Apologia pro Shade

Submitted by Shakeeb_Arzoo on Fri, 08/30/2019 - 13:58

In the light of discussions (and the surge in activity) presented by both Gerard de Vries’ essay and Mary Ross’s comments, I wish to offer here, my two Indian cents.

I must start off by saying that there is no evidence (with all due respects) in the entirety of the novel Pale Fire, that John Shade was anything but morally upright person. He is, as Nabokov would say from his interviews, one of my “more responsible characters” who “is given some of my own ideas”. Michael Wood, in his admirable essay on Pale Fire: The Demons of our Pity suggests when Kinbote “invents a ‘scene’ with father, mother and daughter which he feels ‘cannot be too far removed from the truth’, and which "expresses far more understanding of Hazel's anger and frustration than either parent seems to manage.”. He also prudently suggests that “Hazel’s parents’ pity must be part of the problem”, and that it “seems weirdly foregrounded in Shade's consciousness, and therefore in ours.” Good looks, Michael Wood says in a mild rebuttal to the presentation of Hazel’s troubles in the poem, are indispensable if they are the only currency you recognize. It is quite true that Shade’s poem presents an incident (Hazel appearing as Mother Time in a school play) that is colored with John Shade’s own awareness and feelings of the situation rather than that of Hazel in proper. But another way to look at it would be that the tragedy of Hazel Shade’s suicide must be too intense for John to deal with directly. Any overt or covert psychologizing or evaluations (say like a Tolstoyan exposition) will necessarily fall short, besides being ethically insincere (from the point of view of a parent) and so Nabokov has Kinbote, as an onlooker (and a next door neighbour) do some research and add to the dimensions of Hazel Shade. It speaks volumes of the Shades’ grief when Kinbote reports whether John “experienced some kind of genetic guilt, when he wondered whether Hazel's poltergeist may not be related to his own boyhood fits”, and that the Shades were ‘afraid of Hazel and afraid to hurt her’.

Let me point out here, an actual scene that did take place (which has oft been analyzed) which Shade refers to as “bound by you and her and me/ Now form a tryptich or a three-act play/ In which portrayed events forever stay.” There’s a chime of subtle harmony and peace at that instant of time, which Nabokov elsewhere refers to as “that robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” (SM) So despite the following lines “I think she always nursed a small mad hope” which I think is more appropriate to the contingencies of the actual world, I strongly doubt that the Shades’ were insensitive to Hazel Shade’s despairs and/or failures or didn’t try to ease her disappointments. One of the things Nabokov, I believe through the character of Hazel Shade was aiming at, as he mentioned quite memorably in his lectures on the art of fiction: “commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth”.

In another vein, Shade’s attitude towards religion or in any case with his beliefs, is well borne out in the famous conversation with Kinbote about “the big G”. Shade definitely comes off as a “skeptical theologist” or as Nabokov would put it “happy and useful agonist”.

I hope I have not been too presumptuous with this offering. Apologies, if these details are all too well known.

Shakeeb, I really welcome your comments. I think I am in a minority of one (so far) as to my interpretation of the Shades. Several critics have noted the Shade's misunderstanding of their daughter, but I am not aware of anyone questioning the Shade marriage. I am working on a thesis of Jungian motifs in Pale Fire and, although I have posted some of my ideas here, and they may seem surprising, ultimately they come to a cohesive whole which I hope to put forward soon. I am attaching part of my description of John Shade as "persona" if you care to read. Keep in mind that it is supported by a lot more information.

I think VN's ultimate deceit in PF is his convincing presentation of the "happy" Shade marriage. The abundant, though hidden Jungian motifs suggest differently. 

