“The Secret Rhythm of Chance”: The Nabokovian Vision of Tragedy in Pale Fire

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Introduction: Reconceiving Pale Fire as Tragedy

Critics have produced so many overelaborate readings of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire that one suspects its author has finally turned us all into Kinbotean exegetes (or eisegetes), each of us scrambling to unearth some arcane allusion over here, some perceived profundity over there. One imagines that Nabokov, never above playing the role of ingenious trickster, thrilled at the thought of creating such an interpretive circus. According to Robert Alter, too many critics needlessly complicate the novel by, among other things, “devoting learned pages to wondering who—Nabokov, Shade, or Kinbote—is responsible for the epigraph, [and] by exerting their own ingenuity to demonstrate dubious theses, like the one in which both the poem and the poet are argued to be Kinbote’s inventions.” (185-86). It may well be that, as David Rampton contends, the “novel resists appropriation by any single set of critical criteria” (106), and that “there is no particular reason to believe that the novel can be ‘figured out’ in any definitive way” (111). But criticism must go on, and investigating Pale Fire’s rich layers of implication and ambiguity is as worthwhile a critical venture as any.

Yet I do not intend to undertake another ambitious “decoding” of the novel; instead, I propose that we start thinking of Pale Fire as the foremost expression of Nabokovian tragedy. Critics, overwhelmingly preoccupied with Nabokov’s metafictional sophistication, have neglected to comment on how the novel enfolds enduring tragic themes within an innovative novelistic form. Nabokov showed plenty of interest in tragedy, experimenting with it in such early plays and novels as The Tragedy of Mister Morn and Laughter in the Dark. Even so, the author came to scorn classical tragedy’s reliance on inexorable fate, a contrivance he thought devalued the role of chance in tragic narratives. My argument will consist of four parts: first, a short account of how Nabokov’s reconfiguration of tragic form was related to mid-twentieth-century critical debates on tragedy’s changing status; second, an overview of both Nabokov’s critique of classical tragedy and his delineation of what an ideal tragedy—“dream-tragedy”—should accomplish; third, a discussion of Nabokov’s balancing of experimentalism and traditionalism, postmodern play and tragic high seriousness; and, fourth, a detailed close reading that considers how the author’s unique tragic vision, with its emphasis on chance, operates within Pale Fire’s fictional world.

The Context of Nabokovian Tragedy 

Nabokov’s madcap genre blending in Pale Fire, while remarkably original in its way, coincided with the larger critical and artistic trends of the ’50s and ’60s. Attempts to redefine or elaborate on Aristotle’s formulation of tragedy pervaded literary criticism in the post-war years. Classical genres like tragedy and comedy, according to many mid-twentieth-century critics, could no longer be seen as pure, self-contained categories reliant on exclusive conventions (which is not to suggest that they were always “pure” in the past). The triumph of science and psychoanalysis, the erosion of traditional culture and religion, the democratic leveling of old aristocracies, the horrors of two world wars—all of these may have helped to undermine tragedy’s formal integrity and cultural prestige. Some critics, most famously George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy (1961), went so far as to declare tragedy dead, with hardly the possibility of its being resurrected by the modern artist. Others struggled to render an expansive yet permanently applicable definition of the form, as Oscar Mandel did in A Definition of Tragedy (1961). Charles Glicksberg, writing in 1963, illustrated the major alterations tragedy had undergone: “These changes of style and structure, these shifts from tragedy to tragicomedy, not to mention the replacement in popular appeal of the drama by the novel, are to be accounted for in large measure by a radical transformation in the consciousness and sensibility of an age” (5). For Glicksberg, humanity’s harrowing experiences in the twentieth century had produced new forms of tragedy, works distinguished by “the comic vein,” a “sense of the absurd,” and “the spirit of irony” (7).

Most of these critics acknowledged that, though something resembling tragedy had indeed persisted into postmodernity, the ennobling gestures found in tragic drama from Aeschylus to Racine had been transmuted into nihilism, absurdist comedy, and simple pathos. Still, literary artists must work within the historical circumstances in which they find themselves, searching for the proper idioms to figure forth life as they see it in their time, albeit without abandoning the essential commonalities and continuities of human experience. As Richard B. Sewall wrote in 1959, “it is clear that even in this period of the alleged dearth of tragedy artists have consciously striven to realize the form according to whatever notion it was they entertained of it” (129). It was during these years that Nabokov sought to realize his own iteration of the form, one which blended novelistic experimentation, a sense of the comic-absurd, and the traditional tragedian’s vision of, in James Joyce’s memorable phrase, “whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings” (183).

