Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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John Shade is a distinguished poet and English professor at Wordsmith College in New Wye. He is Sybil’s husband and Hazel’s father, and he lives across the street from Charles Kinbote, a deranged acquaintance whose company he sometimes tolerates out of kindness. Shade lives his whole life in New Wye, in the very house in which he was born. After his parents died when he was an infant, Shade was raised by his eccentric Aunt Maud and he married Sybil, his high school sweetheart. Shade is a genius, but his life is simple and ordinary—his greatest pleasures in life are poetry, his family, and learning about nature. In the final three weeks of his life (before being murdered in a case of mistaken identity), Shade writes the poem “Pale Fire,” which details his lifelong quest to learn what happens after death, his grief over his daughter’s suicide, his love for nature and for his wife, and his abiding belief that the universe has a beautiful design that is mostly imperceptible to human beings, but which points to the likelihood that human consciousness survives death in some form. On the day in which Shade nearly completes his poem, Kinbote invites him over for wine. As they cross the street, Shade is shot by an escaped lunatic who mistakes Shade for Kinbote’s landlord, Judge Goldsworth (although Kinbote insists that the Zemblan assassin Gradus murdered Shade). Some scholars believe that Shade’s consciousness persisted after his death and helped Kinbote to write his bizarre Commentary to “Pale Fire”; other scholars believe that Shade and Kinbote are the same person (that either Kinbote is an invention of Shade’s and Shade himself wrote both the poem and the Commentary, or that Shade is an invention of Kinbote’s).

John Shade Quotes in Pale Fire

The Pale Fire quotes below are all either spoken by John Shade or refer to John Shade. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Pale Fire published in 1962.
Foreword Quotes

Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto One Quotes

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?
How fully I felt nature glued to me

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 36-37
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Two Quotes

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

It isn’t that we dream too wild a dream:
The trouble is we do not make it seem
Sufficiently unlikely; for the most
We can think up is a domestic ghost.

How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one’s private tongue a public fate!
Instead of poetry divinely terse,
Disjointed notes, Insomnia's mean verse!

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Life is a message scribbled in the dark.
Anonymous.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Three Quotes

It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed
What mostly interests the preterist;
For we die every day; oblivion thrives
Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.
I’m ready to become a floweret
Or a fat fly, but never, to forget.
And I’ll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
[…] Are found in Heaven by the newlydead.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Nor can one help the exile, the old man
Dying in a motel, with the loud fan
Revolving in the torrid prairie night
And, from the outside, bits of colored light
Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past
Offering gems and death is coming fast
He suffocates and conjures in two tongues
The nebulae dilating in his lungs.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker), Narrator/Charles Kinbote
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Four Quotes

Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float
In that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything “Poems,” and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.)

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.
I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 1-48 Quotes

We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Jakob Gradus, John Shade
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 230-348 Quotes

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table flows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 192-193
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 469-629 Quotes

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote’s ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere—oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature—if there be any rules.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 225-226
Explanation and Analysis:

“That is the wrong word,” he said. “One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That’s merely turning a new leaf with the left hand.”

I patted my friend on the head and bowed slightly to Eberthella H. The poet looked at me with glazed eyes. She said:

“You must help us, Mr. Kinbote: I maintain that what’s his name, old—the old man, you know, at the Exton railway station, who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains, was technically a loony, but John calls him a fellow poet.”

“We all are, in a sense, poets, Madam,” I replied, and offered a lighted match to my friend who had his pipe in his teeth and was beating himself with both hands on various parts of his torso.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker), Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker)
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 662-872 Quotes

Lines 734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable

A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics. The poet’s plan is to display in the very texture of his text the intricacies of the “game” in which he sees the key to life and death (see lines 808-829).

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 873-1000 Quotes

Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc.

