Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Canto 1 | Summary



The author of the poem is John Shade, an American poet and literature professor at Wordsmith College. The poet recalls his youth as a perceptive, philosophically-minded child. He was orphaned in infancy and raised by his "dear bizarre Aunt Maud,/A poet and a painter." As a child, Shade delighted in the optical illusions made possible by the plate glass window in the living room. He would "duplicate/[Himself], [his] lamp, an apple on a plate" in the window's reflection. More spectacularly he would see all the living room's furniture "hang ... above the grass." This same optical illusion draws a bird to its death. Shade identifies himself with the "shadow of the waxwing slain," though he also "lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky."

Shade recalls his youthful delight in all colors, "even gray," and his photographic memory. He also occasionally returns to the present day. Still living in his childhood house, he now sees a "phantom of [his] little daughter's swing" in the yard. (His daughter, Hazel, is dead; this is revealed in Canto Two.)

The poet recalls his early disillusionment with religion: "My God died young." He found fascination in beautiful natural phenomena, but he compares those beautiful sights to the illustrated paper lining a birdcage: "For we are most artistically caged." He also mentions his awkwardness as a youth and his lack of athletic ability. He recalls a childhood experience of what seems to have been a seizure: "There was a sudden sunburst in my head." The sunburst of light gave way to a "sublime" blackness. The spells or seizures continued daily for "one winter." Then the episodes stopped, but "the wonder lingers and the shame remains."


The novel Pale Fire is a book of mirrors, and "Pale Fire" the poem is likewise fascinated by reflections. As a young child, the poet was fascinated by the mirror-image likeness of the living room, and he would "duplicate" himself looking at his reflection in the window. Shade identifies himself, not with the "waxwing slain" but with its "shadow." The shadow lives on "in the reflected sky" after the bird dies. In this way, the shadow seems to be the bird's ghost, but it could also be the bird's image in an artwork. The "reflected sky" is the world seen in a work of art, like the reflected living room hanging above the snow. Thus, from childhood Shade has been interested in the quasi-immortality of artworks, perhaps as a defense against brief mortal lives.

The combination of beautiful couplets makes a reader wonder how seriously to take this poem by the fictional Shade. Is the poem just something convenient to hang Kinbote's tale on, or is it a work of art in its own right? Thus, the poem involves readers in the novel's themes of mirrors, shadows, shades, ghost, by forcing the reader to question the validity of the work as art.

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