Nabokov’s Ideal Tragedy: “Dream-Tragedy”

In his 1941 lecture “The Tragedy of Tragedy”—which forecasts many things that will appear over twenty years later in Pale Fire1—Nabokov bemoans the tragedian’s dependence on “the same old iron bars of determinism which have imprisoned the spirit of playwriting for years and years” (326). The error Nabokov sees in classical tragedy and its modern imitations is “the illusion that life and thus dramatic art picturing life should be based on a steady current of cause and effect driving us towards the ocean of death” (337). Because tragedy in the classical mold too often employs the convention of inexorable fate, the visionary writer in any medium should strive to create a tragic art “characterized by the irrational and illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the face of smug causality” (326). The classical presentation of tragedy, Nabokov argues, is “as untrue to life as an all-pervading class-struggle idea is untrue to history. Most of the worst and deepest human tragedies, far from following the marble rules of tragic conflict, are tossed on the stormy element of chance” (340). Not surprisingly, Nabokov aspires to a tragic vision informed by the irrational, a “spirit of free will” (and the fortuitous results brought about by it), and a wondrous sense of cosmic chance and coincidence.

Nabokov identifies some of the existing tragedies that meet his criteria. These works of the tragic imagination are “dream-tragedies resplendent with genius, such as King Lear or Hamlet, Gogol’s Inspector, and perhaps one or two Ibsen plays” (326). Such tragedies receive the author’s praise “because dream-logic, or perhaps better say nightmare-logic, replaces . . . the elements of dramatic determinism” (327). Nabokov doubts “that any strict line can be drawn between the tragic and the burlesque, fatality and chance, causal subjection and the caprice of free will” (341). Even though he does not systematically lay out the distinctive features of dream-tragedies, a clear picture of the component parts emerges: dream-tragedies eschew or reconfigure the requirements of the classical form, foregrounding elements of chance, fancifulness, comedy, and dream logic. The novel, in all its versatility, is ideally suited to incorporate these creative violations, as Pale Fire successfully demonstrates.2

Postmodern Play and Tragic High Seriousness: Nabokov as Innovator and Traditionalist  

Free from various time-worn conventions, Pale Fire operates according to the requisites of Nabokov’s dream-tragedy mode. Like someone stuck in the zone between sleeping and waking, or someone lost in a hall of mirrors, the reader is never quite sure where the narrative’s “real” world ends and its illusory one begins; characters and fictional realms seem to blur and interpenetrate. Moreover, each of the major characters—Shade, Kinbote, and Gradus—contains attributes associated with his ostensible opposite (and with the author himself). In this shape-shifting and indeterminate world, the reader struggles to plant a foot on terra firma and locate something approximating reality. But then, as Kinbote tells us, “‘reality’ is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye” (130).

Some might read Kinbote’s words as Nabokov’s own voice in disguise, speaking through Kinbote in order to reject mimesis and aesthetic realism altogether. Harold Bloom asserts that “Nabokov, like Borges, is the most literary of fantasists and takes from reality what is already Nabokovian. . . . Admirers who defend Nabokov’s writing as mimesis do him violence. His genius was for distorted self-representation” (2). Nabokov, like his old poet John Shade, filters external reality through his own subjectivity, “perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle” (Pale Fire 27). But he is still dealing with the human world, the world from which all art arises and on which it depends, even the most fantastic works of anti-realism. Pale Fire, as I read it, is more than a clever meditation on the illusoriness of reality or the endless play of signifiers. Many critics understandably situate Nabokov among the postmodern novelists, yet I submit that he still accepts certain fundamental assumptions about tragedy held by many modernist and pre-modernist writers.

As in all great tragedy, Nabokov’s characters—notably Shade and Kinbote—come face to face with what Karl Jaspers terms “boundary situations,” or “ultimate situations”:

[T]here are situations which remain essentially the same even if their momentary aspect changes and their shattering force is obscured: I must die, I must suffer, I must struggle, I am subject to chance, I involve myself inexorably in guilt. We call these fundamental situations of our existence ultimate situations. That is to say, they are situations we cannot evade or change. . . . In our day-to-day lives we often evade them, by closing our eyes and living as if they did not exist. We forget that we must die, forget our guilt, and forget that we are at the mercy of chance. (19-20 Way to Wisdom)

