boston, and D. casually informs him that Cynthia Vane, with whom the narrator had formerly had a short relationship, has died—a fact D. has learned through his lawyer.
The story then shifts to the narrator's recounting of his initial experiences with Cynthia and her young sister Sybil. Though married, D. had been involved in an affair with the narrator's student Sybil. Cynthia first approaches the narrator in hopes of recruiting him to end the affair, instructing the narrator to tell D. that he should either divorce his wife or else resign from his position with the college. However, while confronting D. about the affair, D. assures the narrator that he and his wife are moving to Albany where he plans to work in his father's firm and that the affair is expected to dissolve shortly thereafter.
The following day, the narrator gives his French literature class, of which Sybil is a part, an examination. But when reading Sybil's poorly constructed work, he finds the message: "Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D." He is too late, and calls Cynthia only to find that Sybil committed suicide at 8 am that morning.
Four to five months following Sybil's death, the narrator begins seeing Cynthia regularly and as a result immersing himself in Cynthia's philosophies of spiritualism and the occult. He attends parties along with Cynthia's circle of believers, and listens keenly to Cynthia's theory that the dead control everything, from extraordinary, course-changing events to minute, impressive incidents. Unconvinced, however, the narrator ridicules Cynthia's searches for acrostics, and playfully criticizes Cynthia's party guests in a note, to which Cynthia fiercely reacts by calling him a "prig" and "snob." That incident decisively ends their relationship.
The story returns to the immediate events following the narrator's rendezvous with D. Learning about Cynthia's death, he is suddenly frantic, fearful, and incapable of sleep, too preoccupied with the idea of Cynthia's ghost returning to haunt him as her philosophies suggested. He tries to fight her by evoking preceding literary traditions and searching for acrostics in Shakespeare. Unable to find anything, he slips into sleep and awakens to find everything seemingly in order. He scoffs at the "disappointing" show, and the final paragraph reads:
|“||I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies - every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.||”|
Towards the middle of the story, on the subject of the unbelievability of Cynthia's ideas, the narrator alludes to a "novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to the author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother."
When the final paragraph of the story is subjected to this technique, the result is as follows: Icicles by Cynthia. Meter from me Sybil. The icicles and meter are references to the story's beginning where the narrator, who prides himself on his careful attention to detail, is transfixed by the minute effects of dripping icicles and umbra cast by a parking meter. Thus, this is the Nabokovian twist: at the end of the short story, the reader learns that the narrator is being unconsciously and mockingly influenced in both his writing and the events surrounding him by the dead sisters.
The very name of Sybil hints at the trick of the final paragraph, as the word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word. Sybil Vane is also a character in Oscar Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. She is an actress who commits suicide when Dorian rejects her, first causing the portrait to change and Dorian to notice the connection between him and the portrait.
The apparent uniqueness of this narrative approach has created fame for this story, and Nabokov himself described this device as something that 'can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction'. The trick ending of "The Vane Sisters" originally went unnoticed when the New Yorker rejected the story, and it was only revealed when Nabokov wrote a letter to the chief editor, Katharine A. White, explaining the foundation of the story.
- Quinn, Brian (February 2005). "The Elusiveness of Superficial Reality in Nabokov's 'The Vane Sisters'". Studies in Languages and Cultures (Faculty of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University): 83–91.
- Dolinin, Alexander, The Signs and Symbols in Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols", retrieved 9 March 2010