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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 nearly finished) “Pale Fire,” Shade visits Kinbote and, mistaken for the judge from whom Kinbote rents his house, is shot and killed by an escaped criminal named Jack Grey. Believing that Kinbote has heroically tried to save her husband’s life, Shade’s widow Sybil gives Kinbote permission to edit and publish her husband’s last poem.

The levels of possible interpretation of Pale Fire are multitudinous and extend far beyond the subject matter of Shade’s poem. Charles the Beloved may well be Kinbote’s alter ego, but on the other hand Kinbote may actually be the Russian-American scholar V. Botkin mentioned in the “Index.” In addition, the mysterious Zemblan revolutionary Jakob Gradus discussed in Kinbote’s “Commentary” may be Jack Grey.

Pale Fire takes its title from William Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623): “The moon’s an arrant thief,/ And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” Nabokov’s treatment of stolen identity (and thus stolen meaning) is audacious, although the success of Pale Fire is open to question. Some critics greeted Pale Fire with extravagant praise, but many readers have found Kinbote, who occupies center stage throughout most of the novel, insubstantial and unsympathetic—a monomaniac defined entirely by his obsession.


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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,...

(This entire section contains 809 words.)

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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 gives Kinbote permission to edit the poem. Grey commits suicide in prison. Kinbote flees, going to the western United States, taking the poem with him. There he writes the notes and the index.

The most fascinating, fantastic, and perhaps “real” story in the novel is the one that Kinbote tells in his foreword, commentary, and index. This story is the subject that Kinbote thought Shade was writing about. Kinbote uses his scholarly apparatus (the foreword, commentary, and so on) to give his autobiography or, at least, what he believes is his autobiography. Disappointed to find that the great story he gave Shade is not the obvious matter of Shade’s poem, Kinbote, as an artist-reader himself, “rewrites,” or rather interprets, the poem to say what it should have said. Shade’s poem is warped into something monstrous.

Gradually it is revealed that Kinbote is Charles Xavier the Beloved, deposed king of Zembla, a “distant northern land,” somewhere in Europe. Zembla is a happy, romantic place, indeed a dream place, with a comfortably rigid social hierarchy, that is, a king, nobles, a small and efficient middle class, a happy peasantry, and the usual malcontents, the stirrers-up of trouble. Charles Xavier pretends to be merely an American academic to escape the far left, totalitarian revolutionaries who brought about the revolution in Zembla. They fear the king’s return and are intent upon his assassination. Jack Grey, furthermore, is no madman but a man of many disguises and names, among them Jacob Gradus and de Grey, a committed believer in the revolution, an assassin sent by the revolutionaries and who accidentally kills Shade while trying to kill Charles.

Charles Xavier (or Charles Kinbote), telling about his life before he came to Wordsmith, asserts that he is truly beloved by most of his people but regretfully unsuccessful in his personal life, especially as a husband, because he is gay. Charles Xavier is a clever, attractive, learned man, but was harassed by continual palace intrigues. He was brought to marry in hopes of fathering an heir but could not consummate the marriage. The revolutionists, unsupported of course by the Zemblan people but backed by a giant neighboring state, dethroned and imprisoned the king.

The king, with the aid of friends and courtiers, escaped in a marvelous, operatic fashion, leaving everything behind, including his identity. After he arrived in America, other friends helped him to this new identity, that of Charles Kinbote, a scholarly authority on Zemblan literature. The Shadows, a secret group inside the Zemblan revolutionaries, sent Grey (Jacob Gradus), and the fate of Shade is intertwined with that of Charles Xavier. One of these Shadows, the one who gives Gradus the American address of Charles Xavier, is named Izumrudov, which is a Russian word for “emerald,” linking Izumrudov with Gerald Emerald.