More on Sybil=Queen of Spades

Submitted by MARYROSS on Mon, 08/20/2018 - 18:58

I want to add a bit more to my post of 08/04/18 about Sybil as the Queen of Spades. I have just recently come upon an excellent supporting document (Nathan Rosen, “The Magic Cards in The Queen of Spades,” SEEJ 19:3 (1975):262)


First, a more complete summary of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades:


An avaricious man learns of a once beautiful, now decrepit old countess, who is believed to have the secret of winning at cards. He accidentally murders the old woman while unsuccessfully trying to extract the secret from her. He goes to her funeral, and when he looks in her coffin she winks at him. Later that night her ghost visits him and makes a deal: she gives him the secret if he agrees to marry her niece. She tells him to play the three, seven and ace on separate nights in a game of Faro (a game similar to lansquenet). Nights one and two he wins huge sums. Increasingly nervous, he has a nightmare that the Ace turns into an enormous black spider. On the third night he thinks he plays the ace, but instead it is the Queen of Spades, which looking just like the old countess, winks at him. He loses all his money and goes crazy.

            Nathan Rosen notes that the Countess had won her original card game in Versailles, “au jeu de la Reine” (the Queen’s game), which is phonetically like “au jeu de l’araignee” (game of the <female> spider) and also the phonetic likeness in Russian of  “pikovaia dama” (Queen of Spades) and “paukovaia dama” (spider-lady).

            Does this story relate to Pale Fire? Pale Fire has parodies and hidden references throughout to Romantic poets with associations to occultism. Pushkin is notably a favorite. The plot of The Queen of Spades is an occult tale of an egocentric man with a consuming desire who makes a deal with an older woman who turns out to be treacherous. In the occult-laden story in Pale Fire, Kinbote makes a deal with Sybil (an older woman) for the coveted manuscript – what does she get from the deal? has she been likewise treacherous?

Appropriating Hazel’s “spider-redips” word-twisting, Kinbote likens Sybil to a spider. “Redips” is not really a “dictionary” word; Kinbote, or Hazel, or for that matter, Nabokov could have chosen a more adroit example of palindrome. Clearly a twisted “spider” has some significance beyond supplying Kinbote with a catty insult. Nabokov is clearly telling us to “go back into” this word and its critical meaning. “Spider” is an epithet often use for a treacherous woman. Jung called it a negative anima symbol, luring a man in only to be destroyed. Black widows kill their mates.

Sybil, the dark Vanessa, the black chess Queen, Queen of Spades, Black Widow Spider, is at the center of the “web of sense” in Pale Fire. Sybil is at the center of the mystery level of the plot as well as being central to the higher theme of what Jung termed “Individuation”, the search for “Self”? According to Jung the spider’s web is a mandala. The symbol of the mandala has a major place in Jung’s cosmology. The concentric design of a mandala he saw as the perfect symbol of the Self.

“…the centre – itself virtually unknowable – acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice. For this reason the centre is…often pictured as a spider in its web especially when the conscious attitude is still dominated by fear of the unconscious processes.”

Compare this with a statement of Nabokov’s that “reality is an infinite succession of levels, levels of perception, or false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.” Jung mentions the spider as a symbol of the negative anima. Presumably, the spider at the center is, in fact, the negative anima, the guardian of the Self, which is infinite. Until confronted and assimilated, the fear of the negative anima blocks a man’s ability to get to the center of his being.

            This antithetic look at Sybil, the “dark Vanessa” Black Queen/Black Widow, along with Jung’s theories of archetypes and alchemy and the “sacred marriage” of opposites (anima and animus), are all supported on a synthetic level of the greater theme of the quest for “Self”. This quest unites the poem and commentary; both Shade and Kinbote are experiencing what the Jungian Joseph Campbell has called the “Hero’s Journey”.

