Canto Three: Summary:
John Shade continues his philosophical reflection on the word "if." The word "if" leads to the idea of a group called IPH, the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter. This is an academic or at least intellectual hangout, and in his young adulthood, Shade enjoys the group. As a newlywed, Shade was an itinerant. Sybil accompanied John as his career took him from lecture to teaching stint to book reading. Later on in the marriage, the Shades eventually settled down in New Wye, where John is a highly respected professor with tenure.
Shade enjoys remembering these happy, unblighted years. This sparks Shade's realization that he does not object to death. Rather, Shade does not want to forget the details of life, even after he dies. "I'm ready to become a floweret," he states, but he refuses to "forgetthe melancholy and the tenderness of mortal life." Shade wants to keep the memory of the good as well as the bad.
At the same time, Shade does not confuse this fantasy with his actual philosophy. Shade is conservative in his assessment of the afterlife, concluding that one should not go into death with too many expectations. Such expectations are likely to be disappointed.
The Shades travel to Italy after their daughter's death. After the return home, John Shade goes on a book tour promoting his new collection of poetry. At one of these readings, John suffers some sort of spasm, a heart irregularity. He falls and loses consciousness, but soon recovers. Despite the doctor's explanation of what actually happened (a minor irregularity in heart beat), Shade is convinced that he died. During his few minutes in the afterlife, Shade saw a "white fountain." Some time later, Shade reads a magazine article examining a woman who was dead for a few minutes and saw a "white fountain." Eagerly, Shade makes contact with both the journalist who covered the story and the woman who was featured. Much to his consternation, Shade learns that there was a typographical error in the printed article. The woman didn't see a "white fountain;" she saw a "white mountain."
The typographical error, confusing "fountain" and "mountain," adds to the theme of reading and misreading. Shade is reading properly here; the problem is that the wrong word is written down. Looking at John Shade as a character within the novel, we can see two characteristics that are uncommonly paired. On one hand, Shade is not a social conservative by any means. In fact, he is somewhat eccentric and is willing to hold unpopular views that go against longstanding public opinion. For example, Shade does not believe in God; moreover, Shade believes that he saw a "white fountain" in the afterlife. On the other hand, Shade has very high demands for accuracy and precision. Shade's ideas may not be conservative, but Shade is conservative in his dismissal of slight "error" and his demands to have a precise answer. The fact the woman claimed to see a mountain, does not change the fact that she claims to have seen something. Nevertheless, Shade rejects this potential commonality because they have not seen the same exact thing. It is important to understand how Shade is averse to error, inaccuracy and ambiguity. In the "Commentary," Kinbote will significantly alter Shade's poem, but his arguments about Shade's errors and ambiguities won't ring true given what we know about John Shade.
Canto III does more with the death motif than the previous cantos did. We can see the irony of falling down (and into unconsciousness) at the pinnacle of ones literary success (the book reading). At this point, it is worth noting that the name SHADE is an anagram of HADES, the underworld of Greek mythology. The phrase "Elysian life" alludes to Elysium (or the Elysian Fields), a region of Hades where dead heroes lived a peaceful afterlife. Specifically, the blessing of Elysium is that the dead have no memory or recollection of life on earth. This is in direct opposition to Shade's demand to "never to forget."
Shade agrees to the idea of death as a form of metamorphosis (changing into "a floweret /or a fat fly"). This is closer to Eastern philosophies of unity and reincarnation, as opposed to the more thorough physical death described in Greek and Christian traditions. Shade doesn't want his death to interrupt his earthly life. As the Foreword explained, however, Shade dies soon after he completes a draft of the poem. Shade's own use of the word "newlydead" (in opposition to "newlywed") doesn't foreshadow his death. It reminds us of what we already learned.
"Hesperus" was the name that the Greeks gave to the Straits of Gibraltar. The Greeks believed Hesperus to be the edge of the known world. The metaphor of Hesperus, as the edge of the known, is presented in IPH. IPH seeks to investigate and explore what lies beyond the Hereafter/Hesperus. "Fra Karamazov" is final literary allusion of different extraction. Shade's poem refers to "Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept/ All is allowed." In Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters essentially claims that if God does not exist, "all is allowed." Shade is hardly focused on the implications of the hereafter on morality. Further, Shade does not believe that God exists, though he does not express anything close to Fra Karamazov's amorality. Nabokov's works frequently criticize traditional social institutions, and Nabokov was hardly a fan of organized religion. The character of John Shade proposes Nabokov's idea of religion and morality as discrete and potentially separable: without believing in God, Shade is able to reject the claim that "all is permitted."
Canto Four: Summary:
In this final section of the poem, Shade interprets his task as a poet. He aims to "spy on beauty" and "try what none has tried." Shade's writing process takes two forms. "Method A" is when Shade thinks about his ideas and finds the central words and phrases. This is a mental, unwritten process. "Method A is agony." Method B is when the writing takes place. Shade sees his pen as a sort of muse or "prop." The physical implement makes it easier to think. Shade enjoys a routine of writing at his desk, in a structured and traditional way. Method A, on the other hand, occurs randomly, often during mundane tasks like shaving.
Shaving makes Shade think about advertisements for razors and shaving cream. He despises them because they deceitfully portray shaving as an easy, simple process. Shade then gives a long list of what he "loathes," jazz, bullfighting, bric-a-brac, primitivist art, supermarket music, swimming pools, Freud, Marx, and "puffed-up poets" among others.
In the end, Shade claims that he needs poetry in order to understand life. Poetry is not one of several methods; it is the "only" option.
As poets go, Shade is not the best. Canto Four promises to "try what none has tried"but this is probably more true of Nabokov than John Shade. In terms of structure, Shade's poem is incredibly simplistic. Shade's discussion of the "vital rhythm" ironically occurs in an irregularly stressed line. Like Shade's ailing heart, Shade's poem keeps an irregular, erratic beat.
Several literary critics have addressed the idea of "authorship" in dividing Shade from Nabokov. On one hand, Shade is a character within a fictional workbut "Pale Fire" is the poem that Shade wrote. Plenty of books feature writers as characters, but in Pale Fire we happen to read what the character wrote. On the other hand, Nabokov is the author of Pale Fire, and the poem "Pale Fire" as well. For whatever reasons, the structure that Nabokov has put in place certainly disadvantages John Shade. Shade seeks to explain to us why he writes. He is a writer writing about writing. Kinbote's Commentary, as we will soon see, undoes all of Shade's work. In Line 937, Shade refers to "Old Zembla." As Kinbote takes the reins from Shade, the story sharply veers towards "Zembla" and Shade's poetic concerns become irrelevant.