Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 1-48 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lines 1-4: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain. Kinbote writes that this 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 the shock of death. When Shade and Kinbote were neighbors, Kinbote often saw waxwings by Shade’s house.
Kinbote opens his Commentary by describing what is literally happening in the poem—that a bird has died by flying into a window. But what he doesn’t do is the basic job of a scholarly commentary: suggesting to readers what this line means and giving context for how to interpret it. For example, he could have explained how this image evokes the possibility of an afterlife and Shade’s obsession with immortality (since, while the waxwing is dead, Shade is seeing himself as its shadow, suggesting that its life continues on in some form). Or Kinbote could have noted here what he notes later on: that Shade’s own father had a species of waxwing named after him (implying that the waxwing might also be a stand-in for Shade’s dead parents, with Shade himself as their “shadow,” carrying their existence forward after their death). All of this would be standard information for a scholarly Commentary, but Kinbote’s inability to provide it immediately casts doubt on his ability as a scholar and interpreter of poetry.
Themes
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Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
Kinbote had previously only known about northern European birds, but his gardener in New Wye—a young man “in whom [he] was interested”—taught him to identify 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.
Kinbote’s acknowledgement that he knows about the birds of northern Europe situates the fictional land of Zembla somewhere in northern Europe, likely close to Russia (since Kinbote frequently describes the significant Russian influence on Zembla). His “interest” in the young gardener is sexual, which perhaps explains why Kinbote has patience for the gardener teaching him about birds, but he hates whenever Shade discusses nature. The reference to the waxwing-like bird in the Zemblan crest immediately establishes a connection between Zembla and the world of New Wye—many such “coincidences” connect New Wye to Zembla, establishing Zembla as a sort of mirror world to Kinbote’s life in New Wye (and also suggesting that Kinbote may be inventing Zembla based on the events in his life in America).
Themes
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Shade began “Pale Fire” just after midnight on July 1st—the exact middle of the year—and Shade would certainly understand Kinbote’s desire to synchronize the start of the poem with the departure of the “would-be regicide” Gradus, but actually Gradus left Zembla five days later.
In narrating Gradus’s story, Kinbote is obsessed with the coincidences and synchronicity between Gradus’s travels to America and Shade’s composition of the poem. Kinbote seems to believe that Shade’s fate—to die at the hands of Gradus—is inextricably connected to his progress on the poem. Calling Gradus a “would-be regicide” implies that Gradus intended to kill a king—King Charles the Beloved of Zembla.
Themes
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Line 12: that crystal land. This may be a reference to Kinbote’s homeland of Zembla. In a particularly disorganized draft that didn’t make 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 a “domestic anti-Karlist” (Sybil).
An “anti-Karlist” is someone who opposes King Charles (“Karl” being a variant of “Charles”). Kinbote is leading readers to believe that Shade would have explicitly written about King Charles had his wife not stopped him for political reasons. Not only is this clearly delusional (Shade obviously had no intention of writing a poem about Zembla, despite Kinbote’s fervent desire that he would), but the draft variant that Kinbote references is also an outright fabrication—later in the Commentary and then again in the Index, Kinbote admits that he wrote this line himself. So here, Kinbote is citing a line he wrote himself as proof that Shade’s poem would have been about Zembla had his meddling wife not censored him, and he uses this reasoning as an excuse to talk at length about Zembla (ostensibly to illuminate the subtext of the poem, but really because it’s his own obsession).
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Discerning historians will remember Charles the Beloved’s reign as a peaceful time in Zembla in which the arts and sciences thrived and the poor got richer as the rich got a bit poorer (which might someday be known as “Kinbote’s Law”). Influenced by his uncle Conmal (a Shakespeare translator), Charles the Beloved developed a passion for literature. At age 40, just before the end of his reign, Charles began teaching literature in disguise—it would be unbecoming, after all, for a king to teach. Kinbote himself, after not shaving for a year, resembles King Charles in disguise.
