Pale Faith in Life After Death in Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Philosophically, the very nature of death has puzzled even the greatest philosophers since the time of humanity’s humble beginning. While some may argue that once an individual dies, it is lights out, no encore, that’s all she wrote, and the nothingness consumes everything for all eternity, others, often those claiming a religious or spiritual affiliation with a higher power, suggest this; when someone passes away, they do not just slip into an eternal state of nothingness, they remain at our side, although unseen and unheard.

Straining to understand the finality of death proves to be elusive to the collective majority of humanity, except those, of course, who have already crossed the finish line. In his novel Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov eloquently weaves humanity’s ongoing uneasiness regarding the uncertainty of the existence of life after death in his character, the well-established poet, John Shade. Shade meditates on such notions of death in the poem’s motif that considers the circumstances surrounding death and the possible presence of an afterlife.

However, his evolving understanding of the afterlife, which is demonstrated as the poem progresses, is ultimately cut short when he is murdered by the oafish Gradus in the novel’s final pages. Notwithstanding Shade’s indefinite prospect of the existence of an afterlife, as established in his poem, “Pale Fire,” an attentive reader may conclude from “Pale Fire” that the afterlife is a palpable reality and that those that have already crossed over are here with us, attempting to send us messages from the other side.

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Within the opening lines of John Shade’s “Pale Fire,” Shade’s budding fascination with the circumstances surrounding death and the afterlife begins its long and difficult journey as it evolves over the length of 999 strategically written lines. Canto One begins as an introduction to Shade’s early life and the events leading up to his eventual success as a poet. At a young age, Shade’s parents die and he is sent to live under the guardianship of his eccentric Great-aunt Maud,  who later dies after complications with a stroke (lines 71, 237). The poet takes this rather dismally depressing event in his life and transfers it into images of snow and shadows, allowing for the onset of an underlying sober tone that carries for the rest of the poem. For the most part, Canto One stands as an introduction to Shade’s developing interest in the afterlife. The death of his parents serves as the primary event that sends him into a lifelong search for an answer to humanity’s greatest question; is there or is there not an afterlife.

Progressing into Canto Two, Shade’s infantile understanding of the nature of death takes a heartbreaking turn. Shade brings the focus of Canto Two onto the formation of his ideas regarding the questionable existence of an afterlife, thus allowing the reader to pick up on Shade’s declining belief in a higher power. Line 99 effectively demonstrates this depreciation of faith with the bold statement “my God died young.” As a child Shade is more than willing to believe in a God, but as he grows older Shade begins to question the truth of the book and lean more towards the truth that other scientific novels provide. However, Shade possesses a unique appreciation and curiosity about the laws of nature that he hopes will provide him the instinct into life’s larger, more elusive issues, although his admiration of nature’s wonders such as the “infinite foretime and infinite after time” of the stars have done nothing to provide Shade any clues as to how humankind can imagine a life” before this, or yet, “scorn a hereafter none can verify” (lines 122-123,218,222). Growing older only seems to confuse Shade as a result of his intelligence; the poet is unable to conclude the afterlife before the end of Canto Two because of the conflicting knowledge he has acquired and personal experiences with death that he has dealt with in his own life. One tragedy after another strikes Shade, first the death of his parents, then the death of his Aunt Maud, and at the finale of Canto Two Shade is confronted with the most grievous loss yet: the death of his only child, Hazel Shade. Untimely and unthinkable, Hazel’s death serves as the final blow, as the Shades are left wondering “why”, and John Shade is left to ponder the “big if” (line 507).

In light of the big if, Canto Three begins with Shade’s newest obsession, the “Institute (I) of Preparation (P) for the Hereafter (H),” which he spends the duration of the Canto speculating and reflecting on the word “if” (line 503-504). All things considered, from the analysis of the last two cantos, Shade holds a very conservative view of the afterlife, and this view is continued and expanded on throughout Canto Three. He writes in Canto Three that he would denounce his right to an afterlife if it meant that “the melancholy and the tenderness of mortal life … the passion and the pain … are found in Heaven by thenewly-deadd” (Lines26-27). Shade remains hesitant to give in to the promise of an afterlife, saying the Institute might think it wise “not to expect too much of paradise” (Line 536). Here Shade lets his logic run wild as it brings to his attention the possible realities of death; no one may be there to welcome “the newcomer” (line 539). What if, instead of being taken to paradise, the newcomer is “tossed into a boundless void … lost … spirit stripped … and utterly alone” (Lines 541-542)? In an attempt to lighten the mood of the poem, the poet switched over to a mockery of the afterlife, claiming that the IPH’s largest contribution is tips on “how not to panic when you’re made a ghost” (Line 553). Alternating between a slight hope and a depressing examination, Shade once again argues toward the falsehood of the afterlife in lines 589-590: “For as we know from dreams, it is so hard to speak to our dear dead.” As much as Shade desperately wants to believe in the possibility of an afterlife, he just cannot conclude its existence with the information and experiences he has on hand, that is, until he discovers an article from a magazine sharing a story of a woman believing she saw Heaven during a near-death experience. Previous to this discovery Shade has a near-death experience of his own while lecturing at the university, even though his doctor tells him it was a mere heart irregularity, Shade is convinced that his “heart had stopped to beat, it seems, and several moments passed before” his heart “went on trudging to a more conclusive destination” (Lines 695-698).

