Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 230-348 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 230: a domestic ghost. Jane Provost, who was John Shade’s secretary, told Kinbote more about Hazel than John did, as he didn’t want to talk about his dead child and Kinbote didn’t urge him to. Nonetheless, Canto Two gives a fairly complete depiction of Hazel—perhaps “too complete,” since it probably came at the expense of “richer and rarer matters.” But, however boring this note, it’s Kinbote’s responsibility as a commentator to give the reader some information.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Kinbote never really asked John about the biggest tragedy of his life: the loss of his daughter. It’s not surprising, since Kinbote is too preoccupied with himself to take a real interest in anyone else. Sure enough, he’s not even interested in the section of the second canto of “Pale Fire” that describes Hazel Shade—he thinks that it’s excessive, since it took up so much room that Shade had to omit “richer and rarer matters” (a reference, of course, to Zembla). It’s unbelievable for the editor of a poem to suggest that the event at the heart of the poem—Hazel’s death—should have been omitted in favor of something of personal interest to the editor. Because of this, it's ironic and funny when Kinbote invokes his responsibility as a commentator immediately after.
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In 1950, when Hazel was sixteen, she appeared to begin moving objects with her mind. Aunt Maud had just died, and a “poltergeist” seemed to associate its odd phenomena with her. For instance, the dog basket belonging to Maud’s dead terrier shot across the room one morning, and one of Maud’s paintings was found turned towards the wall. After all the items associated with Maud had knocked around, the poltergeist moved on to other objects: saucepans, plates, lamps lighting randomly, and so on.
While Shade was obsessed with life after death, it seems that he never considered the possibility that Maud’s spirit was haunting his house (after all, he dismissed such notions as unimaginative, believing that a person’s consciousness must survive death in a much stranger form, one that would be difficult for a human being to imagine). Instead, the odd occurrences in his house seemed too cliched and banal to be Maud’s presence, so Shade pinned them on Hazel. That’s not a crazy assumption, since Hazel and Maud were close and Hazel was a strange person. The so-called poltergeist could have just been Hazel’s idiosyncratic way of grieving Aunt Maud. 
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Kinbote suspects that Shade associated these occurrences with his own 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 said so—they thought it was some kind of external manifestation of insanity. The Shades didn’t like “modern voodoo-psychiatry,” but they consulted with old-fashioned Dr. Sutton and began saying loudly that they were considering moving to another house. The disturbances immediately stopped. It’s odd, though, that people are more comfortable with explaining these phenomena as an act of Hazel’s rather than as the ghost of Aunt Maud, since science and the supernatural are both miraculous and inexplicable.
It's not clear whether Shade believed that Hazel was causing these disturbances via natural means (like throwing objects or setting up strange scenes) or supernatural ones (literally moving objects with her mind). Shade may have been more open to the latter possibility, since he himself experienced so much strangeness with his mind and body when he was a child having seizures. Regardless, the threat of moving to a new house (which, presumably, would have severed Hazel’s ties to Aunt Maud even further) caused the phenomena to stop. In this passage, Kinbote describes Dr. Sutton as a real person in New Wye (whereas previously in his Commentary he has suggested that the Dr. Sutton who appears in “Pale Fire” is a composite character rather than a real person). Kinbote is also suspicious of dividing the natural and supernatural too starkly, since the phenomena that people regard as natural are no less miraculous than ghosts. This is a sentiment that Shade would likely share, as he found nature so wondrous that it became his proof of the divine.
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Line 231: How ludicrous, etc. Kinbote points to an unused draft passage following this line. It’s about an “Other World” where the dead live, including “Poor old man Swift, poor —, poor Baudelaire.” Musing about what name the dash might have replaced, Kinbote supposes that, based on the poem’s meter (and the assumption that the middle “e” in “Baudelaire” would be silent, as Shade does with “Rabelais” in line 501), the name is a trochee. There are many famous people who have gone insane, so it could be that Shade was overwhelmed by the possibilities—but it could also be that he didn’t want to spell out his close friend’s name, especially in this “tragic context.”
