Pale Fire

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The novel consists of a long, elegiac poem written by a poet named John Shade and a rambling commentary on the poem produced by a Professor Charles Kinbote. Comparing Kinbote’s commentary with Shade’s poem, one immediately discovers a strange disparity. Shade’s poem is a touching, emotional work portraying the poet’s attempt to understand the reality of death, the poignancy of loss, and the redeeming power of love in human life. Kinbote’s commentary, in contrast, interprets the poem as a veiled saga about the exiled king of a fabulous realm named Zembla. As he develops his commentary, Kinbote plunges deeper and deeper into his personal tale of Zemblan manners and intrigue, ultimately suggesting that he himself is that marvelous Zemblan king, Charles the Beloved.

Nabokov’s novel presents a humorous and unusual portrait of subjective reality. Kinbote’s extravagant attempts to project his fantasy onto Shade’s poem reflect an important theme in Nabokov’s fiction--that the creation of one’s inner vision is more real to an individual than the reality of the external world. Reading further into Kinbote’s commentary, however, one discovers profound links between Kinbote’s and Shade’s concerns. Both men attempt to deal with such concepts as suffering, loss, and love, and each tries to find order in the seemingly chaotic world of human experience, Shade through the structured processes of genuine art, and Kinbote through his anxiety-ridden tale of royal exile and persecution.

The unfettered forces of imagination, the ability to treat life as fiction and fiction as life, combine in PALE FIRE to create a dazzling novel of wit and high seriousness.


Bader, Julia. Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov’s English Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. The discussion of Pale Fire is extensive and insightful, concentrating upon the novel as imaginative experience.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990, 1991. This two-volume biography is absolutely essential not only for its information about Nabokov’s life but about his life’s relation to his art.

Dembo, L. S., ed. Nabokov: The Man and His Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. This early collection of articles on Nabokov introduced many of the ideas that later critics would continue to discuss. Excellent article by John O. Lyons on Pale Fire.

Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Although Rampton limits his discussion to a few novels, his concentration upon content is a good antidote to the many formal approaches to Nabokov.

Roth, Phyllis A., ed. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Comprehensive, very helpful selection of articles on Nabokov. Pale Fire is treated in several of the essays.

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Critical Evaluation