Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 101-143 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 101: No free man needs a God. Since so many artists and thinkers have seen their “freedom of mind” helped by faith, it seems like this is false.
Kinbote himself is religious (as he explains throughout the book) and here he’s imposing his own beliefs, without nuance, onto Shade. In the referenced passage of “Pale Fire,” Shade is making a much more nuanced point than Kinbote gives him credit for—Shade is grappling with how to reconcile God with his belief in freewill and how to reconcile his belief in freewill with his sense that nature actually determines so much of his behavior and experiences. The irony here is that Shade is much more freethinking and openminded than Kinbote, who is implicitly claiming that his own “freedom of mind” is enhanced by his faith, but who actually seems unable to grapple with the kinds of complex questions that Shade is raising.
Themes
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Line 109: iridule. A term that Shade invented to describe an iridescent cloud.
Nabokov spoke many languages and loved learning and inventing obscure words. Shade, in inventing a word for a phenomenon in nature, is showing how observant and passionate he is about nature.
Themes
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Line 119: Dr. Sutton. The name “Sutton” is a combination of the names of two retired doctors in New Wye, both friends with the Shade family.
This is another instance of Kinbote’s commentary being unreliable. In other parts of the book, Kinbote treats Dr. Sutton as being a real person, so it’s not clear what to believe.
Themes
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Lines 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 this, but the division seems off. On the day Shade wrote this line, Gradus was about to leave Zembla.
This is another moment of Kinbote failing tremendously as a scholar. Instead of explaining the gist of this passage of the poem, which is describing life and death as being somewhat meaningless in the scale of infinite time, Kinbote makes a pointless note about whether Shade did the correct math when determining how many ounces of sand denote five minutes in an hourglass (he doesn’t even come to a conclusion).
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Line 130: I never bounced a ball or swung a bat. Kinbote was also bad 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 in the back of a closet. Kinbote is devastated that Shade “rejected” these lines because they’re beautiful and also they come directly from one of Kinbote’s stories about Charles the Beloved.
Like the “Chapman’s Homer” line, this is a joke about Kinbote’s ignorance of American life. When Shade writes that he “never bounced a ball or swung a bat,” he’s clearly talking about basketball and baseball—not soccer and cricket. The fact that Kinbote doesn’t get this elementary reference points to his isolation in America and casts doubt on his ability to understand any reference in the poem. Kinbote also admits in the index that the draft variant that he references is not Shade’s—it’s “K’s contribution,” meaning that Kinbote wrote it himself. Essentially, he’s making up an excuse to tell the story that he wants to tell rather than analyzing the poem. 
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At 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 room in the heavily guarded palace. Among the soldiers was one “royalist” (an ally of the monarchy) in disguise: Odon, who has since escaped to Europe, and who was a star actor in the Zemblan Royal Theater. Odon kept Charles filled in on the news and connected to his supporters. Rumors swirled that Charles would be tried or executed, and none of the escape plans that he and his allies concocted seemed plausible.
As Kinbote tells his stories of Zembla, he always inserts extraneous details to make King Charles (who is, of course, Kinbote himself) look better. Here, he casually notes that the Zemblan revolution did not originate from unrest within Zembla itself (whose population was presumably quite satisfied with the prosperity their king brought), but rather from malcontents in a nearby country—this assures readers that the revolution wasn’t Charles’s fault. 
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After someone accused Charles of trying to flash signals to his followers with a mirror, his captors transferred him to a lumber room that was once his grandfather’s dressing room, a sad and dusty place with only one window and a faded portrait of his grandfather’s former mistress, Iris Acht. As the King got into bed, he saw a key in the lock on the closet door, which brought back a memory.
As Zembla is a mirror image of Kinbote’s life, it’s fitting that it’s a mirror that gets King Charles in trouble here. “Acht” means “eight” in German, which is part of a pattern of Nabokov bring up figure eights (for example, Shade uses the word “lemniscate” in “Pale Fire”). Of course, all these figure eights look like infinity signs, and that’s part of the novel’s obsession with whether people can, in some form, persist after death (transcending time).
Themes
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Thirty years before, when the King was thirteen, he was waiting for his friend Oleg to come visit him at the castle. On their last visit, they had been allowed for the first time to share a bed, and the “tingle of their misbehavior” blended with Charles’s excitement to repeat it. Looking for a toy that they could play with, Charles went into the lumber room, opening the closet with the key in the lock. There, he found Conmal’s Zemblan translation of Timon of Athens and a few other knickknacks. About to leave, he accidentally knocked the shelf—when removed, the shelf revealed another keyhole, which the closet key fit. It opened into a dark passage, and Charles went to grab a flashlight. 
