Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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King Charles Character Analysis

King Charles the Beloved is the former king of Zembla. Recently overthrown in a revolution, he escaped to America where he lives in disguise as a professor. Charles Kinbote, the novel’s narrator, believes that he is the exiled King Charles living in disguise, but Nabokov implies that both King Charles and Kinbote are actually delusions; Zembla does not exist, and the novel’s protagonist is, in truth, the mentally ill professor V. Botkin who sincerely believes that he is the exiled king of a nonexistent nation. Despite being imagined, King Charles has a robust backstory. He grew up in the ornate Zemblan palace and knew from an early age that he was gay. His extravagant affairs with uncomfortably young boys were an open secret in Zembla that didn’t generate much scandal. While he married Queen Disa because he felt obligated to produce an heir, he was unable to consummate their marriage and, after treating her cruelly, he sent her back to her home in the South of France so that he could continue his lavish affairs. When leftist revolutionaries toppled the Zemblan monarchy, they held King Charles captive in a lumber room in the palace. After realizing that he knew of a secret passage in the back of the room’s closet, however, Charles fled the palace and escaped Zembla with the help of his friend Odon and hundreds of admirers who all dressed like the King to throw off the police. After relocating to an American university and assuming the disguise of a professor, King Charles was hunted down by the Zemblan extremist Gradus, although Gradus was too incompetent an assassin to kill Charles; he missed and hit John Shade instead.

King Charles Quotes in Pale Fire

The Pale Fire quotes below are all either spoken by King Charles or refer to King Charles. 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.
Commentary: Lines 149-214 Quotes

In its limpid tintarron he saw his scarlet reflection but, oddly enough, owing to what seemed to be at first blush an optical illusion, this reflection was not at his feet but much further; moreover, it was accompanied by the ripple-warped reflection of a ledge that jutted high above his present position. And finally, the strain on the magic of the image caused it to snap as his red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger turned and vanished, whereas he, the observer, remained immobile. He now advanced to the very lip of the water and was met there by a genuine reflection, much larger and clearer than the one that had deceived him. He skirted the pool. High up in the deep-blue sky jutted the empty ledge whereon a counterfeit king had just stood. A shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves) ran between his shoulderblades. He murmured a familiar prayer, crossed himself, and resolutely proceeded toward the pass. At a high point upon an adjacent ridge a steinmann (a heap of stones erected as a memento of an ascent) had donned a cap of red wool in his honor.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), King Charles
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Pale Fire LitChart as a printable PDF.
Pale Fire PDF

