Ardis, its Ardors and Ideologies - Measuring Vladimir Nabokov against Hélène Cixous

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction

II. Parody
A. Playing on genre
B. Playing with motifs
1. The body
2. Incest

III. Mise en abyme
A. Language and art
B. Philosophy and fiction

IV. Point of view
A. Van’s story
B. On closer inspection
1. Who speaks?
2. What does “really” happen?

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Up to this day, scientific research has examined Vladimir Nabokov’s penultimate novel Ada or Ardor: A Familiy Chronicle from a multitude of theoretical perspectives. But although it displays highly problematic relationships between the different sexes (and also between members of the same sex) and albeit the “male” narrative point of view demands a great amount of caution from the reader, purely feminist approaches are virtually non-existent. This might partly be attributed to the facts that firstly the splendour of Ada ’s stylistic expression tends to distract the reader from its possibly “contentious contents” and that secondly Ada is generally regarded as a perfect example of a postmodern[1] novel and therefore considered to be immune to any allegation of

adherence to fixed categories.

In the seventies of the past century, the French Anglist Hélène Cixous developed a feminist theory of writing, the so-called écriture féminine (cf. Waniek 7). The basis of this theory is formed by the assumption that patriarchal tradition organizes modern culture entirely in hierarchical dichotomies which lastly all stem from the paramount oppositionAbbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten.[2] Cixous actually talks about a

Kette von Metaphern, wie sie die Kultur organisieren… immer Mond für die männliche Sonne*, Natur für die Kultur, Höhlung für die männliche Gewölbtheit, Materie für die Form.. Unbeweglichkeit/Trägheit für das Vorrücken und den Fortschritt, Erde, auf der sich der männliche Marsch abspielt, Gefäß…. Der Mann ist natürlich aufrecht, aktiv, schaffend […].[[3] ]

Diese Opposition zu der Frau verteilt sich unendlich auf alle Oppositionen, die die Kultur organisieren. Das ist die klassische, duale, hierarchisierte Opposition. Mann/Frau heißt auch automatisch groß/klein, überlegen/unterlegen… das heißt oben oder unten, das heißt Natur/Geschichte, das heißt Veränderung/Unbeweglichkeit. In der Tat ist alle Theorie der Kultur, alle Theorie der Gesellschaft, sämtliche symbolischen Systeme – also alles, was sich spricht, sich organisiert als Diskurs, Kunst, Religion, Familie, Sprache, alles das, was uns verhaftet ist, was uns macht – organisiert in hierarchisierenden Oppositionen, die zurückgehen auf die Opposition Mann/Frau, die nur aufrechterhalten wird durch eine Differenz, die der kulturelle Diskurs als “naturgegeben” versteht, die Differenz zwischen Aktivität und Passivität. (Cixous, 20-21)

The theory built on this observation is rather intriguing but as it also bears numerous inconsistencies it will not be applied to Nabokov’s novel. However, the observation itself seems plausible enough to justify a scrutiny of Ada, which may disclose whether the dichotomies listed by Cixous are – in a wider sense – maintained or deconstructed in the text.

II. Parody

A. Playing on genre

Before dealing with textual details, it might be appropriate to evaluate to what extent Ada sticks to certain literary discourses or, as Cixous would probably put it, to prevailing, male-determined literary conventions, which means in fact to pose the question of genre.

Outwardly, the subtitle denotes Ada as a family chronicle. This classification is reinforced by the following genealogical tree (6-7) and the exposition at the beginning of Part 1 (9-10) which presents an overview of Van and Ada Veen’s aristocratic ancestral line. Nevertheless, this genealogy soon turns out to be rather deceptive as Van, the narrator of the story – indeed another problematic categorization which will be subjected to discussion in Part IV –, focuses almost exclusively on his own generation so that the text definitely shows greater resemblance to fictitional memoirs. Moreover the official family tree proves to be a farce hardly concealing the incestuous excesses among the relatives. Thus, the genres of both the fictional autobiography and the chronicle are parodied. For the feminist reader it is also of particular interest that in the course of such a corruption of the chronicle through the incest motif[4] the principle of patriarchy, in which the father – simply on account of the temporal supremacy implied in his paternity – is turned into the family’s pre-eminent authority (cf. Schwalm 160-161), is deconstructed as well.

