In the first canto, John Shade describes his childhood life. He begins by expressing a feeling of yearning; the context in which he does so suggests that it is for freedom, which one can imagine would be from his less-than-wonderful life. He then begins recounting actual details from his younger years, such as his photographic memory. In doing this, he describes the area and house he lived in; the area in lines 42-57, the house in lines 58-63. In this section he writes an interesting line: “The phantom of my little daughter’s swing.” (Nabokov, 35) His phrasing when saying “little daughter” leads the reader to believe that perhaps his daughter is dead, since .if she was alive, she would be older, and therefore he would refer to her as just his daughter, without the age-descriptive word. He then recounts his memories of his parents’ deaths: his father from a bad heart, his mother pancreatic cancer. Lastly, he describes living with his Aunt Maud, who was an eccentric old woman.
In the next canto, Shade describes his older years. He begins by telling about the decline of his aunt’s mental health, and his musings about death. He then recalls falling in love with his wife, Sybil, in high school. He felt a sense of wonder that someone as she could love someone like him. He then remembers their daughter, an awkward, unattractive girl. During her younger years, he recounts, they tried to excuse it, but as she grew older it was painfully clear that she would never be attractive to men. They tried to help her still, and her friend Jane set her up on a blind date with her cousin, Pete Dean. The man, once having arrived, took a single glance at his date and promptly left. Filled with despair, Hazel took a bus to Lochanhead, where she drowned herself. John and Sybil were not made aware until a police officer visited their house to inform them.
In the penultimate canto Shade focuses on attempting to make sense of the senseless thing that is death. He was engaged to be a guest faculty member at the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter (I.P.H.), also known as "If," on the subject. He writes critically of the unanswerable questions about death that If tried to answer. Later, after Hazel's death, he threw himself into the subject of life and death. While delivering a speech on the importance of poetry, he had a fainting fit similar to ones he had as a child and died, seeing a white fountain. When he came back to life, a doctor who had been in the front row and attended to him assured him he had not died. He later read of a woman who had also seen a white fountain when she died and was brought back to life. He thought this proved his experience had been real until he found out it was a misprint and she had seen a white mountain. Then he realized he could not make sense of death and he had to instead make sense of life, with all its strange occurrences and congruencies.