The poem’s speaker (presumably John Shade) looks out his living room window. On the glass is the “ashen fluff” of a dead waxwing that, seeing the blue sky reflected in the glass, crashed into the window and died. Shade sees himself as the waxwing, still living and flying in the reflection of the sky. The reflection also makes everything in his living room—his furniture, an apple on a plate—appear to be outside, hovering above the ground. Throughout many seasons, he watches nature through the window as it mingles with the reflection of his room.
In poetry, a heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter, a type of verse favored by Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. By 1959, when the novel is set, it would have been considered somewhat old-fashioned to write in heroic couplets. In addition, for Shade to write in heroic couplets (which were traditionally reserved for tales of war and glory) of merely sitting in his living room looking at nature is a deliberate valorization of domestic beauty. This opening image of the dead waxwing is pivotal to many of the book’s central themes. First, this opening image gestures towards the book’s (and Shade’s) preoccupation with death and immortality. While the waxwing itself has died, Shade sees his own reflection, which appears to be in the blue sky, and he imagines himself to be a sort of ghost of the waxwing that is still living and flying in the reflection. Throughout the poem, Shade will raise questions about whether death is final and how one might live on after death, and this opening image sets the tone, showing his longing for life to triumph over death. It’s also crucial to notice how the glass produces illusions that are both deceiving (in that the illusion of open sky kills the waxwing) and revealing of a truth: that nature and human domestic life are intertwined. Shade is amazed both by the natural world and by his family and domestic life—the two are inextricable sources of beauty and meaning for Shade, and he loves seeing his home and nature pushed together in the window reflection.
Shade describes bird tracks in the snow outside his window, wondering who walked “from left to right the blank page of the road.” He reads the tracks, decoding from the dots and arrows that it is a gorgeous pheasant that has found its China in his yard. Perhaps this is the “fellow” who put his shoes on backwards in Sherlock Holmes to make his tracks reversed.
Shade is seeing the road outside as a blank page and the bird leaving its marks as it walks as being analogous to writing, while his looking at the tracks is analogous to reading. This immediately sets up the sense that nature is leaving messages that observant people can decode, much as they would read a book. The description of the bird’s tracks as “dots and arrows” seems to refer to the way in which a bird’s foot can look like an arrow and its beak pecking at the snow can leave a dot. The implication is that nature and human symbols (writing) are not separate, but rather intertwined and mutually dependent. When Shade muses that the bird is like a character in Sherlock Holmes, he’s making the same point—that art and nature coexist in the same plane. The reference to the pheasant finding China in Shade’s American yard refers to pheasants being originally of Asian origin. This reference to a bird finding its far-flung homeland in Shade’s yard obliquely evokes how Charles Kinbote, in his Commentary, will find his (imaginary) homeland of Zembla in Shade’s poem.
Shade loves every color, even gray, and he often makes himself take mental pictures of what he’s seeing in the world—nature, his home, icicles—and then replay those images later with his eyes closed. He muses that, while as a boy he could see his front porch from the lake, now he cannot even make out the roof of his house from the same spot—maybe it’s a “quirk in space.” When he was a boy, the shagbark tree in his yard was young, while now it is bigger and thriving. White butterflies pass under the tree where the “phantom” of his daughter’s swing hangs.
Throughout the book, the assassin Gradus—the man who eventually kills Shade—is associated with the color gray. Notably, “shade” (in its literal sense, as in “shadow”) is also gray. So here, when Shade calls attention to his love of the color gray, he is both implying an acceptance of his own death (personified in Gradus) and a love of his life (since he himself is “Shade,” which is literally a gray shadow). This twinning of life and death—the sense that one cannot love life without accepting death—is a motif throughout the whole book. Nabokov also consistently associates butterflies with both death and his family (fitting, since a major concern of Shade’s is whether he and his deceased family members will survive, in some form, after death). The presence of butterflies alongside the “phantom” of his daughter’s swing is important—the “phantom” language suggests that his daughter is dead, while the butterflies suggest that—even though his daughter, Hazel Shade, is gone—there is still life surrounding the tree with which Shade associates her. Nabokov isn’t necessarily implying that Hazel has literally been reincarnated as a butterfly, but he’s suggesting that life—in different forms—prevails and balances death.
Since his boyhood, Shade has mostly kept the house the same, besides renovating a wing and replacing a weathervane with a TV antenna. The mockingbird used to perch on the weathervane, but now she sits on the antenna, crying out to relay the TV programs she’s heard. Shade’s parents, both ornithologists, died when he was a baby—his dad of a bad heart and his mom of pancreatic cancer. He’s tried so many times to “evoke” them that today he has “a thousand parents” that all, sadly, “dissolve.”
