For a time when Shade was young, he thought that everyone but him knew the “truth/About survival after death.” Later, he would question human sanity, wondering how anyone could live without knowing what happened to consciousness when a person died. Eventually, one night, he decided that he would devote his life to understanding death. Now, at 61, Shade is clipping his nails and thinking of how each finger resembles people in life.
This passage marks the poem’s explicit turn towards its main theme: death and the possibility of the afterlife. For Shade’s whole life, what happens after death has been his central question. At first, he assumed that there was an easy answer that everyone else already knew—apparently that seemed more plausible to young Shade than having such a fundamental question be unanswerable, since realizing that there wasn’t an easy answer made him literally question people’s sanity. He couldn’t understand how anyone could be at ease in the world without knowing what would happen to them when they died—clearly, Shade couldn’t simply go about his life without an answer. It seems like a bizarre shift to go from questions of life and death to a description of Shade clipping his nails and thinking of how, literally, his fingers resemble people he knows. But Shade will go on to reveal how, as he has investigated life and death, he has become attuned to coincidences, patterns, and resemblances that give him hope that there is some kind of grand design to the universe, one that will allow him to survive death in some form, even if he doesn’t know what that form is. Discussing how his fingers look like people he knows is a sort of silly way to gesture towards that, but Shade always finds meaning and dignity in everyday things.
At 80, Aunt Maud’s health declined. She went to an institution where she lost her ability to speak. Shade wonders, if a person is resurrected, what stage of life they would return to. Space and time might simply be perceptual illusions, but if someone were told before they were born what life would be, it would probably seem like bizarre and “wonderful nonsense.” Because of this, Shade wonders why he should laugh at human ideas of the afterlife—perhaps it’s not that our ideas of the afterlife are too outlandish, but rather that they’re not outlandish enough, since we basically only dream up a “domestic ghost.” It’s ridiculous to try to describe the fate of humanity in his personal words—it should be “poetry divinely terse.”
Aunt Maud is one of Shade’s dead family members whom he hopes has, in some form, survived her death. But this passage gets at some of the difficulties of imagining this—if Maud were resurrected in heaven, for example, would she be as she was in the institution before she died, or at the prime of her life, and who might decide this? To some extent, Shade explains these questions away in the next lines by asserting that the afterlife is unimaginable. His logic is pretty sound; if a being with no knowledge of human life were asked to imagine human life, they would certainly come up with “nonsense.” Likewise, human beings trying to describe an entirely unknown and alien world—the afterlife—are incapable of imagining anything so different from their own reality. To Shade, this lack of imagination leads human conceptions of the afterlife to somewhat resemble life on earth—people think only of “domestic ghosts” rather than acknowledging that the reality is probably so outlandish that nobody could fathom it. In fact, human language cannot even describe it—only “poetry divinely terse,” by which Shade seems to mean the nonhuman language of the divine.
As Shade and his wife walked home on the day that their daughter died, they saw “Life is a message scribbled in the dark. -Anonymous” written on the bark of a tree. Also on the trunk was the husk of a cicada and an ant preserved in sap. This reminds Shade of an Englishman in France who accidentally said, in French, that he was feeding the cicadas (cigales) when he meant to say seagulls. “Lafontaine was wrong,” Shade reflects; “Dead is the mandible/alive the song.” As he clips his nails, he thinks that he hears “your” steps upstairs and everything is okay.
This passage makes a couple of tricky associations and relies on some outside knowledge of language and literature to understand. When Shade saw a cicada molt and a preserved ant on the tree, it reminded him of Lafontaine’s retelling of the Aesop fable about the cicada and the ant. In this story, an ant has spent the summer industriously stockpiling food for the winter, while the cicada merely sang all summer. As winter approaches, the panicked cicada asks the ant to borrow food, but the ant refuses, since it’s the cicada’s own fault that she didn’t do anything productive. When Shade sees a cicada molt (implying that the cicada shed its exoskeleton but didn’t die) alongside an ant preserved in sap (a dead ant), he corrects Lafontaine, whose story implied the opposite: that the cicada died while the ant survived. In this case, it’s the “mandible” (which references a part of an ant) that is dead, while the cicada lived on. This is a defense of the immortality of poetry, which is akin to the cicada’s song (Shade has devoted his life to poetry, which he believes will immortalize him in some way). But when Shade immediately brings up his sense that he can hear his dead daughter’s footsteps upstairs, it makes this declaration broader. The mandible (the literal bones) of a person might be dead, but their song can somehow live on, as Shade seems to believe of Hazel. The writing scrawled on the tree trunk—that “life is a message scribbled in the dark,” attributed to “anonymous”—is also important. This is, in a way, an encapsulation of Shade’s beliefs about life and death. He comes to believe that the pattern of echoes and coincidences that he sees across his whole life are signals that there is some order and logic that he himself cannot understand but that some “anonymous” forces have designed. So, in a way, Shade believes that all of life is a message from an anonymous beyond, but human beings—limited by their perception—are in the dark about what that message is.
