Nabokov on Student Exam Essays

This post is a piece by Vladimir Nabokov in response to answers that students wrote for the mid-term exam in his 1957 Cornell literature class.  It appeared in Times Literary Supplement last month with an introduction by Eric Naiman.  Here’s a link to the original.  

It’s fun to imaging the great Russian writer grading undergraduate essays about Russian novels, and, as you can see, he has fun imitating the kinds of vapid answers he used to get on essay questions.  Anyone who has ever wrote or graded exam essays will enjoy this.

‘On Examinations’

Nabokov’s comical answers to facile questions about Anna Karenin

On April 1, 1957, Vladimir Nabokov’s students at Cornell received their grades for their mid-term examinations. For many in the room the exam had not been easy. Nabokov’s questions had been specific, focusing on details of characterization and interaction (“What toys would you say Anna gives her son on his birthday in March 1875?”; “How does Anna find out that Steve and Dolly are reconciled?”). Handing back the tests, the writer explained what he thought a literary examination should elicit: not the repetition of vague and stale ideas, but an ability to articulate the precise and fresh magic of a masterpiece’s imagery.

Despite the playfulness of his comments on a day traditionally devoted to levity, Nabokov was serious about the values of literature, which for him included detail, imagination, memory, “beauty plus pity” and more. He demonstrated this point in his own comically concrete imaginings of possible students’ answers to the generalizing kind of literary question that he was determined not to ask. Characteristically for a writer whose exaltation of good readers was haunted by the phantom of bad ones, he invented two students who deserved to fail. But the democratic undercurrent of these remarks should not be missed: being a good reader ought not to depend on one’s social class or educational preparation.

Brief excerpts from this text have previously been published in Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1986), which quotes as well from Nabokov’s discussion of specific questions. This is the first publication of his introductory remarks in full. The manuscript is located in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.

Eric Naiman is the author of Sex in Public: The incarnation of early Soviet ideology, 1997, and Nabokov, Perversely, 2010. He teaches Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, has published widely on Nabokov, literature, art, language and philosophy. He is writing a biography of Karl Popper.


On Examinations

I have spent a pleasant fortnight reading and re-reading your answers to ten questions about “Anna Karenin”. The test if not actually tough was more difficult than usual; but on the other hand its results yielded data more accurate than usual.

I am leaning more and more toward the set of specific questions. It is fairer to the author, it is fairer to the student, it is fairer to me. A masterpiece of fiction is made of specific words and specific images, not of general ideas. A novel or story is not worth writing if it merely expresses a general idea. Even in a mediocre translation something of the imagery remains. Most of the ten questions (as I shall presently explain) required answers that would reveal – and did reveal – how much of the imagery remained in the student’s mind after he had gone at least twice through the book, and how much the student patched up oblivion or sheer ignorance by means of his own logic and guesswork.

Now let me explain why an essay type of question dealing with a general idea may produce misleading results. Let us assume that I had said: Ladies and Gentlemen. You have one hour and I want each of you to write a paper on the theme: Tolstoy’s Attitude Towards Family Life. This is, indeed, a standard question, and it would seem, theoretically, that in answering it the brilliant students would glitter, the good students would shimmer, and the average students would shed a subdued light. What actually would have happened, however, would have been something on the following lines. Let me give you a specific example. So here is the question: Tolstoy and family life, and here are two students, student X and student Y, sitting side by side and diligently writing away in the crowded room for a whole hour. There are some similarities between students X and Y, and some differences. X has gone to a good school in his boyhood and is now doing well at college in his main subject, which is, say, some kind of applied science. Student Y, on the other hand, has gone to a progressive school, judging by his atrocious spelling, and is not doing too well in his main subject, whatever that is. There are also some points of similarity between the two. Both are good, kind, lovable young people – and neither gives a hoot for literature.

In regard to “Anna Karenin” they are both a little handicapped: Student X has read part of the book two years ago – it had been a birthdate present from an old-fashioned aunt, and was eventually mislaid during a skiing trip to Aspen. He has skipped some twenty lectures. On the other hand, Student Y has attended most of the lectures, has listened to friends discussing the book, and has read several passages in “Anna Karenin” marked by a student who got eighty-two some years ago. He has not actually waded through the whole book.

The essay of Student X, who seems to be the better student, begins thus:

Leo Tolstoy, a great Russian writer, born in Russia, dedicated his remarkable genius to solving many problems that beset, and often torment, humanity. One of these problems was that of family life and marriage in Russia. Tolstoy realized that without marriage there cannot be procreation, and without procreation there cannot be, in the long run, anyone to marry. Tolstoy also desired to convey to us, in no uncertain terms, his realization of the fact that family life and marriage are problems that have to be solved. Tolstoy considered that family life implies having children and that in their turn the children should marry. Tolstoy also points out that procreation – it goes on like this for a considerable number of pages, nothing whatever is said, but a lot seems to be said, and said elegantly, and out of sheer boredom a weak instructor may skim through the stuff and may give Mr. X an eighty just for stopping talking about nothing.

Now let us turn to Mr. Y.

Leo Tolstoy was born in Russia, were he also died. He was quite interested in family life and describes it quite well in many descriptions and metaphors. Leo Tolstoy seemed to realize quite well that without marriage there cannot be recreation and he desired to convey this to us. He is quite good at describing the family life and recreations of most of his characters. Tolstoy also tries to put across – and so forth.

Now, I grant you that the second little masterpiece by Student Y is at first glance easier to grade than the camouflaged ignorance of Student X. Actually, of course, both the debonair fraud X and poor humble Y, who can’t even crib intelligently, should not be given passing marks. But what happens? If each gets a 50 (which is generous) then each comes to the instructor and says:  Look – I’ve written about family life and I’ve written about marriage, and I’ve said that Tolstoy stood for family life, and I’ve said – They are right. They have been given a general idea to discuss and they have discussed it in a general way. And this is why I prefer the specific question – demanding a specific answer.


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