Sorry to say, I can't find a way to attach the following separately, so forgive me if it's overwhelming your post. Best, Mary


John Shade's Dark Side:


Several critics have written about the dysfunctional relationship of Hazel and her parents.[1] John Shade calls his daughter “my darling,” but his over-concern with her homely unattractive looks and morose introversion belies his underlying dark unconscious attitude. I concur with these critics and find it reason enough to doubt Boyd’s theory of Hazel’s beneficent transmogrification into the Vanessa atalanta butterfly. As I point out in my paper “Vanessa Atalanta: Butterfly of Doom” (MR 1), the Vanessa is a herald of doom. Allegorically, Hazel is the repressed negative anima, a projection of Shade’s own rejected, clumsy, unattractive, gender-insecure, preternaturally mystic childhood, which he put aside to become admirably conventional: a lauded poet, professor and community member, with a beautiful, beloved, “perfect” professor’s wife. He traded his own metaphysical certitude and allure (shame) of his mystical trances to align with conventional societal opinions and lived all his “twisted life” in conformity and constant waffling doubt. If Hazel reincarnates as the butterfly (which I believe she does), it is more likely as an omen, like a repressed archetype coming to consciousness, which, like the shadow, is felt as doom.

Doubt is John Shade’s spiritual bane.  Despite his sensitivity and propensity to mystical experience from childhood, Shade doubts and fears what are actually for him ecstatic experiences. The dissolution of ego and expansion of consciousness are outside “normal” experience, and fat and lame young John, envying other boys, wants to be “normal.” No one understands or can explain his unusual “fits.” The doctors tell him “growing pains” or “heart attack,” and so he doubts his personal sense of “quiddity.” He calls his fountain image “Old Faithful,” but he needs someone to affirm his unique experience. He rushes to the woman who had the (misprinted) similar epiphany, but is crushed by her “mountain” apparently not substantiating his “fountain.” Likewise, when he excitedly feels confident in having found the answer to his metaphysical quest in “the contrapuntal theme” (P 808, 50) and tries to tell Sybil. Upon her wifely bromidic “Yes, dear?”, his faith (ironically, equivocally and contrapuntally) deflates into “faint hope.” “Contrapuntal” denotes “duality,” the consciousness of the ego rather than the One. Ups will be followed by downs; Doubt will counter certainty.

I have suggested that John Shade represents the higher consciousness of the tri-part man. That is not actually entirely true; John Shade evinces the higher ideals of art, inspiration, intellect, compassion, etc., and in that sense the notion of the tri-part man holds; but John Shade’s self-doubt keeps him in the loop of duality. There is a darker side of Shade. Nabokov has rather successfully convinced readers that John Shade is a kind and homey “fireside poet,” a loving father and faithful spouse. Kinbote however, despite his avowed esteem, lets slip the truth of his idol. He tells us that Shade’s whole being constituted a “mask” and a “disguise” (F, 19). The “persona”, or mask, is one of the major Jungian archetypes. It is the false face shown to the public. The persona is always insecure, the mask held up by a shaky hand.

Just as the persona is created to convince others of an idealized self, Nabokov’s creation of John Shade is a purposeful feint that has convinced readers of the poet’s high side virtues. It is a false scent, a delusive opening move “astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray” (SM, 290). I have likewise led on the reader of this paper; it was necessary first to establish Shade as he is purposefully inaccurately depicted on the thetic level in order to illustrate the antithetic game plan of deception.

            Yet, Nabokov has cleverly left abundant clues in thetic plain sight. As W.W. Rowe has pointed out, Nabokov had a fondness for “hiding the solution to a mystery within its presentation.” Kinbote’s extolment of Shade hides within it the opposite. John Shade’s homely looks are actually the “fashion of modern day bards” (F, 19) –in other words, a bit of a pose. As a sort of reverse Dorian Grey portrait, Kinbote asserts that this merely belies Shade’s “intrinsic self by the same forces of perfection which purified and chiseled his verse.” Kinbote’s appraisal is not necessarily wrong and only the opposite true. In the Jungian point of view, the unconscious is not just the source of the dark and denied aspects, but also the very source of man’s higher nature. John Shade is not a monster. He has access to aspects of his higher nature (poetry, compassion, insight, etc.); he is just not all he seems. Although we’ve seen that John Shade is the false self, the persona, the senex’s idealized transcendent values that he represents for Botkin are real. It is just that Botkin has separated out the light from the darker and egoistic parts of his nature to create the mask. Botkin has access to the higher realm of Truth and Beauty as represented in the idealized Shade. The desire for and pull of self-knowledge is a transcendent value, so Shade-as-senex is the authentic aspect that purposefully seeks for answers. Ultimately he finds meaning not in confirmation or conformation of what others have said, but in his individual creation of truth and beauty, his Art. 