If Shade, Kinbote and Gradus represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality, then Sybil Shade and Queen Disa (Duchess of Payn, of great Payn and Mone) are also one and the same person (Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin). She has as much in common with the old Countess in Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” as, say, with the Queen or the Duchess in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Btw., in his Russian version of Lewis Carroll’s book, Anya v strane chudes (1923), VN uses Lermontov’s Kazach’ya Kolybel’naya (“The Cossack Lullaby,” 1838) as a base for parody when rendering the Duchess’ lullaby (“Speak roughly to your little boy...”):


Увольте, - сказала Герцогиня. - Я никогда не могла выносить вычисленья! - И она стала качать своего младенца, выкрикивая при этом нечто вроде колыбельной песни и хорошенько встряхивая его после каждого стиха.


Вой, младенец мой прекрасный,
А чихнёшь - побью!
Ты нарочно - это ясно...


Хор (при участии кухарки и ребенка):


Ау! Ау! Ау! Ау!


То ты синий, то ты красный,
Бью и снова бью!
Перец любишь ты ужасно.




Ау! Ау! Ау! Ау! Ау! Ау! (chapter 6 “Porosyonok i perets”)

In his poem Net, ne tebya tak pylko ya lyublyu… (“No, it is not you I love so ardently…” 1841) Lermontov addresses a young woman and says that he loves in her a past suffering and his perished youth. The intonation in the poem’s first line is very similar to that in Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832), Lermontov’s poem that ends in the line: Ya – ili Bog – ili nikto (Myself – or God – or none at all). In Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830) Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would). Nikto b is Botkin in reverse.


Alexey Sklyarenko

Pushkin's makes clear that the Countess was once young and beautiful, so it makes perfect sense that Disa and Sybil, as the same person, maid and matron, are reflections of the Queen of Spades.

Alexey, I am curious where/how you arrived at "Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin". Thanks

The dual identity of Disa and Sybil is something I address in my work-in-progress. Even Kinbote notes that in the poem Shade seems to be describing young Disa rather than current Sybil:



Despite Shade’s tender paeon to his wife, Sybil’s sharp, brusque and controlling nature is evident more coyly (and perhaps even passive-aggressively) in the poem, as well. Just as Shade’s professed love for his daughter is belied by his repulsion at her unattractiveness, Shade seems to be nostalgically addressing a once young and nubile maid, while subtly revealing the current flinty and flighty matron. His professed feelings seem at odds with Sybil’s actual depictions. Here are some more examples from the poem that show Sybil’s sharp personality and dull wits:

            In lines 60-69, Shade is “mocking” the inanity of modern life, but also his wife. The “naïve, the gauzy mockingbird/Retelling all the programs she had heard”, and “…rasping out: Come here,/ come here, come herrr” is a strident Sybil, the TV addict.

            This might seem like gentle teasing from a loving husband, but the poem also displays and betrays Sybil’s trite and controlling nature through her relationship with Hazel. She is as subtly rejecting as John towards the unlovable girl. She spouts inane proscriptions, “ …She should play/ Tennis, or badminton. Less starch, more fruit” (Line 302-3). Hazel called her “a didactic katydid”, i.e. a chirpy, garrulous moralist. When Hazel asks for help with homework, Sybil offers “guarded scholium” (i.e. she doesn’t know), then again pushes fruit: “would you like a tangerine?”  Sybil would seem a little clueless both intellectually and to being perceptive to her daughter’s needs. Shade has created an image of Sybil that seems, indeed, very like the airhead picture that Kinbote recreates in the scene of the haunted barn.  Kinbote’s reconstruction of Hazel’s third night in the barn, with her parents, is an entertaining picture of his tendentious conception of Sybil.  She appears chirpy, silly, shallow, clueless, commonplace and annoying. Hazel seems to share that opinion. With parents so unattuned to her, no wonder Hazel criticized them “ferociously” (Line 352)

When Shade finally has an epiphany following the fountain/mountain experience, feeling confident that he has at last found an answer to his spiritual quest, he tries to share his new conviction with Sybil. When he walks in the door, “stormcoated”, that is, braced for a chilly response, she is fully in her wifely banality with a bromidic, “Yes, dear?”  You can just hear his “faint hope” sink and dwindle like the TV’s pinpoint of light.  

