The Nabokovian 42 (1999): 25-26

Angels on the Planks: The Workmen in the Two Scenes in Mary

In the last scene of Mary, Ganin returns to his "real" life from his journey through the past. In other words, his revelation finally brings him back from the world of shades and ghosts to his "real" world, in which he seems to live on at will. His realization that love has ended occurs as he watches the workmen passing a slab, as well as the yellow sheen of fresh timber and the skeletal roof in the ethereal sky. The description of the men working on the frame of a house strangely alludes to the workmen in the film-shooting scene in Ch. 2. "The figures of the workmen on the frame showed blue against the morning sky. One was walking along the ridge-piece, as light and free as though he were about to fly away" (114, italics added). Cf. ". . . the lazy workmen walking easily and nonchalantly like blue-clad angels from plank to plank high above (21, italics added). Though Ganin seems to recover from his shadowiness and launches out into "real" life, his realization is still triggered by the workmen as he was directed as a film extra by similar workmen. In Ch. 2, the workmen illuminate the Russian extras, including Ganin, and make them into the shades in a film of which they know nothing. Watching the film, Ganin feels ashamed of himself as one who had to act blindly as directed and has become one of the shades which will wander from city to city while being completely ignorant about it. His shame is from his ignorance and objectivity rather than the poverty that makes him a miserable extra. At last he seems to realize the truth subjectively, but in his very realization, he is still influenced by the workmen. Leona Toker mentions that Ganin's awakening is canceled together with the protagonist himself and that the calming effect of the sight of the workmen is the author's feelings upon completing the novel (Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structure 46). The workmen, who once directed him and are passing a slab like a book, prompt Ganin to leave, alluding that the book in which he has been the protagonist is coming to an end; the workman who looks as if to fly away from the roof stands for the author, who is rising to a new stage after finishing his first novel.

Akiko Nakata, Japan