Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Canto 3 | Summary

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Summary

Shade recalls being employed to lecture on death for one semester at the "I.P.H., a lay [non-priestly]/ Institute (I) of Preparation (P) for the Hereafter (H)." Like Shade, the I.P.H. was not religious.

Shade notes the acronym I.P.H. can be pronounced "If." The question of life after death is a "big if!" Shade also alludes to the last words of 16th-century French writer François Rabelais. On his deathbed Rabelais is supposed to have said, "I go to seek the great perhaps." In French, Rabelais's words are le grand peut-être, or as Shade comically pretends to mistranslate, "the grand potato." Throughout Canto 3 Shade focuses on the "big if" of life after death.

Shade recalls I.P.H. gave people advice about reincarnation. It also advised widowers on what to do upon meeting two former wives in the afterlife. He notes the institute has no advice to give someone facing execution. Shade sums up his time at I.P.H.: "That tasteless venture helped me in a way." He learned "what to ignore in [his] survey/Of death's abyss." Thus, when his daughter later died, he "knew there would be nothing: no self-styled/Spirit would ... rap out her pet name."

While giving a lecture on "Why Poetry Is Meaningful to Us," Shade loses consciousness and falls down. His "heart had stopped to beat" and did not start again for several minutes. He has an experience of the afterlife: "I did know that I had crossed/The border." In the afterlife, he sees "a tall white fountain." His doctor is skeptical he could have had any mental experiences in his state. Shade protests, "But, Doctor, I was dead!" The doctor says, "Not quite: just half a shade."

Shade reads about a woman, Mrs. Z., who also died, saw a white fountain, and came back to life. He drives 300 miles to visit her but is disappointed. She brushes off his questions about the afterlife and instead chatters about how honored she is by the visit of such a great poet. "An idiotic social call," Shade calls the visit. Later, the writer of the article about Mrs. Z., Jim Coates, reveals his article contained a misprint: "Mountain, not fountain" (italics added). Mrs. Z. did not share Shade's vision of a white fountain after all.

Analysis

The advice I.P.H. gives forms a catalog of the absurd consequences of life after death. A belief in reincarnation means believing one could come back as "a young and vulnerable toad." A belief in eternal life after death means the social embarrassment of encountering two wives. Eternal life also brings the peculiar phenomenon of a "changeless child" who never grows up.

Since Shade wrote the poem, he seems to be lampooning the idea of an afterlife. But Nabokov wrote Shade and the poem too and is perhaps skewering the absurdities of religious belief. But he could also be making fun of the secular, yet quasi-religious institution, I.P.H., with its half-religious notions. In this, the I.P.H. is similar to Sybil. She tells Kinbote she has developed "a religion of her own." It is perhaps neither belief nor unbelief that offends Nabokov here, but mediocrity of spirit.

The doctor doubts Shade died. First, he doubts Shade's mind was lively enough in his comatose state to entertain visions of fountains. Then he qualifies Shade's statement, "But Doctor, I was dead!" To the doctor Shade had been more like half-dead, a half-ghost: "just half a shade."

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