Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Sybil Shade Character Analysis

Sybil is John Shade’s wife and Hazel’s mother. John and Sybil have been married for 40 years, and they’re profoundly in love; Sybil is the only person in the world with whom John shares his drafts, and they share a deep appreciation for nature and domestic life. Like John, Sybil is devastated when their only child, Hazel, commits suicide as a teenager, and the couple struggles to make sense of what—if anything—her death means. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that Kinbote and Sybil do not get along. Kinbote is deeply misogynistic and he thinks that it’s Sybil’s fault that he and John aren’t closer (it doesn’t occur to him that John doesn’t like him very much and that Sybil protects her husband from Kinbote’s badgering presence because of that). After Shade’s death, when Kinbote reads “Pale Fire” and realizes that it isn’t about Zembla, he blames Sybil for that, too, claiming that she censored the poem. Sybil and Kinbote fall out entirely after Shade’s death, likely due to a disagreement over the manuscript of “Pale Fire.” In the immediate aftermath of Shade’s death, Kinbote’s gardener falsely tells Sybil that Kinbote tried to shield Shade from the bullets, and Kinbote uses this to manipulate Sybil into signing over the rights to the poem to him. After she realizes how horrible an idea this is, she tries to insert two other Wordsmith professors as co-editors, which Kinbote finds outrageous. After this, they never speak again.

Sybil Shade Quotes in Pale Fire

The Pale Fire quotes below are all either spoken by Sybil Shade or refer to Sybil Shade. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Pale Fire published in 1962.
Commentary: Lines 367-434 Quotes

I am thinking of lines 261-267 in which Shade describes his wife. At the moment of his painting that poetical portrait, the sitter was twice the age of Queen Disa. I do not wish to be vulgar in dealing with these delicate matters but the fact remains that sixty-year-old Shade is lending here a well-conserved coeval the ethereal and eternal aspect she retains, or should retain, in his kind noble heart. Now the curious thing about it is that Disa at thirty, when last seen in September 1958, bore a singular resemblance not, of course, to Mrs. Shade as she was when I met her, but to the idealized and stylized picture painted by the poet in those lines of Pale Fire. Actually it was idealized and stylized only in regard to the older woman; in regard to Queen Disa, as she was that afternoon on that blue terrace, it represented a plain unretouched likeness. I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Sybil Shade, Queen Disa
Page Number: 206-207
Explanation and Analysis:
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Sybil Shade Character Timeline in Pale Fire

