Twice Removed: Cousins and Puritans in PALE FIRE

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Tue, 08/27/2019 - 05:44

by Gerard de Vries

In response to Alain Champlain’s intriguing submission of 8 July, “A few notes on spacetime in Pale Fire,” Mary Ross writes that “there seems no gratuitous remarks in PF.” It is this fact, that somewhere a meaning is waiting to be discovered, that stimulates Nabokovians to besiege VN’s dazzling puzzles, even when failure is a more likely upshot than success.

That “Shade’s maternal grandmother” is “a first cousin of Sybil’s grandfather” (if Kinbote is not greatly mistaken) (C. 247), is, once this casual remark is regarded as a challenge, such an impregnable looking perplexity, as there seems no clue for finding the bearing this wayward remark might have on the various stories told in PF.

Not much is related about Shade’s family, and even less about Sybil’s. Shade’s father died in 1902, four years after his son was born, and his mother died about the same time (“I was an infant when my parents died”).

His mother, “née Caroline Lukin, assisted him [her husband] in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico.” Kinbote gleaned this detail from the obituary Professor Hurley wrote (C. 71). “What the obituarist does not know,” Kinbote continues, “is that Lukin comes from Luke,” and that for this reason the patronymic is an offspring of the use of “a Christian name.” Kinbote calls this patronymic “hereditary” and because surnames are usually inherited one wonders whether this hereditary aspect might apply to this Christian connotation. This question deserves attention because Kinbote’s  gloss is conspicuous as being a not very relevant one:

As a Christian name “Luke” refers to St. Luke, the writer of the third Gospel. St. Luke is believed to be of Greek origin (Alison Jones, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints. Ware, 1994), named “Loukas,” meaning “of or belonging to Lucania” (Chambers Bibliographical Dictionary; E.G. Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Oxford: OUP, 1946). 

“The name [Luke]”, writes Withycombe, “is not found in England before the Norman Conquest, and seems to have come into use in the 12thC.” As this happened about a millennium after Christianity entered England, it seems a bit contrived to associate the use of the name of Luke in England with St. Luke.

Shade’s mother, Caroline Lukin, is “a descendant” of “an old Essex family.” This addition gives the Christian aspect more import. Some research on the internet produces the name of Henry Lukin, (1627-1719), a Puritan divine from Essex who published many religious tracts and became a friend of John Locke. Essex was “the hotbed of Calvinistic Puritanism in England” (Gerald Garth Johnson, Puritan Children in Exile.Bowie: Heritage Books, 2002, 90). Between 1620 and 1640 thousands of English Puritans left England and established settlements in New England of which Boston is probably the best known one. Several of Boston’s citizens have been given prominence in PF.

Religious groups are prone to endogamy, and intermarriage among Puritans often happened (Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolution. A Social History of American Family Life. NY: The Free Press, 1988, Ch. I).

The Shades’ marriage is marked by a small degree of consanguinity as John and Sybil are third cousins. Having great great grandparents in common is in no country considered as an obstacle for moral, legal or medical reasons to marry. So why is this detail mentioned at all?

It may be that it acquires some meaning when combined with the other particulars related about Sybil’s family, as her surname “Irondell” comes from the French for “swallow,” Hirondelle,and that she “came of Canadian stock.” These details open the possibility that Sybil’s ancestors were Huguenots of which a number fled to Canada in order to escape the suppression of Calvinists in France.

The prosecution of (groups of) Protestants in England and France, that they sought to escape by emigration, was most severe in the 17thC. A more recent example of endogamy among Huguenots is the marriage of AndréGide (mentioned in C. 691) to his first cousin Madeleine Rondeaux. He was attracted to her because she shared his moral stance that was rather peculiar due to his “Puritan” upbringing (If It Die. NY: Vintage, 238).

Puritanism can frequently observed in PF, and Sybil’s religious strictness is most likely a manifestation of it, as I have argued elsewhere (“Hazel Shade’s ‘Pale Spectres’ and ‘Purple Fires.’” Nabokov Online Journal, vol. XII [2018]).

Kinbote points out that it is Shade’s “maternal” grandmother who is the first cousin of Sybil’s grandfather. It seems that three generations of Shades, John, Samuel and Samuel’s father, all married women with Puritan antecedents.


