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The Suppression of Religious Freedom through Psychopolitics in Vladimir Nabokovs Cloud Castle Lake

Updated on November 10, 2015

"Cloud, Castle, Lake," Set in Berlin...

One of the definitions of Psychopolitics is, “…The use of psychological precepts and techniques to achieve a political goal.”1 “Cloud, Castle, Lake,”2 by Vladimir Nabokov is about a Russian immigrant in Berlin in 1936 or 1937. Through his experience of a vacation trip he is dominated and controlled in a psychological fashion. Furthermore, this control symbolically attacks his religious freedom which is suppressed through the psychopolitical behavior of his fellow vacationers and state agents.

It is interesting that this book was written in 1937 and the story set in this same time frame. In 1937 Nabokov was a Russian immigrant with a Jewish wife living in Berlin and fled because of increasing anti-Semitism. It is likely, given his interest in political topics, that Nabokov was trying to relate the experience of Jews to a Christian population by making the persecuted protagonist full of Christian symbolism. In this tale the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or Nazi Party, is alluded to through examples of social domination, violence, and physical imagery.

This short-story is told in past-tense by a third, initially unknown, person. It is interesting that the main characteristics of the protagonist are told before his name. He is a “modest, mild bachelor, very efficient.” Very efficient is an odd thing to add, implies that he is a hard worker, and no doubt is there to influence what might come later. His being mild and modest is to indicate his non-threatening nature. He has won a “pleasure trip” at a charity ball given for Russian immigrants. One would consider it a good thing that it was a “Berlin summer.” However, the summer is “full flood” and it is “damp and cold” so that “only the sparrows kept cheerful.” This gloomy tone foretells of an unpleasant trip to come. For one who is aware of his surrounding environment it is quite true that sparrows remain cheerful when other animals sulk in poor weather. Imagery of animals is prevalent through the tale to hint at the atmosphere of the people involved or their personalities.

Link to "Cloud, Castle, Lake" in The Atlantic

Cloud, Castle, Lake

It should be noted that this link is to a slightly different version of Cloud, Castle Lake than the one used for this analysis which is cited below. This link is to the first United States publication of Cloud, Castle, Lake. The variance affects some of the characteristics. For instance, the song that must be song is slightly different and the version from The Atlantic does not mention a field mouse. I believe the reference to animals is particularly important to the study of the short story - given its symbolism - and prefer the version I have cited. But, for the sake of convenience the link is present for those who wish to read the story which is not as popular as Nabokov's Lolita and harder to find.

Government Restrictions of Freedom in "Cloud, Castle, Lake"

The protagonist tries to return the ticket he has won for his trip. However, in the time and place of this story there are strict procedures for returning the ticket. He first tries to sell the ticket at the “Bureau of Pleasantrips.” He then finds he must first get permission from the “Ministry of Transportation” and a “certificate of non-absence from the city for the summertime” from the police. Needing a “certificate of non-absence” emphasizes a forced element to the trip. It isn’t merely that he can’t get a refund but that he must get permission not to go. It also shows that his activity has already been recorded as "absent for the summertime." Ironically, just one year after the writing of this story, on November 28, 1939 the police restrict “freedom of movement and travel”3 of Jews in regions under Nazi control. Furthermore, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 classified being Jewish as a race. This allowed restrictions on Jews regarding marital status. This was later extended to hiring policies and led to domination of the Nazi Party at city levels. Individual officials at local levels excluded Jews increasingly from 1934 until the outbreak of war. As the Nazi Party began to infiltrate local and national politics psychological separation between Jews and non-Jews and even Germans and non-Germans began to occur. The local-level persecution occurred, not through legislation, but through psychopolitical influence.

The regimented, restricted nature of what is occurring with the trip in the story is allusive to the political suppression present in the Nazi Party and local German government. The second paragraph shows us that our main character was very unobtrusive to the narrator because, though he knows a great deal about him, he isn’t quite sure of his name and guesses both a first and last name stating, “I think it was Vasili Ivanovich.” This hints that the narrator might have been someone who participated in the suppression of Vasili. Though he thinks he knows both first and last names, unusual names, he isn’t quite sure. This seems like a deliberate disassociation with him. He wishes not to appear too familiar with the protagonist even though it sounds as though he is very familiar with him.

