Vladimir Nabokov

PALE FIRE allusion to Salinger's Franny and Zooey

By MARYROSS, 29 November, 2021

     Nabokov’s Pale Fire is replete with allusions to literary greats (and some not-so-greats), as is well known. One allusion that I believe has not been mentioned suggests J. D. Salinger. Salinger was actually one of the few of his contemporaries that Nabokov approved of. They each had a story in The New Yorker’s anthology of the 55 best short stories published from 1940-1950. It was discovered after Nabokov’s death that in his personal copy he had graded each of the 55 stories– mostly low and with only two A+’s: his own Colette and Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.  (http://thenabokovian.org/node/9766)


     The allusion in Pale Fire I wish to discuss is a key metaphor from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey – the cluelessly proffered tangerine. I believe this deceptively simple image is a key to understanding Pale Fire as well. We find it in Shade’s poem, line 371:


And I would hear both voices now and then:

‘Mother, what’s grimpen?’ What is what?

                                                               ‘Grim Pen.’

Pause, and your guarded scholium. Then again:

‘Mother, what’s chtonic?’ That, too, you’d explain,

Appending: ‘Would you like a tangerine?’

‘No. Yes. And what does sempiternal mean?’ (Lines 368-372)


    The first time I read this passage I confess I thought “tangerine” was a rather weak reaching for a rhyme. I also assumed it was meant to demonstrate the cozy triptych of the Shade family. I now believe it was so intended – but deceptively. I began to see that all was not as it should be chez Shades, and there is a significant subtlety within the proffered tangerine. Hazel’s parents’ concern for their spiritually sensitive daughter is misplaced; they care about her looks and social life, whereas her internal life remains unacknowledged, glossed over, or deflected. They are sympathetic but not empathetic. Sybil’s proffering of a tangerine feels like a deflection from having to explain spiritual terminology for which she has only “guarded scholium”– perhaps even a distaste (for mysticism as well as T.S. Eliot)? Hazel’s “No. Yes.” feels like an irritated dismissal at her mother’s gratuitous disruption.  Sibyl’s typical concern for her daughter is to offer banal bromidic advice such as “less starch, more fruit.” Hazel, on the other hand, criticizes her parents “ferociously” and sees Sybil as a “didactic katydid” – that is, chirpy and preachy. (The epithet actually demonstrates Hazel’s special genius at “word twisting.”) This all may seem a small point, but it is amplified immensely by the tangerine allusion to Salinger’s dysfunctional Glass family.


Twenty-year-old Franny Glass is having a “nervous breakdown” (really a spiritual crisis) and is being cared for by her didactic katydid of an obtrusive and clueless mother, who keeps pushing chicken soup at her and criticizing her diet. Spiritually and psychologically Mrs. Glass is blind and tone-deaf. Lacking in any real empathy but packed with over-abundant officious concern, she latches on to her one purview of authority and control – the nurturing mother. Mrs. Glass barges in on her twenty-five-year-old son, Zooey, while he is taking a bath (!) to complain, ironically, about Mr. Glass being clueless in proffering Franny a tangerine:


   “He has absolutely no conception of anything being really wrong with Franny. But none! Right after the eleven-o’clock news last night, what do you think he asks me? If I think Franny might like a tangerine! The child’s laying there by the hour crying her eyes out if you say boo to her, and mumbling heaven knows what to herself, and your father wonders if maybe she’d like a tangerine. I could’ve killed him. The next time he –” Mrs. Glass broke off. She glared at the shower curtain. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.

   “Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I like the tangerine. All right, who else is being no help to you? [...]” (p.83)


Zooey is amused because his solipsistic mother actually makes an accurate observation about his clueless father, but she does not see that he has taken his cue from her! Mr. Glass’ usual style is avoidant denial and going along with whatever Mrs. Glass says. It is clear that he humbly proffers the tangerine according to her dietary diagnosis. It is also clear that these unattuned parents are the source of Franny’s breakdown and spiritual crisis.  In Pale Fire, Kinbote’s mis en abime play in the barn, with the inane mother, the passive father and the disaffected daughter is markedly like the double-bind etiology of Franny’s crisis. Hazel likewise is on a spiritual search as her occult and her poetic interests attest. I should note here another similarity: Franny’s “mumbling” is an Orthodox Christian mantra from a 19th Century Russian guide to spiritual union with Christ, “The Way of a Pilgrim.” Compare this to Hazel’s “Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.” (Line 356) Hazel may have merely been chanting mantras as part of her spiritual search, to the perplexity of her parents.