It’s funny that Kinbote can do a close reading of poetry’s meter only when he suspects that he’s at the center of it—otherwise, he seems completely indifferent to discussing Shade’s metrical choices. Here, he tries to discern the missing name in a series of authors who went mad. Since Shade’s poem is written in iambic pentameter, each line must have ten syllables, and the number of syllables in the omitted name depends on the number of syllables with which Shade intended his reader to pronounce “Baudelaire,” which could either be two (Bowd-lair) or three (Bowd-uh-lair). In a different line of “Pale Fire,” Shade uses “Rabelais” with two syllables (“Rab-lay” rather than “Rab-uh-lay”), so Kinbote sees this as proof that the first “e” in Baudelaire should be silent. If this is the case, then the metrical pattern dictates that the missing name is a “trochee” (which is a two-syllable word whose first syllable is stressed)—conveniently, “Kinbote” is a trochee and therefore might fit into this line. Of course, it’s improbable that Shade would put the name of his non-famous neighbor who isn’t even a writer into this passage, but Kinbote’s assumption that he might be a fit tells readers two things: that Kinbote believes himself to be insane (like the other two men referenced) and that Kinbote is incapable of thinking about anything but himself.
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Line 238: empty emerald case. This refers to the shell of a cicada, left behind when it molts. Whenever Shade and Kinbote would walk together at sunset, Shade would relentlessly talk about the natural world, not realizing that Kinbote would much rather discuss literature or life. On one particularly frustrating night, Shade parried all of Kinbote’s questions about how he was depicting Zembla in his poem by instead lecturing him on nature.
The passage of “Pale Fire” that Kinbote is supposedly analyzing is full of complex references and gets at Shade’s central theme of life surviving death, but Kinbote doesn’t help illuminate this for his readers (which is supposed to be his job). Instead, he complains about Shade’s interest in nature (one of the poet’s defining characteristics) and inadvertently reveals his relentless and annoying pressure on Shade to write about Zembla.
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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 writing about his daughter. But Kinbote can attest that whenever Sybil’s footsteps were heard upstairs “above our heads,” things were not necessarily alright. 
The passage that Kinbote references is not a transition to talking about Hazel—it’s a huge, detailed passage about Sybil herself. Kinbote’s inability to acknowledge that Shade wrote at length about Sybil shows Kinbote’s hatred of her. Throughout the book, Kinbote is casually vicious about women, and his misogyny is especially evident in his insistence on blaming Sybil for everything that goes wrong in his “friendship” with John. It’s comical how little Kinbote is able to take the poem on its own terms—he can’t even acknowledge that while he might dread hearing Sybil’s footsteps, Shade finds comfort in hearing his wife walking around his house.
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Line 247: Sybil. Sybil is John Shade’s wife, whose maiden name, Irondell, does not refer to a valley full of iron ore, but rather comes from the French word for “Swallow.” While Kinbote tried so hard to be nice to Sybil, she never liked him. He heard she would call him a “king-sized botfly” and a “monstrous parasite of a genius,” but he forgives her.
Elsewhere in the novel, it’s casually mentioned that Kinbote is an expert on surnames and even wrote a book on the subject. This explains his fixation on Sybil’s maiden name. That this passage starts with a discussion of names should inform a reader’s interpretation of Sybil calling Kinbote a “king-sized botfly.” A botfly is a parasite, and calling Kinbote a “king-sized botfly” linguistically evokes both the names “Kinbote” and “Botkin.” Sybil seems to be simultaneously making fun of Kinbote’s name and describing him pejoratively: Kinbote sometimes behaves like a parasite towards John, the “genius” that Sybil references.
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Line 270: My dark Vanessa. This reference reminds Kinbote of a couple lines from a Swift poem (they contain the words “Vanessa” and “Atalanta”), and Kinbote recalls Shade saying that the Vanessa butterfly is sometimes called the Red Admiral. In Zembla, the Vanessa is part of the Payn family’s coat of arms. John Shade pointed to a friendly Vanessa in the moments before he died.
When Shade calls Sybil his “dark Vanessa,” he’s referring to the Vanessa Atalanta butterfly, sometimes called the Red Admiral butterfly. Kinbote is correct that the words “Vanessa” and “Atalanta” appear in close proximity in a Swift poem, but—as usual—he doesn’t follow up, so he misses the significance of the reference. The poem in question is “Cadenus and Vanessa,” which is a poem that Swift wrote to his lover (he invented the name “Vanessa” for this poem as a combination of the woman’s first and last name). The words that Kinbote quotes come right after a line about a goddess “pronounc[ing] her doom,” and Nabokov seems to be drawing attention to the coincidence that the Vanessa Atalanta butterfly (named for Swift’s poem) is also known as the “butterfly of doom,” since so many of them appeared in Russia during the year that Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and many people thought that the butterflies foretold his death. In this way, it’s quite fitting that Shade saw a Vanessa butterfly just before he died.
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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 speaking, Zemblans mostly turned a blind eye to King Charles’s affairs with men, but public pressure increased on Charles to marry a woman so that he could produce an heir. Charles met Disa at a masked ball where she dressed as a boy. He put it off for a couple years but then married her.
