WIP “Archetype, Alchemy, & Allegory: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE”

Submitted by MARYROSS on Tue, 06/23/2020 - 16:46

     For several years now I have been posting on this site various ideas I have about a Jungian substrate to PALE FIRE. I have now consolidated and formulated three main parts of my  WIP “Archetype, Alchemy, & Allegory: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE” which I’ve uploaded to Cambridge Engage, a new site for works-in-progress. These also can be viewed on academia.edu. https://independent.academia.edu/MaryRoss22

I welcome any comments. Thanks,

Mary Ross


The Tri-Part Man:

Archetype, Alchemy, & Allegory: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, Part I



The intention of this paper is not to offer an extra-literary schema of Jungian analysis or interpretation of PALE FIRE, but to present credible evidence of Nabokov’s intentional use of the theories of Carl Jung as a major parodic and allegoric substrate of the novel. I argue that this substrate takes place on a separate fictive plane (antithetic) from the plot level (thetic). The antithetic level in turn informs the thetic level for a more complete and meaningful synthetic comprehension. I look at the relationship of the three main characters, Kinbote, Shade, and Gradus, as the three main Jungian archetypal components of the psyche: the ego, persona, and shadow. These elements form the ‘Tri-part Man,’ a notion common to a number of metaphysical systems, but most clearly evinced in PALE FIRE through psychologist Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes and alchemy. Kinbote, Shade, and Gradus, are archetypes as sub-personalities within the psyche of one man. That man, however, is not one of the three, but the three-in-one: the novel’s absent and enigmatic cipher, Professor V. Botkin.



Sybil: Spider at the Center of PALE FIRE’s Web of Sense

Archetype, Alchemy, & Allegory: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, Part II



At the end of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, with both his vaunted persona (Shade) and his vile shadow (Gradus) dead, Kinbote cries, “God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist.” However, now, more than ever, it seems Kinbote is threatened by an even greater repressed unconscious, a “bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.” If Kinbote indeed suicides hors texte, as Nabokov claimed “he certainly did,” that would indicate, on the archetypal antithetic level, an “ego-death” of transcendence and transformation – that is, Jungian individuation. Has he, in death, managed to avoid this conflict? Who is this great looming shadow? The missing piece, the “masterpiece” for individuation, is the contrasexual archetype, the anima. I suggest this is none other than Charles Kinbote’s most formidable antagonist, Sybil Shade. Understanding Sybil’s role as anima – the spider at the center of PALE FIRE’s “web of sense” – solves the mystery on all fictive levels.



BALTHASAR, Prince of Loam:

Pale Fire’s Dark Savior – Mechanical Toy or Mystical Man?

Archetype, Alchemy, & Allegory: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, Part III


“Balthasar,” Kinbote’s Negro gardener in Nabokov’s PALE FIRE seems to be a minor character. He is curiously linked with Kinbote’s neighbor John Shade’s boyhood toy  – a mechanical Negro boy pushing a wheelbarrow. Upon seeing the toy in Shade’s basement, Kinbote declares that it shall work again because “I have the key.” What is the key to this mysterious transcendental object, and how is it that Kinbote possess it? What does it mean for it to work again? Why is it a gardener with a wheelbarrow, and why a Negro? And how does the mechanical toy relate to the living gardener? Why do they both have the power to knock one unconscious? The Jungian substrate of the novel reveals a separate fictive plane where the humble gardener is actually an archetype of the Jungian self and Gnostic creator-god: the novel’s enigmatic Professor Botkin, as stand-in for Nabokov.



An overview of the Jungian archetypal allegory in PALE FIRE runs like this:


>Something traumatic has happened to the Russian professor of English Literature, V. Botkin, precipitating a psychotic break. Deceived and humiliated by his own trickster projection of unrequited homosexual obsession (Gerald Emerald), he becomes prey to increasing dissociated delusions. His dissociated personalities take the forms of both projected and introjected Jungian archetypes, viz. the characters in New Wye and their Zemblan counterparts.


> Zembla, the “land of semblances,” is the realm of the unconscious. In the mirror world of the unconscious, Botkin anagrammizes to Kinbote. Kinbote is the archetype of the grandiose ego. The immature ego always wants to be the most important and beloved person, whose word and whims are law. The eruption of revolution in Zembla is a revolution in consciousness, unleashing all the unconscious Shadow archetypes, threatening Kinbote’s sovereignty.