The fact that Shade’s deceased parents were both ornithologists is important; throughout the book, he associates birds and butterflies with dead family members, and this is a clear link between death and birds (pretty much all he remembers about his parents is that they’re dead and they loved birds). Since Shade lives in the same house he grew up in, it’s noteworthy that the mockingbird that once landed on his parents’ weathervane now lands on his TV antenna. This bird continuing to visit the house despite the change from weathervane to TV antenna suggests a continuity of life, despite Shade’s parents’ death and the changing times. Shade’s repeated failure to remember his parents as they were, and his sense of them dying again (“dissolv[ing]”) every time he tries, sets the stage for his major quest: to figure out what happens after death and whether it’s possible that his family still exists in some form.
After his parents’ death, Shade would pray for the rest of his family to stay healthy. His strange Aunt Maud raised him—she made paintings that combined realism with the fantastically grotesque. Maud lived until after Shade’s daughter was born, and now Maud’s room is preserved. Her belongings are now a “still life in her style.”
In a way, Shade’s poetic style owes a debt to Aunt Maud. On the surface, “Pale Fire” is a realist autobiographical poem, but—digging deeper—it is a poem profoundly concerned with odd and fantastical things, such as ghosts and the afterlife. In this way, like Aunt Maud’s paintings, Shade blends realism with subject matter that others might consider fantastical. By preserving Maud’s room, Shade has, in some way, preserved Maud, particularly since her belongings give a sense of who she was. This is one way of thinking of life after death, although later Shade will raise the possibility that Maud has survived death in a weirder, more literal way.
As a young man, Shade lost his faith in God, as he found the concept “degrading” and illogical to a free man, although he couldn’t quite see himself as free (he felt that nature was “glued” to him). In nature, Shade found “the painted parchment papering our cage.” He noticed rings around the moon, the bright sun, “twinned iris,” and rainbows reflected in a cloud from a thunderstorm “staged” far away. People are “most artistically caged.”
This significant passage begins to explain Shade’s spirituality and metaphysics. While he rejects God as a concept that doesn’t give enough credit to the freedom of mankind, he’s not actually convinced that, as a human being, he is free—although the constraint to his freedom isn’t found in God, but in “nature.” By this, Shade presumably means that his awareness of mankind’s place in the natural world makes him skeptical of the notion that human beings are any more or less free than any other aspect of nature, which is interdependent and weighted with eons of genetic programming. But while Shade finds the idea of God oppressive, he seems to admire the way that nature might constrain his freedom—people, after all, are “artistically caged,” he writes, which seems to suggest that nature both controls people and provides them with transcendent beauty. It’s possible to see the events of Pale Fire as an endorsement of this notion, as Shade is both a prisoner of fate (he is doomed to die) and a person who derives profound meaning and pleasure from the natural beauty around him.
Shade is enamored of the chirping of crickets, the light on his neighbor’s porch, and the “Great Bear.” Ages ago, five minutes equaled 40 ounces of sand. When “infinite foretime” and “infinite aftertime” “close like giant wings,” a person dies.
The imagery of this passage collapses time scales by referring to both things of a short duration (a porch light turning on, an hourglass marking five minutes) and of a long duration (the “Great Bear” references the constellation Ursa Major, which has been a feature of human mythology for centuries). Here, Shade refers to a human lifespan as a blip between “infinite foretime” (the endless time before a person was born) and “infinite aftertime” (the endless time that follows a person’s death). The imagery of “giant wings” flapping further connects death to birds and butterflies, painting a human lifespan as a single wing-flap of an ethereal creature. This simultaneously emphasizes the supremacy of nature and the insignificance of an individual human life in the grand scale of time.
Shade was never athletic—he was always fat and asthmatic. He was “the shadow of the waxwing slain/by feigned remoteness in the windowpane.” He didn’t envy other boys, except when thinking about the “miracle” of the “lemniscate” of bicycle tracks. At eleven, Shade was playing with a wheelbarrow toy when there was a “sudden sunburst in [his] head.” The black that followed was incredible; he felt “distributed through space and time.” This happened every afternoon for a while and then stopped, but the experience changed him; he remains both shameful and filled with wonder.
In this passage, Shade describes his childhood loneliness, reprising the poem’s first line in a context that implies, perhaps, that he was hurt emotionally (“slain”) as a child by being made to feel that he was different from other boys (“feigned remoteness”). This perhaps explains Shade’s sympathy for Kinbote, an annoying but isolated man who really wants a friend. “Lemniscate” is a mathematical term for a figure eight, which resembles an infinity sign. Here, Shade is simultaneously describing his desire for playmates and his sense that infinite time—or life transcending death—is a miracle. It’s no coincidence that this image of the lemniscate occurs right before Shade’s initial seizure, which was the moment when he first got a sense of the possibility of infinite being and the constant danger of death, an experience that reoriented his life.