Demanding the reader’s full attention Shade exclaims that at this moment an empyrean phenomenon occurred, as the “blood-black nothingness began to spin,” he saw “a tall white fountain “distinct against the dark,” playing (Lines 733, 736-737). At this very moment shade’s belief in the afterlife is as limitless as the idea of the afterlife itself, at no further point while the poet is alive does he believe more in the afterlife. The vision of the fountain “reeked with the truth” (Line 737). As far as Shade is concerned the fountain of the afterlife, was indeed their reality. Returning to his discovery of the woman, represented as Mrs. Z in the poem, that describes seeing a fountain during a near-death experience; Shade makes the “three hundred smile)” journey to meet her in person to discuss their supposed shared experiences (Line 769). Upon his arrival, they gaily chatter about Shade’s work without even mentioning what they had seen “beyond the veil” (Line 789). Shade leaves, but later calls on the editor of the article who assures Shade that the article is an accurate portrayal of Mrs. Z’s story, except for one minor misprint: the “f” the of the fountain was intended to a be an “m” for mountain. Upon this utterly devastating discovery Shade spirals down into a sea of doubt, wondering if he should continue investigating the “Life Everlasting – based on a misprint” (Line 803). Although despondent at the death of his advancing faith in the afterlife, Shade concludes that the event is the real point,” part of a “contrapuntal theme;” now he believes that if he can find “some kind of correlated pattern in the game,” that there is hope. As can be seen, Shade’s hope in the afterlife endures the devastation of the article’sicle misprint on account of his assumed brush with death at the University, however, it remains unclear in Canto Three how Shade plans to pursue his investigation. Oddly enough Canto Four Shade scarcely references the possibility of an afterlife, at least explicitly. Indirectly, however, a careful reader notices in lines 971 and 972 that Shade claims to have at this point in his life an understanding of “existence, or at least a minute part.” It is reasonable to conclude that by this phase of the poem Shade has come to terms with life and death as it is perceived both spiritually and physically. On either side, he understands that physically speaking, death is the end of the bodily life, but he gives hope to the possibility, however slight the chance, that after the body’s physical end, the spirit is released to live on in an individual’s perceived afterlife. This afterlife for Shade, no doubt, includes a reunion with the loved ones he has lost throughout his life, his parents, his aunt, and his daughter Hazel.

Underlying this conceptualization of the afterlife is an understanding of the abruptness in which a life can end; almost fortuitously, “Pale Fire,” a poem meant to contain a whole 1,000 lines, lacks the finale line leaving the poem, of course, incomplete. From reading the novel, Pale Fire, a reader knows that Shade is unfortunately murdered before he can complete his autobiographical poem. The missing line, therefore, serves as a reminder to the reader that life is not guaranteed, it is a privilege not meant to be taken for granted. Despite his life being tragically cut short, Shade achieves, through death, the most complete understanding of what exists beyond the veil without even consummating his faith in its existence.

Contrary to Shade’s incomplete understanding and shaky belief in the presence of an afterlife, the reader, and by extension Kinbote, from a careful analysis of Hazel Shade’s unknowingly successful attempt to contact the other side, can conclude with a great deal of certainty, the existence of an afterlife. Hazel Shade develops an interest in the afterlife after hearing an account of an “eccentric farmer” named Paul Hentzner, who died in the barn on the Shades’ property (p. 185). One night Hazel makes a late-night visit to the barn in search of evidence of a spiritual presence; alone with her notebook, she begins talking to the pale orb of light in a simple Ouija-like manner. After tediously writing down each letter the orb signaled to Hazel, she ended up with a “jumble of broken words and meaningless syllables: pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan their taleforr far rant lant tal told” (p. 188). To Haze,l this jumbled-up string of words holds little meaning, but to the literary philosophers,s this message is definitive proof of the afterlife. According to the literary experts, this is a message to Hazel directly from her Great aunt Maud from the other side, warning Hazel of her father’s impending death. The message instructs Hazel to not allow her father to cross the lane with Kinbote or else Shade will be shot and killed by the brute Gradus. Despite Maud’s best efforts Hazel is unable to decipher the message and commits suicide shortly thereafter. On the day of shade’s death Hazel does, however, make a final attempt to rescue her father from certain death, as a dark Vanessa butterfly, to the reader’s certain dismay Shade ultimately does not see the sign from beyond and is killed.

In the final analysis, Shade’s poem, “Pale Fire” is a textual demonstration of the evolution of his faith in an afterlife. While somber, the reader, and therefore Kinbote, may take solace in Shade’s death as now he is one of the many that know what lies beyond the veil of life.

Works Cited

  1. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. 1962. New York: Putnam, 1989. Print.

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Pale Faith in Life After Death in Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. (2022, Jun 27). Retrieved from

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