Nabokov paid a lot of attention to character names—and so does Kinbote, as a specialist in surnames—so it seems quite deliberate that Disa is the Duchess of “Payn.” The word Payn, of course, sounds like both “pane” (evoking the reflective windowpanes of “Pale Fire” and echoing the mirror-world nature of Zembla) and “pain” (pain being something that Disa will go on to experience a great deal of after her marriage to Charles). Again, Kinbote constructs Zembla as a place that doesn’t pass moral judgment on homosexuality, but instead encourages Charles to marry for pragmatic reasons, since he needs to produce an heir. Charles was clearly reluctant to marry a woman, and it seems that he married Disa not for her personal characteristics (even though it becomes clear that she’s quite a kind person), but because she resembled a boy when they met.
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Line 286: A jet’s pink trail above the sunset fire. On the day Shade wrote this line, Gradus flew to Paris, where he was to try to learn King Charles’s location from the former Zemblan consul Oswin Bretwit. Gradus pretended to be an apolitical man who had come into the possession of some of Bretwit’s old papers and was trying to return them. Believing that these papers might contain a precious stamp collection he’d been missing, Bretwit didn’t consider that this might be a trap. Even when the papers turned out to be old letters that had already been published, Bretwit tried to pay Gradus for his troubles, but Gradus asked for a favor instead: he wanted to be put in touch with King Charles.
Here, Gradus brings a bunch of worthless papers to Bretwit to try to get him to reveal Charles’s location in return. This moment is slightly evocative of Kinbote bringing Shade’s junk mail to his door as an excuse to talk to him—both are manipulative and ill-conceived. This scene is supposed to be somewhat funny, since both parties are so incompetent: Gradus can’t think on his feet, and Bretwit is too naïve to wonder if he’s being trapped.
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To confirm that Gradus was a fellow Royalist, Bretwit asked for the secret hand signal: the sign for “X.” Gradus tried to imitate what Bretwit’s hand was involuntarily doing, but he made a “V.” From this, Bretwit assumed that Gradus was a reporter and threw him out.
Finally, Bretwit gets wise to Gradus and asks for the sign to confirm his political loyalty—the “X” is for “Charles Xavier,” which is King Charles’s real name. Even though Bretwit seems ripe for manipulation, Gradus can’t figure out a workaround to the hand sign, so he gets thrown out.
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Line 287: humming as you pack. This line was written on July 7th, the same day that Kinbote bumped into the Shades buying luggage. Upset to think that they might be 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 the same doctor who inadvertently revealed to Kinbote that the Shades were taking a cabin at “Cedarn in Utana on the Idoming border.” Kinbote ran to a travel agency, found the likely cluster of cabins, and rented one immediately. He didn’t tell the Shades of his plans, feeling privately furious at Sybil for her evasions and excited to see John’s pleased expression when Kinbote appeared in Utana. 
By this point, Sybil and John are so wary of Kinbote’s bizarre and obsessive behavior that they won’t even tell him where they’re going on vacation because they (correctly) fear that he will show up there to stalk them. Nonetheless, Kinbote is too delusional to see the reality of the situation, and he instead does some detective work to figure out where they’re going and then delusionally anticipates how excited John will be to see him. “Utana” and “Idoming” seem clearly to be words formed from real places in the American West (“Utana” might be Utah and Montana, while “Idoming” seems like Idaho and Wyoming). This fits with New Wye, which is in “Appalachia” (a broad region of the U.S., but not a state). It seems that Nabokov is using made up places, in part, to make it trickier to immediately decipher that Zembla is fictional in the world of the story. Since “Zembla” is the name of a real Russian island, it seems at first plausible that Zembla is meant to be a real place in the world of the story, just like Utana and Appalachia and New Wye—readers have to work to figure out what is real and what isn’t.
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Line 316: The Toothwort White haunted our woods in May. Kinbote isn’t sure about this reference—his dictionary appears to suggest that it’s some kind of white cabbage or butterfly.  
Indeed, this line of “Pale Fire” references a white butterfly that lays its eggs on the toothwort plant.
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Line 319: wood duck. The wood duck, whose coat has many colors, is much more beautiful than the swan. American animal names are “simple” and pragmatic and haven’t developed the “patina” of European animal names.