This passage overtly hints that Kinbote is Charles the Beloved, first by calling the lessening of wealth inequality under King Charles “Kinbote’s Law” and then by conspicuously noting that Kinbote—himself a foreign-born professor with an interest in literature—physically resembles King Charles. If Zembla is a mirror-world that reflects the life that Kinbote wishes he had, then it’s significant that he emphasizes that Charles is “beloved” by others and was a competent, benevolent ruler. Kinbote himself isn’t well-liked and his peers do not consider him to be a credible scholar, so his delusion of being a beloved and successful ruler is an inversion of his actual life.
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Line 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 writing these lines. Jakob Gradus also goes by Jack Degree, Jacques de Grey, and various other aliases. Gradus, who loved Soviet Russia, worked in the liquor business and flirted with political radicalism in the leadup to the Zemblan revolution. He left for Europe with a gun and a malicious intent on the same day that Shade began Canto Two of “Pale Fire.” Throughout the Commentary, Kinbote will analyze the poem and simultaneously follow Gradus’s journey to New Wye as he walks in “iambic motion” or “ride[s] past in a rhyme.”
Kinbote’s description of Gradus is meant to be insulting. Kinbote is a Royalist (a supporter of monarchy) who will later describe his nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia, while Gradus loves Soviet Russia (Russia after its monarchy was overthrown). Furthermore, Gradus works in a disreputable industry (liquor) and Kinbote dismisses Gradus’s radical politics as unserious. Kinbote clearly wants readers to see Gradus as a ridiculous and undignified figure. It’s also noteworthy that Kinbote so explicitly links Gradus’s travels with the poem “Pale Fire,” not only in his desire to synchronize Shade’s writing with Gradus’s travels (as though the two are intimately related), but also in the sense he gives that Gradus’s travel is somehow occurring within the poem. To say that Gradus walks in “iambic motion,” for instance, is to say that his footsteps have the same meter as Shade’s poem (which is written in iambic pentameter), as though Shade’s poem has created Gradus and determined his actions.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Line 27: Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a detective in Conan Doyle stories, although Kinbote does not know which story is referenced here—he suspects that Shade made the reversed footprints up.
In the Commentary, it’s Kinbote’s job to explain literary references, but here he doesn’t bother to research the Holmes reference (instead, he explains it away by guessing that it’s made up). Actually, this reference is quite thematically important to the poem. When Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of writing Holmes stories, he tried to kill the detective off in “The Final Problem” by having a set of footprints lead out to a waterfall with no set of prints returning. However, later on, Doyle resurrected Holmes for financial reasons and explained away the ending of “The Final Problem” as Holmes having cleverly reversed his shoes to mislead those who investigated his death. Since “Pale Fire” is obsessed with the possibility of life after death, and this references the device by which Conan Doyle resurrected the detective he’d killed off, Shade seems deliberately to be pointing to bird tracks (the footprints referenced in the poem) as a sign of resurrection. This gels with Shade’s general attitude towards nature, which seems to be a sense that after a person’s death, their consciousness lives on in nature. 
Themes
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
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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 modest to suppose” that the winter imagery comes from the fact that he and Shade first met in winter. The word “stillicide” means, according to Kinbote’s dictionary, water dripping from eaves (“eavesdrop”). He saw this word once in a poem by Thomas Hardy, and the word subtly evokes “regicide.”
Here, Kinbote shows that he has some literary background because he correctly ties the word “stillicide” to a Thomas Hardy poem. However, once again, he doesn’t bother to research which poem in particular or why Shade might have invoked it. As it turns out, “stillicide” appears in Hardy’s poem “Friends Beyond,” in a passage in which Hardy’s friends who have died seem to whisper to him from beyond the grave. Many of Shade’s literary allusions are meant to evoke the possibility of life after death, positioning literature as a way of speaking from beyond the grave. Kinbote’s megalomania is in full force here, as he calls himself “modest” while boasting immodestly about how his friendship is the source of Shade’s wintry imagery (it’s not—for one, the images of ice and snow crystals are thematically tied to the imagery of reflection and glass that appears throughout the poem). Were Kinbote even slightly more self-aware, he might have connected himself more to the word “eavesdrop” (since, as the Commentary will go on to reveal, Kinbote often spied on Shade in his home) than “regicide,” which Kinbote brings up as a reference to Gradus.
