Self-portrayal in the Vane Sisters

I am confused about the mechanics of Sybil and Cynthia’s influence in the narrator’s life. The second through fourth paragraphs seem to indicate that Sybil and Cynthia have somehow emphasized objects in the physical realm in order to lead the narrator, “in a¬† series of trivial investigations” (619) to the information they wished to communicate. However the last paragraph, with its acrostic, seems to indicate that the sisters had controlled the narrator’s pen and/or thoughts. If they did control his pen in the last paragraph, it is reasonable to assume they had the power to influence content in the middle of the story. I am therefore confused as to why they allowed the narrator to portray them in such an unflattering manner. For instance, he describes Cynthia’s body odor as “the dullish, stalish, not particularly conspicuous but all-pervading and depressing emanation that her seldom bathed flesh spread from under weary perfumes and creams” (623). Ouch! I am surprised that women who care enough about their appearance to alter it with makeup might allow such descriptions to be written.

Perhaps I am giving Cynthia and Sybil’s postmortem abilities too much credit; maybe they are only sporadically able to cross the boundary between the living and the dead. Perhaps guilt and negative self-image caused Cynthia and Sybil to feel deserving of negative descriptions; after all, Sybil had an affair with a married man and Cynthia began the chain reaction that took D away from Sybil. Perhaps Sybil and Cynthia¬†did have a hand in the narrator’s descriptions of them, and those sentences were the flattering version. In that case, what other omissions might have occurred?

One thought on “Self-portrayal in the Vane Sisters

  1. This is a really interesting way to think about it. I like how many of us seem to have had different interpretations of the degree and form of the sisters’ influence on the narrator. In my view, they’d been there all along, letting the narrator have his fun deriding them because they knew they’d have the last laugh. I saw their presence as superior but also playful, which might explain why they allowed him to write those descriptions. Do you think Nabokov’s portrayal of Cynthia and Sybil’s personalities in life would translate onto their actions beyond death?

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