To be sure, Nabokov revivifies each of these ultimate situations within a radically new tragic form. In particular, he makes innovative use of Jaspers’ claim that human beings are forever “at the mercy of chance.” The paradox that chance is inescapable fate—that is, that chance and necessity are just two labels for the same thing—proves indispensable for Nabokov’s thematic and structural purposes, especially with regard to Shade’s predicament. Nevertheless, Jaspers’ ultimate situations have remained the focal point of all works of tragic literature down the ages; they represent “whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings” (Joyce 183). If Nabokov dispenses with many of the old constraints of classical tragedy, making ample room for whimsical wordplay, parodistic humor, and intra-literary allusiveness, he nonetheless continues exploring—often through the use of these very elements—the ultimate situations that have vexed and fascinated Western tragedians since the ancient Greeks; and it is in this way, at least, that Nabokov’s dream-tragedy is grounded in tradition. Much of Shade’s poem, and even portions of Kinbote’s commentary, comes across as a genuine evocation of tragedy’s high seriousness. As Michael Wood reminds us, “The novel is light and funny in all kinds of marvelous ways, but we shall miss everything if we miss its darkness” (186).

The “Human Reality” of John Shade and His Poem  

The delusional Kinbote—or is it Professor Botkin?—strives to suppress the autonomy of Shade’s poem and distort our perception of Shade’s personal suffering. Kinbote gives us plenty of reasons at the novel’s outset to be wary of his utterances, including these, rather too insistent, comments:

Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word” (29).

Along with Kinbote’s earlier advice to read the Commentary before attending to the poem, this passage provides us with sufficient cause for doubt. And yet, Kinbote speaks a partial truth: Shade’s “human reality,” the fullness of his existence, does rest to a significant degree on the unreliable commentator’s point of view (and Kinbote, for better or worse, does indeed have “the final word” in the Index). But however increasingly distortive Kinbote’s interpretation becomes, many of his observations of Shade—like details about the poet’s temperament and daily routine—seem in keeping with the speaker of the poem whom we come to know and respect. What is more, almost anyone who reads the poem closely and in isolation, without any reference to the Foreword or the Commentary, will attest that “Pale Fire” is a powerful expression of the poet’s “human reality,” of his deep sense of anguish in a calamitous universe; the poem itself, in the last analysis, seems to exist independently of Kinbote’s often fantastical annotations.

Shade’s Poem: Making Sense of a Calamitous Universe 

Shade’s poem represents an artist’s effort to bring shape and sense to perceived chaos. The aged poet, who as a young man pledged “to explore and fight / the foul, the inadmissible abyss,” has spent his life seeking out some thread of coherence and causality in the universe, only to be thwarted by the apparent randomness of things (Pale Fire 39). He searches in vain for transcendental certainty, finding instead that the only certainty is uncertainty, that “Life is a message scribbled in the dark” (41). It seems that, above all, one crucial element lies behind Shade’s tragic situation: chance. In his lecture, Nabokov complains that the anticlimactic accident, the purely contingent event, never plays a pivotal role in tragedy: “Nothing ever fizzles out in tragedy, though perhaps one of the tragedies of life is that most tragic situations just fizzle out. Anything remotely resembling an accident [in literary tragedy] is taboo” (338). Nabokov creates in Pale Fire, most especially in Shade’s poem, a tragedy that rests mainly on fortuitous encounters and events. The poem’s opening stanza, for instance, introduces readers to the first of several accidents. The first two lines establish a world of deceptive appearances in which living creatures can simply “fizzle out”: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / by the false azure in the windowpane” (33). Yet the poet has written these opening lines with enough ambiguity for a more positive reading to surface (a point to which I shall return later). In any event, many of the tragic occurrences Shade encounters do not seem to be a result of what Nabokov describes as “the old iron bars of determinism,” though the mysterious workings of chance do influence Shade’s fate in their way (“The Tragedy of Tragedy” 326).

Shade is a man marked by chance from an early age. He explains that his parents, both of whom were ornithologists (which advances the recurrent bird and flight imagery in the novel), died when he was an infant. Try as he might to conjure their image, “they / Dissolve in their own virtues and recede, / But certain words, chance words I hear or read, / Such as ‘bad heart’ always to him refer, / And ‘cancer of the pancreas’ to her” (35). The deaths of Shade’s parents are among the first in a series of tragic chance occurrences. Their deaths, described only by “chance words,” seem arbitrary and absurd, a consequence of living in a world bereft of inherent meaning. His parents’ tragic ending also points up Shade’s tragic beginning: born into a seemingly senseless world, Shade’s own origins remain obscure, his parents existing as no more than fleeting figments of his poetic imagination. Shade grows up believing that human beings live at the mercy of a capricious and godless universe: “My God died young. Theolatry I found / Degrading, and its premises, unsound” (36). Touched in his boyhood by the hand of “playful death”—he is prone to fainting spells—Shade undergoes further disillusionment: “[L]ike some little lad forced by a wench / With his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench, / I was corrupted, terrified, allured” (38).