This passage clearly describes King Charles’s sexual preference for young boys. While Charles and Oleg were the same age when they became sexually involved (so this story does not explicitly involve pedophilia), the specter of pedophilia is still present, since King Charles and Kinbote both describe young boys with longing throughout the book. In another coincidence that seems too bizarre not to be meaningful, the book in the closet is Timon of Athens, the obscure Shakespeare play from which “Pale Fire” gets its title. Perhaps Kinbote’s reference to the play caused Shade to think of it when he needed a title for his poem, or perhaps the coincidence is even stranger and points to the kind of design in the universe that Shade believes signals the possibility of eternal life.
Themes
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Oleg arrived as Charles was returning to the lumber room, and the two boys went down into the passage, which was a stone tunnel that ran under various streets and buildings in Onhava. Oleg walked in front, and Charles admired his “shapely buttocks” in his tight shorts—Oleg’s “radiance” itself, not the torch he carried, seemed to light the way. At the end of the tunnel, they reached a door, which opened with the same key. As soon as the door opened, though, they heard odd sounds: a man and a woman yelling at one another, a threat and a shriek, silence, and then casual chatter—“more eerie” than what came before—about how that was “perfect.” 
The notion of Oleg’s own “radiance” being brighter than his flashlight subtly evokes (and inverts) the “pale fire” passage of Timon of Athens: instead of the (nonreflective) moon stealing light from the sun, (nonreflective) Oleg is actually burning brighter than the light itself. This speaks to just how much King Charles desired Oleg. While Oleg and Charles do not understand what they’re hearing in this moment, Charles later realizes that he’s hearing two people rehearsing a play, which is why he and Oleg couldn’t make sense of the flow of emotions in the overheard conversation.
Themes
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Panicking, Charles and Oleg ran back through the tunnel to the palace. They went to wash up and, with the water on, they found themselves “in a manly state and moaning like doves.”
This passage implies that Oleg and Charles, aroused by the terror of what just happened to them, had sex as soon as they got back from the palace. It’s noteworthy that Kinbote describes this as being in a “manly state”—nobody in New Wye would describe a gay encounter as “manly,” but Kinbote wants to live in a world where it’s both acceptable and even praiseworthy to be gay, so calling this “manly” reflects Kinbote’s fervent desire to be the kind of person that people like and admire.
Themes
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Loss and Longing Theme Icon
Decades later, King Charles remembered all this when he saw the key in the keyhole. He hadn’t thought of it in a long time—after Oleg’s death a couple years later, he blocked it out. Charles opened the closet and found it mostly empty besides some old clothes and the copy of Timon of Athens. Then, Charles stepped into the hallway and told the guard that he wanted to play piano—in the music room, he explained quietly to Odon that there was a secret passage that could help him escape. Odon, who had to leave soon to perform in a play, told Charles to wait and he would inspect the tunnel the next day, but Charles protested that “they” were coming closer and closer.
Odon is a staunch royalist (a supporter of Charles and the monarchy) disguised as a revolutionary guarding the palace, and he is Charles’s most trusted ally. Here, Charles is convinced that “they” are coming closer—ostensibly meaning revolutionaries who want to execute him, but the reference is vague and Odon clearly doesn’t share Charles’s urgency. This evokes Kinbote’s experiences in New Wye in which he believed that an assassin might enter his house at any moment, but nobody believed him.
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Believing that the crown jewels were hidden in the palace, the revolutionaries hired two Russians to find them. Lately, they’d been searching the part of the palace with the Eystein paintings. Eystein was terrible at painting likenesses of people, but he excelled at trompe l’oeil paintings of objects in the background, which always made the people look even deader. Sometimes, Eystein would do a “weird form of trickery” where, amidst his depictions of wood or velvet or gold, he would paste into the frame an object of the same material he was depicting. This missed the “basic fact” that “reality” is not the “subject or object of true art”—art is supposed to “create its own special reality” that has nothing to do with the shared experiences of those outside of it. Anyway, the Russians hunting for the crown jewels thought—mistakenly—that perhaps those jewels were inside or behind one of the paintings.