Themes
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Lines 39-40: Was close my eyes, etc. Kinbote points to an abandoned draft of this passage, which seems similar to a passage from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. However, since Kinbote doesn’t have a library in the remote cabin where he is writing, he can only re-translate the passage in question from a Zemblan translation of Timon of Athens that he happens to have with him. “The moon is a thief: he steals his silvery light from the sun,” Kinbote translates.
This passage is a joke at Kinbote’s expense and evidence of what an astoundingly poor scholar he is. The title “Pale Fire” comes from the very passage in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens  that Kinbote goes on to quote—although he is translating the passage back into English from his Zemblan version, so “pale fire” becomes “silvery light” in this translation, and Kinbote doesn’t recognize its significance.
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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, certain that Shade would write the poem about Zembla that he himself could not. While “Pale Fire” unfortunately did not turn out to be explicitly about Zembla, it’s obvious that the “sunset glow” of Kinbote’s stories inspired Shade’s burst of creativity that produced the poem. Moreover, Kinbote himself—in rereading his own Commentary—realizes that he has “borrowed a kind of opalescent light from my poet’s fiery orb,” subconsciously imitating Shade’s own style in the Commentary.
In this passage, Kinbote attempts to convince himself and his readers that, even though “Pale Fire” seems to have nothing to do with Zembla, Kinbote’s stories about Zembla are actually the poem’s inspiration. By referencing the “sunset glow” of the Zemblan stories, Kinbote is evoking the Shakespeare passage from which the title “Pale Fire” comes—a passage that describes the moon stealing its light from the sun (since the moon’s brightness comes not from creating light itself, but from reflecting the sun’s light). Kinbote is implying that he is the sun and Shade’s poem is the moon, reflecting the light of Kinbote’s stories. Then, Kinbote turns it around, suggesting that his Commentary is like the moon reflecting the “fiery orb” of “Pale Fire,” since Kinbote has apparently imitated Shade’s style. While Kinbote is a profoundly unreliable narrator, it’s reasonable to think that both of these statements have some truth. While he was composing “Pale Fire,” Shade was listening to Kinbote’s stories about Zembla, so it’s not crazy to think that they might have had some influence (however small). And it’s obvious that Kinbote is stealing Shade’s artistry, both in mimicking his style and in hijacking the publication of “Pale Fire” to use it as a platform to discuss his delusions about Zembla. 
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Aside from the three references to royalty and the “Popian ‘Zembla’ in line 937,” it seems that Kinbote’s stories were deliberately eliminated from “Pale Fire.” Nonetheless, the poem’s abandoned drafts are full of references to Charles the Beloved.
Kinbote is grasping at straws here—none of the poem’s references to kings or royalty have anything to do with Charles the Beloved, and he even admits that the remarkable inclusion of the word “Zembla” is a reference to an Alexander Pope poem, which itself is referencing a Russian island (not Kinbote’s homeland). When Kinbote says that the drafts are full of references to King Charles, he’s lying (he wrote those draft fragments himself) and trying to frame Sybil Shade by suggesting that her unwarranted hostility to Kinbote led her to force Shade not to write about Zembla. Of course, this is all nonsense, and it shows how deeply delusional Kinbote is.
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Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith. “Goldsworth” refers to Kinbote’s landlord, Judge Goldsworth (whom Kinbote never met, because he was 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 the judge’s papers, he found pictures of people whom Goldsworth had sent to prison, including a homicidal maniac who resembles Jacques d’Argus. Goldsworth also left annoyingly detailed instructions on how to care for the house, which Shade found hilarious. Shade’s stories of the judge always left out how Goldsworth’s severe sentences meant that tons of men were in prison aching for revenge.