The night of Hazel’s death is so masterfully created in counterpoint to her parents’ concern that it is usually taken as a harrowing experience for a close and devoted couple, gamely trying ignore their growing fear and foreboding. However, it appears to me that Sybil’s attachment to the TV may be stronger than to her daughter. She steadily watches from eight-fifteen to midnight. “There’s nothing else of interest,” she sighs before imperially chopping off televised heads like the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass. “Oh, switch it off!” is clearly exasperated John speaking.

Below I resend (with several additions) my post of October 19, 2015, in which I mention Queen Disa and Hermann (the mad gambler in Pushkin's "Queen of Spades"):


In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions Black Rose Paladins:


Actually Odon happened to be one of the most prominent actors in Zembla and was winning applause in the Royal Theater on his off-duty nights. Through him the King kept in touch with numerous adherents, young nobles, artists, college athletes, gamblers, Black Rose Paladins, members of fencing clubs, and other men of fashion and adventure. (note to Line 130)


As I pointed out before, in his poem V restorane (“At the Restaurant,” 1910) Alexander Blok (the author of “Verses about the Beautiful Lady,” 1904) mentions a black rose:


Я послал тебе чёрную розу в бокале

Золотого, как небо, аи.


I sent you a black rose

in the goblet of Ay, golden as the sky.


On the other hand, in his poem Zhil na svete rytsar’ bednyi (“There was once a poor knight…” 1829) Pushkin mentions paladiny (the paladins) proclaiming the names of their ladies, while the poem’s hero shouts: “Lumen coelum, sancta Rosa!


Между тем как паладины
Ввстречу трепетным врагам
По равнинам Палестины
Мчались, именуя дам,


Lumen coelum, sancta Rosa!

Восклицал всех громче он,
И гнала его угроза
Мусульман со всех сторон.


When the Paladins proclaiming
Ladies' names as true love's sign
Hurled themselves into the battle
On the plains of Palestine,

Lumen coelum, sancta Rosa!
Shouted he with flaming glance,
And the fury of his menace
Checked the Mussulman's advance.


In the preceding stanza vera (faith) and lyubov’ (love) are mentioned:


Полон верой и любовью,
Верен набожной мечте,
Ave, Mater Dei кровью
Написал он на щите.


Filled with purest love and fervor,
Faith which his sweet dreams did yield
In his blood he traced the letters
A.M.D. upon his shield.


Vera, Nadezhda (hope) and Lyubov’ are the three daughters of Sophia (wisdom). One is tempted to assume that, while Hazel’s real name is Nadezhda, Sybil’s (and Queen Disa’s) real name is Sofia. In Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (1824) Chatski is in love with Sofia (Famusov’s daughter who is enamored with Molchalin). V. Botkin’s wife was born Sofia Lastochkin. Lastochki (“The Swallows,” 1884) is a famous poem by Afanasiy Fet (who was married to Maria Botkin).


In Dostoevski’s novel Idiot (1869) Aglaya (the youngest of the three Epanchin sisters) quotes Pushkin’s poem about the poor and pale knight. The name of the novel’s main character (who ends up in a Swiss mad house), Prince Myshkin, comes from myshka (little mouse). In his Commentary Kinbote mentions a cat-and-mouse game (in Russian, koshki-myshki):


A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago Disa, our King's Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade's collection of short poems Hebe's Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting here (from a letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):



The gingko leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,
Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread
In shape.