If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:
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John Shade Character Timeline in Pale Fire

The timeline below shows where the character John Shade appears in Pale Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Foreword
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
“Pale Fire” is a 999-line poem in four cantos, written in heroic couplets. The poet John Shade (1898-1959) wrote “Pale Fire” during the last three weeks of his life at his... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
John Shade, a man of strict routines, would write a particular number of lines each day... (full context)
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Loss and Longing Theme Icon
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...full of “erasures” and “insertions,” but the text itself is remarkably clear. Nonetheless, a “professed Shadean” gave a newspaper interview following Shade’s death suggesting that the poem is merely a draft,... (full context)
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...and third cantos are the same length. And, on July 21st, the narrator himself heard Shade say that he was almost at the end of the poem. (full context)
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
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...dozen index cards containing drafts of couplets that don’t appear in the poem’s final copy. Shade always destroyed his drafts when he was finished with them—the narrator often watched from his... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
The 12 cards that remain might have been spared because Shade intended to insert some of the unused materials into his final draft, or because he... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
The narrator became the editor of “Pale Fire” because, after Shade’s death, fearing the petty academic dramas that would have otherwise swirled around the manuscript, the... (full context)
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
The aftermath of Shade’s death revealed some secrets that forced the narrator to leave New Wye just after interviewing... (full context)
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The narrator was a dear friend of Shade’s, even though they’d known each other only a few months. In February of 1959, when... (full context)
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Soon, though, fellow academics became envious that Shade preferred the narrator to anyone else. The narrator once overheard a young professor in a... (full context)
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The narrator’s friendship with Shade, though, was worth all this jealousy, and the friendship was even more precious because Shade... (full context)
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Shade inspired a kind of awe in the narrator, as he could watch Shade taking the... (full context)
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...Commentary first and then decipher the poem while re-reading the Commentary. Without the narrator’s notes, Shade’s poem has no “human reality,” since “Pale Fire” is too “skittish and reticent” to be... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto One
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The poem’s speaker (presumably John Shade) looks out his living room window. On the glass is the “ashen fluff” of... (full context)
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
Shade describes bird tracks in the snow outside his window, wondering who walked “from left to... (full context)
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
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Shade loves every color, even gray, and he often makes himself take mental pictures of what... (full context)
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Since his boyhood, Shade has mostly kept the house the same, besides renovating a wing and replacing a weathervane... (full context)
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After his parents’ death, Shade would pray for the rest of his family to stay healthy. His strange Aunt Maud... (full context)
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
As a young man, Shade lost his faith in God, as he found the concept “degrading” and illogical to a... (full context)
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Shade is enamored of the chirping of crickets, the light on his neighbor’s porch, and the... (full context)
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Shade was never athletic—he was always fat and asthmatic. He was “the shadow of the waxwing... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Two
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For a time when Shade was young, he thought that everyone but him knew the “truth/About survival after death.” Later,... (full context)
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...Maud’s health declined. She went to an institution where she lost her ability to speak. Shade wonders, if a person is resurrected, what stage of life they would return to. Space... (full context)
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
As Shade and his wife walked home on the day that their daughter died, they saw “Life... (full context)
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Shade and Sybil fell in love on a high school trip to a waterfall. As he... (full context)
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Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Their daughter looked more like John Shade than Sybil, which broke their hearts. At first they tried to deny that she... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...was quite critical and only smiled when she was hurt. Despite her sadness and troubles, Shade loved her and relishes the evenings when they would play games together or he would... (full context)
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Loss and Longing Theme Icon
One night, Shade’s typist set Shade’s daughter up with her cousin, Pete. They went to a bar, but... (full context)
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While Shade was doing the dishes around midnight, a cop car arrived; some people think that their... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Three
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“L’if, lifeless tree!” Shade writes. “Your great Maybe: Rabelais: The grand potato.” (full context)
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When John and Sybil’s daughter was young, the family spent a term at the Institute of Preparation... (full context)