            “Shade” is, in fact, both light and dark; his mother’s maiden name, “Lukin” comes not only from “Luke,” as Kinbote tells us, but from “lux.” [2]  Kinbote hints at this oppositional quality by declaring that Shade “was his own cancellation” (F, 19). In a Jungian sense, though, Shade-as-persona is a monster– his looks are likened to Medusa. Just as monsters must be slain to obtain the treasure, the false and unconscious archetypes in the psyche have to be faced and conquered to obtain individuation– the treasure of the true self.  The Medusa could only be slain by seeing her image in a mirror. John Shade is slain when he comes face-to-face with his mirror opposite, Gradus: “He, too, is to meet, in his urgent and blind flight, a reflection that will shatter him.” (C, 105)

              “Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face.” (Jung, V. 9i, 43)


 The self-image (persona) is shattered upon looking into the mirror of the unconscious and seeing the rejected, denied self (shadow). Jung asserted that the persona is usually the first and easiest archetype to encounter, then the “shadow.” After those two, the most difficult and essential archetype to face, according to Jung, is the anima (archetype of the feminine). Following Jung’s outline, first Shade (as persona) dies and then Gradus (as shadow). Sybil (as anima) remains at large (we will seek her out later in a forthcoming paper[3]).

As archetypal allegory, Shade represents the ego’s idealized self (persona), the person Kinbote would be if only he could. Kinbote relates in the foreword, “I experienced a grand sense of wonder whenever I looked at him, especially in the presence of other people, inferior people.”[4] This is reminiscent of the dissociated Smurov in Nabokov’s The Eye admiring his projected idealized self. Typical of an insecure inflated ego, he needs to imagine his superiority. The ego sees the persona as a cover, a protection. This is why Kinbote, as ego idolizes Shade and desires to appropriate his talent through making the poem his “story.” He literally does this with the poem’s stack of cards as protective covering, sewn into his own coat: Thus with cautious steps, among deceived enemies, I circulated, plated with poetry, armored with rhymes, stout with another man’s song, stiff with cardboard, bullet-proof at last.” (F, 20) Like an over-armored ego he is protected, but stiff.

Shade hints at his darker side in the apparently light-hearted bath-and-shave sequence in Canto Four. He calls himself a “bimanist,” indicating that he operates from two sides, one sinister. There is some sinister connotation in the line, “(S)omeday I must set free/The Newport Frill in me.” (P, 54) The Newport Frill was an old style of beard with fluffy sideburns. As pointed out by Roth and DeRewal this may suggest a werewolf; it was once believed that a werewolf’s fur was turned inside out in his human form. The word “versipel,” a term Shade uses for “…that odd muse of mine” (P, 55) may be a poetical pun on “versifier,” but it is in fact a truncated form of the Latin word versipellis (turn-skin), frequently used to denote “werewolf.” Jung uses the alchemic term for Mercurius:

“Mercurius, following the tradition of Hermes, is many-sided, changeable, and deceitful. Dorn speaks of ‘that inconstant Mercurius’ and another calls him versipellis (changing his skin, shifty). He is duplex and his main characteristic is duplicity. It is said of him that he ‘runs round the earth and enjoys equally the company of the good and the wicked’ He is ‘two dragons’ the ‘twin’, made of ‘two natures or ‘two substances.’” (Jung, V. 13, 217)

The “two dragons” are the low and the high side of the unconscious, the Devil and the Divine. Jung states that Mercurius, the shape-shifter, stands for all the archetypes of the unconscious. He claimed all the archetypes were actually shadows, as well, since unconscious. Therefore, Shade, as his name implies, as persona is also a shadow, just as all the characters in Pale Fire are archetypes of the unconscious.

Shade’s odd inner muse seems rather frightening; the poetic sublimation of his dark side, “that patch of prickliness,” is always itching to be expressed. There is a possibility of homosexual fear in the slang word of “left hand” (Kinbote is left-handed and Nabokov’s early drafts of Pale Fire suggested that Shade was homosexual, or at least threatened by homophobia). No wonder he writes, “Now I shall speak of evil and despair”! (P, 54) These words do not seem so facetious now.

