This Week I Learned That Fictional Men Are Pigs
Have you ever heard of “The Vane Sisters” by Vladimir Nabokov? Yes? No? Maybe so? Well let me tell you a little bit about this story with a new Hannah Hot Takes.
A quick content warning for this story, this short story deals with suicide. Please read this story at your own risk as the death is very prevalent to the story and will be brought up in this post.
Our story begins with our unnamed narrator, my favorite kind, as he runs into a man only known in the story as D. This pair used to work together at a women’s college in New England. Enter the Vane sisters: Sybil and Cynthia. Sybil is the younger of the two and the one who once attended the college. It’s there that she had a sexual relationship with D.
After finding out about what her sister was doing, Cynthia enlists the narrator to speak with D and end the affair. Once this affair is ended, Sybil becomes unstable and ends her own life. It is our narrator who discovers Sybil’s suicide note in her French essay. He attempts to stop Sybil from going through with her plans, but is sadly too late. After Sybil’s death, her sister and the narrator begin a relationship that last for about a year before the story delves into Cynthia’s life after Sybil’s death.
This is where I begin my hot take. Also hi, how’s everyone doing today? I skipped over the pleasantries and went straight to the meat of the post this week. Please stay safe, wear your mask, stay warm in these colder months.
I don’t believe that the narrator of “The Vane Sisters” was romantically interested in Cynthia for one moment. I think he was attracted to Sybil, and upon her death, becomes romantically involved with Cynthia because being with Cynthia is the closest thing he can get to being with Sybil.
Let’s start at the beginning with D and Sybil’s affair. D is an absolute piece of shit. Not only is he sleeping with one of his student, creating an absolutely disgusting power dynamic, he’s cheating on his wife.
D straight up belongs in the garbage. And so does our narrator for that matter; remember, I said he wanted to be involved with Sybil too. Anyway, Cynthia asks this French professor to step in and end Sybil’s affair. Why would Cynthia ask the narrator to step in? Why wouldn’t she do so herself? Is it because the narrator knows both people involved?
That last question led me to this thought: he has a relationship with Sybil. Not romantically, not yet at least, but he does have a relationship with her. He obviously has a student-teacher relationship with Sybil although he does want to have a romantic relationship with her too. He’s not trying to take advantage of her in the same way D does, meaning he doesn’t just want to sleep with her, but the pair have to be close in some way. That student-teacher relationship has to run deeper or else why would Cynthia have asked him to stop her sister’s affair. They have to be closer to “friends” or confidants. He’s at the very least someone Sybil thinks she can trust.
Don’t believe me just yet? Need another example that says the French teacher and Sybil were close? How about the fact that she left her suicide note for him to find? She didn’t leave it for her sister to find, it wasn’t near her body, D was out of the picture for quite some time by this point so she never would have left the note for him. Sybil left her note in her French essay for the narrator to find.
The pair’s relationship surely runs deeper than solely that of teacher and student; at least where the narrator is concerned that is. Sybil may just trust her French professor, but he is certainly lusting after her in the very least. In the one short scene where the pair are together, his gaze continuously “kept reverting to her” during the last two hours they spend together during his French exam. During this time, our narrator feels the need to discuss Sybil’s beauty. He claims that it’s marred by the amount of cosmetics she uses; leaving her eyes the only part of her face that reveal her true beauty. Yeah…that’s not how teachers should think about their students.
This still hasn’t proved that Cynthia is a stand in for Sybil though. If you remember all the way back to the start of this post, I claimed that the older sister is the closest thing the narrator can get to being with Sybil once the latter has passed.
Their relationship begins with Sybil’s death. Cynthia and the narrator literally “bond” over memories of Sybil. Our narrator, ever the gentleman, waits half a year to officially begins a relationship with Cynthia. But upon beginning this relationship his internal monologue belongs solely to him saying his new girlfriend isn’t as pretty as her dead sister and that Cynthia’s interest in spiritualism is a waste of time. Sybil would have never been interested in something as fake as spiritualism.
Anyway, comparing his descriptions between sisters, the late one has a pretty face that is hidden by make up while his current girlfriend's is also smeared with make up in hopes to hide her pores that are reminiscent of fish staring at you from an aquarium. He also says that Cynthia has a “so-called good figure” while Sybil had a thinner, nicer frame. Thanks, I hate the narrator; I hope he chokes.
I’m not going to force you to sit here and read all the terrible comparisons the narrator makes between the two sisters. I had to read them though so I just had to share some of the pain I went through. You’re welcome by the way.
I marked one other page of this short story. My hot take basically revolves around this narrator being a pig and comparing one sister to another. But, I bring you one last quote: “as a Frenchman I preferred the grape to the grain.”
Out of context, this makes absolutely no sense. He’s supposed to be talking about booze and how he prefers wine to whiskey, which same, but in the larger context of the story he flat out states he prefers Sybil to Cynthia.
Let me explain. Cynthia studied Latin in her college years while Sybil was a French student. Cynthia equals grain, Sybil equals grape; i.e. the narrator prefers Sybil. At this point in the story, it’s been about a year since Cynthia and him have begun dating and a year and a half since Sybil died, yet he still longs for Sybil. Again, I hope this narrator chokes.
Once he says this, Cynthia blows up in his face claiming to never want to see him again. If this was truly about preferring wine to whiskey then this is perhaps one of the largest overreactions to have ever occurred either fictionally or in real life. Alas, I don’t believe that to be the case. I think Cynthia has realized why the narrator is with her. I think she’s realized that the narrator has no true romantic interest in her and that he instead sees her as the closest thing to Sybil.
Truthfully, this has to be the worst hot take I’ve ever created for this blog, not because it makes no sense or because of my poor writing, but because of what pigs the men in this story are. Part of me is sorry for creating this and the other part of me wants you my lovely reader to suffer with me. I hope you enjoyed the ride I’ve taken you on today. And please send me title names because I’m still not sold on Hannah Hot Takes and still cannot think of anything better.