Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: Background information when reading My Dark Vanessa

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

My Dark Vanessa

A Novel

by Kate Russell

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell X
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 384 pages

    Feb 2021, 384 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

This article relates to My Dark Vanessa

Print Review

Butterflies from Vladimir Nabokov's Collection In My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, a much-older teacher begins his seduction of 15-year-old Vanessa Wye with poetry. One of the works he uses to draw her in is the 1962 Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire. Specifically, a section of verse describes how a fictional poet, John Shade, met his wife on an outing to New Wye Falls. Shade goes on to proclaim his continued love for her over the years, comparing her to a butterfly (Nabokov was himself a known butterfly enthusiast) called a Vanessa, a.k.a. the Vanessa atalanta or Red Admiral, in line 270:

Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! …

The instructor points out the obvious parallels to his young pupil, and recites the romantic sections to her to lure her into becoming his lover.

Pale Fire is considered a prime example of metafiction due to its unusual structure and premise. On the surface, it's a volume of poetry (composed by Shade, as mentioned above) with an introduction, commentary and extensive index compiled by Shade's neighbor, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote has obtained Shade's manuscript after the latter's murder and taken it upon himself to publish and annotate the work. His comments, which come after the poem and make up the second half the of book, becoming increasingly unhinged; he imagines a mythical kingdom of Zembla ruled by the equally imaginary Charles II. As Kinbote's narrative proceeds, it seems more and more possible that he's delusional and believes himself to be the king living in a state of exile, although he never explicitly states this.

That brief description belies the incredible complexity of the novel. The poem itself is actually quite lovely, although many readers dismiss it as something to simply get through because Kinbote's commentary is so bizarre and intriguing—drudgery one must endure before getting to the good stuff. Kinbote's annotations, though, are what spark continual debate between readers and scholars alike. Has Kinbote murdered Shade? Does he truly believe himself to be the hidden ruler? Is he actually insane or is he just trying to appear that way? The questions are numerous with no clear answers, although they have provided fodder for a multitude of analytical papers since the book's debut.

When Pale Fire was published, critical reaction ran the gamut, with some lauding the work as genius while others considered it nonsensical and overly contrived. The assessments haven't changed much over the decades, with readers divided into both camps—some loving it, others despising it. Overall, though, Pale Fire is considered a masterpiece, and it appears on several "best of" lists, such as Peter Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Time magazine's 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 and the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list.

Butterflies from Vladimir Nabokov's collection in the Nabokov Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to My Dark Vanessa. It originally ran in March 2020 and has been updated for the February 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Exiles
    by Jane Harper
    Our First Impressions readers were thrilled to return to the world of Jane Harper's protagonist ...
  • Book Jacket: Spice Road
    Spice Road
    by Maiya Ibrahim
    Imani is a Shield, a warrior who is renowned for her fighting abilities and for her iron dagger, ...
  • Book Jacket: A Mystery of Mysteries
    A Mystery of Mysteries
    by Mark Dawidziak
    Edgar Allan Poe biographers have an advantage over other writers because they don't have to come up ...
  • Book Jacket: Moonrise Over New Jessup
    Moonrise Over New Jessup
    by Jamila Minnicks
    Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Nurse's Secret
by Amanda Skenandore
A fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America's first nursing school.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Russian Doll
    by Kristen Loesch

    A haunting epic of betrayal, revenge, and redemption following three generations of Russian women.

  • Book Jacket

    Once We Were Home
    by Jennifer Rosner

    From the author of The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel based on the true stories of children stolen in the wake of World War II.

Win This Book
Win Last House Before the Mountain

Last House Before the Mountain by Monika Helfer

A spellbinding, internationally bestselling family saga set in a fractured rural village in WWI Austria.



Solve this clue:

R Peter T P P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.