»Table of Contents


Butterflies, Not Flying Symbols

It should be obvious that if Nabokov mentioned Lepidoptera in his fiction he did it in a spirit that was different from that of many other authors who seemed to do the very same thing. Butterflies have been used over and over either for purely decorative purposes or as stock symbols. As an example of both kinds of use, here is a poem by the Swiss writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), entitled "Butterfly in Late Summer". Its first seventeen lines state that many precious butterflies have arrived from some "perished fairy-tale world," enumerating not less than nine common European species, among them two moths, plus "the Silver-washed Fritillary and the fritillary" (which actually is not a species but a loose group of nymphalids). Hesse then goes on to call them "short-lived visitors from the Orient", "spectral messengers" from a "nobler existence", and he proceeds,

Symbols of everything that is beautiful and ephemeral,

That is all too tender and exuberant,

Melancholic and gold-adorned guests

At the feast of the ancient summer king.

Though the nine common butterfly names give the poem a singularly knowing "lepidopterological" air, they owe their presence not to any special knowledge and not even to plain observation. Most of these insects have never arrived from anywhere but breed where they fly, they fly at different seasons so nobody would see them all together, and none of them can be said to have any gold. They are there for the sole purpose of adorning the poem and of symbolizing something, and to do so they are unrelentingly anthropomorphized, with brave guesses as to their state of mind ("exuberant", "melancholic"). Actually the poet does not seem interested in these butterflies at all but only in his own fancies – it is projective poetry.

Nabokov would never have written anything like that. A poem like Hesse's would have made him wince. The butterflies in his fiction are not used for decorative purposes, just because the author wanted to have some colorful beastie fluttering through his narrative. Nor are they standard symbols of anything. Nabokov was no friend of symbols at all – that is of ready-made arbitrary symbols of the kind one may look up in dictionaries of symbols or dream symbols. There is a current one where a caterpillar signifies a "need for change" and a butterfly "restlessness," "freedom" and "immortality". Still there are many objects in Nabokov's fiction that somehow are more than themselves, acquiring an additional meaning that is hard to come by and not listed in any dictionary of symbols. Given his disdain for symbols, it might be better to do without the word altogether and rather to speak of emblems, as he sometimes did, or simply of idiosyncratic metaphors. When the butterflies and moths in his fiction acquire an emblematic or metaphorical meaning, it is not imposed on them but developed out of their empirical nature.

The Atlas Moth [»Attacus atlas] in his early story "Christmas" is a metaphor of resurrection because it is a regular Atlas Moth that has just undergone metamorphosis – the metaphorical meaning develops out of knowledge of the morphology and the life history of this particular insect.

The »Ocellated Hawk Moth of Bend Sinister also seems to have some idiosyncratic meaning attached to it, but which? In the course of the novel, professor Adam Krug remembers how his wife as a girl had found it in a garden in day-time, had taken it into the house to show it to her aunt and then carefully deposited it beneath an apple-tree – a scene from the happy past. Further on, when Paduk's dictatorship is already taking its toll, Krug by accident encounters a beautiful picture of it in some early nineteenth-century insect book. At the very end, when Krug's wife, Krug's son and Krug himself are dead and the novel is over, the moth visits the author who is just explaining to the reader that the whole nightmare has been his creation. Of course, the attentive reader is reminded of that garden scene when Krug's wife had let the hawk moth live. He may be tempted to think that it is the very same hawk moth clinging to the screen window and that it now "stands for" the soul of Krug or Krug's wife, briefly visiting the author before swinging back into the night sky. The author may not have intended equating the moth with anybody's soul and certainly did not say he was contemplating any such equation, but he will have been aware that it might suggest itself to the reader. The last sentence ("A good night for mothing") then banishes any such suggestion and does away with allegory. It marks the author's definite return from the world of his fiction to his present reality. If he would in any way believe that what had visited him was the soul of any of his characters, he would hardly have been tempted to go moth on a hunt. Still, on another plane 'mothing' now becomes a metaphor of creating, of writing. What the author seems to be suggesting is that on good nights like this he had been hunting for the souls of his tormented creatures. In short, the Ocellated Hawk of Bend Sinister is not a symbol but just a particular moth; on the other hand, it is loaded with varying evanescent meanings that are not fixed but derive from the context in which it appears.

That the Red Admiral (»Vanessa atalanta) was called the "Butterfly of Doom" in Russia because it was plentiful in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, adds meaning to the fact that it is a Red Admiral which in Pale Fire settles on John Shade's sleeve during his last walk. It is a subtle historical allusion but does not make the Red Admiral a portable symbol of doom or anything, not even in the author's personal mythology.

There also is no anthropomorphization at all. They all are real butterflies, including the imaginary ones which are invented in such a way that they might actually exist. And they are not just butterflies in general but precisely the ones that would occur at that particular locality and at that particular moment, behaving exactly the way they really would. Thus they underscore, or rather help constitute, the veracity of a descriptive passage.

Critics of literature tend to assume that if there is a butterfly, it must carry some meaning – that is, it must be there to represent some abstract idea. Joann Karges took the symbolistic approach a long way. "Many of Nabokov's butterflies", she wrote, "particularly pale and white ones, carry the traditional ageless symbol of the anima, psyche, or soul… and suggest the evanescence of a spirit departed or departing from the body."[1] I believe this idea to be as un-Nabokovian as can be and true only if there should be any objective truth in Jungian style psychology. The symbolistic reading presupposes an author who would reason with himself somewhat like this, at least implicitly (if he does not know what he is doing), "My character is going to die, but just now I don't want to say so directly. So what I need is something that stands for impending death. The symbol should not be too commonplace but not too enigmatic either, so at least the critics will get it. What about a stopped clock? Or a flickering candle? Or a tolling bell? Or perhaps some butterfly? Just any butterfly would not do; nobody would understand. A Painted Lady would be too joyful. A Mourning Cloak or a Deathhead's Moth would be too obvious. It better be a pale one. That would make readers think of the pallor of corpses and conventional ghosts. Some Orange-tip, for example. No, a Cabbage would be even paler, more shroud-like. So I'll have a Cabbage White fluttering across the page." 

Of course, Nabokov would never have reasoned this way. Thinking like a naturalist, he would have asked himself only what butterfly would be the right one in a given habitat, and what behavior it would display. "That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something (e.g., Psyche) lies utterly outside my area of interest", he once told an interviewer.

Of late there has been much concern for Nabokov's metaphysics. However, it should not be forgotten that Nabokov's prose has justly been acclaimed for its accuracy, and this accuracy is the accuracy of the naturalist, not of the metaphysician. His descriptions are so sharply focused not only because he looked so intently or felt so deeply but because he had the knowledge to assemble them. He knew the way of clouds, he knew the quirks of light, he knew what flowers and trees grew in a setting he wanted to describe – and what birds or butterflies flew. Only because he knew so much was he able to perceive so much. And because he perceived so much was he able to (re)create a certain setting so convincingly.

If his translators – who are just a subspecies of the so-called general reader – fail to put in the right insect, thinking that just about any butterfly would do because they don't know the difference themselves, they blur and destroy what Nabokov has taken such pains to construct.

[1]  Nabokov's Lepidoptera, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985, p. 22



»Table of Contents