Scarcity of Supply and Demand as it Influences Political Suppression

Vasili is a man who lives by modest means. He must borrow a flask, repair his soles, buy a belt and a shirt to appear appropriate for the trip. This indicates that he is concerned about the view others have of him. Things are in short supply in 1937 for Germany. Post-WWI Germany was a place with stark supply and demand issues. For instance, in 1923 inflation in Germany resulted in a fifty million mark price for a Kohlrabi; a type of turnip.4 Furthermore, In 1929 unemployment was 4,350,000 and in 1932 had soared to 6,000,000. This created an environment capable of receiving a psycopolitical movement such as the Nazi Party.

But when in the 1930’s the disillusionment of the postwar world was combined with the miseries of depression, it became much more difficult to deny the voices of those who preached that the forces which the experiences of the war had revealed – violence, ruthlessness, the drive for power – were the truly effective factors in society. In social and political life the use of war and warlike weapons seemed possible and permissible. With the strength of a delayed effect, the shock administered by the experiences of the First World War transformed the psychological approach to politics and social life.4

The Nazi Party used the depravity in Germany to gain control and used the hostilities towards Jews to create social fear for the intended political outcome of domination. This is the essence of psychopolitics. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 created a social isolation of Jews and other undesirables as the Nazi Party deemed them. In 1937 the government began to impoverish Jews to the benefit of “Aryans” by forcing Jews to sell their businesses and forbidding Jews to work. Vasili, though “efficient,” is short of supplies and certainly something that relates to the Jewish situation in Germany at that time. He can not afford a decent shirt and the one he does buy is flimsy and too big, “one of those cowardly things which shrink in the first wash.” It should also be noted that the character attribute of "cowardly" is attached to the inanimate object of the shirt, thereby, transferring to Vasili. Further description of his character is that he is a, “likable little man, his hair always neatly trimmed, his eyes so intelligent and kind.” One is painted the description of a non-threatening slight and demure individual who represents absolute gentility.

The third paragraph indicates once more a personal level between the speaker and the protagonist. He knows that Vasili has slept poorly; a rather personal insight. Vasili is so disturbed and has such foreboding about his “pleasant trip” that he fantasizes that this trip is a romantic encounter with, “a feminine Fate in a low-cut gown.” The fantasy alludes to a sexual encounter. There is an oddity in that the event indicates, “This happiness would have something in common with his childhood, and with the excitement aroused in him by Russian lyrical poetry.” This is a foreshadow of a future event in the story where Vasili will be required to put a book of Russian poetry down. It also alludes to the suppression going on in Germany such as the book burnings of 1933 which included largely Jewish but also other “non-German” books. The largest burnings occurred in Berlin.

Vasili begins to associate the trip with a fantasy. This sets up the idea of alienation. Vasili can’t think of real concrete reasons to go, even dreads going, so he creates fantastical ideas to fill the void and dread at his upcoming trip. This is a very abnormal reaction to a free vacation. Vasili seems to have trepidations but, like the meek sparrows in a Berlin spring, is insistent on trying to remain cheerful about his trip.

The Train....

The Symbolism of Three and Isolation of the Individual

The next paragraph emphasizes the alienation already presented through fantasy. “The morning was dull, but steam-warm and close.” The oddity of it being a dull morning but steam-close shows the dullness of the trip and the steam-close of the fantasy. This is a description of someone experiencing “closeness” sensations or a psychological pressing in. Just enough atmosphere maintained for Vasili to believe he will have a great event and yet an atmosphere that restricts movement. As these paragraphs develop the story almost takes on an air where Vasili is speaker. The speaker seems to know his very thoughts. These thoughts include wondering who the people are that he will meet when he gets on the railcar. He calls them, “drowsy as seem all creatures still unknown to us.” The use of the word “creatures” hints at the dread to come… the “Lord of the Flies” like behavior that will occur; people at their basest animal mob behavior. Vasili manages to be the last to arrive and late by “3 minutes.” This sets another tone of the rather “authoritarian” regiment of the group. Everyone else manages to be present on time, perhaps early, and Vasili is setting himself apart by being late which shows his independence and failure to conform. This is also the first use of the number three (beyond the story title) which repeats itself in imagery later. It is too soon to see the correlation but the use of three in “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” is allusive to the Holy Trinity. It should also be noted that the Holy Trinity applies to both Christian and Jewish symbolism. For a Christian it is Father (in heaven), Son (who was on earth and will come again) and holy spirit (within us all). For a Jew it is the same but the son is the messiah who will come.