Besides, not only the subtitle points to a certain genre. The main title Ada or Ardor itself alludes to the headings of typical Renaissance cycles of sonetts, which tended to include the name of an adored woman. This allusion indicates the ostensibly basic topic of Van’s story, his lifelong love for his sister Ada. For the lyric cycles’ titles generally displayed names which were, in their meaning, closely connected to Heaven or purity it becomes obvious that the Renaissance sonett is parodied here as well: the name Ada actually derives from the Russian term for Hell (cf. Hüppe 131).

Already at an early point, the reader of Ada learns that the story is not set on Earth but on Antiterra or Demonia , the twin planet of Terra . The existence of the latter is, in turn, not proved but constitutes the favourite object of Professor Van Veen’s research. Terra is also the subject matter of Van’s “ ‘philosophical novel’ ”(Ada 265) “Letters from Terra” from which it can be concluded that Terra’s history, topography, political conditions etc. are very similar to Earth’s (cf. Ada pt. 2 ch. 2). On two different levels, Nabokov thus plays on the genre of the science fiction novel. In this context, Alexey Sklyarenko makes an important remark when stressing that “Antiterra is opposed not so much to Earth, the planet on which we live, but to ‘Terra’ – the subject of realistic literature […]. If it is a mirror, then it reflects, or, rather, distorts (because it is a false mirror), not earth, but its standard image in a realistic novel.” (Sklyarenko, 48) But Ada parodies the realist novel in more than this one way, for instance by inserting stylistic allusions or literal or disfigured quotations into the text. One of the most prominent examples is, of course, provided by the opening sentence: “ ‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ ” (Ada 9) an inversion of the beginning of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. By this means, Van’s story is given an ambiguous motto which will be reconsidered in the fourth part of this paper.

In fact, the tremendous cornucopia of allusions and citations is not restricted to the field of realist novels. Literature from different epochs, fairy tales[5], poetry (cf. 111-112) and drama (cf. 404-405) are incorporated into Ada (cf. Hüppe 124) as well as hints at some of Nabokov’s other works[6]. The paratextual section is not omitted either: Ada ’s ending is structured and formulated like a rather euphemistic blurb-like summary of the story (cf. Ada 460-461). Additionally, the Penguin and many further editions of the book dispose of an appendix which contains the so-called “Notes to Ada by Vivian Darkbloom” (463-477). At “her” own discretion, “Vivian Darkbloom” – actually an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov – supplies the reader with more or less useful annotations.

In spite of the fact that by far not each of the genres parodied in Ada has been mentioned yet, it should have become clear that Nabokov works through literary conventions with greatest thoroughness[7] and, much more important for the purpose of this paper, with remarkable playfulness. In connection with this aspect, one has to record ultimately that Ada’ s parodic deconstruction of genre expands even beyond the boundaries of the literary discourse. The cinematic sector, for instance, is also touched[8] as well as advertising media[9] and painting[10].

Measuring these results against Cixous’ scheme, one must first state that the opposition

substance / form (cf. Cixous 21) dissolves completely in the novel[11]. Instead, fixed forms (genres) become the substance from which Nabokov creates the “rough texture” of his work. However, he does not effectuate this artististic progression, as would presumably be criticised by Cixous, by following the traditional (patriarchal) linear way but by being innovative and unconventional, thus undermining – tongue-in-cheek – the authority of hegemonic artistic discourses.

Still, one single aspect could arouse disapproval in this context, namely the fact that all parody presented in Ada is premised upon the claim for complete coverage of the artistic spectrum[12]. Completeness, often tried to be achieved by means of maximum meticulousness, is actually one of the parameters of the classical (patriarchal) literary and also scientific discourses. Nonetheless, this appears to be a minor point given the overabundance of deconstructive elements.

