Pale Fire and Archetypal Literary Criticism

Submitted by MARYROSS on Tue, 03/31/2020 - 14:39

I recently have come across the work of Northrop Frye, who was the prominent literary critic at the time that Pale Fire was written. I suspect that Pale Fire may be a parodic response to Frye’s Archetypal Literary Criticism. This would strongly support my theories of a Jungian substrate in PF. I wonder if anyone out there has studied ALC and if this seems to fit.



Archetypal Literary Criticism had its origins in 1934 with the classical scholar Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination that employed the theories of Carl Jung to analyze poetry. The field was added to in 1944 and 1949 with Joseph Campbell’s Jungian based mythical works, and achieved its formal theory in the work of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism in 1957. Frye’s work is considered one of the most important literary theories of the 20th century and helped displace New Criticism as the major mode of analyzing literary texts, until giving way to structuralism and semiotics. Frye developed a classification system of literature that he intended to be “scientific” and free from subjective taste and preferences. Archetypal Literary Criticism is not now widely taught nor practiced, but one would assume Nabokov, an astute polymath, to have been aware, if not intensely (if only disdainfully) interested in it. Nabokov’s staunch independence and belief in genius over generalization and categorizations, as well as his very personal critical treatment of Eugene Onegin, would point his interest towards parody of Frye’s current prevailing and strongly structured and subjective-free system.

Northrop Frye drew on the mythological works of Carl Jung, Jungian adherents Bodkin and Campbell, and mythologist J.G. Frazer (who had been a strong influence on Jung). There are many allusions and motifs in Pale Fire that seem to reflect Frye’s theories. Maud Bodkin may be alluded to in Pale Fire’s character Aunt Maud, with her morbid artistic symbolism, suggesting Nabokov’s awareness of Jung’s theories infiltrating literary criticism. The Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell’s seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces was extremely popular at the time, and continues to be, with multiple re-printings. In The Gift, Nabokov, through his near-avatar Fyodor says, “The unfortunate image of a ‘road,’ to which the human mind has become accustomed (life as a kind of journey) is a stupid illusion: we are not going anywhere, we are sitting at home.” (The Gift, p.59) However, the “Hero’s Journey” is extensively parodied in Kinbote’s Zemblan escape. Campbell’s work seems to be reflected in Kinbote following in the well-worn footsteps of a classic “Hero’s Journey.” Less known is that Campbell was an eminent Joycean scholar as well. His A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) was a progenitor of Archetypal Literary Criticism. Finnegans Wake (parodically misspelled by critic Kinbote) is mentioned in Pale Fire. J. G. Frazer (an influence on T.S. Elliot’s New Criticism) is perhaps implicit in the many mythological allusions in Pale Fire.

Frye claimed that the mythology of death and resurrection was the meta-myth of the western canon. He attempts to classify all aspects of literature – poetry, epic, prose fiction, discursive prose, drama - into categories of modes, themes, and genres. He gives many examples from many of the same writers referenced in PF. It may be that this is what is behind PFs encyclopedic literary references.

It seems that Walter Campbell (the King's English tutor, Monsieur Beauchamp's chess partner) has nothing to do with the author of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Describing the King's escape from Zembla, Kinbote mentions his English tutor and the gilt key:


His English tutor who, after a picnic in Mandevil Forest, was laid up with a sprained ankle, did not know where that circus might be; he advised looking for it in an old lumber room at the end of the West Gallery. Thither the Prince betook himself. That dusty black trunk? It looked grimly negative. The rain was more audible here owing to the proximity of a prolix gutter pipe. What about the closet? Its gilt key turned reluctantly. All three shelves and the space beneath were stuffed with disparate objects: a palette with the dregs of many sunsets; a cupful of counters; an ivory backscratcher, a thirty-two mo edition of Timon of Athens translated into Zemblan by his uncle Conmal, the Queen's brother; a seaside situla (toy pail); a sixty-five-carat blue diamond accidentally added in his childhood, from his late father's knickknackatory, to the pebbles and shells in that pail; a finger of chalk; and a square board with a design of interlaced figures for some long-forgotten game. He was about to look elsewhere in the closet when on trying to dislodge a piece of black velvet, one corner of which had unaccountably got caught behind the shelf, something gave, the shelf budged, proved removable, and revealed just under its farther edge, in the back of the closet, a keyhole to which the same gilt key was found to fit. (note to Line 130)