I think that Matthew Roth had pointed out a source from whence Nabokov could have obtained his information on surnames. An entry likewise, had been made in Nabokov's Reading. For the ease of reference, here it is:

If nothing else de Vries's suggestion consolidates the connection in the statement that "the Lukins are an old Essex family". In this regard, it is interesting to gloss over another piece of Kinbote's commentary (to ln. 549):

"Sybil Shade came from a Catholic family but since early girlhood developed, as she told me herself, "a religion of her own" - which is generally synonymous, at the best, with a half-hearted attachment to some half-heathen sect or, at the worst, with tepid atheism. She had weaned her husband not only from the Episcopal Church of his fathers, but from all forms of sacramental worship."

I felt quite sure that "Lukin" must mean "light," from "lux". I checked a number of on-line etymologies, but  could not find. Finally I found:  

"i) Bapt. 'the son of Luke.' Lucas was the more popular form. Yet the diminutives seem formed from Luke; v. Luckett, Luckin, and Luccock."

Looking under "Lucas" :

(Anglo-Greek-Latin) is from a Greek form (Λουκâς) of Latin Lucius, &c. [from Latin lux, lucis, light = Greek λύκη, light] Thæt Godspel æfter Lucas gerecednysse (The Gospel according to St. Luke).—A .-Sax. Gospels.

The site quotes from — Surnames of the United Kingdom (1912) by Henry Harrison 

The importance of this etymology is that in my Jungian take on Pale Fire, I assert that John Shade is the persona. He is not all he seems and he has a dark side - thus half-light/half-Shade.

As far as his remote blood-line with Sybil, the only suggestion I might put forward is that in alchemy, the "sacred marriage" is between King and Queen, but sometimes they are called "Brother" and "Sister."

I wonder if Henry Lukin was involved with alchemy, as many were in the 17th Century - that would tie it in, for me. I couldn't find anything in a brief search, except that he was a "non-conformist" divine, whatever that means.

Gerard de Vries, I have read your article, and I concur with everything you say in there about homosexuality in PF, and also the Shades’ conventionality. I don’t quite agree with your surmise that Sybil turning from Catholicism indicates a turn (or at least not a hard turn) towards Protestantism, though. I think “a religion of her own” has a double meaning, typical of PF.


I believe that PF takes place on two fictive planes – the “thetic” and the “antithetic.” The thetic level is the “real life” of “real characters” in New Wye – this includes the insane Kinbote and his hallucinations. The antithetic level is the level of allusions, themes, tropes, metaphors, allegory, etc. This level continually reveals occult associations that I believe ultimately shed light on the “real” situation in New Wye.


In New Wye, John & Sybil Shade are very conventional small town college professor and wife. Their professed views are probably typical of what Nabokov found in US campus towns – a kind of tepid liberalism. John Shade’s atheistic stance is typical of the academic type and time. Sybil’s “religion of her own” is even more wishy-washy and not even a stance, typical of the type of person who really doesn’t think much of religion at all. In New Wye, everything about Sybil, especially through Kinbote’s eyes, but also subtly revealed in the poem, is opinionated but banal.


On the antithetic level, John Shade is a natural mystic from childhood. He hides this “shameful” aspect of himself until the pressure of his daughter’s death brings this forth again in a quest for understanding. John Shade also hides the fact that he drinks and has affaires with young co-eds. He is not all he seems. This is why I see him as the Jungian persona – the mask.


Sybil is not all she seems, either. On the antithetic level, Sybil is actually a “sibyl”.

Despite her practical personality, she seems to be, as her name implies, a kind of “sibyl” or perhaps one might say a prophetic “herald of doom,” like the Vanessa. Priscilla Meyer notes that "The “Sibyl’s Prophecy,” a poem from the Scandinavian Elder Edda links to Mrs. Shade via her maiden name “Irondell”; the sibyl of that tale was called the “Witch of Iron Wood". All of Sybil’s TV programs are eerily prognostic – the TV screen “in its blank broth evolved a lifelike blur” (P, 405)” There are many other allusions that link Sybil with the occult and witchcraft, which I won’t go into here –I have posted previously on the Forum about Sybil as spider. The witch and the spider are typical antagonistic Jungian “anima” figures.


So, while on the thetic level Sybil is conventional to the point of banality, on the antithetic “a religion of her own” suggests witchcraft.