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Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, is a complex text made up of four parts. Three of the parts, the foreword, commentary, and index, are narrated by Dr. Charles Kinbote. The fourth part is a long poem written by a character named John Shade. There is much confusion as to the true identity of the narrator Kinbote, but for the sake of simplicity, I have taken the view that Dr. Charles Kinbote is the homosexual, insane, exiled Zemblan King Charles. Many different themes, motifs, plots, characters, and identities are intricately woven throughout this text. One motif is that of the butterfly. The transformation from life to death is represented by the caterpillar’s transformation to a butterfly. The butterfly is representative of death, or imminent death, and the possibilities of afterlife. The caterpillar has “died,” in a sense, and the butterfly is the form of its afterlife. It is a symbol that occurs repeatedly in the poem, and several times in Kinbote’s narratives.Shade’s poem, “Pale Fire,” is his exploration of the ideas of life, death, and afterlife. His daughter has killed herself and this is his way of trying to make sense of her death. One of the most difficult steps in the mourning process is the realization that you are slowly forgetting that person who has left and slowly forgetting the pain you have felt. Shade explores this particular emotion in the following lines: “Later came minutes, hours, whole days at last,/ When she’d be absent from our thoughts, so fast/ Did life, the woolly caterpillar run” (pg. 58, lines 665-667). The woolly caterpillar represents life on earth. The first of butterfly we encounter is in the foreword when Kinbote describes Shade’s practice of destroying his old drafts. Kinbote sees him “burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies” (pg. 15). Shade has figuratively killed his old draft, a draft that Kinbote assumes to be about his Zembla, and the ashes are the black butterflies whose death Shade is mourning. In Shade’s poem the butterfly motif is first introduced when he describes a tree in his backyard. “White butterflies turn lavender/ As they pass through its shade where gently seems to sway/ The phantom of my little daughter’s swing” (pg. 35, lines 55-57). Again, the butterflies are associated with the death, but, more specifically, the possibilities of his daughter’s afterlife. The “phantom” swing seems to be swinging still, as if her spirit is the force that is making it move. At nightfall, Shade attempts to “outstare the stars. Infinite foretime and/ Infinite aftertime: above your head/ They close like giant wings, and you are dead” (pg. 37, lines 122-5). In these lines from the poem, Shade is directly making the connection between the infinity of afterlife, wings, most likely those of a butterfly, and death. He makes many references to butterflies, but often, in the novel and the poem, the Red Admirable butterfly is mentioned. Its first appearance in the text is in the second canto of the poem. “Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,/ My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest/ My Admirable butterfly!” (pg. 42-3, lines 269-71). Shade sees the butterfly as something to be worshipped and something that is blessed. Angels, spirits of people who have been blessed and earned their place in the afterlife, are worshipped in many religions. Kinbote’s note to the line about “My dark Vanessa” explains the same butterfly’s presence in Zembla. “Zemblans call it harvalda (the heraldic one)” (pg. 172). The Red Admirable heralds death in this book. Each time it appears in the text, death is soon to come. Kinbote notes that he has seen the butterflies “feasting on . . . a dead rabbit” (pg. 172). Not only does this butterfly herald imminent death and passage to the afterlife, but it also physically feeds on death.We meet the Red Admirable again in the last stanza of the poem. According to Shade’s notes, he wrote the last stanza just before his murder. “A dark Vanessa with a crimson band . . . A man unheedful of the butterfly — / Some neighbor’s gardener, I guess – goes by” (pg. 69, lines 993-8). These lines ironically foreshadow his own murder. Shade is the man unheedful of the butterfly that flies in front of him as he walks to his death across the street at Kinbote’s house.

The note to these lines is entirely devoted to Shade’s final encounter with the Red Admirable, the herald of death. “A Red Admirable came dizzily whirling around us like a colored flame . . . with an almost frightening imitation of conscious play which now culminated in its settling upon my delighted friend’s [Shade's] sleeve” (pg. 290). Moments later, Shade will be shot through the heart and killed.The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, life on earth to the afterlife elsewhere, is represented in Charles’ walk through the secret passage to the theatre. He starts at the opening of the passage in the palace and walks through a dark maze to the opening at the other end in a theatre outside of the palace. He is imprisoned in the palace, stuck in a cocoon, and emerges as a free man, a free man who is no longer a king. Charles sees “a headless statue of Mercury, conductor of souls to the Lower World” in his passage to the other world outside the palace (pg. 133). His emergence from the passage into the theater is described like the butterfly wriggling free from the cocoon. “The mystery of the passage even before he wriggled at last through the drapery into . . . the Royal Theater” (pg. 134). It is interesting to note that the fugitive king is dressed from head to toe in scarlet clothing, scarlet like the Red Admirable. This metamorphosis is not so much about life and death as it is about the man’s change from one person to an entirely different person in a different station in life. Captivity to freedom. King to commoner. Zemblan to American. The kind Charles has essentially died and a different Charles is taking his place in the world. Shade’s poetry has crossed the seas to Zembla before Charles reaches America. Charles had read his work and heard his name before becoming his neighbor. It is important that we know that Kinbote’s, Charles’, obsession with Shade began before their actual introduction because it is one of the few things that the king has been able to carry over from Zembla and reintroduce in his new life. The poem of Shade’s that he saw many years ago was “The Sacred Tree.” In this poem there is yet another mention of the butterfly. “An old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,/ In shape” (pg. 93). Perhaps this is an old-fashioned butterfly because Kinbote’s memory of this poem comes from his old life, his life as king. The constant contrast between perception and misperception plays an important role in the text, especially when dealing with Kinbote’s true identity. The butterfly theme is touched on in reference to the play between perceptions and misperceptions. “In life, the mind/ Of any man is quick to recognize/ Natural shams, and then before his eyes/ The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig/ An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big/ Wickedly folded moth” (pg. 59, lines 710-15). Moths are insects known to look like butterflies. However, they are not butterflies, but only appear to be. Shade is commenting on his failure to see the misrepresentation of his white fountain for a sign of the afterlife. Finally, Kinbote summarizes what he has attempted to do in his commentary. “I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation” (pg. 289). As anyone who has ever tried to catch a butterfly will attest to, it is a very difficult task. Also a difficult task is the task that Kinbote undertook by trying to immortalize for readers the life of his friend, the creation of a piece of art, and the mystery of an exiled king. The facts and the fiction weaves in and out together like a butterfly flying through the text, landing here and there. The butterfly motif is the most interesting, in my opinion, and the most pertinent to the intricate artistry of this text.


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