King Charles Character Timeline in Pale Fire

The timeline below shows where the character King Charles appears in Pale Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Commentary: Lines 1-48
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
...local birds. Oddly, the waxwing resembles a bird that appears on the crest of Zembla’s King Charles the Beloved, whose “misfortunes” Shade and Kinbote often discussed. (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Discerning historians will remember Charles the Beloved’s reign as a peaceful time in Zembla in which the arts and sciences... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...deliberately eliminated from “Pale Fire.” Nonetheless, the poem’s abandoned drafts are full of references to Charles the Beloved. (full context)
Commentary: Lines 49-98
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Line 49: shagbark. “Shagbark” is another word for hickory. Years ago, Charles the Beloved’s wife, Disa, copied into a letter a passage of a John Shade poem... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...escaped from prison because his supporters impersonated him to assist his escape. Kinbote writes that Charles the Beloved only escaped because his supporters dressed like him and spread out across the... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Just as Shade couldn’t remember his father, King Charles had no image of his father’s face, since King Alfin died when Charles was... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
King Alfin was an aviator with a tendency to have accidents. Alas, one day when he... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
After Alfin’s death, Charles the Beloved was assigned a kind tutor who didn’t care about young Charles’s “morals” despite... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Line 80: my bedroom. Charles the Beloved thought of Fleur—the daughter of his mother’s favorite Countess—only as a sister, although... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Between the Queen’s death and Charles’s coronation, he suffered—he didn’t love his mother, and he felt terrified of her ghost. The... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 101-143
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...lines because they’re beautiful and also they come directly from one of Kinbote’s stories about Charles the Beloved. (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...the beginning of the Zemblan revolution, while revolutionaries poured into Zembla from a nearby nation, King Charles refused to give up his crown. He was held captive by revolutionaries in a... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
After someone accused Charles of trying to flash signals to his followers with a mirror, his captors transferred him... (full context)
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Thirty years before, when the King was thirteen, he was waiting for his friend Oleg to come visit him at the... (full context)
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
Oleg arrived as Charles was returning to the lumber room, and the two boys went down into the passage,... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Panicking, Charles and Oleg ran back through the tunnel to the palace. They went to wash up... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Decades later, King Charles remembered all this when he saw the key in the keyhole. He hadn’t thought... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The King returned to his room, said good night to the guards, and then—as he was lying... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
The passage was more run down than it was years before. While walking, Charles found a footprint of Oleg’s in the sand and a statue of Mercury (who brought... (full context)
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Charles wandered into the hall where he found a costumed Odon. Startled, Odon pushed the king... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 149-214
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...149: one foot upon a mountain. The Bera Range divides Zembla in half, and after Charles and Odon escaped, they planned to drive to a mountain castle to hide. However, the... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Alone, Charles struggled through the brush, lost his cloak, and was about to give up when he... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
When they arrived at the pass, Charles sat down on the grass and Garh began to take off her clothes. Alarmed, Charles... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Continuing on, Charles reached the pass and began descending the other side of the mountain. A few hours... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
In town, Charles found armed extremists everywhere, but as he passed a hedge, a “gloved hand” gave him... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Line 171: A great conspiracy. After the King escaped, the extremists believed for almost a year that he and Odon were still in... (full context)
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...of vindictiveness rather than strategy, the extremist government—and a political group called the Shadows—began plotting Charles’s death. During Gradus’s time with various leftist organizations, he had come close to killing people... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 230-348
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...We have been married forty years. John and Sybil Shade were married thirty years before King Charles married Disa, the Duchess of Payn. Morally speaking, Zemblans mostly turned a blind eye... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...Shade wrote this line, Gradus flew to Paris, where he was to try to learn King Charles’s location from the former Zemblan consul Oswin Bretwit. Gradus pretended to be an apolitical... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 367-434
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...Gradus would pretend to be an art dealer and try to casually gain information about King Charles’s location. But Gradus’s gestures alone would have given away that he was a lower-class... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Zemblan revolution began in May of 1958, and Disa wrote King Charles urging him to stay at her villa until the situation was resolved. When Charles... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
When they were first married, Disa would lose her temper due to her “misfortune,” and Charles would use these outbursts as an excuse to keep her away. He’d never successfully slept... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Charles had never loved Disa (although he respected her), but in dreams his feelings were different.... (full context)
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
When Charles appeared at Disa’s villa in disguise after fleeing Zembla, he was not troubled by these... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 469-629
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...to be intercepted—but they misunderstood what he was saying and thought they could find the King’s location by breaking into Disa’s villa. They instructed Gradus to wait in Geneva for further... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Lines 597-608: the thoughts we should roll-call, etc. King Charles would have been executed if he hadn’t escaped, but Kinbote knows that, had Charles... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 662-872
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
...in the woods that falls in love with a traveler’s young son. “Another fabulous ruler,” King Charles, repeated Goethe’s lines to himself while climbing the mountains during his escape from Zembla. (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
...the attack. In October of 1958, Shade had a heart attack, which neatly coincided with King Charles arriving in America. In disguise, Charles dropped from a plane and landed, with a... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Sylvia was Wordsmith’s primary trustee, and she arranged for Kinbote’s job there. When Charles arrived at her house, she informed him that Shade would be okay, so he would... (full context)
Commentary: Lines 873-1000
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Line 894: a king. At the beginning of the Zemblan Revolution, pictures of Charles the Beloved circulated in America. Sometimes, people in New Wye would tell Kinbote how much... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Different faculty members started speculating about King Charles’s fate—whether he escaped in disguise or was executed, and whether history will treat him... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Gerald Emerald, who had left the group to search the encyclopedia for a picture of King Charles, returned to show everyone a picture of young Charles in uniform, calling him a... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
...walked through campus, his stomach continued to churn. Gradus asked someone at the library for Charles’s address, but she only knew where Charles might be on campus, and Gradus got lost... (full context)
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
...then returned to the library desk, where the woman told him that she just saw Charles leave. As Gradus looked through a directory for Charles’s address, Gerald Emerald—who was checking out... (full context)