Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Canto 2 | Summary



On the occasion of his 61st birthday Shade ponders death and the afterlife. He speaks about the deaths of two people close to him: his Aunt Maud and his daughter Hazel. At age 80, Maud suffered some kind of paralysis and had difficulty speaking. Shade contemplates the decay of both the body and the mind. He ponders illogical aspects of belief in an afterlife and wonders if heaven is really so unlikely a possibility.

Shade then turns to the story of his wife, Sybil. They have been married 40 years now and the poet still speaks fondly to her: "Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed."

Shade recounts the life and death of his daughter, Hazel. She was born looking like Shade, which Shade regrets. In school plays, other children "were cast as elves and fairies," while Hazel played "Mother Time, /A bent charwoman [housecleaner] with slop pail and broom." He recounts her loneliness and awkwardness, her school prizes, and her love of wordplay.

The night of Hazel's death, she goes on a double date. It is late winter, almost spring. Her intended blind date, Pete Dean, pretends to have an appointment and abandons Hazel. Not wanting to be a third wheel, Hazel takes the bus home. Unexpectedly, she gets "off at [the town of] Lochanhead."

The poem switches focus between Hazel's actions and those of the Shades at home, who are watching TV and waiting for her. They watch a show about "The Cause of Poetry." Shade is mentioned "as usual just behind/(one oozy footstep) [Robert] Frost." Robert Frost was a 20th-century American poet. After 11 PM, the Shades switch the TV off. That night, while the Shades wonder where she is, Hazel "step[s] off the reedy bank/Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and [sinks]."

Shade considers theories about Hazel's death. She might have tried to cross the lake or she might have gotten lost. Or she might have committed suicide. Shade is certain which one it was: "I know. You know."


Two deaths bookend the canto, and they are each other's opposite. Maud dies of an illness in old age, but Hazel dies in her youth, of misadventure or despair. Both deaths pain Shade, but in their separate ways. Maud's death represents the succession of the generations: the old die and the young take their place. With the death of his only child, Shade has no more successors. He was orphaned when young and is now childless in old age.

Maud's death occasions the poet's present-day questions about the afterlife. "What moment ... [d]oes resurrection choose" is a question about age. Will the old and paralyzed Maud be immortalized as old? As paralyzed? This is also a question about memory. Will she always be for Shade as she was at her death? The corresponding questions about Hazel in the afterlife do not come until Canto 3 because Shade ends Canto 2 with the death of Hazel.

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