Despite all this, a profound ambiguity dwells at the heart of Shade’s cosmic pessimism: neither Shade nor the reader can know for sure whether apparent randomness is just another form of fate. After first proclaiming God an impediment to the free man, Shade poses a question: “[B]ut was I free?” (36). “How fully I felt nature glued to me” (37). The poet feels sublimely chained to the natural world, delighting in “the taste / half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste!” (36), and exclaiming that “we are most artistically caged” (37). Shade suggests, here and elsewhere, that nature itself may mysteriously influence, or possibly determine, human destiny. The young Shade also marvels over “[t]he miracle of a lemniscate left / Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft / Bicycle tires” (37). Neither Shade nor the reader can know if these markings, signifying infinity, are the result of mere happenstance, which seems most plausible, or part of some fatidic pattern. Human beings, as Kinbote’s outrageous eisegesis makes clear, tend to create their own meaningful patterns where perhaps none exist.

Shade’s Tragedy and “The Secret Rhythm of Chance”

This ambiguous sense of chance is the sine qua non of Nabokov’s tragic vision. As Nabokov mentions in his lecture, chance should come cloaked in mystery; it should move beyond the aleatory, the mere “stumblings of chance,” and hint at the possibility of meaningful occurrence (340). Nabokov’s thoughts on the matter are worth quoting at length:

What even the greatest playwrights have never realized is that chance is not always stumbling and that the tragedies of real life are based on the beauty or horror of chance—not merely on its ridiculousness. And it is this secret rhythm of chance that one would like to see pulsating in the veins of the tragic muse. . . . What seems to me to be the higher form of tragedy is the creation of a certain unique pattern of life in which the sorrows and passing of a particular man will follow the rules of his own individuality, not the rules of the theatre as we know them. It would be absurd to suggest, however, that accident and chance may be left to play havoc with life on the stage. But it is not absurd to say that a writer of genius may discover exactly the right harmony of such accidental occurrences, and that this harmony, without suggesting anything like the iron laws of tragic fatality, will express certain definite combinations that occur in life. (340-41)

Nabokov sought to create “a certain unique pattern of life” for John Shade, to discover “exactly the right harmony” of fortuitous events. But the key phrase of the passage, the one that goes to the center of Nabokovian tragedy, is the “secret rhythm of chance.” It is precisely this phenomenon that lies behind so many of the tragic, or near-tragic, occurrences of the novel: the death of Shade’s parents; the “sudden hush” that falls upon Aunt Maud (40); Hazel’s untimely demise; Shade’s heart attack (at which point there “sat by chance / A doctor in the front row” [58]); Kinbote’s intrusion into the poet’s life; Gradus’s (or Grey’s) arrival on Goldsworth’s front porch; and, finally, Shade’s ensuing death.

The secret rhythm of chance resembles, to some extent, Carl Jung’s “synchronicity.” As Jung explains, the concept of synchronicity “simply formulates the occurrence of meaningful coincidences which, in themselves, are chance happenings, but are so improbable that we must assume them to be based on some kind of principle, or on some property of the empirical world” (517-18). But Nabokov would surely have resented any connection between his art and Jung’s ideas, no matter how apt the relation. Perhaps a more fitting description of the “secret rhythm” is made by the Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd (though he never references the author’s lecture on tragedy): “Nabokov suggests that something in the surprising weave of the world itself, in all its endless detail and design, offers hints that our private universes may indeed prove central in ways we cannot fathom, even as we discover how much more there is to reality than we can presently see” (260).

The secret rhythm of chance translates as the “web of sense,” “the link-and-bobolink,” “the correlated pattern in the game” that Shade exalts in the epiphanic concluding stanzas of Canto Three (63). He believes that inscrutable forces are hidden behind the veil, setting the secret rhythm in motion: “It did not matter who they were. No sound, / No furtive light came from their involute / Abode” (63). Yet this apparent epiphany leads to Shade’s trading the ever- curious question mark for the self-satisfied period. The poet returns to Sybil with “firm conviction” that he knows the truth, “convinced” that he can at last “grope” his way toward some “[f]aint hope” (63). By the end of Canto Four he announces, with reasonable certainty, that his “darling somewhere is alive” in the afterlife, and that he will rise the next morning and the “day will probably be fine” (69). As we know from Kinbote’s commentary, however, Gradus’s bullet will kill Shade before he completes line 1000. The secret rhythm of chance suddenly takes Shade out of the game, almost as if “to rebuke the poet for his confidence” (Boyd 261). In Boyd’s view, the old poet dies “with a serene confidence in some deeply generous design behind things” (261). But this newfound confidence in the “web of sense” seems to seal Shade’s fate in the classical manner. One might make so bold as to suggest that Nabokov, momentarily putting aside his opposition to classical tragedy, underscores Shade’s hamartia, or tragic flaw. Whatever the case, Shade’s suburban tragedy remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. As a fly to a wanton boy is John Shade to the gods.