The first individual besides Vasili to be introduced to the reader is a Tyrolese man who is seemingly aggressive in appearance. Vasili is joining a group of people on the pleasure trip whom he does not know and the Tyrolese man represents the leader. He “stood out at once.” This is a visual image but also an action. He is, “burned the color of cockscomb.” This is a masculine strength being presented in an animal characteristic of virility. His knees are “brick-red” and his nose seems “lacquered.” Everything about this person is somewhat fearful. Red is representative of the Nazi Party and he is tough like an inanimate building; built of bricks. He wears the evidence of the work he performs out in the sun. At the same time he is associated with an aggressive domestic animal. Worse yet, “He is the leader furnished by the Bureau”. This is the second point where one realizes that the red-tape Vasili is wound up in implies force. In 1933 the Reichstag Fire Decree is instituted. The Nazi Party had begun to install Nazi members at local police levels and with the decree allowed the police to “keep in custody anyone suspected of disloyalty of the state.”4 This created fear throughout the country since the Nazi Party dedicated itself to finding those disloyal to the party. The “leader” may be just such an individual and is certainly implied by his red description.

Vasili is “set apart” by the fact that he is “joining four women and as many men." Everyone is paired accept Vasili. This is allusive to the race laws since, as a Russian, Vasili could not marry a German. The leader brings Vasili and the group to a train that is “lurking behind other trains.” This is a distinctive pattern in “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” whereby people take on animal and inanimate characteristics – the leader as a wall and a rooster – and inanimate objects take on life qualities – the train lurking. This is an amazing insight as the first deportation of Jews by trains began within a year of the publication of this short story. Of course, trains were already part of the Nazi transportation mode as they had been for the Communists in Russia. The leader is again described in an aggressive brutish fashion. He has a “monstrous knapsack” which he carries with “terrifying ease” and clanks with the hobnail boots associated with The Third Reich.5

One can see the start of pschopolitical behavior as the group forms alliances and begins to become intent on “proving” their pleasure in the trip. Vasili, who had intended to read on the journey, and enjoy a peppermint alone, is forced into the social interaction of the group. It is interesting the Vasili is enjoying a peppermint. This because, as part of a plan to create a Nazi market place, “In February 1935 Mann, Vershofen, Erhard, and Schäfer met with executives of a number of companies…”6 This included a representative of the large firm of Dr. Hillers AG who produced peppermint drops. One of the goals of this group was to decide who the consumer was. Major manufacturers lent support to the Nazi goals. As a Russian immigrant Vasili Ivanovich is decidedly not “who” is the goal consumer these manufacturers wished to reach. One year after the publication of “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” Carl Hundhausen, marketing director of Dr. Hillers AG would produce a publication entitled, “Sein Leben, Sein Werk, Sein Lebeswerk” in which he discuses the “Jewification” of American society and that companies must, in order to provide security, attend to “the sociological aspect of human relations.”

Vasili is sent a very strong message about the importance of being part of the social interaction. Hitler had stated, “The common interest before self-interest.” Reading the book and eating the peppermint is not only a failing in the group participation but the book is not German.

Everyone found a place in an empty car, unmistakably third-class, and Vasili Ivanovch, having sat down by himself and put a peppermint into his mouth, opened a little volume of Tyutchev, whom he had long intended to reread; but he was requested to put the book aside and join the group.

Vasili’s attempt to read Tyutchev is to slide back into his fantasy of the “feminine Fate.” Tyutchev was a Russian romantic poet. His having a peppermint (not for all but for himself) also demonstrates a lack of understanding he is part of the group. He is seeking a palpable singular pleasure; to delve into a book while ignoring the rest of the group.