The timeline below shows where the character Sybil Shade appears in Pale Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Foreword
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...both John Shade (while he and the narrator were on a walk) and his widow, Sybil, affirm that the poem was only going to have four parts. (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...to those variants but couldn’t include them for structural reasons or because they annoyed his wife. Perhaps, “in all modesty,” Shade saved the variants because he meant to ask the narrator’s... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...petty academic dramas that would have otherwise swirled around the manuscript, the narrator asked Shade’s wife, Sybil, to sign a contract giving him permission to publish it with his commentary and... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...(the narrator) is solely responsible for mistakes in the commentary. While he had hoped that Sybil Shade would give him biographical information, they have not been in touch—it seems that “the... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...at a faculty lunch, and then when the narrator gave him a ride home. While Sybil invited him to stay and have a drink, the narrator couldn’t because he had a... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Two
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
As Shade and his wife walked home on the day that their daughter died, they saw “Life is a message... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Shade and Sybil fell in love on a high school trip to a waterfall. As he learned about... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Their daughter looked more like John Shade than Sybil, which broke their hearts. At first they tried to deny that she was ugly, but... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...three would be at work in their separate rooms. The “three chambers bound by” Shade, Sybil, and their daughter are now a “three-act play” that depicts “events” that will “forever stay.” (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...took the bus to the lake instead of going home. At that time, Shade and Sybil were watching TV and waiting for her. Shade thought of the vacation when his daughter... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...died while trying to cross the lake, or that she got lost, but Shade and Sybil know that she died by suicide. (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Three
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
When John and Sybil’s daughter was young, the family spent a term at the Institute of Preparation for the... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Eventually, after their daughter’s death, Shade and Sybil’s life resumed; they went to Italy, attended to the publication of Shade’s essays, and returned... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...events/And vanished objects. Making ornaments/Of accidents and possibilities.” After this realization, Shade tried to tell Sybil of his “faint hope,” although while he was speaking, she was telling him to shut... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Four
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...thinking about poetry; his “muse” is with him wherever he goes. But at every moment, Sybil is also there, too, “beneath the word, above/The syllable, to underscore and stress/The vital rhythm.”... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The sun is setting, and Sybil is in the garden—Shade sees her shadow by the shagbark tree and hears a neighbor... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 1-48
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...king,” but Shade seems to have cut them due to censorship by a “domestic anti-Karlist” (Sybil). (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...bring “some third class mail” from Shade’s mailbox to his door when he ran into Sybil, who told him not to bother Shade because he was at work on a poem.... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...where he found one small window illuminated. Through the window, he could see John and Sybil sitting on a sofa, apparently weeping as they gathered up a deck of cards. As... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...to take a walk with Kinbote, Kinbote walked behind Shade’s house and saw John and Sybil sitting at the kitchen table. He opened the door without knocking and realized that John... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 49-98
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
Line 61: TV’s huge paperclip. In John Shade’s vapid obituary, Sybil provides a short poem that John wrote in June. It’s about the things that break... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...the building, hoping this would help Shade understand the events he described. He hopes that Sybil can mail him the map to reprint in later editions of this book, since he... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 149-214
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...Shades were having a party. Sure that he’d simply missed his invitation, Kinbote called, but Sybil told him that John was unavailable and would call tomorrow. Instead of marching over with... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The next morning, after seeing Sybil leave, Kinbote walked over with his gift, but when he arrived at the door, Sybil... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 230-348
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...boyhood fits, wondering whether he’d passed down some variation on his own disorder. John and Sybil always believed that Hazel was somehow the source of these events, even though she never... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Line 246: …my dear. Here, Shade is addressing his wife, Sybil. The passage about her (lines 246-292) is, structurally speaking, intended as a transition to... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Line 247: Sybil. Sybil is John Shade’s wife, whose maiden name, Irondell, does not refer to a valley... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Line 275: We have been married forty years. John and Sybil Shade were married thirty years before King Charles married Disa, the Duchess of Payn. Morally... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...going on a vacation, he ran over and asked where they were thinking of going. Sybil was deliberately vague and quickly pulled John away. However, Kinbote and Shade were patients of... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...happen over the course of three nights, and in this instance, the third night brought Sybil, John, and Hazel to the barn together. Nobody took notes on this, but Kinbote has... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 367-434
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...visited Nice that year, but Kinbote doesn’t know the particulars of the trip (which is Sybil’s fault), and so he can’t say whether they ever saw Queen Disa’s villa. Disa grew... (full context)
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...thinks it’s strange that there’s a passage of “Pale Fire”—lines 261-267—in which Shade’s description of Sybil is also a perfect description of Disa in the moment that King Charles saw her... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 469-629
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
...without God, which implies punishment for sin. Zemblan Protestantism is more high-church than low, while Sybil and John—initially Catholic and Episcopalian—wound up outside the Church with their own personal “religion.” In... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 662-872
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Line 678: into French. A couple of Sybil’s translations referenced here appeared in a journal that Kinbote read during the last week of... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 873-1000
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...was that Shade wanted him to look up at the Library of Congress, and, despite Sybil’s objections, Shade allowed Kinbote to speak with him while he bathed. Neither Shade nor Kinbote... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...friends made up about his death. These people will surely question much of this material; Sybil likely won’t remember having seen some of the drafts, and the woman at the library... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...“little revenge,” since his gardener skewed the story of Shade’s death a bit and told Sybil that Kinbote threw himself in front of the gunman’s bullets. This attempt to save Shade... (full context)