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The silliness of IPH actually helped Shade in the sense that it taught him what to ignore in his quest to learn... (full context)
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Eventually, after their daughter’s death, Shade and Sybil’s life resumed; they went to Italy, attended to the publication of Shade’s essays,... (full context)
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While dead, Shade found that everything he loved was gone, but he had no regret; there was a... (full context)
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Afterwards, Shade thought often of the white fountain—how it “reeked with truth” and had “its own reality.”... (full context)
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That Shade based his belief in eternal life on a misprint might have been a hint to... (full context)
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...and objects with remote events/And vanished objects. Making ornaments/Of accidents and possibilities.” After this realization, Shade tried to tell Sybil of his “faint hope,” although while he was speaking, she was... (full context)
Pale Fire: Canto Four
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Shade declares that he will “spy on beauty” as nobody has done before, and cry out,... (full context)
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Shade writes best on midsummer mornings. Once, he was half-asleep and imagined that he was on... (full context)
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...biographer might be too proper or uninformed to know that he shaved in the bath, Shade details how he shaves and describes his skin thinning and how that makes him nick... (full context)
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“Man’s life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem. Note for further use,” Shade writes. As he dresses, he roams the house thinking about poetry; his “muse” is with... (full context)
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
Shade’s first book was called Dim Gulf, and next came Night Rote, then Hebe’s Cup, but... (full context)
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
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As the day fades, Shade feels tired and he lets go of some of the poetry he meant to write.... (full context)
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The sun is setting, and Sybil is in the garden—Shade sees her shadow by the shagbark tree and hears a neighbor playing horseshoes. A Vanessa... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 1-48
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...opening image describes a bird that dies smacking into the reflection of the sky in Shade’s window. He imagines John Shade as a young boy, seeing the dead bird and experiencing... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
...a bird that appears on the crest of Zembla’s King Charles the Beloved, whose “misfortunes” Shade and Kinbote often discussed. (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
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Shade began “Pale Fire” just after midnight on July 1st—the exact middle of the year—and Shade... (full context)
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...it into the final copy, there are lines here that describe how a friend told Shade about a “certain king,” but Shade seems to have cut them due to censorship by... (full context)
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...17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray. Coincidentally, with the words “gradual” and “gray,” Shade nearly names the man that he would meet for a “fatal moment” three weeks after... (full context)
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...Conan Doyle stories, although Kinbote does not know which story is referenced here—he suspects that Shade made the reversed footprints up. (full context)
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Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide. Shade often uses wintry imagery, even though he wrote the poem in summer. Kinbote is “too... (full context)
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Line 42: I could make out. In early summer, Kinbote began to see how Shade would describe Zembla in his poem. Kinbote had been relentlessly telling stories of his homeland,... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...abroad during Kinbote’s time in New Wye). “Wordsmith” refers to Wordsmith University, where Kinbote and Shade worked. The Goldsworth house was uncomfortable, and Kinbote hated living among the family’s possessions. In... (full context)
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Kinbote struggles to describe the architecture of Shade’s house, particularly because—as summer approached—the leaves of a nearby tree blocked him from seeing into... (full context)
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The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...with. A minister walked by and then stopped, enraptured—a bliss that Kinbote remembered upon seeing Shade’s face while he wrote “Pale Fire.” Every day, Kinbote spied, but some nights the house... (full context)
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...their house where he found one small window illuminated. Through the window, he could see John and Sybil sitting on a sofa, apparently weeping as they gathered up a deck of... (full context)
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A few days later, when Shade missed an appointment to take a walk with Kinbote, Kinbote walked behind Shade’s house and... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 49-98
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
...Years ago, Charles the Beloved’s wife, Disa, copied into a letter a passage of a John Shade poem that compares a gingko leaf to a butterfly. Kinbote quotes the passage (from... (full context)
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Line 57: The phantom of my little daughter’s swing. After this line, Shade cut a draft variant about architects and psychoanalysts colluding to not put locks on bedroom... (full context)
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Line 61: TV’s huge paperclip. In John Shade’s vapid obituary, Sybil provides a short poem that John wrote in June. It’s about... (full context)
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...TV. In a draft of “Pale Fire,” there are some lines following this one that Shade may have planned to use later in the poem. They describe a “northern king” who... (full context)
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Line 71: parents. Right after Shade’s death, Professor Hurley wrote an obituary in a mediocre journal. While bashing an obituary isn’t... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
