Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Pale Fire is undoubtedly Nabokov’s most challenging novel. It opens with a self-indulgent “Foreword” by one Charles Kinbote and continues with a long poem (also entitled “Pale Fire”) by his late friend and colleague John Shade, a professor at a northeastern college and a poet somewhat in the mold of Robert Frost. A wayward, extended “Commentary” and a brief “Index,” both by Kinbote, conclude the novel.
Shade’s poem is written in 999 lines and divided into four cantos. An autobiographical rumination on death and the possibility of life after death, it reaches a poignant apogee in describing the suicide of Shade’s beloved but ungainly daughter Hazel. In his “Foreword,” however, Kinbote argues that the poem is actually “about” something else, and encourages readers to consult his “Commentary” before studying the poem. Kinbote has been regaling his patient friend with absurd stories involving the exiled king of Zembla, Charles the Beloved. Although there is an arctic island called Nova Zembla, there is no country called Zembla outside Kinbote’s imagination. Yet Kinbote is convinced that Shade has incorporated Kinbote’s stories into his poem, and proves it, at least to his own satisfaction, in his bizarre notes.
It may seem obvious that Kinbote is mad, although it is possible to determine from his remarks the general course of events and the particulars of his friend’s fate. Having finished (or...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Pale Fire purports to be a scholarly edition of the poem Pale Fire by the American poet John Shade. There is, as part of the novel, an editor’s foreword, then the poem itself, followed by five times as many pages of editorial commentary as there are pages to the poem, and finally an index. The editor, Charles Kinbote, was a one-time colleague of Shade at Wordsmith University in New Wye, which is in Appalachia. Kinbote tells a story, or rather a number of stories, all by indirection—for there is no simple “and then” of events in the novel.
The primary story is realistic, introduced by Kinbote in the foreword and carried on in the rest of the editorial apparatus and in Shade’s poem. In the poem, an autobiographical meditation written in loose, rhymed couplets, Shade recounts not only his own life and his love for his wife, Sybil, but his daughter’s life and death. His daughter was an unattractive, intelligent girl, too sensitive for the world, who ended up, probably, killing herself. Kinbote may actually have been named V. Botkin—and he probably is quite mad. Newly arrived as a teacher at Wordsmith, he rents the house of Judge Goldsworth, next to Shade’s house. Kinbote does not fit well into the academic world. Most of his colleagues, especially a young teacher named Gerald Emerald, make fun of his appearance and his manners. Moreover, Kinbote, who is gay, has a series of unfortunate love affairs. An admirer of Shade’s work, Kinbote forces himself upon Shade and his wife, Sybil. Shade is working on his new poem; Kinbote believes that he has given Shade the major subject for the poem. He is to be cruelly disappointed.
Another madman, Jack Grey, once sentenced to prison by Judge Goldsworth but having escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane, arrives in New Wye, intent upon revenge. Grey mistakes Shade for the judge and shoots him. Kinbote believes, and Mrs. Shade accepts as truth, that Kinbote tried to save Shade. She...
(The entire section is 809 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Pale Fire is Nabokov’s most intricate, ingenious, and controversial novel, extravagantly lauded by some of his critics and assailed as coldly concerned with only technique and gamesmanship by others.
The book begins with a brief foreword written by an academician, Dr. Charles Kinbote, who introduces a 999-line poem in heroic couplets, “Pale Fire,” composed by the prominent American poet John Francis Shade, who has recently died. After the poem’s text, Kinbote engages in more than two hundred pages of line-by-line interpretations. The book ends with the requisite index.
A homely man who resembles Robert Frost, Shade teaches at Wordsmith College in New Wye, Appalachia. Specializing in the poetry of Alexander Pope, Shade creates a masterpiece that is closer to William Wordsworth’s pastoral themes. (Wordsmith is a combination of two poets’ names: Wordsworth and Oliver Goldsmith.) The card game in Pope’s spirited satire The Rape of the Lock (1712) is ombre, which is the French word for shade, or shadow. In Pale Fire, John Shade turns out to be the trump in Kinbote’s bizarre game.
Kinbote describes himself as an émigré scholar who has fled his native country of Zembla. In the index, he defines Zembla as “a distant northern land” near Russia. Pope mentions it in his Essay on Man (1733): “At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.” A group of islands, Novaya Zemlya, exists in the Arctic Ocean, north of Archangel. Kinbote has lived next door to John and Sybil Shade, in a house he has rented from Judge Goldsworth, of the law faculty, who is away on a sabbatical. At the time Kinbote is writing his commentary, however, he has left Appalachia and is living in a small southwestern town. Shade has been killed by a man named Jack Grey, and Kinbote has gone into hiding to edit, with the widow’s permission, the poet’s manuscript for publication.
Kinbote, however, is a victim of brilliant delusions. He believes himself to be an intimate friend of Shade, although they met rarely and Sybil Shade detests him for his snooping on the family with his binoculars. In his commentary, Kinbote strongly suggests that it was he who had provided the poet with the inspiration and subject of his final work. He twists Shade’s verses to suit his grandiose needs and narrates,...
(The entire section is 953 words.)