Individuals are described immediately following this and each individual has something in common with another (other than Vasili). There is a man who is freshly shaved of chin and head for the trip; he is joined by his wife. Four employees from the same group are there; two of whom were named Schultz; two of whom are women. This “sameness” of company emphasizes Vasili’s “singleness.” There is a postal worker who one can consider representative of the state through his employment. It should further be noted that Hitler was able to get the Cabinet to declare a state of emergency in 1933 which allowed the Nazi Party to read people’s mail. He, therefore, represents the average German who is culpable in the support of the Nazi Party. Also appearing are a widow and a “special stimulator from the Bureau of Pleasantrips.” He “gave the first signal for rapturous appreciation.” The “special stimulator” is to create a particular pschopolitical atmosphere for the trip. While Vasili was described as modest, mild and neat the people of the group are: fat, noisy, “tossing each other heavy-weight jokes.” The women have big mouths and big rumps. The post-office clerk recalls “philanderings.” There is a commonness and baseness about these people whereas there is a “grace” in Vasili.

One can assume Vasili is Russian by his name. There are indications that most of the group is German. One is given the knowledge that the leader is a German because he is in Tyrolese garb – a region of Austria (Hitler was also from Austria). Furthermore, the post-office clerk is bragging about the bit of Russian he knows, “patzlui.” Vasili, therefore, is isolated from the group by his language. The only other person is the widow who is figuratively paired to her deceased husband. The special stimulator is paired to the leader both of whom are there to guide the group into the correct behavior.

As the train begins to move it is described as having "elbows" a human characteristic. Vasili, in order to avoid “the absurdity and horror of the situation,” spends time looking out the window in fantasy. He sees the passing world “like a merry-go-round” and wrapped in beauty. The fact that the situation is a “horror” strongly suggests the forced nature of the trip. He thinks of, “A memory of love, disguised as a meadow. Wispy clouds – greyhounds of heaven.” Here we find the first image of faith. Vasili has a fantasy of his feminine Fate but this image is of a memory and of heaven. Again, an inanimate thing – a cloud – is compared to an animal – a greyhound. This greyhound, though is “of heaven.” Here the speaker talks out about Vasili and his fantasy, “We both, Vasili Ivanovich and I, have always been impressed by the anonymity of all the parts of the landscape, so dangerous for the soul, the impossibility of ever finding out where that path you see leads – and look, what a tempting thicket!” The speaker here is acknowledging a very personal understanding of Vasili. He is also giving the political opinion of “how dangerous for the soul” are creativity and wonder. The suggestion of stopping the train, discovering the spot and there finding “happiness” is represented in this creativity. Using the term “soul” again alludes to religious faith and even hints at Mary even though it has a sexual undertone. This scene is frighteningly realistically predictive of the deportations which would begin less than a year after the writing of this story.

As the train stops at a station Vasili makes several observations that hint at faith. He is looking at various things referenced as a “configuration.” The word configuration, in a Christian theme is allusive to the transfiguration of Christ whereby he appears radiant on a mountain. It is observed that, “Never would he remember these three little things here in that particular interrelation, this patter, which he now could see with such deathless precision.” Again, three is alludes to the Holy Trinity. These words are oddly chosen. Something corresponding to a shape of interrelated objects of three create a “deathless” state. This might be a coincidence of choice, of course, but as he watches school boys he imagines, “an old photograph, now reproduced with a little white cross above the face of the last boy on the right: the hero’s childhood.” These scenes of the natural world are about freedom in childhood, freedom of faith, hope and happiness. Faith is “deathless” because it promises eternal life and the symbolism of three abounds in religion. The cross above the head of the boy is symbolic of faith being given through childhood. Of course a cross is an unmistakable Christian symbol.

Allusions to Nazi Propaganda Techniques

However, Vasili’s creativity is dangerous. It is noted that “one could look out of the window only by snatches.” The pschopolitical control of the group is important and even their sources of “creativity and pastime” must be managed. “All had been given” a song of sheet music to sing. This music is a clear Nazi Party propaganda song which the entire group must sing together. One of the ways that people were incarcerated in Dachau, built in 1933, was to label them "asocial." The "work-shy" label was used to indicate just such an asocial individual. This song represents one of the modes that the Nazi Party used to indoctrinate people.

Stop that worrying and moping,
Take a knotted stick and rise,
Come a-tramping in the open
With the good, the hearty guys!
Tramp your country’s grass and stubble
With the good, the hearty guys,
Kill the hermit and his trouble
And to hell with doubts and sighs!
In a paradise of heather
Where the field mouse screams and dies,
Let us march and sweat together
With the steel-and-leather guys!