After his mother’s diatribe on diet, Zooey sarcastically retorts:


          “You’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. It’s staggering how you jump straight the hell into the heart of a matter. I’m goosebumps all over…By God, you inspire me. You inflame me, Bessie. You know what you’ve done? Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve given this whole goddam issue a fresh new, Biblical slant. I wrote four papers in college on the Crucifixion – five, really – and every one of them worried me half crazy because I thought something was missing. Now I know what it was. Now it’s clear to me. I see Christ in an entirely different light. His unhealthy fanaticism. His rudeness to those nice, sane, conservative, tax-paying Pharisees. Oh, this is exciting! In your simple, straightforward, bigoted was, Bessie, you’ve sounded the missing keynote of the whole New Testament. Improper diet. Christ lived on cheeseburgers and Cokes. For all we know, he probably fed the mult– ”

          […] “It just so happens, young man that I don’t consider your little sister in exactly the same light that I do the Lord […] I don’t happen to see any comparison whatsoever between the Lord and a run-down, overwrought little college girl that’s been reading too many religious books and all that!” (p.85)


            The proffered tangerine is Salinger’s “keynote” metaphor at the “heart of the matter.” It describes the parental disconnect as well as the spiritual crisis theme. The irony is that whereas Mrs. Glass sees no connection between her daughter and Christ, eventually Franny sees Christ in her mother. Franny and Zooey, like Pale Fire, is, among other things, primarily a novel about spiritual seeking. Franny and Zooey is more overtly, and resolvingly Christian.


    “All right, Franny. C’mon now. You said you’d hear me out. I’ve said the worst, I think. I’m just trying to tell you – I’m not trying, I’m telling you – that this is not fair to Bess and Les [Mrs. And Mr. Glass]. It’s terrible for them – and you know it. Did you know, God damn it, that Les was all for bringing a tangerine in to you last night before he went to bed? My God. Even Bessie can’t stand stories with tangerines in them. And God knows I can’t. If you’re going to go on with this breakdown business, I wish to hell you’d go back to college to have it. Where you’re not the baby of the family. And where, God knows, nobody’ll have any urges to bring you any tangerines…” (p.159)


Yet later Zooey says:


     “I’ll tell you one thing, Franny. One thing I know. And don’t get upset. It isn’t anything bad. But if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out of every single goddam religious action that’s going on around this house. You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup – which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this mad house…” (p. 161)


     The story really should have ended here, but loses all ironic subtlety and persists to a didactic resolution; Zooey leads Franny to an epiphany about the necessity of being oneself with impeccability and seeing Christ within everyone, including their ridiculous mother. In other words, she realizes the real message of the pilgrim’s mantra (“Lord Jesus have pity on me, a sinner.”)


     Nabokov, who disdained didacticism or pat resolutions perhaps felt similarly and thus intentionally subverted this image. The proffered tangerine in Pale Fire seems a clear allusion to Salinger’s key symbol of parental disconnect, but it is not exact. Most glaringly, Franny is beautiful and popular, her boyfriend is a catch, and at least her brother understands her and helps her to a transcendent epiphany. Whereas in Pale Fire’s mirror, Hazel is homely and rejected, can’t get a date, no one understands her, and thus suicides. There is no discernable resolution at Pale Fire’s end. It’s a case of failed transcendence. Every main character dies, except Sybil. This suggests the paramount archetypal position of Sybil, which I won’t get into here. 


     I believe, as Brian Boyd has demonstrated, that Nabokov is purposely ambiguous so that the reader has to provide their own solution based on clues at the antithetic level, such as his conclusion that as a transmigrated butterfly, Hazel does ultimately transcend. She becomes beautiful, forgiving and of service, not unlike the beatific epiphany that Salinger leaves Franny with at the conclusion of Franny and Zooey. So this interpretation works.


     However, Nabokov’s ambiguity allows for other interpretations. My interpretation, also based on antithetic clues, such as this one from Salinger, (but largely on the antithetic evidence of Jungian archetypes that the point of Pale Fire is a tricky game of dual solutions and subversion of pat conclusions. In the mirror, the tables are turned. For instance, if Pale Fire on the antithetic level exhibits all the traits of a Jungian “Hero’s Journey” but fails to deal with the major conflict, the anima (Sybil), then the journey is unsuccessful, a failed transcendence. Likewise, Nabokov’s borrowing of Salinger’s transcendent symbol is subverted with Hazel’s homeliness and hopelessness. As Kinbote’s play concludes:


Life is hopeless, afterlife heartless. Hazel is heard quietly weeping in the dark. John Shade lights a lantern. Sybil lights a cigarette. Meeting adjourned.