I want to add a bit more to my post of 08/04/18 about Sybil as the Queen of Spades. I have just recently come upon an excellent supporting document (Nathan Rosen, “The Magic Cards in The Queen of Spades,” SEEJ 19:3 (1975):262)
First, a more complete summary of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades:
An avaricious man learns of a once beautiful, now decrepit old countess, who is believed to have the secret of winning at cards. He accidentally murders the old woman while unsuccessfully trying to extract the secret from her. He goes to her funeral, and when he looks in her coffin she winks at him. Later that night her ghost visits him and makes a deal: she gives him the secret if he agrees to marry her niece. She tells him to play the three, seven and ace on separate nights in a game of Faro (a game similar to lansquenet). Nights one and two he wins huge sums. Increasingly nervous, he has a nightmare that the Ace turns into an enormous black spider. On the third night he thinks he plays the ace, but instead it is the Queen of Spades, which looking just like the old countess, winks at him. He loses all his money and goes crazy.
Nathan Rosen notes that the Countess had won her original card game in Versailles, “au jeu de la Reine” (the Queen’s game), which is phonetically like “au jeu de l’araignee” (game of the <female> spider) and also the phonetic likeness in Russian of “pikovaia dama” (Queen of Spades) and “paukovaia dama” (spider-lady).
Does this story relate to Pale Fire? Pale Fire has parodies and hidden references throughout to Romantic poets with associations to occultism. Pushkin is notably a favorite. The plot of The Queen of Spades is an occult tale of an egocentric man with a consuming desire who makes a deal with an older woman who turns out to be treacherous. In the occult-laden story in Pale Fire, Kinbote makes a deal with Sybil (an older woman) for the coveted manuscript – what does she get from the deal? has she been likewise treacherous?
Appropriating Hazel’s “spider-redips” word-twisting, Kinbote likens Sybil to a spider. “Redips” is not really a “dictionary” word; Kinbote, or Hazel, or for that matter, Nabokov could have chosen a more adroit example of palindrome. Clearly a twisted “spider” has some significance beyond supplying Kinbote with a catty insult. Nabokov is clearly telling us to “go back into” this word and its critical meaning. “Spider” is an epithet often use for a treacherous woman. Jung called it a negative anima symbol, luring a man in only to be destroyed. Black widows kill their mates.
Sybil, the dark Vanessa, the black chess Queen, Queen of Spades, Black Widow Spider, is at the center of the “web of sense” in Pale Fire. Sybil is at the center of the mystery level of the plot as well as being central to the higher theme of what Jung termed “Individuation”, the search for “Self”? According to Jung the spider’s web is a mandala. The symbol of the mandala has a major place in Jung’s cosmology. The concentric design of a mandala he saw as the perfect symbol of the Self.
“…the centre – itself virtually unknowable – acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice. For this reason the centre is…often pictured as a spider in its web especially when the conscious attitude is still dominated by fear of the unconscious processes.”
Compare this with a statement of Nabokov’s that “reality is an infinite succession of levels, levels of perception, or false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.” Jung mentions the spider as a symbol of the negative anima. Presumably, the spider at the center is, in fact, the negative anima, the guardian of the Self, which is infinite. Until confronted and assimilated, the fear of the negative anima blocks a man’s ability to get to the center of his being.
This antithetic look at Sybil, the “dark Vanessa” Black Queen/Black Widow, along with Jung’s theories of archetypes and alchemy and the “sacred marriage” of opposites (anima and animus), are all supported on a synthetic level of the greater theme of the quest for “Self”. This quest unites the poem and commentary; both Shade and Kinbote are experiencing what the Jungian Joseph Campbell has called the “Hero’s Journey”.