The line of “Pale Fire” that Kinbote is analyzing here refers to Hazel as a “dingy cygnet” who “never turned into a wood duck.” What he means is that, as Hazel matured, she never became more beautiful, but the usual way of phrasing that would be that the cygnet never turned into a swan. Replacing swan with “wood duck” is perhaps Shade’s way of expressing his love of normal, everyday things—wood ducks, after all, would be more common where he lives than swans. Also, the fact that the wood duck is colorful and strikingly beautiful seems to underscore what sublime pleasure can be found in the everyday. Kinbote, of course, misses this entirely an instead makes a condescending comment on how unevolved American animal names are compared to European ones.
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Line 334: Would never come for her. At twilight, Kinbote would often wonder whether Shade—or one of his “ping-pong friends”—would ever come for him.
Throughout the novel, Kinbote often identifies with Hazel, and here he is explicit about the fact that they shared painful experiences of loneliness. While Hazel waited for suitors that never came, Kinbote desperately wanted Shade to knock on his door. Kinbote’s “ping-pong friends” refers to the string of young men (or adolescent boys) who came to his house in New Wye to play ping-pong, which was presumably an excuse to have sex. These young men were often fickle and they caused Kinbote considerable distress while he lived in New Wye.
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Line 347: Old Barn. This refers to a shed near Shade’s house where “certain phenomena” happened a few months before Hazel died. The barn belonged to Paul Hentzner, a German farmer who captivated Shade with his knowledge of the natural world. Shade would sometimes bore Kinbote by talking about this man—for some reason, his “earthy” simplicity appealed more to Shade than the intellectuals at the university. The two used to walk through Hentzner’s fields around his barn, and Shade loved that Hentzner knew the names of local plants and animals—though no doubt he was inventing some of them or merely using folk names. After losing his land in a divorce, Hentzner continued to sometimes sleep in the barn where he eventually died.
As usual, Kinbote has great disdain for anyone who seems close to Shade. Here, he tries to denigrate Shade’s close friend Paul Hentzner as being a boring and simple person who wasn’t well-educated and would perhaps invent the names of plants and animals just to string Shade along. Kinbote is implying that Shade was led astray by this worthless man when Shade should have preferred intellectuals with no interest in nature like Kinbote himself. Of course, this completely ignores the most important parts of Shade’s personality: he loves nature and valued that Paul both shared his passion and helped enhance it by teaching Shade the names and histories of the natural world. Shade wasn’t impressed by intellectualism; he loved everyday things.
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After Hentzner’s death, a Wordsmith student and his friend were hanging out in the barn when they heard strange sounds and saw moving lights. Terrified, they fled without learning whether it was an “outraged ghost or a rejected swain.” The incident became a local tabloid sensation, and Shade complained to local leaders until the barn was torn down.
This is another incident of seemingly paranormal activity following the death of someone Shade loves. Kinbote says that this could have been either an “outraged ghost” or a “rejected swain,” although neither explanation seems likely. Shade has already explained in “Pale Fire” that ghosts don’t haunt people or places the way they’re often said to do (the presence of the dead is much more mysterious), which rules out an “outraged ghost.” A “rejected swain” is a rebuffed male suitor, so it seems like Kinbote is implying that perhaps the two young men were in the barn for sexual reasons and the disturbance happened when one rebuffed the other’s advances, but (since there is no evidence) this seems like more of a reflection of Kinbote’s own experience than a credible explanation of what happened in the barn.
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From Jane (Shade’s former secretary), however, Kinbote learned that Hazel herself went to the barn to investigate the phenomena as the subject of a psychology paper. She and Jane spent the night there, but a lightning storm made it difficult to know whether the sound and light was natural or supernatural. A few nights later, Hazel went back alone and her notes reveal that she heard strange sounds and saw a small circle of light moving all around. It would move erratically in response to silly questions, and with slow deliberation in response to good questions (including “Are you dead?”). To encourage the light to communicate, Hazel recited the alphabet and saw which letters the light reacted to, although the result was nonsense; the ghost seemed to have “apoplexy.”
It's unsurprising that Hazel would go to the barn to investigate whether there was paranormal activity—just like her Aunt Maud, she was always drawn to strange and morbid things, and the poltergeist incident at the Shade home has already associated her with ghosts. The lightning storm on the first night at the barn subtly makes a point that Kinbote previously made: the natural and supernatural aren’t as easily distinguished as people think. If people weren’t accustomed to seeing lightning, it would seem sublime or occult. Hazel’s experience when she was alone might strike readers as questionable—a light seeming to answer questions is pretty close to a ghost talking to the living through a planchette, which is a notion that Shade dismisses as being too ordinary to be possible. It might be that Hazel is in a phase of development where she wants so desperately to believe that life survives death that she’ll convince herself that anything is evidence (just as Shade himself did during the mountain/fountain mix-up). It might even be that Hazel wants so desperately to talk to her Aunt Maud that she interprets nonsense syllables as “apoplexy” (speech difficulty following a brain injury) because Maud herself suffered from apoplexy right before she died. However, it’s also quite possible (even probable, based on what Nabokov himself has said) that Hazel is exactly right in her interpretation of this situation, even though she can’t make sense of the message.
