In The Birth of Tragedy, echoing Goethe, Nietzsche writes that in tragedy "even the highest pathos can be nothing more than an aesthetic game." What defines tragedy for Nietzsche is also an apt characterization of much of Nabokov's fiction: techniques of allusion and metafiction often characterized as gameplaying are essential features of works also distinguished by high pathos. This essay uses the idea of tragedy to place Bend Sinister at the crossroads of these ideas by tracing the tragic context that the novel makes for itself—not just by putting Hamlet at its center but through a dense network of Greek allusions—as well as its rhetoric of gameplay. This tragic context means considering the novel not just as a tragedy or in relation to tragedies but in the context of theories of tragedy; specifically, the evocation of catharsis and the Dionysian dismemberment in David's death function as commentary (biting commentary, in fact) on Aristotle's and Nietzsche's theories of tragedy respectively. In the novel, questions about the theory and use of tragedy become ethical problems. In this way Bend Sinister might be considered a "tragedy of tragedy" (to borrow Nabokov's words from another context). Viewed in this light, Bend Sinister—though often classed as a minor novel—emerges as the fullest articulation of the ethical and representational dilemmas that would continue to shape Nabokov's postwar fiction.


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