Nabokov’s secret rhythm of chance, though working itself out within a distinctly modern metafictional form, is a variation on something discernable in Western tragedy through the centuries. In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus propounds his personal aesthetic philosophy to a schoolmate. Speaking of tragic art, Dedalus defines pity and terror (terms Aristotle himself did not sufficiently define in the Poetics): “Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause” (183). Shade’s suffering over the loss of his daughter, as well as his exploration of death and the afterlife, elicits tragic pity from readers. But readers, like Shade, may experience tragic terror at the thought of the untold collisions and coincidences that form a “correlated pattern in the game” (63). Shade seems to intuit, with combined wonder and terror, the secret rhythm of chance as “the secret cause” of his tragic circumstances. The secret cause arouses within the old poet the mysterium tremendum, that tremendous mystery beyond human knowing which lies behind Shade’s sorrow and suffering (and, eventually, behind his death). As Normand Berlin observes, the cause of tragic suffering “has been given names—God, gods, fate, necessity, passion, blood—but no epithet adequately captures the mystery. The secret cause remains secret—and this is the fact tragedy forces us to acknowledge” (177).

Kinbote and the Tragic Isolation of Consciousness 

Kinbote would prefer to see himself as the not-so-secret cause behind Shade’s poem. He often recounts his pathetic attempts to convince Shade of recreating the Zemblan fantasy within the poem, thereby making the distant kingdom “the main rich thread in its weave!” (91): “I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put into verse” (80). Kinbote, not much of a hand at poetry, hopes to transmit his “special rich streak of magical madness” through Shade’s poetic genius (297). Among those tragic parallels evident in the sensibilities of both Shade and Kinbote, perhaps the most telling is a confrontation with the limits of subjective consciousness—or, to phrase it differently, the artist’s struggle to transcend the isolation of the self. The tormented commentator seeks escape from his solipsistic prison, from the tragic solitariness of existence, by implanting his fantasy in another’s art. Kinbote imagines a joint artistic venture, a wedding of two dissimilar creative selves: “Surely, it would not be easy to discover in the history of poetry a similar case—that of two men, different in origin, upbringing, thought associations, spiritual intonation and mental mode, one a cosmopolitan scholar, the other a fireside poet, entering into a secret compact of this kind” (80). In a possibly godless and chaotic universe, Kinbote’s quest to discover others who will recognize and validate his subjective experiences, particularly through art, becomes a pursuit of the first magnitude.

But as Kinbote realizes after Shade’s death, the poem expresses only the particularities of its author’s own existential crisis. Reading through the poem furiously, the annotator is distraught:

Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist’s patience and a lover’s urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! Instead of the wild glorious romance—what did I have? An autobiographical, eminently Appalachian, rather old-fashioned narrative in a neo-Popian prosodic style—beautifully written of course—Shade could not write otherwise than beautifully—but void of my magic, of that special rich streak of magical madness which I was sure would run through it and make it transcend its time. (297)

Kinbote’s epiphany here, his recognition that Shade’s poem conveys nothing of the magical Zembla, is another of the novel’s tragic revelations. Although some will insist that Kinbote embodies the comic and the pathetic as against the tragic, the careful reader will agree that the tortured narrator likewise possesses a tragic dimension. Kinbote’s physical and psychological suffering—the headaches, the paranoia, the suicidal thoughts, the nyctophobia, the general existential dread—derive in part from his awareness of a fundamental isolation at the core of being. As Kinbote comments in his note to line 62, “I cannot describe the depths of my loneliness and distress” (95). It would seem that no escape over the prison walls of individual consciousness is attainable. The Zemblan fantasy helps to sustain Kinbote and make his loneliness somewhat tolerable. Seeking validation from beyond the confines of the self, the commentator tries to embed his romantic tale in the poet’s imagination. But when he fails to fuse his imaginings with Shade’s artistic consciousness, Kinbote connives to “twist and batter” his “unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel” (86).