Shade appears to be tortured by his dark side. He drinks. He has been seeking liberation, he mentions, “…all my twisted life.” John Shade is living in the house he was born in, has had the same job and the same wife for forty years! His outer life appears to have been arrow straight. Nabokov slyly presents John Shade as such a homey, happily married character, that not only has his selfish concern over his daughter not received much notice, his “twisted life” and his betrayal of his marriage have received slight attention.

Kinbote relates several instances that suggest Shade was having an affair with an attractive young co-ed:

“Far from me be it to hint at the existence of some other woman in my friend’s life. Serenely he played the part of exemplary husband assigned to him by his small-town admirers and was, besides, mortally afraid of his wife.” (C, 175)


Kinbote’s dissemblance is another apt example of Rowe’s “honesty of Nabokovian deception.” He denies the rumors, but takes the opportunity to spread them when he invites to a dinner with John and Sybil  “…that girl in the black leotard,” (C, 177) the same “…stunning blond” (C, 177) that Professor Hurley teases Shade about. The girl arrives late, apparently causing John and Sybil leave uncomfortably post-haste.

Kinbote’s craziness is a very artful feint Nabokov has used to distract us; we learn early to assume that Kinbote is an “unreliable narrator” and then ignore, or moreover expect the opposite of his statements to be true. Further, Nabokov has created it so that readers think they see though Kinbote and therefore dismiss him. If we instead assume this infidelity of Shade’s to actually be the case, then we know that Shade may have a thing for young girls. This suggests a link of the novel with Lolita. As Alfred Appel Jr. points out, “shade” is “umber,” the French pronunciation of “Humbert.” This interpretation would throw a bit of shadow onto John and Sybil’s “happy” marriage.[5]


[1] Mathew Roth, A Small Mad Hope: Pale Fire, Hazel Shade, and the Oedipal Disaster;  

    Eric Petrie, Moonrise over the Moor: Hazel’s Death in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

[2] https://forebears.io/surnames/luke#meaning

[3] Sybil: Black Widow Spider at the Center of Pale Fire’s Web of Sense (MR3)


[5] I address the Shade marriage in a forthcoming paper, “Sybil: Spider at the Center of the Web of Sense”( M3) and Jungian “anima” issues in Pale Fire in my paper “Vanessa Atalanta: Butterfly of Doom.” (M

Shakeeb Arzoo: Shade definitely comes off as a “skeptical theologist” or as Nabokov would put it “happy and useful agonist”.


In his postscript to Lolita VN mentions the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106:


Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita (Humbert’s Journal, for example) misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored and let down. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why not all the four firms read the typescript to the end. Whether they found it pornographic or not did not interest me. Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.


I find Shade's bright side more interesting.


Shakeeb, may I ask you: is "agonist" a misprint or did you mean "agnostic"?

Um, yes, Alexey, I'm guilty of the typo. It should be agnostic (like in has lots of children, cute little agnostics). It's very amusing to have it staring in the face and yet mentally blocking it out. I hear much lamentation in Heaven and laughter in Hell (Laura, Original of).

I'm reminded of a passage in Ada (2.4):


In the professional dreams that especially obsessed me when I worked on my earliest fiction, and pleaded abjectly with a very frail muse (‘kneeling and wringing my hands’ like the dusty-trousered Marmlad before his Marmlady in Dickens), I might see for example that I was correcting galley proofs but that somehow (the great ‘somehow’ of dreams!) the book had already come out, had come out literally, being proffered to me by a human hand from the wastepaper basket in its perfect, and dreadfully imperfect, stage — with a typo on every page, such as the snide ‘bitterly’ instead of ‘butterfly’ and the meaningless ‘nuclear’ instead of ‘unclear.’ Or I would be hurrying to a reading I had to give — would feel exasperated by the sight of the traffic and people blocking my way, and then realize with sudden relief that all I had to do was to strike out the phrase ‘crowded street’ in my manuscript. What I might designate as ‘skyscape’ (not ‘skyscrape,’ as two-thirds of the class will probably take it down) dreams belongs to a subdivision of my vocational visions, or perhaps may represent a preface to them, for it was in my early pubescence that hardly a night would pass without some old or recent waketime impression’s establishing a soft deep link with my still-muted genius (for we are ‘van,’ rhyming with and indeed signifying ‘one’ in Marina’s double-you-less deep-voweled Russian pronunciation). The presence, or promise, of art in that kind of dream would come in the image of an overcast sky with a manifold lining of cloud, a motionless but hopeful white, a hopeless but gliding gray, showing artistic signs of clearing, and presently the glow of a pale sun grew through the leaner layer only to be recowled by the scud, for I was not yet ready.