Harkening back to the description of the leader of the group one can see that he is the image praised in this song. One should kill the hermit because he is free and not working for the group. The “field mouse screams and dies” is allusive to Vasili who was originally described as timid and mild. In this song he who is not part of the group is “to hell” banished and working is “paradise.” It is the faith of group behavior and hard socialized work for the people. Group political behavior replaces religion. This repetition is exactly the kind of psychopolitical behavior emphasized in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Vasili is immediately recognized as the one to be “tormented” for when the singing began he attempted to mouth the words because he was a poor singer and could not pronounce German well. However, Schramm the “special stimulator” noticed and motioned to the leader. The leader stops the group and makes Vasili sing alone before the group then joins in again. So, this is a “pleasure trip” whereby individuals are obligated to find their pleasure in Nazi Party ideals. And, should they be having the wrong kind of “pleasure” in creativity, faith, or memories, they will be redirected. This song is the a psychopolitical hymn with the aim of influencing behavior.

The Holocaust Museum

Learn more about the social environment of the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Museum website.

Group Domination...

When it comes time to eat, in a symbol of pschopolitcal control “all are invited” to contribute their food to the group “in order to divide them evenly.” Vasili has purchased a cucumber from a Russian store, brought a loaf of bread and three eggs. This is a modest meal. The cucumber, as a foreign import was unfamiliar to the group and thrown out the window. This is very significant. As with many groups of differing people looking at their food as strange is typical. This also hints at Vasili’s frailty as the cucumber is a phallic symbol. Vasili is devoid of his strength and contribution. He is given less sausage due to the inadequacy of his contribution. This is another pschopolitcal engagement. Vasili is now clearly being used as an example by which the group cohesion will be kept. Through picking of an enemy force the group becomes stronger in their attack on Vasili. The bread is symbolic of faith as are the eggs as an element of the Russian Easter celebration. The eggs are also a symbol of the feminine Fate. His fantasy is divided, his faith devoured, and his virility thrown out the window.

One could think this is an exaggeration but the next events make it clear. He is being isolated, tormented, and harassed for the sake of one Germanic unit. His only escape is fantasy. Vasili is forced to play cards. The group tries to make him point out the route of the trip on the map, prodding him and “all busied themselves with him, at first good-naturedly, then with malevolence which grew with the approach of night.” The group is fully unified in their psychopolitcal control of Vasili as “one collective, wobbly, many-handed being.” Vasili looks into the distance and sees a “soul-piercing light.” This is the third mention of soul in the short story. The soul-piercing light is described as a “star of a lamp" which "trembled through the slow smoke of the engine.” The light trembling implies animation of character to the inanimate. The star, as “soul-piercing,” which is illusive to both Christianity and Judaism in the North Star and the Star of David. Vasili now delves back into a fantasy world, “…and from somewhere there came the odor of jasmine and hay, my love.” While jasmine is a flower, It is significant that Jasmine is also a name of Jewish derivation which means "gift from God."

The group stops for a stay in a cheap hotel. The line “A mature bedbug is awful, but there is a certain grace in the motions of a silky silverfish” is an example of litotes for affect. The hotel has both bedbugs and silverfish. But, the line implies that there is nothing wrong with the presence of the silverfish. The word "grace" implies the presence of God. In the sufferings of the parasitic one finds grace. It is also interesting that the silverfish’s “grace in the motions” is only present in its mating season. The silverfish hides most of its life but during mating participates in dance-like behaviors. The “post office clerk” is separated from his wife at night and forced to sleep in the same room with Vasili. This might be because he is a “great bully of a man.” His description is as masculine and dominating as the leader. He has dirty toes, long cotton drawers and “bear’s fur” between two fat breasts. There is a moth fluttering about in the room and the moth may be symbolic of freedom as it is free to flutter about. The presence of both the bugs and the bear-like man indicate a level of repulsion that expands the forced nature of the vacation.

In the morning the group begins to travel by foot back to the train. Vasili, “as the least burdened” was given a loaf of bread to carry. This bread is symbolic of faith. Again, bread is important in Jewish and Christian faith. Vasili’s carrying it is symbolic of his isolation through faith and the speaker seems to hear Vasili’s thinking with the statement, “How I hate you my daily” which implies the Christian “daily bread.” He knew, though, that he must carry it. He must either reject his faith or carry its heavy cross.