The Commentary winds up providing the disenchanted narrator with a medium through which he can disseminate his Zemblan narrative, combining it with his own melodramatic version of Shade’s tragedy. For all his brilliance as a fantasist, Kinbote tends to rely on the clichés and tired conventions of third-rate literature. Alvin Kernan makes some important observations about the stylistic differences between poet and commentator:

One of Nabokov’s many ironies is that the good gray sensible American poet Shade with his simple autobiographical poem is really far more daring in his search for an ultimate reality, more aware of his own aloneness, and more visionary in his simplicity, than Kinbote with his seemingly wild but extremely conventional romance of faraway kingdoms, secret passages, hair-breadth escapes, exotic landscapes, and secret band of murderers. (119)

Both writers, each in his own style, tell “the same story of fearsome isolation within the self and the attempt to break out of it,” possibly resulting in certain “correspondences” and some limited “communication” between them (Kernan 119). But Kinbote, his tragic qualities aside, is too self-regarding, too delusional, and too bombastic a stylist to apprehend and appreciate the uniqueness of Shade’s tragic situation. He therefore constructs a different tragic narrative around Shade and his poem, one based more on the crudities of fate than the subtleties of chance.

As Nabokov explains in his lecture, tragedy’s reliance on a contrived fate simplifies the complex web of incidents that may have led to the protagonist’s downfall. Nabokov insists that the tragic hero “may have been confronted with other terrors, other sleepless nights, other heartbreaking incidents of which we know nothing. The line of destiny which ex post facto seems so clear to us may have been in reality a wild scallop interwoven with other wild scallops of fate or fates” (325). The reader (or spectator) of tragedy, Nabokov suggests, inclines toward reductive explanations of fate, looking for neatly drawn lines of causality. The logical mind “is so hypnotized by the conventionally accepted rules of cause and effect that it will invent a cause and modify an effect rather than have none at all” (326). Despite the virtuosity Kinbote frequently displays in his annotations, he remains guilty of manufacturing the kind of obtuse tragic determinism that Nabokov assails.

Throughout the Commentary, Kinbote imposes a manufactured fate on the final days of Shade’s life, dreaming up a cause and altering its effect. He admits as much in his opening note:

The poem was begun at the dead center of the year, a few minutes after midnight July 1, while I played chess with a young Iranian enrolled in our summer school; and I do not doubt that our poet would have understood his annotator’s temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide Gradus, with that date. Actually, Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane on July 5. (74)

Kinbote uses the figure of Gradus, in all likelihood Jack Grey, an asylum escapee seeking revenge on Judge Goldsworth, as an emblem of implacable fate, one who foreshadows not only Shade’s destruction (which actually occurs) but also the Zemblan King’s potential assassination (which, probably, is pure Kinbotean fiction). The poem’s annotator, not surprisingly, endues Shade’s accidental murderer with false significance. Of course, Kinbote conveniently concocts the Gradus-as-fate motif after the fact of Shade’s death.

Kinbote’s “temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact” highlights the artistic license that the narrator is willing to take in order to construct a more symmetrical pattern of fate. Kinbote likely does not have a clue where Gradus/Grey was on July 5; the character simply adds a dose of intrigue and tragic inevitability to the plot of an outré romance. Kinbote even links Gradus’s journey to Shade’s versification: “We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura” (78). And, somewhat later, Kinbote is at it again, turning the poem itself into the generator of fate: “The force propelling him is the magic action of Shade’s poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of verse, the powerful iambic motor. Never before has the inexorable advance of fate received such sensuous form” (136). Kinbote’s fabrications of fate, albeit ingeniously arranged to fit his preferred narrative, are indeed pale fire when compared to the secret rhythm of chance.3 For Nabokov continues to insinuate that there exists a hidden pattern of facts and incidents more astonishing than Kinbote’s cleverest feats of literary legerdemain.

God, Fate, and the Mystery of Chance

The problem of fate versus chance, and of chance as fate, continues in a dialogue between the poet and his future annotator concerning religion. At the beginning of a note responding to Shade’s comic depiction of the I. P. H., Kinbote makes clear his view: “For a Christian, no beyond is acceptable or imaginable without the participation of God in our eternal destiny” (223). Although Kinbote consistently dazzles us with his imaginative powers, he clings to a rather simplistic notion of a supreme being who decisively intercedes in human affairs and determines human fate (but who evidently does not deploy the secret rhythm of chance). One can, to be sure, understand why the idea of such a divine creator appeals to Kinbote’s inner aesthete: his belief in God affirms the sacred place of the artist in the cosmos, reassuring him that a creative intelligence maintains full control over life’s seeming chaos. Kinbote’s faith carries out a function similar to his Zemblan fantasy, insofar as his dogmatic belief is a protective response to his own existential anxieties and insecurities—which is to say, to his own tragic lot in life. In the dialogue exchange, the zealous Kinbote presses Shade on the question of God: “Who is the judge of life, and the Designer of death?” (225). Shade’s rejoinder implies the secret rhythm of chance: “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one” (225). The poet, in his laconic yet profound way, embraces the mystery of life and death. Still, the devout commentator persists in lecturing him: “Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administers our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity” (225).

