In Pale Fire, birds and butterflies are associated with the mortality of John Shade’s family, underscoring the central concern of his poem “Pale Fire”: whether human consciousness can somehow survive death. In the novel, birds are associated with Shade’s parents (ornithologists who died when he was very young), while butterflies are associated with Shade’s wife (alive) and daughter (deceased). The novel does not necessarily suggest that Shade’s dead family is directly reincarnated as birds or butterflies (he maintains that the afterlife is too mysterious to understand so clearly), but there are moments that suggest that birds and butterflies are perhaps conveying the presence of the dead.
Throughout the book, butterflies appear alongside mentions of Hazel and Sybil: there are butterflies drifting around the shagbark tree by the “phantom” of Hazel’s swing, for instance, and Shade addresses Sybil as his “dark Vanessa” (referring to the Vanessa butterfly). There’s a moment in the Foreword that illuminates how to interpret this: when Kinbote describes seeing Shade burning drafts of his poem (an autobiographical poem that is, in large part, about Sybil and Hazel), the burned pages (on which his wife and daughter presumably appear) turn into ashes that resemble butterflies. This imagery not only directly suggests that butterflies appear when a person’s physical existence ceases, but it also mirrors the lifecycle of a butterfly. Caterpillars enter cocoons and emerge as butterflies, and Nabokov implies that death might be a transitional state just like a cocoon, turning a person’s physical body (the caterpillar) into a form that persists even after that body is gone (a butterfly). In the moments before Shade’s death, a Vanessa butterfly that is acting eerily humanlike lands on his sleeve, and many scholars believe that this is Hazel’s presence wanting to either warn her father or at least be with him in this pivotal moment. (While Sybil was the one associated with the Vanessa, the scholar Brian Boyd posits that Hazel appearing as a Vanessa may indicate that she takes after her mother in death.)
As for birds, the fact that Shade’s parents were bird enthusiasts links them generally to the birds that appear in the novel. More significantly, Shade’s father having a type of waxwing named after him (the Bombycilla shadei) ties him specifically to the image of the dead waxwing that opens “Pale Fire.” When Shade writes that “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,” he is literally describing seeing himself reflected in a windowpane where the corpse of a waxwing is stuck to the glass—it literally appears that he is the bird’s shadow. But, on a deeper level, Shade is saying something about his relationship to his father (metaphorically the waxwing): even though his father was slain by his bad heart, Shade (whose name is a synonym for “shadow”) lives on and carries his father’s presence forward in the world.
Nabokov was notoriously hostile to the idea of literary “symbols,” finding them reductive and lazy (he even nods to this in Pale Fire, when Kinbote relays a conversation in which Shade disparages students who try to identify symbols in literature), so it’s worth taking care not to reduce birds or butterflies to a simplistic symbol of death or family. Birds and butterflies aren’t just stock images that Nabokov brings up any time he wants the reader’s mind to migrate to death—instead, Nabokov treats the novel’s birds and butterflies with realism and rigor (no species appears in the novel that wouldn’t actually live in the region where Shade lives, for instance) and the meaning of each reference is complex and layered. Despite this, the general pattern across the book is that butterflies and birds evoke the possibility that Shade’s family members (and even Shade himself) can survive death in some form, which perhaps involves their consciousness merging with the natural world.
Birds and Butterflies Quotes in Pale Fire
Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.
As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told
The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table flows
Another man’s departed bride.
And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.
Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.
And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.
We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.