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In Hurley’s obituary, there’s only one reference to “Pale Fire”—that Shade was working on an autobiographical poem before he died. Furthermore, Hurley gets wrong the facts... (full context)
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Just as Shade couldn’t remember his father, King Charles had no image of his father’s face, since King... (full context)
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...so Kinbote drew a map of the grounds and the building, hoping this would help Shade understand the events he described. He hopes that Sybil can mail him the map to... (full context)
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Lines 86-90: Aunt Maud. While line 90 of “Pale Fire” implies that Hazel Shade (John’s daughter) was a baby when Aunt Maud died, Hazel was actually a teenager. Kinbote... (full context)
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...Aunt Maud’s room include a scrapbook where she pasted funny or gross news clippings. Once, Shade showed Kinbote the first and last clippings in the book, both from Life magazine, which... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 101-143
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Line 109: iridule. A term that Shade invented to describe an iridescent cloud. (full context)
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...combination of the names of two retired doctors in New Wye, both friends with the Shade family. (full context)
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...120-121: five minutes were equal to forty ounces, etc. In the margin of a draft, Shade wrote the measurements of an hour in sand and atoms. Kinbote isn’t able to check... (full context)
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...at soccer and cricket, although he’s good at skiing and riding horses. After this line, Shade wrote some abandoned lines about children playing in a castle and finding a secret corridor... (full context)
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...the moment of their composition—coming closer and closer, closing the “feigned remoteness” between him and Shade. While Gradus took all forms of transit, he seems most suited to airplanes. What propels... (full context)
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Line 143: a clockwork toy. Kinbote has actually seen this toy. Once, he dropped by Shade’s house asking after some pamphlets in the basement. While they were looking, Kinbote saw the... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 149-214
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Line 162: With his pure tongue, etc. Shade’s fainting fits must have been some form of epilepsy, a “derailment of the nerves…on the... (full context)
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Line 167: There was a time, etc. Shade began Canto Two on his 60th birthday, which was July 5th. Actually, that’s a mistake—his... (full context)
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...books and people. In a notebook, Kinbote has transcribed a few conversations between himself and Shade. In one, Shade says that he feels detached from both good reviews of his work... (full context)
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Line 181: Today. On July 5th, Shade began work on Canto Two. That night, he had a get-together at his house and... (full context)
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A while back, after noticing Shade’s birthdate on a book jacket and seeing his shabby pajamas, Kinbote bought him a silk... (full context)
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...handed her a copy of a Proust book and told her to give it to John and pay attention to the bookmark in it. He’d brought this book just in case,... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 230-348
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Line 230: a domestic ghost. Jane Provost, who was John Shade’s secretary, told Kinbote more about Hazel than John did, as he didn’t want to... (full context)
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Kinbote suspects that Shade associated these occurrences with his own boyhood fits, wondering whether he’d passed down some variation... (full context)
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...poem’s meter (and the assumption that the middle “e” in “Baudelaire” would be silent, as Shade does with “Rabelais” in line 501), the name is a trochee. There are many famous... (full context)
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...case. This refers to the shell of a cicada, left behind when it molts. Whenever Shade and Kinbote would walk together at sunset, Shade would relentlessly talk about the natural world,... (full context)
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Line 246: …my dear. Here, Shade is addressing his wife, Sybil. The passage about her (lines 246-292) is, structurally speaking, intended... (full context)
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Line 247: Sybil. Sybil is John Shade’s wife, whose maiden name, Irondell, does not refer to a valley full of iron... (full context)
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...lines from a Swift poem (they contain the words “Vanessa” and “Atalanta”), and Kinbote recalls Shade saying that the Vanessa butterfly is sometimes called the Red Admiral. In Zembla, the Vanessa... (full context)
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Line 275: We have been married forty years. John and Sybil Shade were married thirty years before King Charles married Disa, the Duchess of... (full context)
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Line 286: A jet’s pink trail above the sunset fire. On the day Shade wrote this line, Gradus flew to Paris, where he was to try to learn King... (full context)
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...This line was written on July 7th, the same day that Kinbote bumped into the Shades buying luggage. Upset to think that they might be going on a vacation, he ran... (full context)
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Line 334: Would never come for her. At twilight, Kinbote would often wonder whether Shade—or one of his “ping-pong friends”—would ever come for him. (full context)
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Line 347: Old Barn. This refers to a shed near Shade’s house where “certain phenomena” happened a few months before Hazel died. The barn belonged to... (full context)
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...an “outraged ghost or a rejected swain.” The incident became a local tabloid sensation, and Shade complained to local leaders until the barn was torn down. (full context)