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Kinbote would have abandoned the nonsense syllables altogether, except for the lines of Shade’s poem “Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind/Of correlated pattern in the game.” Because of this, Kinbote tried relentlessly to decipher the words, but he found nothing.
Kinbote is right to find in that line of “Pale Fire” an instruction to try to decipher order from chaos and patterns from coincidences. The fact that Kinbote can’t find anything in these words is not an indication that there’s nothing there—in fact, often when Kinbote says he can’t find the source of a reference, it’s a clue to readers that they should find the source themselves, since it adds important context to Shade’s poem. Scholars don’t agree on what meaning (if any) these syllables have, though. Some find the preponderance of anagrams for “atalanta” meaningful (a reference to the Vanessa butterfly that foretells death), while others (based on something Nabokov himself said) find in the sound of the syllables a message for Shade not to cross the lane to hear a tale of a foreign land (a message that, if received, might have prevented Shade’s death, since he died after crossing the street to go to Kinbote’s house where Kinbote would presumably talk about Zembla). 
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During the night, Hazel grew frightened when the light seemed to charge at her. Terrified, she left the barn and went home where she screamed at the ghostly figure on the porch. It turned out to be John Shade, waiting up to make sure his daughter was safe.
It's not clear whether Hazel is a smart and curious girl with eccentric fascinations, a disturbed and possibly insane girl who struggles with everyday life, or both. However, seeing her father looking like a ghost immediately after receiving that mysterious message does add evidence that the message might be about Shade’s impending death.
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Fairy tales always 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 constructed the following scene, which he believes is essentially the truth. 
While there’s no reason to distrust Jane’s assertion that John, Sybil, and Hazel all went to the barn together, Kinbote’s belief that his invented scene is basically the truth should obviously not be taken seriously. 
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Kinbote writes “The Haunted Barn” in the form of a play. Sitting together in awkward silence, the mother and father joke occasionally (that sound was a stomach growling, not a ghost!) while the daughter reacts with irritation. Finally, the daughter explodes about how her parents ruin everything and then several minutes pass in silence. The stage directions say that “life is hopeless, afterlife heartless.” When Hazel begins crying, John lights a lamp and leaves. The strange light never returned, although Shade later wrote a poem about the dead dwelling in electric lights and souls “lur[ing] the pale moths.” Kinbote adds that, according to science, the earth would “vanish like a ghost” if electricity suddenly disappeared.
Normally, Kinbote simply makes things up and treats them as unquestionably true (Zembla, the draft variants that he only admits to fabricating in the Index, etc.), but here he clearly marks what he’s making up (it’s even in the form of a play, which draws attention to its artificiality). The dynamic of John and Sybil upsetting Hazel by not taking her paranormal encounters seriously seems plausible (that happened with the poltergeist incident, too), and it’s possible that Kinbote is able to depict Hazel’s reality plausibly because (as he has previously said) he identifies with her. He’s a narcissist, but he can at least empathize with people in similar positions. However, the notion that life is “hopeless” and the afterlife is “heartless” seems purely Kinbote, as Shade would never say that about life, and Hazel would be unlikely to say that about the afterlife. The idea of the dead living in electric lights seems just strange enough for Shade to be interested in it—particularly alongside the image of light drawing moths. Shade sees the dead as an unidentifiable presence that affects the living, so the metaphor of moths to a flame seems apt. Kinbote’s contribution about the world vanishing if electricity disappeared seems to underscore Shade’s sense that life and death are inextricably intertwined (one would vanish without the other), and that the dead are an essential (if difficult to perceive) presence on earth.
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Lines 347-348: She twisted words. Kinbote is pretty sure that he is the one who told Shade that, when reversed, “spider” is “redips” and “T.S. Eliot” is “toilest,” but Hazel does resemble Kinbote in many ways.
This is another moment when Kinbote is explicitly identifying himself with Hazel, right down to his interest in mirror words. (Kinbote does use several names in his Zemblan stories that, when reversed, become other names. For example, Sudarg of Bokay, the masterful  Zemblan craftsman of mirrors, becomes “Yakob of Gradus” or Jakob Gradus, and Charles’s friend Odon has a brother named Nodo who is his opposite.)
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