Shade and Sybil fell in love on a high school trip to a waterfall. As he learned about the science of the waterfall, he looked at Sybil’s body. In all these years, she hasn’t changed much, and they can still hear the waterfall on quiet nights. Addressing Sybil as “my dark Vanessa,” he asks her to “come and be worshipped” and “caressed.” They have been married for forty years, and he wonders how many more years they will have. He loves it when Sybil stares at creatures in the tree or tells him to look at the sunset, and he loves her most when she “greet[s] her ghost.”
While Kinbote has depicted Sybil as a controlling monster of a woman, it’s clear from this passage that John and Sybil are profoundly in love and that he sees her as a gentle, beautiful, and observant person. Here, Shade blends his love of nature with his love of his wife, intermingling his description of a waterfall with the moment he fell in love with her, and comparing her to a gorgeous Vanessa butterfly. Throughout the novel, butterflies are simultaneously associated with Shade’s family and with death—here, he refers to Sybil as a butterfly, and then immediately turns to wondering how many years they will have together before one of them dies. Every time Shade invokes a butterfly, he seems to be thinking of a family member’s death. It’s also clear from the fact that Sybil will often “greet” their daughter’s “ghost” that she, too, shares John’s sense that Hazel is still in their life, despite her death.
Their daughter looked more like John Shade than Sybil, which broke their hearts. At first they tried to deny that she was ugly, but it was undeniable in adolescence. Despite being smart, she was left out socially and was once cast as an old crone in a play, which made Shade weep in the bathroom. He and Sybil mourned that she would never have boyfriends, even while they told themselves that this wasn’t everything.
Shade’s extensive attention to Hazel’s lackluster looks and the suffering that she (and he) endured because of it sets up the circumstances of her death: she died by suicide after being abandoned on a date. The extent to which Shade focuses on Hazel’s looks, though, also recalls two prior moments in the poem—one in which the cicada shed its exoskeleton but lived on, and one in which Shade wondered in what form Aunt Maud might be resurrected in the afterlife. A central (but subtle) concern of Shade’s musings on death seems to be whether Hazel, after death, might escape the ugliness that tormented her while she was alive—perhaps, like the cicada molt that Shade saw the night of Hazel’s death, death has merely meant shedding her skin while her song lives on.
Their daughter had odd fears and visions. Once, she spent three nights researching strange sounds and lights in a barn, and she was fascinated by words spelled backwards. She was quite critical and only smiled when she was hurt. Despite her sadness and troubles, Shade loved her and relishes the evenings when they would play games together or he would help her with her homework—even the ones when all 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.”
This passage introduces Hazel’s eccentricity and her association with paranormal activity—while she looks like John, her personality seems to take after Aunt Maud. Shade’s declaration that the “chambers bound by” each member of his family are now a “play” that will preserve events forever seems literally to be drawing attention to the distance between Shade and his family—how they spent time in different rooms (“chambers”), and now that Hazel is dead, this distance between them will always remain. However, by referring to the three members of his family as a “three-act play” that preserves the events of their life, Shade is also gesturing towards the immortality of art. By writing about his family, Shade is making sure that their lives are preserved in verse.
One night, Shade’s typist set Shade’s daughter up with her cousin, Pete. They went to a bar, but when Pete met Shade’s daughter, he left, claiming that he’d forgotten he had another obligation. She claimed not to mind, but she 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 was conceived, when they saw the man feeding the seagulls, while Sybil nervously wondered where their daughter could be. When they turned off the TV, a point of light lingered and then died in “black infinity.” At that moment, a man walked—too late—along the bank of the lake.
The implication here is that, when Hazel’s blind date realized that she wasn’t beautiful, he bailed on her, which hurt her so deeply that she went to the lake to drown herself. While Hazel was experiencing this, her parents were at home watching TV, and Shade intersperses his narration of Hazel’s journey to her death with narration of his and his wife’s evening of watching television and idly chatting with one another. On the one hand, this is a literary device meant to enhance the drama and the stakes of the moment (Hazel’s parents have no idea how heartbroken they’re about to be), and Kinbote (in his Commentary on this section) will criticize Shade for leaning on a tired literary device to convey such an important moment. However, it's possible to take the odd coincidences between Hazel’s evening and her parents’ evening (that she dies in the moment when their TV fades to black, that John thinks about the time when she was about to be born just as she is about to die) not as literary sentimentality but as evidence of Shade’s belief that everything in his life reflects patterns beyond his understanding or control—patterns that point to the universe being designed. The fact that Kinbote later criticizes the artistry of this synchronization technique indicates to readers that they should look further. After all, Kinbote is a fool who tends to miss the point of things, so Shade is likely drawing deliberate attention to how his life and Hazel’s fate intersect.
While Shade was doing the dishes around midnight, a cop car arrived; some people think that their daughter died while trying to cross the lake, or that she got lost, but Shade and Sybil know that she died by suicide.
It’s significant that John insists that he and his wife know what happened to their daughter—he admits no possibility of doubt, even though other people remain unsure. This isn’t to suggest that Hazel literally told him from the afterlife that she died by suicide, but it does seem that John and Sybil believe that they retain a connection to her that is strong enough that they are certain of what happened.