When arriving back at the train car one of the Schultz men attempts to teach Vasili Ivonovich the mandolin. This isn’t really his intention, though. The interest is to continue to mock him and there is “much laughter” at the attempt. Thus, in this story Vasili has been isolated, forced to sing, forced to play cards, had his food taken away and received less, been dominated by now a forth person, and laughed at by the entire group. This behavior is clearly a group action with an intended goal of unity at the expense of Vasili Ivanovich. He is the sacrifice to the new political religion.

In the beginning of the story it was clear Vasili was in isolation. He may have even “won” the pleasure trip for the singular reason of being the extra by which the psychological political behavior is enforced through the special stimulator. The game that comes after the Mandolin lesson is very telling:

When they got tired of that, they thought up a capital game, which was supervised by Schramm. It consisted of the following: the women would lie down on the benches they chose, under which the men were already hidden, and when from under one of the benches there would emerge a ruddy face with ears, or a big outspread hand, with a skirt-lifting curve of the fingers (which would provoke much squealing), then it would be revealed who was paired off with whom. Three times Vasili Ivanovich lay down in filthy darkness, and three times it turned out that there was no one on the bench when he crawled out from under. He was acknowledged the loser and was forced to eat a cigarette butt.

This course and common behavior is now passing from verbal torment to the harmful attack of Vasili’s person in being forced to eat the cigarette butt. The cigarette as a visual image is interesting because there are accounts of Nazi's burning captives with cigarettes and because the Nazi Party had an active anti-smoking campaign to promote Arian health which began in 1933. In 1938 the first study establishing a link between smoking and cancer was published in Germany.

The entire goal of the group is to keep unity by psychologically controlling Vasili. He continues to participate through group control. Escape is certainly possible at any point, in theory. Glimpses of nature and fantasy are about escape. Yet, for some reason Vasili is bound to continue in the pschopolitical group and the “pleasuretrip.” The fact is that he does not have the legal right to leave as is implied by the beginning of the story and the various permits he had to obtain in order not to be a part of the trip. His failure to pair with up with someone also hints at the Nuremberg Laws. The baseness of the group behavior is indicative of Hitler’s Germany. Hitler uses propaganda to influence the masses into suppressing others.

“The receptivity of the great masses is very limited; their ability to understand is small; their forgetfulness, however, s considerable. Because of these facts, all efficient propaganda has to be restricted to very few points, and these have to be used slogan-like until the last man is sure to be able to picture to himself what is meant by the slogan.”7

One has the impression the train car is actually remaining at a station just for the group and they are going on tours and had returned to the car only for Vasili’s torment because the story abruptly discusses that they had all slept in a barn. The torment hearkens back to the song. Vasili sleeps well until he is slapped awake as the group, all roused before him, slap pretend horseflies on Vasili. This is the forth reference to bugs. Vasili is a horsefly; a mere bug to the others.

As Vasili is walking with the group they stop at a lake. Vasili almost escapes his psychological torment. He sees the lake with a cloud above and a castle. This can be compared to a religious experience and a relationship with God as it is signaled by the heavens or cloud. The lake is personified by having an "expressive" nature and it is through water that one is baptized. Water, certainly, is symbolic with Christian and Jewish faith but there is more here than that. The cloud, castle and lake are symbolic of the Holy Trinity, “inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence…” The experience itself that Vasili has is spiritual. Vasili finds this place a “long-promised” experience like the biblical promised land that can only be understood by the “beholder.” Though, one can also find the relationship between the castle and a life that has past it is clearly a religious experience. Here even the phrase, “…my love! My obedient one!” hints at both Vasili’s feminine Fate while hinting at monotheism and submission to God. He checks to see if his heart is there “in order to give it away.”

It was a pure, blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety. On the other side, on a hill thickly covered with verdure (and the darker the verdure, the more poetic it is), towered, arising from dactyl to dactyl, an ancient black castle. Of course, there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one, in the inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had,—my love! my obedient one!—was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and it so understood the beholder, that Vasili Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.

