Vladimir Nabokov

New paper: ‘THE TRI-PART MAN: Archetype, Alchemy, and Art in Nabokov’s PALE FIRE’

By MARYROSS, 11 March, 2020

I would like to announce that I have uploaded to academia.edu a major part of my work-in-progress on the Jungian substrate of PALE FIRE:

  ‘THE TRI-PART MAN: Archetype, Alchemy, and Art in Nabokov’s PALE FIRE’


It is uploaded as a draft and can be commented on, which I would find very helpful.






THE TRI-PART MAN: Archetype, Alchemy, and Art in Nabokov’s Pale Fire (Part1)



This paper is an excerpt from a larger work-in-progress, tentatively titled, ‘Archetype, Alchemy, and Art: The Jungian Substrate of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.’ My intention 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. Here 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.

The relationship between John Shade and Charles Kinbote, as the two main characters of Pale Fire, has been a point of scholarly contention since Vladimir Nabokov’s elaborately cryptic novel was published in 1962. The trope of the ‘double’ as dissociated personality is usually cited, with arguments over which character is the real and which imagined. I argue that the much-contested identity of the fictional author of both Pale Fire’s poem and commentary has generally been based on two fallacies: (1) basing a solution on the common literary trope of the ‘double,’ and (2) attempting to solve the question from the ‘thetic’ text level. The question of the double is basically moot on the thetic text level; there remain too many logical contradictions between poem and commentary and time/space inconsistencies.  It can only be resolved by a quantum leap to the higher antithetic level of thematic texture. The tri-part Jungian model is a more accurate and elegant solution to the characters’ relationships and the novel’s thematic cohesion.

I will be looking at the three characters as virtual equals, as archetypes of the three parts of the psyche: ego conscious, higher conscious and lower conscious. 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, clearly indicate the attributes of Jung’s ego, persona and shadow 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, as stand-in for Nabokov. Botkin’s metaphysical quest for transcendence is an allegory presented in the form of Jungian individuation.

Per Nabokov’s stated method of composing in “thetic spirals” (thetic, antithetic and synthetic) the play-out of the drama of the archetypes takes place on a separate level of fictive space parallel to the text (thetic) level. At this parallel (antithetic) level of themes, parody, allusions, and allegory, the characters’ relationships and motivations are revealed through the Jungian archetypes. Thus archetypal characters enact the drama of Jungian “individuation,” the unification of the transcendent self through the confrontation and assimilation of the archetypes into consciousness. The metanarrative, as evinced by the archetypes and individuation, is the novel’s triple theme of transcendence – of death (Gradus), of ego (Kinbote), and ultimately of art (Shade).