Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 582 W: Nabokov

Dr. Halpern

February 15, 2007


Terrifying Angel:

A Structural and Stylistic Analysis of Nabokov’s “Wingstroke”


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?

            and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:

 I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.

 For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,

            and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

 Every angel is terrifying.

 And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.

                                                -- Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies


            Beneath the “tipsy and lighthearted” pace of the post-War dead years pulses a stark moodiness in Vladimir Nabokov’s early short story “Wingstroke” (26).  Written in late 1923, during Nabokov’s prolific post-Cambridge “English” period, which dealt heavily in elements of magical realism and “traditional religious and mythological topoi,” the story concludes with the midair crucifixion of a young English Jezebel by an enormous, furry, doglike angel (Shrayer 1).  In an era of a post-War moral crisis, there are no redemptive angels, and those that do exist, are terrifying.  Nabokov’s clean structure and intricate style mirror this sense.  The structure of “Wingstroke” uncannily follows in prose the first stanza of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, quoted above.  Similar to Rilke’s poetry, the haunting and often dissonant imagery and sound play in “Wingstroke” tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the sacred in an age of disbelief, futility, solitude, and profound anxiety.       

            “Wingstroke” is fundamentally a story that negates salvation.  In Kern’s world, there are no Christian angels; rather, as Rilke affirms, “Every angel is terrifying” (1).  The Rilkian angel, then, can be used as interpretive guide to reading the story.  The first line of the Duino Elegies questions the absent heavens: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” (1).  Similarly, the narrative arc of “Wingstroke” concludes with a figurative scream for help unheard as Kern ascends the hotel stairs to shoot himself.  No angel has intervened on his behalf; rather this angel “crucifies” Isabel, crushing her [stolen?] ribs and disappears.

            Rilke writes next that should an angel heed his cry and “press me suddenly against his heart,” he would be “consumed in that overwhelming existence” (1).  “For beauty,” Rilke continues, “is nothing but the beginning of terror” (1).  Appropriately, images of terrifying and overwhelming consumption and suffocation persist throughout “Wingstroke,” mounting in intensity until Kern’s confrontation with the angel.  After being lulled to sleep with veiled thoughts of suicide (note how the imagery mirrors the sound symbolism in its resonant beckoning, “The ivory knife glides, cutting the pages.  One, two…”), Kern is awakened “by a sense of unbearable horror” (32).  Notions of horror are inextricably linked to images of overwhelming consumption and ultimately meaninglessness.  The dream that awakens Kern features the wall adjacent to his bed, which “had begun slowly collapsing onto him” (32).  Kern’s reaction, a “[recoil] with a spasmodic exhalation,” is a physical, and futile, assertion of his identity in the presence of such consumption and oblivion.  

This vise-like imagery persists in this scene, particularly in association with the confrontation of the absence of meaning.  After Kern is unable to make sense of the dog, laughter, and guitar noises he hears across the hall, he curses the larger inability to grasp significance or order from the world: “Damn it!  I don’t understand anything.  I don’t have anything.  Damn it, damn it,” (32).  Correspondingly, “a leaden fatigue was compressing his temples” (32).    

            Upon the appearance of the angel, the undercurrent of this sense of being suffocated, or blotted out, becomes manifest.  True to the Duino Elegies, Kern is “consumed in that overwhelming existence,” but in a uniquely Nabokovian and twisted, way (Rilke 1).  Kern is certainly “overwhelmed,” but not by divine radiance; rather the “animal smell” of the angel’s “oily brown tufts” of fur are what overwhelms him (38, 39).  In a dramatic paragraph of its own, the narrator describes the cosmic expanse the angel takes on: “He occupied the entire room, the entire hotel, the entire world” (38).  This angel, this symbol of utter irrationality, is what occupies space in a nonsensical post-War world.  If the abstract notion of meaninglessness is given symbolic form in the body of the angel, its attributes are significant: it suffocates and inspires the “apathy of ultimate fear” (38).  What lurks beneath this odd narrative is the ultimate fear of apathy itself; it is the fear that we do not understand anything, or worse, that there is nothing to understand.         

            “Every angel is terrifying,” Rilke implies, because “it serenely disdains to annihilate us” (1).  One of the resounding horrors of “Wingstroke,” is that Kern, who yearns for suicide, is denied annihilation by this higher, albeit beastly, power.  Instead, Kern is released back to the “gaping black gap” within which he had been ruminating since his wife’s suicide (28).  He eventually chooses to annihilate himself, but in the bleakest manner, in the audience of Monfiori, the “caprine” voyeur who seeks to derive a clammy sexual pleasure from the act (28).  Rilke asks, “Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need? / Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware / that we are not really at home in our interpreted world” (1).  In confessing his suicidal plans, Kern turns neither to human nor angel, but rather to this man with “goatish eyes,” a twisted knowing animal: “Just as I thought,” answers Monfiori, “There was something about your face…. I understood right away…” (29, 36).  Supporting him “meekly and hastily,” this devilish, Pan-like imp, symbolically “spooky,” “hairy” and cloaked in “pointed ears… with reddish fluff on their tips,” is the farthest from a source of solace (36, 43, 37, 28).  True to the elegy, Kern quite literally “hold[s him]self back and let [his] scream for help / be swallowed by sobbing” (Rilke 1).  In “Wingstroke”’s final lines, Kern ascends stairs, but it is an ironic ascension: he makes his way, “like a blind man,” a “sobbing laughter” bubbling over, to shoot himself.   