It is not so much the Finnegans Wake connection, but Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Kinbote, in the tunnel episode is about to embark on a classic "Hero's Journey." I wrote a paper on this which you can see on my site. Interesting that this journey opened with a key

Vsevolod Botkin (Shade + Kinbote + Gradus) is a hero with three faces. The secret passage that leads from the palace to the theater is 1,888 yards long:


The pedometer had tocked off 1,888 yards, when at last they reached the end. The magic key of the lumber room closet slipped with gratifying ease into the keyhole of a green door confronting them, and would have accomplished the act promised by its smooth entrance, had not a burst of strange sounds coming from behind the door caused our explorers to pause. Two terrible voices, a man's and a woman's, now rising to a passionate pitch, now sinking to raucous undertones, were exchanging insults in Gutnish as spoken by the fisherfolk of Western Zembla. An abominable threat made the woman shriek out in fright. Sudden silence ensued, presently broken by the man's murmuring some brief phrase of casual approval ("Perfect, my dear," or "Couldn't be better") that was more eerie than anything that had come before. (note to Line 130)


The celebrated actress (and mistress of Thurgus the Third), Iris Acht died in 1888:


Acht, Iris, celebrated actress, d .1888, a passionate and powerful woman, favorite of Thurgus the Third (q. v.), 130. She died officially by her own hand; unofficially, strangled in her dressing room by a fellow actor, a jealous young Gothlander, now, at ninety, the oldest, and least important, member of the Shadows (q. v.) group. (Index)


Acht is German for "eight." In his poem  (1904) I. Annenski (who wrote under the penname Nik. T-o, "Mr. Nobody") compares the infinity symbol  to oprokinutoe 8 (8 toppled over):


Девиз Таинственной похож
На опрокинутое 8:
Она - отраднейшая ложь
Из всех, что мы в сознаньи носим.


Thurgus the Third, surnamed The Turgid, brings to mind Turgenev, the author of Dym ("Smoke," 1866). In several poems of his cycle "Italian Verses" (1909) Alexander Blok compares Florence to dymnyi iris (the smoky iris). On March 28, 1922 (the day of VDN's death), VN was reading to his mother Blok's poem about Florence, when the telephone rang...


Shade's poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski (who twice repeats the word gradus, "degree," in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother Mikhail) and a poem (1909) by Blok. Oct. 31, 1838 (OS), is Dostoevski's seventeenth birthday. Shade's birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote's and Gradus' birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). 1915  1898 = 17.


Like most critics, Mary Ross does not even try to understand what happens in Pale Fire.

Perhaps it would have been better if I had emphasized that Kinbote’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is a mock-myth, a parody. I tend to assume that the Hero’s Journey is common knowledge, especially since Joseph Campbell’s popular TV series in the US. But that was a long time ago. Same with Jung; Jung is not taught anywhere, I believe, except the University of Toronto.

The lineage of the Hero's Journey goes something like this:

Frazer > Jung > Joyce > Campbell > Frye > (Nabokov)


Frazer was an anthropologist who wrote about the universal myths of Return, the death and resurrection cycle. Jung was influenced by him and developed his theory of the path to psychological wholeness, which he termed individuation. Joyce was influenced by Jung (his daughter was Jung’s patient) and wrote Ulysses in the form of the Hero’s Journey, which he coined the universal monomyth. Campbell studied Joyce and wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, also employing the term monomyth. The term Hero’s Journey became popular with Campbell’s TV series, which also spawned a whole new popular interest in his book, in the US. Frye’s interest in Joyce was probably instrumental in his study of how the monomyth persists through phases in literature, with overt myth being gradually displaced by increasingly ‘realistic’ forms, but still retaining the basic core.

The basic core of the monomyth goes something like this: 

The Hero is someone of royal or divine birth who loses his birthright through some catastrophe that sets him on the Journey. He meets many obstacles that he has to overcome; escaping, disguising, finding a secret talisman, entering the earth through tunnels or caves, climbing mountains, crossing oceans, fighting enemies, finding helpful allies, seeking treasure, etc. Essential to the monomyth is winning the anima (Jung’s term for the feminine archetype).