The group sits in a picturesque pose as “seen in amateur snapshots.” This is symbolic of their need to pose for the group and show compliance. Vasili, instead of sitting with the group, followed the shore. The line indicates he escapes by “concealing himself behind his own back.” Vasili comes to a spot where he is greeted by a quiet dog: a symbol of serenity. The dog represents gentility as is indicated by the fact that it exposes its belly and wags its teeth “laughing” and tail “fervently beating the ground.” The dog brings Vasili to the inn whose window was “winking” below a “convex tiled eyelid.” Thus, both the dog and the house have anthropomorphic friendly gestures. He is greeted by the owner who is a Russian war veteran who spoke poor German and Vasili attempts to speak Russian with him but the man chooses to continue speaking German, “the language of his environment, his family.” The presence of the Russian implies a place where Vasili can feel welcomed and at home.

Vasili goes into the inn and looks at a room upstairs “for travelers.” An odd line says:

‘You know, I shall take it for the rest of my life,’ Vasili Ivanovich is reported to have said as he had entered it.

What is odd about this is that the telling of the story is from someone who claims at first that he wasn’t sure what his name is but refers to him by name throughout and talks throughout as though he has first-hand knowledge of Vasili’s experience and yet he makes a second-hand statement about what Vasili is reported to have said. This, again, hints that the speaker is refusing a full understanding of Vasili even though he appears to know him. He is disassociating himself with Vasili once more.

The room Vasili is interested in represents a peaceful and free existence. It is a small lit room. Through a window he can see the cloud, castle and lake which represented “a perfect correlation of happiness.” Again, Vasili has a religious level experience as he finds it, “beautiful to the verge of tears” and he felt that “all around him were help, promise and consolation.” These are the promises of freedom and again a pairing of three; promises of faith. Vasili believes that he can arrange it, “so as not to have to return to Berlin again…” We finally get proof that Vasili is a Russian and that the speaker has personal knowledge of Vasili. “As my representative, he was earning enough for the modest life of a refugee Russian.” Thus, Vasili is a Russian and a representative in business working for the speaker of the story.

A Cloud, Castle and Lake

Annihilation and Death...

Vasili runs back to the meadow and declares to the group “My friends!” This is allusive to the Nazi Party of Germany as they are not his friends and it is an obligation, he feels, to report to them. He tells them that he is going to remain at that location. The leader asks him how this is possible and the individuals sitting in the grass, “half-rose and stared at him with stony eyes” which is a predatory pose. Here the people appear with inanimate features - stone. Vasili attempts to explain but the post office worker barks at Vasili in a typical Gestapo response which further emphasizes a local-level Nazi cooperation:

‘Silence!’ the post-office clerk suddenly bellowed with extraordinary force. ‘Come to your senses, you drunken swine!’

The leader also accuses Vasili of having been drinking. He states, “… or gone out of your mind.” He does this in an animal fashion, “passing his tongue over his lips.” Noting that the dog and house have human qualities, the people have animal qualities and actions. Vasili has returned to the realm of mob behavior. The postal worker states that there is no question that anyone will refuse to “continue this communal journey.” The use of this as a “communal journey” is allusive to the Nazi Party and the 25 Points of the Nazi Program. One of the points Hitler emphasizes is, ““We demand ruthless war upon all those whose activities are injurious to the common interest. Common criminals against the nation, usurers, profiteers, etc., must be punished with death, whatever their creed or race.”7 Vasili recognizes that his failure to be part of the common interest is fatal and he states a few lines later as they drag him off, “Oh, but this is nothing less than an invitation to a beheading.”

The leader tries to get Vasili to remember a song they had song, presumably similar to the first song from the train. He then states, “Come, children, we are going on,” which establishes just how helpless Vasili is to leave the trip; as helpless as a child would be. Even though Vasili has been accused of drinking Schramm tries to “comfort” by stating that there will be beer at Ewald. This is allusive to the Nazi Party in that the Beer Hall Putsch whereby the Nazi Party sought to influence a cout-d’état in 1923, was by going beer hall to beer hall8. They will see a hunting lodge, coal mines and many interesting things. Another sign of dissatisfaction growing in Germany that allowed the rise of the Nazi Party was a strike of mine workers. Each of these stated work images are symbols of virility and communal behavior or work: beer, mines, hunting.