The old poet’s understanding of chance, however, is something far more magical than that which Kinbote has in mind. Shade sees in Kinbote’s hewing to organized religion, with its rigid conception of “eternal destiny,” a paucity of imagination, a diminution of the “combinational delight” of chance (69). When conceived as an enchanting enigma or secret pattern, chance does not deny the existence of God (though the moral reasoning of such a divine entity must remain unknowable). For Nabokov, we all move to the secret rhythm of chance. But there exists no book, no set of prescribed rituals, that can help us make total sense of it. As the author himself wrote elsewhere, there is no way to penetrate the mystery of the reality in which we find ourselves: “You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you can never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable” (Strong Opinions 11). This also tells us something about the form of Pale Fire itself, which replicates the “levels of perception” and “false bottoms” composing reality’s infinite mystery.

Shade’s Lack of the Vision of Evil

Yet if Kinbote’s devotion to religion, with its crude conception of human destiny, seems benighted to Shade, the annotator’s recognition of evil makes Shade look naïve. Regardless of the poet’s unflagging tolerance (an abundance of which anyone would need to tolerate a neighbor like Kinbote), his respect for the things of this world, his noble suffering, his poetic genius—regardless of these traits, Shade is too insulated by the comforts of his suburban Arcadia to accept fully the reality of human malevolence; his tragic vision, in short, contains a serious blind spot. When discussing the concept of original sin with Kinbote, Shade falls back on Rousseauistic sentimentalism: “L’homme est né bon” (225). Shade places sympathy and pity among the highest virtues, which is one reason he permits the manipulative Kinbote to get too close (Sibyl actually senses the threat). Kinbote is the archetypal European aristocrat: haughty, Machiavellian, well aware of the human capacity for evil; Shade is the archetypal Yankee democrat: egalitarian, Emersonian, a believer in man’s common decency.

While both are brilliant men who creatively express tragic insights, Kinbote has the upper hand when it comes to acknowledging the presence—and, in Gradus, the terrible banality—of evil. As he remarks of Gradus’s advance toward New Wye: “Even in Arcady am I, says Death in the tombal scripture” (174). Gradus, the machine man, brutish and unfeeling, is emblematic of a real and inescapable phenomenon, even if Kinbote tends to use him as a literary device. Pondering human iniquity as embodied in Gradus, Kinbote says that “[o]ur Lord has fashioned man so marvelously that no amount of motive hunting and rational inquiry can ever really explain how and why anybody is capable of destroying a fellow creature” (279). He concludes that “our half-man was also half mad” (279). But it is the thought of Gradus as an agent of motiveless malignity—Kinbote’s invented motives notwithstanding—that evokes tragic terror, arresting the mind and uniting it with yet another Joycean secret cause. One cannot deny that Kinbote, more completely than Shade, recognizes the existence of evil in the world.

Art and the Transcendence of Tragedy

Both Shade and Kinbote, despite their disparate life experiences and literary styles, share the belief that their art can transcend its immediate context and communicate to readers across time. The struggle to transcend the limits of the self, as discussed earlier, is a central problem in the novel. If one can escape the confines of solitary consciousness, one can, in theory, triumph over life’s tragic preconditions. Shade’s opening lines hint at this belief: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane; / I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I / Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky” (33). The text’s ambiguity is such that the lines convey multiple possible meanings, yet one potential meaning points to art as a kind of transcendence. Shade claims he “was the shadow of the waxwing,” not the waxwing itself. The bird’s shadow—which we may interpret as the shadow of Shade’s creative consciousness—lives on in the reflected world of art, even while the material body of “ashen fluff” stays behind. Art, and we must consider even Kinbote’s strange and exuberant annotations an art of a high order, gives the artist a chance to outlive his earthly existence. Both the poet and the commentator turn to the creative consciousness to stave off tragic sorrow and transcend their mortal frailty.