>Gradus is the Shadow assassin. The shadow is the dark, dirty, beastly, repressed aspects relegated to the unconscious, including the looming ineluctable aspect of Death. The leader of the Shadows is none other than Gerald Emerald’s Zemblan trickster counterpart, Izumrudov. These two Shadows cohorts represent two aspects of “fate”- inexorable death and the surprise twists of fate that brings it about.


> Kinbote fears that the Shadows are out to destroy him. Psychologically, however, it is not the ego that is destroyed by the shadow, but the persona; it is the idealized self-image that is destroyed when confronted by the dark, ugly, evil repressed aspects of oneself.  Kinbote projects his idealized persona onto his idolized neighbor and fellow professor John Shade. He wants to appropriate Shade’s genius through making Shade’s manuscript all about himself, just as the ego wants to claim his identity as the idealized persona.


>John Shade, however, is not all he seems. As Kinbote notes, his being constitutes a “mask” – the literal meaning of “persona.”  Even his homely looks are the “fashion of modern day bards,” that is, a bit of a pose. He has a dark side: he drinks and has affaires. While declaiming he cares, he in fact rejects his homely, unloveable daughter.


>Kinbote’s desire to appropriate Shade’s glory is continually blocked by Shade’s wife, Sybil, the antagonistic anima. Jung maintained that the anima, the countersexual archetype, is the most difficult and most essential archetype to confront and assimilate. The negative anima appears as a witch, bitch, harpy, harridan, etc. This is how Kinbote sees Sybil, his true nemesis. Kinbote manages to make a pact with Sybil to obtain the precious treasure of the manuscript, but then she deserts him. Psychologically, he never really comes to terms with his anima, the major hindrance to individuation. The positive anima is often depicted as young, beautiful, and alluring, but also dangerous and elusive.  Steadfast and lovely Queen Disa actually complements John Shade – the idealized young faithful beauty and muse with the idealized persona. It is only in his dreams that Kinbote recognizes Disa as his neglected but true soul image.


>Hazel is also a negative anima – the rejected outcast self- image. The persona is put on to cover feelings of inferiority and unattractiveness. Shade appears to have overcome his childhood feelings of being unpopular, lame, fat, and unattractive through his academic accolades, poetic genius, and stable marriage. Morose, fat, unattractive Hazel, destined for an unloved life is a painful reminder of Botkin’s rejected soul-image, who must be submerged back into the unconscious depths. This image of unloveableness and rejection is why Kinbote admits that he and Hazel are alike.


>Balthasar, Kinbote’s beneficent, earthy Negro gardener, has all the qualities that Jung ascribed to the self archetype. Using images taken from alchemy, Jung describes the self archetype as “The Moor,” “Gnostic demi-urge” and “dark Christ.” Kinbote calls him “our savior.” Just as Gradus is knocked out by the gardener’s spade, the shadow is depotentiated by the presence of the true self.


>All these archetypal characters converge on the day of Shade’s death. Hazel returns as the transmogrified Vanessa atalanta, “butterfly of doom,” to haunt Shade and herald his death, while Sybil speeds off to her book club. Gerald Emerald gives Gradus a lift to the Goldsworth “chateau” as Kinbote leads Shade to the fated site, while the Negro gardener trundles his barrow up the lane. Sybil returns accompanied by the mysterious Mrs. Starr to find her husband shot dead.


>In the Jungian paradigm, the path of individuation requires confronting and subsuming the unconscious archetypes. Jung claimed that the persona was usually the first and easiest to confront, followed by the shadow.  This is the order that Shade and Gradus meet their end. The anima, Jung claimed, was the most difficult and essential archetype, but once overcome, she turns from antagonist to ally and becomes a guide to the unconscious. All the archetypal pieces seem in order now for a completed individuation. Yet, despite undergoing a classic “Hero’s Journey” of individuation Kinbote remains antagonistic to his anima, Sybil, to the end.  If Kinbote commits suicide hors texte, archetypally that would be tantamount to an “ego-death” and thus a completed individuation. What does this mean for Botkin? We seem to be left with a typical Nabokovian ambiguous conclusion.