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Kinbote would have abandoned the nonsense syllables altogether, except for the lines of Shade’s poem “Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind/Of correlated pattern in the game.” Because of this,... (full context)
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...where she screamed at the ghostly figure on the porch. It turned out to be John Shade, waiting up to make sure his daughter was safe. (full context)
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...over the course of three nights, and in this instance, the third night brought Sybil, John, and Hazel to the barn together. Nobody took notes on this, but Kinbote has constructed... (full context)
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...silence. The stage directions say that “life is hopeless, afterlife heartless.” When Hazel begins crying, John lights a lamp and leaves. The strange light never returned, although Shade later wrote a... (full context)
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...347-348: She twisted words. Kinbote is pretty sure that he is the one who told Shade that, when reversed, “spider” is “redips” and “T.S. Eliot” is “toilest,” but Hazel does resemble... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 367-434
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Lines 367-370: then—pen, again—explain. John Shade had an American accent, which meant that he would rhyme “again” with “pen” rather... (full context)
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Line 376: poem. Kinbote has a guess about what poem Shade is referencing here, but he doesn’t have any books in his “mountain cave,” so he... (full context)
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...Professor H. That wasn’t a stranger’s business, but he held it against Kinbote, and, after Shade died, he wrote an open letter about the concern among the English faculty that “Pale... (full context)
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Line 384: book on Pope. Shade wrote a book on Pope titled Supremely Blest, which is a phrase from Pope that... (full context)
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Lines 385-386: Jane Dean, Pete Dean. These are obviously pseudonyms. Kinbote met Jane right after John Shade’s death, and she explained that Pete was perhaps exaggerating but certainly not lying when... (full context)
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Line 408: A male hand. Perhaps at the very moment that Shade wrote this line, Gradus was driving to the villa of Joseph Lavender, an art enthusiast... (full context)
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...“Essay on Man,” referring to a “lunatic king.” Kinbote criticizes Pope for his meter and Shade for not including this part of the Pope quote in the final poem. It’s possible,... (full context)
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Line 426: Just behind (one oozy footstep) Frost. This references Robert Frost, acknowledging obliquely that Shade’s poetry was never so perfect as Frost’s. (full context)
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When Kinbote told all this to Shade, he wondered how Kinbote could know so much about this “appalling king” and also how... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 469-629
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Line 470: Negro. After one of their colleagues made an anti-Semitic remark, Shade and Kinbote discussed prejudice, with Shade saying he hated “vulgarity and brutality,” which are both... (full context)
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Line 502: The grand potato. This is a bad pun meant to express Shade’s lack of respect for death. Kinbote remembers learning Rabelais’s last words in French class: Je... (full context)
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...cannot (for reasons of law and taste) reveal the real name of the institute that Shade is mocking, he also wants it to be known that he doesn’t approve of the... (full context)
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Line 549: While snubbing gods including the big G. This is the essence of what Shade missed. For Christians, the afterlife is impossible without God, which implies punishment for sin. Zemblan... (full context)
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Turning to original sin, Kinbote stressed its importance while Shade insisted that he never understood it and believed that people are born good. To his... (full context)
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Line 579: the other. Kinbote doesn’t wish to insinuate that Shade was seeing another woman. Of course, some gossips said he was sleeping with a student,... (full context)
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...these lines appears the phrase “Tanagra dust,” which can be combined to make the word “gradus”—Shade’s murderer. While an average reader might chalk this up to coincidence, Kinbote can hardly find... (full context)
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On the day when Shade composed those lines, Gradus wasn’t doing much—just waiting in his hotel in Geneva. Without a... (full context)
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...knows that, had Charles been caught, he would have gone to his death just as Shade describes in the referenced lines: spitting into the eyes of his idiot executioners. (full context)
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Lines 609-614: Nor can one help, etc. In his draft, Shade wrote this slightly differently, capturing well the “chance inn” where Kinbote is writing this commentary.... (full context)
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...father belonged. Starover was beloved by students, and he was one of the men in Shade’s orbit, including the “distinguished Zemblan scholar” Professor Nattochdag.   (full context)
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...good stories in New Wye. Once, at a party at the Hurley home, Kinbote spotted Shade talking to Hurley’s wife. As he approached them from behind, he overheard Shade tell her... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 662-872
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Line 680: Lolita. In America, major hurricanes get female names. It’s not clear why Shade gave this hurricane an obscure Spanish name rather than an American one like Linda or... (full context)
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Line 681: the attack. In October of 1958, Shade had a heart attack, which neatly coincided with King Charles arriving in America. In disguise,... (full context)
