Critical Evaluation

Many of the first critical studies of Vladimir Nabokov concentrated upon the form of his work, to the neglect of its human content. Nabokov himself contributed to this approach. His work seems to argue that art is a kind of magnificent play, denying that there was a “human interest” story to be found in good art. Nabokov personally was deeply caring about other human beings; his wife was of Jewish descent, and he was bitterly opposed to all racism, not just anti-Semitism. Politically, he was antifascist and, because he had been forced into exile and in a sense deprived of his beloved Russian language by the Communist revolution in Russia, anticommunist. Extremes of the political spectrum are what he regarded with distaste. They were, to Nabokov, not opposites but mirrors of each other, external controls over human beings.

Pale Fire is, at bottom, humanist and even realistic. Although ludic, it is more than mere form. The characters, despite their many qualities that call attention to the novel’s satiric and ludic design, also exemplify differing points of view on the human condition. Nabokov also never denies the reality of the world. It exists and can be talked about. In his art there is no distinction between form and content; the way a story is told is necessarily a way of understanding and examining human existence. Pale Fire is a complex, experimental work and its messages are not simple. It can be read as a case study, as a parody of academic criticism—for example, of Nabokov’s own editing of Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, serial; 1833, book; Eugene Onegin, 1881), or of critical evaluations in general—or a prefiguring of modern deconstructionist criticism. All of these readings are correct, but they are also limiting.

The novel is constructive rather than deconstructive. Language and the structure find and create connections, uncovering and discovering reality and making order of that reality. At the same time, the novel shows that language cannot grasp all the complexities of existence. If Charles Kinbote is only a madman, the novel is merely a case study and says little about other human beings. Granted, the story Kinbote tells is too fantastic to be accepted as that of a sane...

(The entire section is 929 words.)