Puritans in PALE FIRE

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Wed, 09/11/2019 - 06:39

Puritans in Pale Fire

by Gerard de Vries

Responding to my posting “Twice Removed: Cousins and Puritans in Pale Fire” Mary Ross has expressed her doubts about my assertion that Sybil has a leaning towards a religious strictness (see her posting “Sybil: Witch of Ironwood”). I agree with what she writes in the third paragraph, that both John and Sybil are unlikely persons to maintain a religious fervor, let alone a religious militancy. Yet there is this most unexpected piece of information that Sybil “had weaned her husband not only from the Episcopal Church of his fathers, but of all forms of sacramental worship” (C. 549). The understandable reluctance to acknowledge a streak of Puritanism in Sybil is a welcome incentive to try to find additional evidence for this assertion.

Most likely, Jakob Gradus’ family has French roots, despite the fact that his father, Martin Gradus, “had been a Protestant minister in Riga” (C. 17). Gradus’ (born in 1915) father “died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died too.” Gradus, now orphaned, is adopted by “[a]nother Gradus, an Alsatian merchant,” who “had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years.” That someone living in Alsace, maintains close and long-term friendships with several members of Gradus’ family, strongly suggests that this family lives in Alsace as well. The namesake adds to this probability.

That Gradus’ mother moved to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, a move most likely motivated by her wish to live among her relatives, tallies with the Alsatian origin of her husband’s family.

The “whole [Gradus] clan seems to have been in the liquor business” (with the exception of a maternal uncle, Roman Tselovalnik, but this is a funny contradiction because “’tseloval’nik’” is obsolete Russian for “innkeeper” [Vladimir E. Alexandrov, Nabokov’s Otherworld,Princeton: PUP, 1991, 211]).  Gradus even claims that his surname stems from the “Russian word for grape, vinograd.” The Alsace is one of France’s major wine growing regions, while the grape is not endemic in Latvia. (Kinbote’s “favorite wine,” a “Tokay” might have come from Alsace [and not from the Hungarian Tokaj wine region that has given the name “Tokay” its fame] as the Alsatian Pinot Gris has also been called Tokay Pinot Gris [until 2006, when this denomination was abandoned in recognition of the Hungarian name’s seniority].)

Gradus also becomes a “wine taster” and alternated his various occupations between “wine-selling” and the “glass business” (C. 17, 171). As a glass producer Gradus becomes eventually “responsible for the remarkably ugly red-and-amber windows” before finding his real vocation: the destruction of glass and glass-production by “strikes” and  “explosion[s]” (C. 17, C. 433-434).

These details: a Protestant emigrant from France, Strasbourg, wine-business, and the destruction of glass, are al reminiscent of the Calvinist Protestants: the Huguenots in France and the Puritans in England. That Gradus, despite his French origin, “might be termed a Puritan,” seems to indicate that the particulars associated with Huguenots and Puritans, might have been amalgamated inPale Fire.

The Reform Movement in France in the first half of the 16thC. was met with fierce repression, and of those persecuted many “went to Strasbourg,” Calvin among them (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1964, vol. 11, 818). (Like Calvin’s mother, Gradus’ wife was “a publican’s daughter.”) Puritans drank liquor most liberally and wine with much relish, and those who settled in New England were called “Grape juice Protestants” (Robert C. Fuller, Religion and Wine. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1996, 10-11). The destruction of stained glass, the predominant sort of glass in Pale Fire, was a major objective of the Puritans: the “vast majority of English glass was smashed by Puritans under Oliver Cromwell” (Wikipedia, “British and Irish Stained Glass,” accessed September 2019). 

In this way the information about the Gradus’ clan can be used coherently for the proposition that members of it consist of Calvinists. But does this inference tell anything about the religious persuasion of John, Sybil or members of their families?

That Zembla is a land of “’resemblers’”  (C. 894) is an invitation to probe this question, and it is a conspicuous detail that the overt hints to Puritans (apart from the one quoted in the first paragraph above) in Zembla and New Wye can be found in the comments to lines 17, 71 and 171.

I ended my previous posting by saying that three generations of Shades married women with Puritan antecedents. It seems for this reason appropriate to compare Gradus’ family with those of these spouses.

