Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015821, Thu, 20 Dec 2007 11:17:15 -0500

QUERY: The Mystery of Dr. Sutton
Dear List,

As I prepare to teach PF next semester, I've been puzzling over some loose
ends that I've never been able to comprehend. One of these is the role of
Dr. Sutton in the narrative. I have hit on a number of associations that I
suspect are valid, but I cannot at all see how these associations operate in
PF. So perhaps someone out there can make more sense of all this info than I

A) The Dr. Sutton mentioned in Shade's poem lives above him on the hill
(line 119). He has a light that shines at night--unclear if this is a light
in his house or a streetlight outside his house. He is 81 or 82 at the time
of Shade's death (l. 986).

B) In the commentary (C. 119) Kinbote asserts that Sutton is really a
composite figure made up of two doctors who lived on the hill. "Both were
very old friends of the Shades; one had a daughter, president of Sybil's
club--and this is the Dr. Sutton I visualize in my notes to line 181 and
1000. He is also mentioned in Line 986." Kinbote mentions the two times
where Dr. Sutton appears with his daughter, Mrs. Starr. But Sutton is also
mentioned in C. 47-48, 230, and 347. Does this mean that in these cases
Kinbote is visualizing the other Dr. Sutton, the one without a daughter
named Mrs. Starr? I don't think we can necessarily draw this conclusion, as
it may be that Kinbote is simply pointing out the two cases where he was a
direct eyewitness to Dr. Sutton and/or Mrs. Starr. All the other mentions
of Sutton come via hearsay, scenes Kinbote did not himself witness. Still,
isn't it odd that Kinbote doesn't reveal the real names of the two doctors?
When Jane Provost told him about the events surrounding the poltergeist, she
must have told him which Dr. the Shades consulted, yet Kinbote for some
reason adopts Shade's composite name, even though he knows which Dr. (Sut-
or -ton) it really was.

C) Dr. Sutton consults with the Shades on the poltergeist in their house
and on the one in Hentzner's barn. But Kinbote hints that this info was not
really within the doctor's field. So what kind of Dr. is Dr. Sutton?

D) In line 119 we get "That's Dr. Sutton's light. That's the Great Bear."
In C. 181, Kinbote saw "ancient Dr. Sutton, a snowy-headed, perfectly oval
little gentleman arrive in a tottering Ford with his tall daughter, Mrs.
Starr, a war widow." The combination of a constellation (adjacent to Dr.
Sutton) and a daughter named Mrs. Starr should give us pause. I believe VN
wants us to associate Sutton with Ursa Major and his daughter with the
nearby constellation Bootes (sometimes called Arcturus).
The Great Bear in some versions of the myth was formed when Callisto was
transformed into the constellation by Zeus. At the same time her son Arcas
became the constellation Bootes, or its brightest star Arcturus.
Ursa Major and Bootes are closely related. When Ursa Major is seen as a
bear, Bootes is "the Bear Driver" or the "Bear Keeper." Keeping in mind that
Mrs. Starr is Sutton's child, just as Arcas is Callisto's child, we should
note that Mrs. Starr is depicted both as the keeper and driver of old Dr.
Sutton. VN tells us that she is a war widow so that we will understand that
she is now devoted to caring for her elderly father. The tottering Ford
gives us the (punning) "driver" part of the equation.
Why is Mrs. Starr depicted as "tall"? Here's a quote from Astronomy with
the Naked Eye (1908): "[Bootes] is represented by the figure of a tall man,
with uplifted hand." And one from The Call of the Stars (1914): "[Bootes]
is usually represented by the figure of a tall man in a running attitude."
Sometimes, however, Ursa Major is seen not as a bear but as a wagon (wain)
and Bootes in this case is the "wagon driver" or a tall herdsman whose oxen
pull the wagon. When Ursa Major is a wagon, it known as Charles' (Carl's,
Churl's, Ceorles) Wain. This is significant (in the context of PF) because
of its association in English literature with King Charles I and II. Of
particular interest might be this selection from James Howell's laudatory
1641 poem "The Vote, or a Poem Royal":

...may peace once more
Descend from Heaven upon our tottering shore,
And ride in triumph both in Land and Main,
And with her Milk-white Steeds draw Charles his Wain

Keep in mind that Bootes (with his oxen, here transformed as steeds) is
usually seen as that which "draws" Charles' Wain. We might then read
"Descend ... upon our tottering shore" alongside the description of Dr.
Sutton and Mrs. Starr descending from the hill above Shade's house in their
"tottering Ford." Just a coincidence?

Well, I won't say that's all I've got, but that enough for now. As I said,
I feel like there's something here, but I really don't know what to make of
it. I would be grateful for the thoughts and ideas of others.

Matt Roth

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