            In addition to the Rilke that can be read into the plot of “Wingstroke,” the pre-Modernist poet also serves as stylistic antecedent to Nabokov’s early work.  Rilke scholar Anna A. Travis characterizes his imagery as haunting, tending to focus on the “difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety” (1).  This characterization can be applied directly to the particularly discordant images and sound symbolism in “Wingstroke.”  Compared in varying degrees to the narrators of Nabokov’s other early short fiction, such as “Sounds,” “Beneficence,” “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” and “Fight,” the narrator of “Wingstroke” is third person limited, tied to Kern’s perspective.  Unlike the other protagonists, Kern is not blissfully in love with life.  Correspondingly, the descriptions associated with his thoughts will have none of that kaleidoscopic harmony.  A man who damns his inability to understand anything, Kern has no “musical ear [that] knew and comprehended everything” as does the narrator of “Sounds” (22).   Kern’s world is instead pierced with discordance and jarring discomfort.  When pushing aside the magazine picture of his wife with “childlike eyes,” her absence and the suggested absence of innocence is punctuated with Kern’s “fingernail squeaking on the glossy page” [my emphasis] (27). 

Eyes and “the gaze” figure prominently throughout the story, often to underscore dissonance, or lack of communion.  Monfiori the voyeur, is described as having “leechy eyes,” for instance, which seek to “peek” into Kern’s as he resolves to shoot himself.  At the hotel ball, Kern notices that “around him floated past the intense faces of angular couples with perversely absent eyes” (30).  Such lines are reminiscent of the solitude captured in early imagist poetry, not unlike the apparition of faces in Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro.”  At its most piercing, “gaze” imagery functions to highlight the delicate membranes people erect to separate from each other: “Somebody’s curious gaze pricked [Kern] like a needle touching the nerve of a tooth.  He turned back abruptly” (27).          

This haunting detachment, appropriately, operates at the level of sound symbolism as well.  Specifically, the repetition, or assonance of long vowel sounds reverberates throughout the piece, particularly in conjunction with Kern.  Whether these deliberately repeated long vowels symbolize the “gaping black gap,” “chasm,” and “porcelain depths” of Kern’s nihilistic imagination is debatable (28, 29).  The vowel play certainly does, however, express a profound isolation.  Note, for instance, the way assonance serves to create an poignantly resonant echo in this description of the loneliest dinner in the world: “…Kern changed, and, at the sound of the gong’s hollow clanging, rang and ordered cold roast beef, some grapes, and a flask of Chianti” (27). 

If Isabel is to symbolize the figure that pierces Kern’s stupor, or at least the last in a series of “silk rags” that Kern futilely tries to “hang… across the gaping black gap,” her descriptions are attributed with livelier sound play (28).  Specifically, when Kern views her, she is often associated with more “abrupt” sounds, and tongue-twisting consonance.  Note the relative lack of mouth and tongue movement in the modifier associated with Kern in comparison to the more active movements necessitated in the modifier associated with Isabel: “[mopping his brow, Kern] set off after [Isabel, who, with a flutter of her black fan,] was heading for the door” (30).  As Kern feels older, less sprightly and gayer in comparison to Isabel, her descriptions become even harsher, the movements necessitated by the conjunction of consonants practically a series of spit curses themselves: “Indefatigable girl, he thought—the dog, the guitar, the icy drafts” (32).

            At the end of “Wingstroke,” in nothing less than a pile-on of Christian and mythological allusions, this indefatigable girl is “crucified,” her ribs crushed, by a furry sphinx-like angel.  Afterwards, Kern is escorted to his suicide by a homosexual Pan/Satan figure.  Perhaps the ultimate inability to tease out a coherent Christian or ancient Greek narrative is exactly the point; in the post-War “dead years” of moral crisis, meaning itself is elusive at best and nonsensically barbaric at worst.   

Works Cited


Brockman, William S., Jeff Edmunds, and Maxim D. Shrayer, comps. Zembla. Vers. 1. 1 Dec. 1995. Pennsylvania State University. 15 Feb. 2007 <>. 


Nabokov, Vladimir. "Sounds." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006. 14-24. 


Nabokov, Vladimir. "Wingstroke." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006. 25-43. 


Rilke, Rainer M. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke / Edited and Translated by Stephen Mitchell ; with an Introduction by Robert Hass. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1982. 1-356. 


Travis, Anna A. Rilke's Russia: a Cultural Encounter. 1st ed. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1994. 1-195.