Both Sybil’s and Gradus’ families came from France. Gradus’ father is called “Martin,” a name also denoting a bird of the swallow family in English as well as in French, much like Sybil’s maiden name “Hirondelle.” When Martin died his widow went to Strasbourg, the city to which the Huguenots fled. When John Shade died, his widow went to Quebec, in order to dwell there “with relatives” (F). Quebec is established by Samuel de Champlain, who was born as a Huguenot (a fact nowadays disputed) and who married a Huguenot (Conrad E. Heidenreich and K. Janet Ritch, eds, Samuel de Champlain before 1604. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 2010, 4. The Encyclopædia Britannica writes that “by far the best biography” of De Champlain was written by Morris Bishop, VN’s friend at Cornell. And Champlain’s name was borrowed for the name of the liner that brought VN and his family to the States in 1940.) 

John’s father’s name is Samuel, Gradus’ Jakob, both Biblical names. “After the Reformation Samuelbecame a favourite name” in England writes E. G. Withycombe (The Oxford Dictionary of English Names.Oxford: OUP, 1946, 116) and the very same goes for Jacob (ibid. 76). The focus on members of families from the mother’s side is reiterated when Kinbote discusses Odon and mentions his mother: “Sylvia O’Donnell, née O’Connell” (I), “an American, from New Wye in New England” (C. 149).

In the Foreword New Wye is specified by the addition “Appalachia, USA” and by comparing its latitude with that of Palermo, which lies on the 38thparallel. The details are incompatible as New England lies well above the 40thparallel. No reader, however, will be inclined to discriminate between the Shades’ New Wye and that of Sylvia’s, nor should she or he because the topographical details given about New Wye as well as those belonging to its natural history are deliberately inconsistent (see for such inconsistencies D. Barton Johnson, “A Field Guide to Nabokov’s Pale Fire: Waxwings and the Red Admirable,” The Real Life of Pierre Delalande.(Festschrift to honor Alexander Dolinin), Part 2. Ed. David Bethea, Lazar Fleishman and Alexander Ospovat, Stanford Slavic Studies34 (2007): 652-673).

Presenting New Wye as part of New England is relevant to the present discussion as New England is “founded by Puritans’ (Enc. Britt.). It is this Sylvia O’Donnell who warns Kinbote, “Your Majesty will have to be quite careful from now on,” (C. 691) thus referring to the intolerance towards homosexuality prevailing in her native “puritanical” country (see Stephen H. Blackwell, The Quill and the Scalpel.Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2009, 234 who summarizes the contents of a note by VN about this lack of tolerance, from the Berg Collection).

This distillation of Huguenots and Puritans from Pale Fire is of course a reflection of only one facet of the many-sidedness of this novel. The short outline of Gradus’ biography strongly connotes d’Anthès, another emigrant from Alsace and the killer of Alexander Pushkin, while his wine business connects him with Shade’s waxwing (see D. Barton Johnson, loc. cit.). And it is well known from Speak, Memorythat stained glass is a much richer motif in VN’s universe than its role of getting smashed by Puritans it has in the present discussion.

But the Puritans in Pale Fire deserve also attention as their beliefs have a serious impact on Hazel Shade’s life, as has been summarized by Kinbote in his Index where the entry “Religion” ends with “Suicide.”



Gerard,  I find this really interesting.


I have no real issue with anything you write. I do have some very different takes, which I may put on separate posts. What I find most interesting is that I am astounded once again at how much is packed into PF - it seems that virtually everything has multiple levels and meanings.



If your main argument is that the Shade’s attitudes towards Hazel is the real reason for her suicide, I completely agree (although not necessarily from a religious standpoint).


What do you make of Sybil’s “tepid religion of her own”? That, to me, seems to be the crucial depiction of Sybil’s religiosity.  



(BTW, Appalachia extends from lower New York as far south as Alabama. Ithaca, where Cornel is situated is in the lower part of New York, upper part of Appalachia, so that seems to be where “New Wye” is.)


Best, Mary

Thanks for these interesting posts, Gerard. I don't have a great understanding of the Puritans and their history, so it'll take me a while to digest this.

That said, a few of your notes have shone some light on a related theme I've been trying to figure out. I might have to spend some more time with it before I run it by you, so until then, thanks again.