THE MAN IN GREEN AND THE MAN IN BROWN: The Trickster and Shadow Archetypes in Nabokov's Pale Fire

At the end of Pale Fire, fate is closing in on poet John Shade in the form of the dark Shadow, Jakob Gradus, the blundering assassin stalking his former king, Charles Xavier II the Beloved of Zembla. The would-be assassin is offered a helpful lift to the home of Professor Shade’s next-door neighbor, Professor Charles Kinbote (the King in disguise) by the prankish young instructor, Gerald Emerald. Upon arrival, Gradus fumbles with the car door as Emerald leans “close to him, across him, almost merging with him, to help him open it.” What are we to make of this symbiotic blending of “the man in green and the man in brown” (216)?

The answer may be found in viewing the characters in Vladimir Nabokov’s intricate and abstruse novel, Pale Fire, as parodic and allegorical representations of universal archetypes of the unconscious mind as put forth by the psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. Although Nabokov was well known for his excoriating views on Freudian psychoanalysis, he was curiously silent on Jung. I offer this Jungian theory as an interpretative look at Pale Fire, whose aptness may suggest intentional parody. Briefly, the main archetypes as represented by Pale Fire’s characters include ego (Kinbote), shadow (Gradus), persona (Shade), trickster (Emerald), anima (Sybil, Disa, Hazel, Fleur), senex (Dr. Sutton) and self (Balthasar). I contend that all these character/archetypes are aspects of one person’s mind: that of madman and professor, V. Botkin. This paper will restrict its focus to the fusion of these two seemingly disparate characters, Gradus and Gerald Emerald, as Jungian shadow and trickster and combined instruments of fate.

According to Jung, the shadow archetype is everything one denies and represses in oneself and relegates to the unconscious, or projects negatively onto others. Jung claimed that all the archetypes were essentially shadows, as they all reside in the unconscious (just as in Pale Fire the Shadows reside in imaginary Zembla). The revolution in Zembla is a revolution in consciousness, just as the repressed shadows of the psyche wreak havoc if they rise to consciousness. Jung claimed that the emergence of shadow archetypes into consciousness can precipitate either psychosis or, if met properly, self-knowledge (Jungian individuation). Jung associated the shadow with fate: "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate" (C.G. Jung, CW Vol. 9ii, Princeton: Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press, 1969).

Nabokov, via Kinbote, associates Gradus with fate: "a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide. Never before has the inexorable advance of fate received such a sensuous form (for other images of that transcendental tramp's approach see note to line 17)" (208).

“Transcendental” might seem like a strange description of Gradus, but viewed from the Jungian perspective, the unconscious has the key to spiritual transcendence (individuation) and Gradus is the instrument of fate that will implement this. The trickster archetype is also associated with fate: "The so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams" (C.G. Jung, “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure,” CW, Vol. 9i, par. 478).

The trickster archetype occurs throughout fairy tales and myths, usually as a mischievous spirit such as an elf, sprite, nymph, kobold, etc. The trickster presents the light-hearted, rollicking side of life, promising a magic carpet ride and then pulling out the rug from under it. The trickster is the surprise “twist of fate,” not necessarily always negative. It is the unconscious trickster within that causes embarrassment, trip-ups, slips of the tongue, self-defeating actions, etc., which are often projected onto and blamed on another.

Gradus in the novel is literally a “Shadow,” a member of the Zemblan revolutionary group, the Shadows. Gradus is the basic shadow archetype: dull, mechanical, bestial, ugly, dark, dirty, dangerous, etc. Gerald Emerald (along with his Zemblan Shadow counterpart, Izumrudov) is akin to the trickster: a practical joker, clever, naughty, impish, deceptive, and likewise dangerous. The difference between the two fateful shadow types of Gradus and Emerald is that Gradus is associated with darkness, dullness but more importantly, with the inexorability of death. Jocund Gerald Emerald, in his green jacket, suggests the Emerald Isle of Ireland and its native tricksters, leprechauns. While Gradus is dark and dull brown, Emerald is leprechaun-like and sparkling: emerald green. The shadow and the trickster are companion pieces of upset fate. Death is inevitable, but how and when it happens is dependent on the twists of fate. This is why Gradus and Izumrudov are shadow cohorts and why Gerald Emerald gives his momentary companion Gradus a lift.  

Linking poem and commentary, this symbiotic polar relationship of plodding, inexorable fate and surprise impetuous fate is foreshadowed in John Shade’s inverted fable of La Fontaine’s merry (emerald) cicada and dullard (black-brown in brown sap) ant.

  … Espied on a pine's bark,

As we were walking home the day she died,

An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,

Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,

A gum-logged ant...

(ll. 236-240)

The “emerald” case suggests Nabokov’s authorial encoding of Gerald Emerald into the poem, along with his companion in fate, Gradus as the dark ant stuck in the brown sap. This would be one of the abstrusely ambiguous ways that Nabokov parallels and reflects the poem and the commentary. Nabokov endows the surface plot (thetic) level of the text with extra-textual (antithetic) significance. On the thetic level, Shade notices the whimsical irony of this fabled pair, and employs it in his poem to extol the virtues of ecstatic transcendence over stultifying automatism. This section of the poem occurs a few stanzas after the mention of Aunt Maud’s death, so also suggests Shade’s belief in the transcendence of spirit (song) over the dead body (mandible).  However, these lines occur a few stanzas before Shade relates the terrible night of his daughter’s death. The “she” of “the day she died” could relate to Hazel and signify an unaware premonition of the soon-to-be reversal in her fateful end. 

On this antithetic level, little did Shade realize that his faith in transcendence was about to be challenged, and his fate changed, later that night by his daughter’s death. The twist of fate of Hazel’s suicide precipitates Shade’s despondent quest for answers to life, death and the hereafter. After his disappointing searches in the arenas of spiritual inquiry, John Shade at last has a personal epiphany of meaning and certainty, which he sees as a “contrapuntal theme” of “topsy-turvical coincidence” (lines 807-809). As he nears completion of his poem, Shade feels as confident that his daughter is “somewhere alive” as that he shall awake the next morning. Little does he know that, coincidentally, already the pattern of augury is repeated: the emblematic duo of contrapuntal fate, the man in green and the man in brown, has joined up and are on the scene. There will be a reversal of his fate. Shade will not wake the next morning, as he felt contentedly confident of, but with the help of a twist of fate (Emerald), he meets with inexorable Death (Gradus). The irony is not that he was mistaken in his faith, but that his epiphany was right.

 --Mary Ross, San Francisco