The Significance of Frau Monde

In “A Nursery Tale,” Nabokov’s protagonist, Erwin, meets a woman who although appears unremarkable, is in fact the Devil. Going by by the name Frau Monde, the Devil offers Erwin a chance to actualize his fantasy of possessing a harem composed of women he finds attractive.

It seems to me that any time an author, and especially one as precise and meticulous as Nabokov, includes a figure of pure evil such as the Devil in a text, special attention to that figure is merited as a possible way to uncover the underlying worldview of a story, and potentially its author. To that end, I want to discuss certain features of Frau Monde’s character that seem particularly interesting in light of her position as an embodiment of evil, namely that she’s German-born, is a (masculine) woman, and bears a name that, when translated into English, means “world.”

Last class, we learned that Nabokov harbored certain anti-German sentiments. Were these sentiments intensified after he witnessed Germany’s role in WWII, and, if so, did they contribute to a particularly harsh depiction of Frau Monde when he translated his 1926 short story into English? Or were they present in the Russian-language original as a manifestation of his dissatisfaction with life in Weimar Germany?

Then comes the matter of Frau Monde’s gender. A misogynist line definitely runs through at least some of Nabokov’s writings. I don’t think it’s an accident that his literary imagination conceived of the Devil as a woman. Furthermore, Frau Monde is portrayed as a masculine woman, with oversized hands and “mannish” eyebrows, the exact type of woman Erwin finds to be unattractive. Perhaps Nabokov could be seen as arguing that the Devil has both masculine and feminine traits, but I don’t really think so. To me, Nabokov deliberately presents the Devil as a woman who neglects to fulfill traditional societal norms of femininity.

Lastly, why does the Devil bear the last name Monde? Does it signify the extent to which Nabokov perceived the world to be evil? Why is it in French, specifically?

4 thoughts on “The Significance of Frau Monde

  1. You’ve definitely made some good points here. I think that Frau Monde’s identity as a German-born (masculine) woman was an attempt to portray the Devil with both masculine and feminine traits (in line with the general view of demons and angels being sexless) as well as overtly misogynist, which doesn’t really surprise me because of the subject matter of the story itself. In this sense, I think Frau Monde served as a sort of foil to the conventionally attractive women that Erwin was “collecting” (like a possession), and this is supported by the text when the Devil pulls a sort of bait and switch when Erwin almost collects Frau Monde as well.

  2. interesting points, Victor! I noticed that “monde” is an anagram for “demon” — given Nabokov’s affinity for puzzles, I suspect that the wordplay was intentional.

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