Btw., my post "massa interesnago & Greg's black Silentium in Ada" (https://thenabokovian.org/node/35782) has been updated.

That's funny. I read the typo as being anti-antagonist!  - that is, an agonist being someone who would "champion" one's views. 


Shakeeb, wondering if my views possibly gave you to ponder the possibility of a dark side of Shade. 


I’m afraid that I’m even more traditional in my reading of Pale Fire. There was once a flurry of discussion in NABOKV-L over the authorship of Pale Fire (from the old site, Zembla: https://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/boydpf1.htm#FOOT0) and Brian Boyd in his essay, Shade and Shape in Pale Fire summarizes several of the arguments. I believe I’m among the third class of readers (as Robert Alter put it), who do not doubt the basic fictional data, Poem by Shade and Commentary and Index by Kinbote (who definitely commits suicide after that). But, as you are aware a lot of ink has already been spilled over it and I would loathe to blow it open again.

Nabokov has taught us to read against the grain, to resist the “near-tyranny of the author” but one can’t help but like John Shade as one of VN’s more morally responsible protagonists. There’s an astonishing poignancy in Kinbote’s assessment towards the end: “a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments” - which has a sort of “much madness is divinest sense” feeling to it.

Just like others, I’m too plumbing the depths of Pale Fire and who knows maybe 10 years later, will finally come to terms with it. ;)


Thanks, Shakeeb.

I am aware of the authorship controversy, which to my mind has not been settled. I hope that I may be opening it up again by suggesting that it is neither Shade nor Kinbote who is author, but Prof. Botkin and that Shade and Kinbote and ALL the characters are aspects of Botkin's mind. They are what Carl Jung called "archetypes." I feel that all the loose threads of PF come together if viewed as allegory and parody.

I see this as a separate level, "antithetic," to the plot level ("thetic). I have no issue with your reading; the plot thetic level can be enjoyed on the level that it presents itself, as I believe Nabokov intended. John Shade, on this level, is an extremely likable and poignant character.

I also think the antithetic level presents depths to plumb, where motifs, allusions, associations, etc. reveal another story.The more I investigate this level, the more I am in awe of what VN has pulled off!

Kinbote (ego) twice intimates that he is an ego beset by shadows (the Jungian name for the unconscious archetypes). Here he says, from  a "proud infidel's point of view" (i.e. "ego") that personality (ego) consists of "shadows of its own prison bars," an image repeated from Lolita, ITAB, and BS, so clearly at the heart of his work.

"With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is – even from a proud infidel's point of view! - to accept God's Presence - a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? "(C, 174)

Kinbote hints at this also when he writes, “at times I thought that only by self-destructions could I hope to cheat the relentlessly advancing assassins who were in me […]” (C, 75). This is also clearly an indication of Kinbote’s mind as the real locale of action and plot and characters in Pale Fire.

In Jungian theory, the ego feels the unconscious archetypes (shadows) as a threat to the ego's believed sovereignty. The path to psychological wholeness, which Jung termed "individuation," is to confront and assimilate the archetypes, so that one operates from consciousness of the whole "self". This actually is "lethal" for the ego, as it requires a sort of "ego-death," which Kinbote is beginning to recognize as "suicide."

I forgot to add, that the "pale light in the dimness of bodily life" is also at the core of PF. The "divine spark" is what Jung, based on the alchemists he studied, called the true self.

Oh, I see, Shakeeb. Btw., the best Anglo-Russian pun (mine!) is yadryonaya seks-bomba, a play on yadernaya bomba (nuclear bomb) and yadryonaya baba (sex bomb).