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...arranged for Kinbote’s job there. When Charles arrived at her house, she informed him that Shade would be okay, so he would get to meet the famous poet after all. Shade... (full context)
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Shade recovered quite well, and readers shouldn’t take literally the part of “Pale Fire” about the... (full context)
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Lines 704-707: A system, etc. When Shade repeats “cells interlinked” three times, he does it quite well, particularly because of the resonance... (full context)
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Lines 727-728: No, Mr. Shade…just half a shade. This passage makes a pun on the “two additional meanings of shade”—plus... (full context)
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Lines 734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable. Here, Shade is trying to make his poem mirror the “intricacies of the ‘game’ in which he... (full context)
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Line 741: the outer glare. While Shade worked on July 16th, Gradus was bored, sitting in his hotel lobby in Nice. He... (full context)
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...April, Kinbote wrote a letter to someone in the South of France that alluded to Shade. Luckily, he preserved it and he includes the text. The letter tells “my dear” not... (full context)
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Line 802: mountain. The morning Shade wrote these lines, Kinbote went to church and felt, because of the cloudless sky, that... (full context)
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That night, Kinbote asked Shade what he was writing about that day, and he simply replied “mountains.” Of course, this... (full context)
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...never seen anywhere else, and to see something of such slim odds would have delighted Shade. (full context)
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Line 819: Playing a game of worlds. Shade loved word games, particularly “word golf.” Sometimes he would interrupt conversations to play, and Kinbote... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 873-1000
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Line 873: My best time. When Shade began this line, Gradus was boarding an airplane and then flying, “desecrating the sky.” (full context)
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Lines 887-888: Since my biographer may be too staid or know too little. If Shade had known that Kinbote would be the commentator, he would not have presumed this. In... (full context)
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...derive from the Russian zemlya, but from words related to “resemblance.” When the scholar prodded Shade, he denied the resemblance, saying that “resemblances are the shadows of differences.” (full context)
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...he escaped in disguise or was executed, and whether history will treat him unkindly—and then Shade noted that he himself is said to resemble several other people, including a cafeteria worker... (full context)
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...Kinbote replied, sarcastically, that he was mixing Kinbote up with a “refugee from Nova Zembla.” Shade remarked that, in Zemblan, kinbote means “regicide,” and Kinbote affirmed him before Shade told the... (full context)
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Line 929: Freud. Kinbote can still see Shade literally falling down in laughter as Kinbote read to him from an important book on... (full context)
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...937: Old Zembla. Kinbote is tired and sad today. In a draft of these lines, Shade quoted Pope’s “Essay on Man”: “At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.” While Shade... (full context)
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Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc. If Kinbote is interpreting this correctly, Shade is trying to say that life is essentially a series of footnotes to a “vast... (full context)
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Line 949: And all the time. Shade began these lines on his final day alive. It’s possible that Gradus woke at the... (full context)
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Line 962: Help me, Will. Pale Fire. To paraphrase, this means that Shade is looking in Shakespeare for a phrase to use as a title, finding “pale fire.”... (full context)
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...Part of this is because he lived more in the library than in the world—which Shade could also be guilty of. Only one person ever questioned whether Conmal’s translations were good,... (full context)
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Line 991: horseshoes. It was never clear to Shade or to Kinbote which neighbor was playing horseshoes in the evenings, but they heard the... (full context)
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Kinbote suggested going to his house for dinner and wine, promising that if Shade showed him the poem, he’d reveal “who gave you your theme.” Shade asked what theme,... (full context)
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Lines 993-995: A dark Vanessa, etc. Right before Shade died, as they crossed the road between his and Kinbote’s house, a Red Admirable butterfly... (full context)
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Line 998: Some neighbor’s gardener. It’s weird that Shade is vague about this, since he often saw Kinbote’s gardener. Kinbote must pay tribute to... (full context)
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Line 1000: [=Line 1: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain]. As Shade and Kinbote crossed the road, they noticed a visitor on Kinbote’s porch who had just... (full context)
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The poem was fine, but Shade was laying on the ground bleeding. Dazed, Gradus sat on the porch holding his bloody... (full context)
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...debts to me.” Kinbote has tried not to be vindictive, despite everything that reporters and Shade’s so-called friends made up about his death. These people will surely question much of this... (full context)
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Still, Kinbote has had a “little revenge,” since his gardener skewed the story of Shade’s death a bit and told Sybil that Kinbote threw himself in front of the gunman’s... (full context)