Vladimir Nabokov

PF, Frye & Finnegans

By MARYROSS, 14 September, 2020

I have posted previously some ideas I have about Pale Fire being a parodic response to Northup Frye’s Archetypal Literary Criticism. Frye was influenced by the work of C. G. Jung, whose work I have also been suggesting is at the parodic core of PF. However, I am now convinced that it is Frye’s ALC which is more substratal as it encompasses Jung but also the canon of Western literature that is farced into PF’s plum pudding - not to mention the critical theme of criticism itself.


The main idea in ALC is that intertextual archetypes are at the basis of literature and that the mythic meta-theme of death and resurrection becomes displaced through increasingly sophisticated categories of “modes.” His categories become somewhat elaborate, which I will not go fully into here, except to mention that Pale Fire, with all its literary allusions and mix of styles and genres seems to reflect all ALC’s modes, mythoi, seasons and genres.

At the pinnacle of this developmental displacement Frye places Finnegans Wake as a modern “Encyclopaedic” novel. He notes that with modern Encyclopaedic parody, prose tends to reabsorb verse. He mentions Eliot and Pound amongst modern writers, but concentrates on Finnegans Wake as the “chief ironic epic of our time.”


But it is Finnegans Wake which is the chief ironic epic of our time. Here again the containing structure is cyclical, as the end of the book swings us around to the beginning again. Finnegan never really wakes up, because HCE fails to establish any continuity between his dreaming and waking worlds. The central figure is ALP, but we notice that ALP, although she has very little of the Beatrice or Virgin Mary about her, has even less of the femme fatale. She is a harried by endlessly patient and solicitous wife and mother: she runs through her natural cycle and achieves no quest herself, but she is clearly the kind of being who makes a quest possible. Who then is the hero who achieves the permanent quest in Finnegans Wake? No character in the book itself seems a likely candidate; yet one feels that this book gives us something more than the merely irresponsible irony of a turning cycle. Eventually it dawns on us that it is the reader who achieves the quest, the reader who, to the extent that he masters the book of Doublends Jined, is able to look down on its rotation, and see its form as something more than rotation.

            (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p.323)


The parallel of Finnegans to Pale Fire is astounding.  The interior mind, (such as the plural “Finnegans”), becomes the source and realm of characters and plot, just as the characters in Pale Fire seem to be Jungian archetypes within Botkin’s mind. Like Pale Fire, the structure is cyclical, with the end of the book returning to the beginning. Frye states that the Encyclopaedic form “concerns itself with the cycle of human life, an ambivalent female archetype appears in it, sometimes benevolent, sometimes sinister, but usually presiding over and confirming the cyclical movement.” Frye points out that the central figure in Finnegans is the wife, ALP, and that in the Encyclopaedic form, an ambivalent female archetype appears (Jung would call this the anima). She may be a femme fatale, or sometimes the archetype of the “terrible mother.” ALP is neither; she is just wife-and-mother ordinary, and that is the irony.

As I point out in my paper, “Sibyl: Spider at the Center of Pale Fire’s Web of Sense,” Sybil, who seems a straight-forward middle-class wife and mother, but as the Jungian anima she turns out to be the central figure. On a separate fictive plane from the text level, following the logic of Pale Fire’s characters as Jungian archetypes, the anima is the major conflict to overcome on the transcendent quest of “individuation.” Finnegan, like Shade and Kinbote, dreams of a quest. Like Kinbote, he is tormented by the “assassins” in his ears, his pulse, his skull. Frye declares he never really wakes up, because HCE fails to establish any continuity between his dreaming and waking worlds. Likewise, Shade’s confidence in his epiphany is short-lived; he dies ironically to a still uncertain after-life. Kinbote undergoes a classic Romantic “hero’s journey,” yet fails to deal with his anima. The two worlds of New Wye and Zembla fail at transcendence and coherence. In Finnegans Wake, the two worlds are “Doublends Jined,” the integrated being, the true quest of Jungian individuation.

Like Joyce, Nabokov seems to subvert the Jungian formula, as the conflict with the anima remains unresolved. The result of the transcendent quest in Pale Fire remains ambiguous in the end. Does John Shade go on to a spectral afterlife, or is his death merely meaningless irony? Does Kinbote have a transformative epiphany at the moment of his hors texte suicide, or does he go through a classic “Hero’s Journey,” but learn nothing from it?  As with Frye’s assessment of Finnegans Wake, it seems the point of Pale Fire’s metaphysical meta-theme is the reader’s eventual enlightenment, that is, to be transformed through “poignant artistic delight.”

Nabokov seems to have heaped parodies of all five archetypal modes, four “seasons,” and five genres into one novel as conscious parody of Archetypal Literary Criticism. Containing all, Nabokov slyly subverts categorization. Yet, it seems he appropriates not only Archetypal Literary Criticism’s categories but more importantly, also Frye’s take on Joyce’s metaphysical, psychological and ambiguous themes in Finnegan’s Wake. I suggest that this is circumstantial, though not necessarily conclusive, evidence that Nabokov was familiar with Frye and ALC and chose to parody the current trend in criticism, at the same time planting his foothold (his archetypal imprint) as an oozy step ahead of current literary leaders, Frost, Eliot, and Joyce – a work far more complex, original, abstruse – and readable! In an interview Alfred Appel asked Nabokov about his dislike of Finnegans Wake, and whether he agreed that a certain passage was very close to Pale Fire. Nabokov replied, “I finished Finnegans Wake eventually. It has no inner connection with Pale Fire.” Then asked if he saw Pale Fire in terms of some tradition or form, he replied, “The form of Pale Fire is specifically, if not generically, new.” This disingenuous interview strikes me as Appel coming from an informed Archetypal Literary Criticism point of view with Nabokov typically dissembling when questions come too close.

Nabokov, who claimed to detest psychoanalysis, symbols, life-as-journey tropes, mystagogues, general ideas, Finnegans Wake, and most likely Archetypal Literary Criticism should not have needed to dissemble. Criticism and literary appropriation is unquestionably a major theme of Pale Fire, as suggested in the character of Kinbote. It is also something Nabokov claimed to enjoy:


 “If you hate a book, you still may derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does (LRL, 105).


Nabokov took all these bête noirs along with literary stars and stuffed them into his mixed spongebag of tricks and, like Kinbote says of Shade, the conjuror “shook out” a unique work of art.


“But any serious study of literature soon shows that the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative. Originality returns to the origins of literature, as radicalism returns to its roots. The remark of Mr. Eliot that a good poet is more likely to steal than to imitate affords a more balanced view of convention, as it indicates that the poem is specifically involved with other poems, not vaguely with such abstractions as tradition or style. The copyright law, and the mores attached to it, make it difficult for a modern novelist to steal anything except his title from the rest of literature.” (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p.98)