B. Playing with motifs

At the transition from macro- to microstructure[13] Ada experiments with another kind of pattern: the motif. The novel actually bursts with motifs of different evidence and different expansion. As a result of his analysis, Brian Boyd considers them to be rather autonomous (cf. Boyd 25) and even compares Nabokov’s works to “a gas: the independence of choice makes each moment of his novels like a molecule on the move, free from its neighbours but precisely for that reason able to collide with a vast number of other molecules.” (23) In fact, this observation perfectly fits in with the findings of the previous paragraph.

For lack of space this paper will look only at two of the more prevalent motifs which might be particularly relevant to a feminist reading and which incorporate – like big, permeable “gas bubbles” – many of the subtler ones while, at the same time, overlapping each other as well: the (female) body and the incest theme.

1. The body

During Van’s first summer at Ardis, the idyllic domicile of Daniel and Marina Veen, it is the body of his alleged cousin, 12-year-old Ada, which arouses his sexual desire. In this context, the narrator occasionally recalls his impressions of the girl’s appearance as exactly and vividly as if he still watched her immediately, for instance, when describing her drawing an orchid on a hot July afternoon:

Ada liked to sit on a cool piano stool of ivoried wood at a white-oilcloth’d table in the sunny music room, her favourite botanical atlas open before her, and copy out in color on creamy paper some singular flower. She might choose, for instance, an insect-mimicking orchid which she would proceed to enlarge with remarkable skill. Or else she combined one species with another (unrecorded but possible), introducing odd little changes and twists that seemed almost morbid in so young a girl so nakedly dressed. The long beam slanting in from the French window glowed in the faceted tumbler, in the tinted water, and on the tin of the paintbox – and while she delicately painted an eyespot or the lobes of a lip, rapturous concentration caused the tip of her tongue to curl at the corner of her mouth, and as the sun looked on, the fantastic, black-blue-brown-haired child seemed in her turn to mimic the mirror-of-Venus blossom. Her flimsy, loose frock happened to be so deeply cut out behind that whenever she concaved her back while moving her prominent scapulae to and fro and tilting her head – as with air-poised brush she surveyed her damp achievement, or with the outside of her left wrist wiped a strand of hair off her temple – Van, who had drawn up to her seat as close as he dared, could see down her sleek ensellure as far as her coccyx and inhale the warmth of her entire body. (81)


[1] In this paper the term “postmodern” is used in the same sense as in Barbara Hüppe’s treatise.

[2] The concept of the binary system is widely drawn from Derrida’s philosophy of Deconstruction (cf. Babka 200).

[3] The punctuation within this quotation has been kept.

[4] This item will be taken up again in the following paragraph.

[5] For example, the Cinderella myth is taken up (cf. Ada 44).

[6] In the final part of Ada, there can be found a quotation from Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire (cf. 458).

[7] Still, one has to remark that he largely confines himself to European and Russian traditions.

[8] As an actress in Don Juans Last Fling Ada thwarts Lucette’s efforts to seduce Van (cf. 383-386).

[9] Brian Boyd presents a rather interesting example (cf. Boyd 109-110).

[10] Van, for instance, mocks “[t]he collection of Uncle Dan’s Oriental Erotica prints” (Ada 110-111)

[11] Ada is labelled “novel” only because this is the genre it resembles most – as a result of the great indeterminacy of that genre.

[12] Ada occasionally conveys the impression as if it was a playful inventory of artistic conventions.

[13] One has to keep in mind here that the common distinction between macro- and microstructure is not entirely applicable to a text like Ada .

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Ardis, its Ardors and Ideologies - Measuring Vladimir Nabokov against Hélène Cixous
University of Siegen
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Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Ada or Ardor". Rather deconstructive than feminist approach (Cixous makes up approximately 15-20% of the paper). Most of the sources I used were in English, a few in German.
Ardis, Ardors, Ideologies, Measuring, Vladimir, Nabokov, Hélène, Cixous, Literatur-/Kulturtheorien
Quote paper
Heike Stindt (Author), 2005, Ardis, its Ardors and Ideologies - Measuring Vladimir Nabokov against Hélène Cixous, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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