Kinbote goes through all of this, yet curiously he never overcomes his anima, Sybil. Kinbote suicides without psychological or spiritual transformation.This is where Nabokov seems to ironically and intentionally subvert the myth. This is why the waxwing is Icarus and not Dedalus.  (note that Dedalus is Joyce’s literary avatar).

Again, if you like, I go into detail in my paper "Kinbote's Hero's Journey" as well as other papers detailing my Jungian take on Pale Fire at:


Mary's point that Kinbote "never overcomes his anima, Sybil" is interesting to consider in terms of his relationship with anima more broadly, across women in his life and over time. Where Sybil represents a definite force counter to his own interest in Shade (in which sexual interest has mostly been sublimated into a poetic/creative-process fascination), Kinbote doesn't seem to have much of any relationships with women at all, other than being rejected as "insane" in one perhaps representative case.

If we accept the Zembla narratives and anecdotes as deluded lenses placed over real memories, Kinbote/Botkin's experiences with women may have been more complicated in his past, pre- New Wye. Disa, Fleur, Sylvia... and the loss of his mother when he was 21, in the note to line 71, in which the narrational voice leans into hetero-like observations at "a strictly heterosexual affair": "Otar, a platonic pal... had his two mistresses with him... and there were the two girls, side by side, thin-legged, in shimmering wraps, their kitten noses pink, their eyes green and sleepy, their earrings catching and loosing the fire of the sun."

So Botkin/Kinbote's apparent psychological break, (at the time he broke away from his home country?), may have had a sexual orientation component, in terms of an entire turn away from anima, without and within; his own homosexuality in New Wye does not seem effeminate at all.

William, I think if this were a real case of dissociated personality, your analysis would probably be accurate (I am not a psychologist). I imagine that VN would have been ‘up’ on current psychological thought, despite his disavowal of the theories.


My question would be, ‘why would VN choose to have Kinbote go through a classic “Hero’s Journey” and then fail in the end to deal effectively with his anima?’ My answer to my question would be ‘because PF is a parody.’ It is a parody and an ironic allegory. Therefore, the tragedy of Shade’s death and Kinbote’s failure lacks the pathos of a ‘real’ story of a man’s dissolution. My contention is that through parodizing Jungian ‘individuation’ and then subverting the essential premise, he outwits not only Jung and Jungian adherents like Northrop Frye, Maud Bodkin, Joseph Campbell and J.G. Frazer, but also, and perhaps most importantly the only contemporary to rival him, James Joyce. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, both based on the ‘monomyth,’ end ironically with a kind of triumph of the feminine.

Alexey, you seem to agree that Kinbote, Shade, and Gradus are the same person – Botkin. Is this a case of psychological dissociation? What aspects of Botkin do you think these characters represent? More importantly, why do you think Nabokov chose this theme?

I welcome the opportunity to have a collegial discussion, but it would be helpful to be specific to the issues. In what way do my theories of Kinbote and Sybil have nothing to do with Nabokov's characters. 

I was the first to propose that Shade, Kinbote and Gradus represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality (so it's you, Mary, who seem to agree with me). But to see in PF an illustration or parody of Jung's theories (as you do) would be incorrect. It is a simplistic view of VN's novel. Interesting that, because your approach to VN's works is wrong, you failed to notice several allusions to Jung and alchemy in the text of PF (it was I who discovered them).

So, it appears we agree on Botkin as a triple personality and that PF references alchemy. Why then, would it not make sense that Jung, who made it his life’s work to investigate sub-personalities and the proto-psychological system of alchemy, be important in understanding PF? You say that you noticed Jung and alchemy before. I do not understand your problem with my theories, then.

In addition to the above questions, I would add:

If K,S, & G are sub-personalities of Botkin, then the events narrated in New Wye cannot be 'real'. Are there 'real' characters in New Wye, or are they all aspects of Botkin's mind?

Is Botkin married to Sybil? That would mean that Kinibote and Gradus are also married to her. What does this mean for their marriage?

If K,S, and G are all aspects of Botkin, what does it mean for Gradus to kill Shade? 

I have answers to these questions in my paper "The Tri-Part Man."  You could read that, and then maybe we can have a more meaningful discussion. I also will be soon uploading to a paper titled "Sybil: Spider at the Center of PALE FIRE's Web of Sense."

To solve VN's riddles (and his novels and short stories are riddles or, if you like, chess problems) one has not only to think, but also to feel like Nabokov - something that Mary Ross cannot and does not want to do.