When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built, the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and "tree" in Zemblan is grados. (note to Line 49)


In Pushkin's essay John Tanner (1836), in which the action takes place in America, the hero mentions a hickory:


Поход наш сквозь лес был труден и скучен. Через десять дней пришли мы на берег Мауми. Индийцы рассыпались по́ лесу и стали осматривать деревья, перекликаясь между собою. Выбрали одно ореховое дерево (hickory), срубили его, сняли кору и сшили из неё челнок, в котором мы все поместились; поплыли по течению реки и вышли на берег у большой индийской деревни, выстроенной близ устья другой какой-то реки. Жители выбежали к нам навстречу. Молодая женщина с криком кинулась на меня и била по голове. Казалось, многие из жителей хотели меня убить; однако старик и молодой человек уговорили их меня оставить. По-видимому, я часто бывал предметом разговоров, но не понимал их языка. Старик знал несколько английских слов. Он иногда приказывал мне сходить за водою, разложить огонь и тому подобное, начиная таким образом требовать от меня различных услуг.


The Indians made a boat out of the bark of a hickory. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions the Umruds (an Eskimo tribe) and their umyaks (hide-lined boats):


He was a merry, perhaps overmerry, fellow, in a green velvet jacket. Nobody like him, but he certainly had a keen mind.  His name, Izumrudov, sounded rather Russian but actually meant “of the Umruds,” an Eskimo tribe sometimes seen paddling their umyaks (hide-lined boats) on the emerald waters of our northern shores. Grinning, he said friend Gradus must get together his travel documents, including a health certificate, and take the earliest available jet to New York. Bowing, he congratulated him on having indicated with such phenomenal acumen the right place and the right way. Yes, after a thorough perlustration of the loot that Andron and Niagarushka had obtained from the Queen’s rosewood writing desk (mostly bills, and treasured snapshots, and those silly medals) a letter from the King did turn up giving his address which was of all places—Our man, who interrupted the herald of success to say he had never—was bidden not to display such modesty. A slip of paper was now produced on which Izumrudov, shaking with laughter (death is hilarious), wrote out for Gradus their client’s alias, the name of the university where he taught and that of the town where it was situated. No, the slip was not for keeps. He could keep it only while memorizing it. This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious. The gay green vision withdrew—to resume his whoring no doubt. How one hates such men! (note to Line 741)


In his poem Exegi Monumentum (1836) Pushkin says: Net, ves’' ya ne umru (No, I’'ll not wholly die) and mentions, among other tribes populating Russia, nyne dikiy tungus (the now savage Tungus). During his long voyage to Sakhalin in the spring of 1890 Chekhov wrote letters to his family beginning them: Druz’'ya moi tungusy! ("“My Tungus friends!") In Sakhalin (the place of penal servitude where Chekhov spent three months and three days) the writer must have met people like Samorodov (the counterfeiter in Chekhov’'s story "“In the Ravine," 1900) and Anisim Tsybukin (the policeman whom Samorodov drew into counterfeiting of coins). The name Samorodov comes from samorodok (“nugget; “talented person without education”) and brings to mind Izumrudov (izumrud means "emerald").


According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade’s murderer) contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus (note to Line 17). Pushkin’s poem Vinograd (“The Grapes,” 1824) begins: Ne stanu ya zhalet’ o rozakh (I won’t be sorry about the roses).


Gamblers mentioned by Kinbote in his note to Line 130 and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved, the last king of Zembla) bring to mind Hermann, the mad gambler in Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,”  1833). At the beginning of the story Hermann mentions nadezhda:


— Игра занимает меня сильно, — сказал Германн, — но я не в состоянии жертвовать необходимым в надежде приобрести излишнее.

"The play interests me very much," said Hermann: "but I am not in the position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous."


When Hermann loses his third game with Chekalinski, the latter says: Vasha dama ubita (“your queen has lost”). Ubita means “killed.” At the end of his Commentary Kinbote (who commits suicide after completing his work on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum) says: My work is finished. My poet is dead. (note to Line 1000)


Kinbote’s first name, Charles, brings to mind the patronymic of the narrator and main character of VN’s novel Otchayanie (“Despair,” 1934), a namesake of Pushkin’s gambler. In VN’s novel Hermann Karlovich murders Felix, a tramp who, as Hermann believes, is his perfect double. It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s unfinished poem needs two more lines:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the window pane.


Dvoynik ("The Double") is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok.


Alexey Sklyarenko

(19 October, 2015)