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The poem, entitled "Pale Fire," is a simple, but elegant, recounting of John Shade's life and his connection to an afterlife. Although the poem's subject matter is simple, the lines and images of the poetry are masterfully written and funny at points, proving Nabokov's skill as poet. The poem first reflects on Shade's sad childhood; he was an ungainly boy and an orphan, raised by a crazy aunt. The first canto ends with a veiled description of him discovering how to masturbate; Shade feels that self-gratification saved him.
Throughout the poem, there is discussion of how all things are connected, especially life and death. Shade (appropriately named) feels like a reflection of something larger and something clearer that he cannot quite access; in other words, he feels like a shadow or "shade" of something else. In life, his wife, Sybil, is his connection, his alter-ego; he celebrates their relationship in Canto two, even though it is probably not as simplistic as he indicates. He also tells about his only child, a daughter; because she is extremely ugly and unpopular, Shade pities her. Because she is miserable, she drowns herself in a lake. Shade seems to feel terribly guilty about her death. Nabokov, however, treats her death lightly. The blind-date scene is almost funny, as is the overly-dramatic death juxtaposed with TV shows and evening dish-washing. The author is almost cruel in his making fun.
Canto three, the section on the afterlife institute, is very amusing. Shade discusses all the possible problems with life after death, including the inconvenience of dying and all the questions that are raised. He tells about some of the institutes crazy studies. He then tells about his own life-after-death experience. Then in a rather comic set of events, Shade visits a woman he reads about who has had a similar experience; but the whole association is farce, as is most of his life, according to him. Still he decides all things are connected.