While at first the reoccurrence of squirrels throughout Pnin seems to signal Nabokov’s signature playfulness, a further examination reveals that they powerfully point to Pnin’s lost country, connections, and lovers.
Initially, the motif of squirrels contributes to Pnin’s slapstick humor. The reader cannot help but laugh when a squirrel gives Pnin the eye as he helps it drink from a water fountain or when one runs across his path, causing Pnin nearly to fall in a grand and melodramatic style. While the only interactions between Pnin and squirrels that we see occur in America, the narrator suggests that squirrels connect back to Russia and the notion of home. Pnin argues that Cinderella did not in fact wear glass slippers but instead shoes made from “Russian squirrel fur” (158). Likewise, the narrator sees a stuffed squirrel in Pnin’s childhood room, arguably Pnin’s last true home.
Squirrels further reflect Pnin’s past life in Russia as they become associated with his past connections, namely his ex-wife Liza and her son Victor. Pnin sends Victor a postcard with an image of a Gray Squirrel, which states that the word “squirrel” comes from a Greek word that means “shadow-tail” (88). This origin seems appropriate as the squirrels, and Pnin’s past connections, haunt him throughout the book. After Liza visits Pnin and asks him to send money, Pnin finds himself reflecting on life. The narrator writes, “He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request” (58). The urgent request is a squirrel demanding water from the water fountain. Pnin abandons his search for the key to the universe in order to help. The greedy squirrel appears to symbolize Liza, as shown by “Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude” (58), further drawing the connection between squirrels and people in Pnin’s life.
Accordingly, squirrels most often appear in the narrative when Pnin ponders the meaning of the universe. Pnin’s understanding of the world shattered when his childhood sweetheart, Mira Belockin, died in a concentration camp during World War II, and he has since tried to piece it back together. Nabokov writes, “In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belockin […] because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible” (134-35). Since Mira’s death, Pnin struggles to understand senseless pain and violence. We see Pnin’s need to understand senseless pain as he fights a childhood illness: “It stood to reason that if the evil designer – the destroyer of minds, the friend of fever – had concealed the key of the pattern with such monstrous care, that key must be as precious as life itself and, when found, would regain for Timofey Pnin his everyday health, his everyday world” (23). Yet Pnin never finds the key. After he experiences a heart attack, he reflects, “During one melting moment, he had the sensation of holding at last the key he had sought; but, coming from very far, a rustling wind […] confused whatever rational pattern Timofey Pnin’s surroundings had once had.” (24). A gray squirrel once more interrupts these thoughts and samples a peach stone. The appearance of squirrels during these meaningful moments coupled with the fact that the Russian word for squirrel, belka, sounds extremely similar to Mira’s last name gives the name “shadow-tail” additional ghostly significance.
Therefore, the shadow of squirrels captures Pnin’s lost home and lost connections to people around him. But additionally the squirrels capture hauntings of the Holocaust and his inability to understand the universe in its aftermath.