The Secret Rhythm and “The Shaping Joy”: Pale Fire as Authentic Tragedy 

Confident proclamations about the death of tragedy call for skepticism. Imaginative writers will always turn to tragic modes of expression, no matter how far removed from the conventions of, say, Greek or Elizabethan drama. It is wise, of course, to make a distinction between a literature of unmitigated despair and authentic tragedy. Much modern writing has been content to dramatize, even wallow in, despair for its own sake. In Tragedy Is Not Enough, Jaspers articulates the chief difficulty that a tragic literature faces in the modern world: “Where there is no sense of the infinite vastness of what is beyond our grasp, all we finally succeed in conveying is misery—not tragedy. This is the peculiar predicament of modern tragedy since the Enlightenment” (48). The Nabokovian vision of tragedy is not one of mere misery; it depends on the secret rhythm of chance, which never ceases to intimate a mystery at the heart of things and direct our attention to that “infinite vastness of what is beyond our grasp.”

But there is something more important to bear in mind: namely, that the novel’s realization as a well-wrought aesthetic object, as a painstakingly crafted work of art exploring the calamities of experience and the complexities of consciousness, differentiates it from a tale of unrelieved misery. Nabokov’s intricate art, like the arts practiced by his two principal characters, signals an act of affirmation in a tragic universe. We sense in Pale Fire a “shaping joy” (255), Yeats’s term for the artist’s delight in the “making and mastering” of his materials (254). After the artist “enters upon a submissive, sorrowful contemplation of the great irremediable things,” as every tragedian must, it is finally the shaping joy that keeps “the sorrow pure” (254-55). Nabokov’s joyfully shaped depiction of mysterious suffering keeps his novel from nihilism and despair, raising it to that loftier plane of authentic tragedy.



1 Several compelling connections to Pale Fire appear in “The Tragedy of Tragedy.” For instance, when Nabokov describes a potential tragic protagonist in everyday life, the description instantly conjures a Kinbotean figure: “[Y]ou learn that this person several years ago had been placed by force of circumstance at the head of some great revolution in a remote, almost legendary country, and that a new force of circumstances had banished him to your part of the world where he lingers on as the mere ghost of his past glory” (325). In another passage, Nabokov uses a metaphor that will later be echoed in Pale Fire: “And the highest form of the dramatic art—tragedy—is at its best a clockwork toy made in Greece that little children wind up on the carpet and then follow on all fours” (327). The image here calls to mind Shade’s first fainting spell: “One day / When I’d just turned eleven, as I lay / Prone on the floor and watched a clockwork toy . . .” (Pale Fire 38). One may also associate the metaphor with Kinbote’s description of Gradus as “a clockwork man” (Pale Fire 152). A final connection to the author’s future novel comes when Nabokov, expressing his boredom with the heavily annotated Greek tragedies, remarks that “the main drama seems to take place in these minute and copious footnotes” (328). One cannot know for certain whether the criticisms of tragedy made in this lecture motivated Nabokov to write Pale Fire, but the evidence is persuasive.

2 Rita Felski encourages critics to rethink the Aristotelian codification of the form. Felski asks us to consider tragedy a dynamic mode rather than a static genre: “A more elastic term than ‘genre,’ ‘mode’ lends itself to the complicated history and vicissitudes of tragic art. Modes are adjectival . . . denoting a selective group of features rather than a text’s overall defining structure; the term thus draws our attention to the hybrid, mixed qualities of genres” (14). The tragic mode, writes Felski, “can emancipate us from prescriptive taxonomies in literary criticism that persist in equating the tragic with a now virtually defunct form of poetic drama” (14). Reconceiving tragedy in modal terms, the critic is able to examine what Felski calls the “shape of suffering” (10), that is, “the formal particulars that render sadness tragic” in a specific literary work, including “details of plot and structure” as well as “characterization and language” (14). It is worth noting that critics in earlier decades had already proposed modal conceptions of tragedy, though they mostly ignored tragedy beyond the sphere of literature. (Northrop Frye, for example, devoted a chapter of Anatomy of Criticism to the theory of modes, which includes “high mimetic” and “low mimetic” tragedy [33-43].) Unlike past critics, Felski thinks that by reconceiving tragedy as a mode we can begin identifying tragic qualities within “multiple media and forms” hitherto ignored (14). At any rate, Felski’s broadening of tragedy’s formal possibilities offers us a flexible way to read Pale Fire as a work of tragic fiction.

3 By novel’s end Kinbote fabricates even his own tragic fate, trying to convince us (and himself) that he alone is the ill-fated protagonist, and that he will “make people calmly see—without having them scream and hustle me—the truth of the tragedy—a tragedy in which I had not been a ‘chance witness’ but the protagonist, and the main, if only potential, victim” (299).

Works Cited

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