This passage is crucially important to understanding the real story of Shade’s death (as opposed to the delusional story about Gradus that Kinbote concocts). Judge Goldsworth sentenced many local men to severe prison terms, which left them thirsting for revenge against the punitive judge. Furthermore, the passing comment that one homicidal maniac that Goldsworth sentenced resembles Jacques d’Argus is a critical piece of the puzzle—Jacques d’Argus is an alias of Gradus, the Zemblan assassin, and this is the first clue that the man who ultimately kills Shade is not Gradus, but rather this man, a murderer whom Goldsworth sentenced to prison who came to New Wye seeking revenge against the judge.
Themes
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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 Shade’s windows. On July 3rd, Kinbote went to bring “some third class mail” from Shade’s mailbox to his door when he ran into Sybil, who told him not to bother Shade because he was at work on a poem. Kinbote exclaimed that Shade hadn’t shown anything to him yet, and Sybil replied that Shade never showed drafts to anyone. Sure enough, Shade was reluctant to give any information about his poem no matter how much Kinbote pried, which led him to an “orgy of spying” that he could not control. Shade went to extreme pains to find spots in his house from which he could see into Shade’s house.
Here, Kinbote inadvertently reveals just how bizarre his behavior is. He’s been looking into the windows of Shade’s home and inventing excuses to go to Shade’s house (including walking a stack of “third class mail,” or junk mail, from Shade’s mailbox to his door—an incredibly weird and invasive thing to do). Kinbote also reveals here that he felt entitled to access to Shade’s drafts, even though Shade didn’t like to reveal much about his work before finishing. This is a reasonable preference and something that a real friend—or anyone who is merely polite—would respect, but Kinbote relentlessly pried into Shade’s work via questioning him and then, when that failed, an “orgy of spying.” The word “orgy” implies an excessive pleasure, showing that Kinbote himself might have understood how over-the-top his behavior was, even though he couldn’t stop his compulsions.
Themes
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As a boy, Kinbote once saw a man communing with God. It was at court in Onhava, the Zemblan capital, and Kinbote was hiding during hymnal practice from a boy he was upset 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 was dark before the Shades’ bedtime.  On July 11th—the day on which Shade finished Canto Two—Kinbote decided to investigate.
Here, Kinbote suggests that Shade, while writing, is having a transcendent religious experience—his facial expression is the same as the minister’s when he was communing with God. Shade would likely agree with that, since writing is how Shade appreciates the beauty he sees in his life (which, to him, is the source of life’s meaning) and he sees his poetry as mirroring the divine order of the universe, so writing literally makes him more in tune with his spirituality. For Shade—who isn’t affiliated with an organized religion but is deeply spiritual—writing is like prayer.
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Kinbote snuck behind 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 cards. As Kinbote tried to get a better view, he knocked over a trash can, which made Sybil close the window and draw the shade.
While Kinbote initially believes that they are playing cards, it becomes clear to him later (and might already be clear to readers) that John is actually reading to Sybil from “Pale Fire” (the “playing cards” are the index cards on which he writes his drafts). Since Shade has just finished Canto Two (the end of which describes Hazel’s death), it’s reasonable to assume that they read the canto together and are crying over the loss of their daughter.
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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 saw John and Sybil sitting at the kitchen table. He opened the door without knocking and realized that John seemed to be reading to Sybil. Startled, John swore at Kinbote, but he later said that it was because he thought his friend was an “intruding salesman.” This encounter made Kinbote realize that not only was Shade reading his poem to Sybil, but he was probably taking Sybil’s directions to cut all the Zembla material from “Pale Fire.”
This is another moment where it’s helpful to take a step back and examine what Kinbote’s behavior actually is (as opposed to how he describes his actions). He’s not just a friend dropping by—he’s a creepy neighbor going behind the house and entering without knocking while John and Sybil are having an intimate moment of working on John’s poetry. John’s initial reaction to this—where he swears at Kinbote—seems to be his true (and justifiable) reaction. When he later softens this by telling Kinbote that he mistook him for a salesman, he seems to be trying to spare Kinbote’s feelings, since Shade knows how lonely Kinbote is. This is an example of Shade’s kindness, since Kinbote’s behavior was incredibly inappropriate.
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