Pale Fire Summary

Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

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Pale Fire Summary

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Pale Fire is widely considered Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece. Although he is better known for Lolita, Pale Fire is an experimental form of literature published in 1962 as a 999-line poem by the fictional poet John Shade with notations by fictional editor John Kinbote.

Kinbote’s notes do very little to explain the poem and a lot to help us piece together the story. He introduces the poem in the forward and claims to be at odds with other critics as he is the friend of the poet. By the end of the book, there are two separate stories, Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s story. Let us start with the poem.

In the first canto, Shade describes his encounters with death and the supernatural. It is a digressive look into pieces of his life. In the second, he details his family life with his wife and daughter. We find out that his daughter committed suicide after being rejected by a date. In the third, he outlines his hope that life has meaning. He searches for knowledge of an afterlife and sees in coincidences a faint hope that the powers that be are playing between worlds. The fourth canto is about poetry, his creative process, and why he believes it is a means to understand the universe.

Through his commentary, Kinbote begins to tell the story that he has always wanted to tell about an exiled king of Zembla. He is privy to many details that no one but the king would know. For example, the king is beloved by his people and is scholarly. His father’s hobby was airplanes, and his father later died in a crash. He has no relationship with his mother, who wants him to marry and produce an heir. He cannot do this because he is gay. He does eventually marry, but the woman leaves him to live on the French Riviera.

The country is soon taken over by revolutionaries. They hold the king hostage until he finds a secret passage that leads him out of the castle. He escapes through the mountains as loyal subjects aid in his escape by dressing to look like him. He visits his wife but then leaves to teach at a university in America.

Kinbote alludes that the king is the inspiration for Shade’s poem although Shade makes no explicit references to King Charles. He also tells us of an assassin dispatched to kill the exiled king. In the last notation, in place of the missing line 1000, Kinbote explains that the assassin killed Shade, mistaking him for the deposed King.

As Kinbote gives information, the reader soon realizes that he is an unreliable narrator. It seems clear that Shade was kind to Kinbote, but found him to be delusional. They were not the friends Kinbote believes they were. Instead of an assassin, the shooter was an escaped criminal who thought Shade was the judge who sent him to the asylum.

Nabokov’s work is an example of meta fiction. The process of creation and the commentary on Shade’s creative work is used to propel the story forward, and our interactions as readers lead us on the journey Nabokov intends.

Critics are sharply divided on whom Kinbote is. Some focus on the story as it stands, with Kinbote being the probably delusional King Charles II. Others point to his identity being that of a madman professor to whom Shade and other faculty condescend and tolerate. Others see the whole thing as a work of Shade’s own mind as a literary device with his faked death.

Nabokov subverts the role of critic and reader. We begin the novel thinking that the poem is the central story and that Kinbote’s commentary will enlighten us to the meanings of the poem. Instead, Kinbote lends only his own narrow view of the poem, choosing instead to tell his own obsessive story through his readings. Shade’s poem is about himself and his artistic process, showing in 999 lines his beliefs, experience, and philosophy.

These two conflicts intertwine. We have the first conflict between King Charles and those who overthrew him, including the assassin. The other conflict is between Shade and Kinbote. His criticism and explanations are longer and more involved than the poem itself. As we go along, Kinbote becomes the artist, telling a story that Shade did not intend. The reader must decide who is the real artist in the novel. Is it Shade and his poem, or is it Kinbote and his explanation that becomes its own story?

Another prominent theme that appears in much of Nabokov’s work including Pale Fire is the idea of exile. Kinbote sees his lost land as a shining jewel and writes about it with no memory of anything negative. He is so filled with nostalgia that he sees his Zembla in Shade’s descriptions of New England. Through every allusion to something in America, Kinbote finds a way back to his home. Even though we are never sure if the story is true, we do understand that Kinbote feels that it is true, and that is enough.

Kinbote is double exiled. First, he loses his homeland to usurpers. Then, in the events surrounding Shade’s death and his analysis of Shade’s final work, he is ostracized by the community and faculty of the New England college. He is at home in neither place.

Wherever one stands on the reality of Zembla and the identity of Kinbote, Pale Fire is a piece of metafiction that can repeatedly be explored. Its experimental story telling creates an air of mystery to the very end, and the conflict between artist, critic, and the reader only heightens this interest.