The speaker now breaks from the normal story telling mold and appears to be speaking to a specific third person, “…he told me he cried when they seized him by the arms.” This is a reference to his physically being dragged where he did not wish to go. However, it is also allusive to the weaponry of the Third Reich which removes people from their homes by the use of military arms. The story then seems to return to Vasili’s viewpoint as though Vasili’s tale is a story within a story (though we don’t know what the speaker’s full outer story is):

‘If necessary we shall carry you,’ said the leader grimly, ‘but that is not likely to be pleasant for you. I am responsible for each of you, and shall bring back each of you, alive or dead.'

Thus, we are truly told that Vasili has no choice, no freedom, and can’t remain where he is at. His failure to confirm to group behavior is deadly. He continues the trip “as in a hideous fairy tale.” He is “squeezed, twisted, and Vasili Ivanovch could not even turn around.” This is a striking foretelling of the deportation trains that would occur shortly after the writing of the story. As families are brought away the natural beauty around them surely was viewable, “and all around the dark firs fretted but could not interfere.” This is amazingly predicative. It is possible that Nabokov had seen individuals deemed as criminal being brought to the Dachau "work camp."

We now see the culpability of the group who joins in to attack Vasili. One sees the image of Vasili in a Christ-like torment with the mutilation of his palms and feet in a crucifixion-like attack. One now finds out that the post-office clerk was a Russian though he was indicated at his introduction as only knowing a few words. The irony here is that it is true in Nazi Germany that even some of Jewish decent, such as Hitler himself, turned on Jews. To be a part of the group was far more important than to be he who is attacked. Initially Jews who served in the military and police, for instance, were not under attack by Hitler.

Later, the definition of Judaism as a Race, rather than religion, classified anyone with a grand-parent who was part Jewish as being a non-German. The post-office clerk fashions a tool to beat Vasili in a reformation-like fashion with “a knout out of a stick and a belt, and began to use it with devilish dexterity.” Of course, the image of a devil alludes to religion as well. The women pinched and slapped and “all had a wonderful time” in their group attack.

With this the final goal of psychopolitical behavior is in place. The group has totally acquiesced to the behavior the leaders have stimulated and the enemy is sacrificed for the purpose of group behavior. This is the goal of the Nazi Party – to use the masses to eliminate the enemy. Hitler writes:

He who will win the broad masses, must possess the key to their hearts. This is not called objectivity (which means weakness) but will and strength… The masses are only a part of nature, and their feeling does not understand the mutual handshake of people who pretend to have opposite wills. What it wishes is the victory of the stronger and the destruction of the weak or his unconditional submission… The nationalization of our masses will succeed only when in the positive struggle for the soul of our people its international prisoners are eliminated.7

One sees the true nature of the relationship between Vasili and the speaker. Vasili is the speaker’s boss and returns to Berlin and quits his position. According to the speaker, “…he must resign his position, begged me to let him go, insisted that he could not continue, that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer.” This is the ideal expected by Hitler. If we ask ourselves what in fact are the forces by which a State may be created or indeed only maintained, they can be summed up in a single expression the ability and readiness of the individual to sacrifice himself for the community:

We demand ruthless war upon all those whose activities are injurious to the common interest. Common criminals against the nation, usurers, profiteers, etc., must be punished with death, whatever their creed or race.”7

This is typical of the religiously persecuted in Nazi German. Many individuals resigned their positions and disappeared for this was the only way they could escape, as did Vladimir Nabokov and his wife, leaving Germany the same year of Vasili Ivanovich’s symbolic giving up on life.


  1. Psychology Dictionary Online. Download December 14, 2014.
  2. Vesterman, William. "“Cloud, Castle, Lake,”” by Vladimir Nabokov. An Introduction to Literature and Critical Analysis. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. N. pages 301-307. Print.
  3. “Timeline of Nazi Abuses.” Online. PBS, Oct. 2000. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
  4. Gilbert, Felix and Large, David Clay. The End of the European Era: 1890 to the Present. 4th ed. Pages: 196, 246, 255 and 274. New York, Norton, 1991.
  5. Antil l, P. (20 August 2010), German Army Equipment of the Second World War,
  6. Wiesen, S. Jonathan. Creating the Nazi Marketplace: Commerce and Consumption in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print. Page 81 & 162.
  7. Hitler, Adolf. The Nazi Party, the State and Religion. London: “Friends of Europe” publications, 1936. Pages 9, 10, 12, 16, 19.
  8. Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 20 June 2014. Web

Books on Vladimir Nabokov

© 2015 Christine Patrice Gebera


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