In this passage, Nabokov uses Kinbote’s commentary on the fictional painter Eystein to make a real point about the nature of art. Eystein wasn’t a very good painter of people, but he could paint objects so lifelike that a viewer couldn’t tell if those objects were really in front of them or not. To exploit this skill, Eystein would sometimes insert a real object alongside a trompe l’oeil painting of that object so that it really wasn’t clear what was real and what wasn’t. To Kinbote, this isn’t art—it’s “trickery.” To be real art, a work has to strive to “create its own special reality”—in other words, art should exist on its own terms, without trying to depict or incorporate outside reality. On the one hand, this is a credible dismissal of a painter more interested in a cheap gimmick than making an original statement. On the other hand, it’s possible to read this as something of a joke—Pale Fire itself blends art, artifice, and reality so often that it can make a reader’s head spin (for instance, the United States is real, New Wye is a real place in the world of the novel but it doesn’t actually exist, and Zembla is neither a real place in the world nor in the novel). Of course, Nabokov mixes these layers of reality to make complicated points about art, delusion, and order in the universe, whereas the payoff of Eystein’s work is cheaper. 
Themes
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The King returned to his room, said good night to the guards, and then—as he was lying awake—a guard came in to say that he was going to the courtyard for a little while and would lock the King into his room. When the guard was gone, Charles opened the closet and, in the darkness, put on some old clothes over his pajamas and opened the secret door, taking Timon of Athens with him as a “talisman.” Once in the passage, he lit his flashlight—the ghost of Oleg, the “phantom of freedom”—and in that light, realized that he was dressed in bright red.
Charles took Conmal’s translation of Timon of Athens with him as a “talisman” of his escape from Zembla, which is notable, since the only book that Kinbote brings to the cabin where he writes his Commentary is Conmal’s translation of Timon of Athens—Charles is implying that he has kept that copy since the night of his escape and brought it everywhere with him. There are some plot parallels between Timon of Athens and Charles’s life—for example, Timon begins the play as a rich and well-liked person, but he ends up alone in exile. It makes sense that Charles would associate the light of his flashlight with Oleg (since he has such a sensual memory of his flashlight on Oleg’s body years before), but it’s notable that he literally describes this light as a “phantom of freedom.” For Charles, Oleg clearly represents a moment in his life when he felt quite free—he had an age-appropriate, consensual sexual encounter with Oleg, and his tutor at the time (his guardian, essentially) didn’t seem to care one way or another about Charles’s sexual orientation. So this was perhaps the moment when Charles was most free to be himself, something that Kinbote wishes he could have.
Themes
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Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
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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 souls to the underworld). At the end of the passage, the door opened into heavy black curtains that reminded him of a theater curtain—instantly, he understood where the passage had led him: to Iris Acht’s old dressing room at the Royal Theater. Now, the room was filled with old sets and contained a portrait of Charles’s grandfather, a memento of the time when the passage allowed him and Iris to have secret trysts.
This is another example of what seems like a presence from beyond the grave: Charles feels Oleg in his flashlight beam and also finds his preserved footprint in the tunnel. Conspicuously, Charles also notes finding a statue of Mercury, which suggests that the tunnel is some kind of passage to the underworld itself. In a way, it’s akin to a passage to the underworld, or a butterfly’s cocoon, because it marks the transition between one life and a completely different one.
Themes
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Charles wandered into the hall where he found a costumed Odon. Startled, Odon pushed the king under a costume cloak and towards an exit to the street. One performer (a revolutionary) recognized the King but couldn’t alert others because of his stammer. Charles and Odon slipped onto the street and headed for Odon’s racecar.
It's been previously said several times that Odon, on his off hours from guarding the palace, was an actor at the Zemblan theater, so that is why Odon happened to be on the other side of this passage when Charles popped out. That Charles’s closest ally would be the one to find him on the other side of the passage is a freak coincidence of the kind that Nabokov conspicuously places throughout the novel.
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Lines 131-132: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain by feigned remoteness in the windowpane. These lines repeat the music of the opening, leaning into assonance. They also evoke “doom,” as Gradus was—in 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 him across the sky is the “magic action of Shade’s poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of verse, the powerful iambic motor.” 
Kinbote starts out here by analyzing the poem in a normal, scholarly way—talking about assonance and repetition—but then he quickly digresses into interpreting these lines as being about Gradus based on the vague impression that they contain a sense of doom. Kinbote’s use of “feigned remoteness” to describe the distance between Gradus and Shade suggests that the two are not truly distant—perhaps Shade always carried his fate within him, so he was never distant from the circumstances of his death. Adding weight to this notion is the sense that Kinbote gives here that Gradus is not an independent entity; in fact, he's someone that Shade is creating and propelling through the act of writing itself.
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
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Line 137: lemniscate. Kinbote’s dictionary says this is a “unicursal bicircular quartic,” which seems to have nothing to do with bicycling and might just be meaningless and meant to sound nice.
Part of the joke here is that Kinbote’s dictionary is so bad. Its definition of a lemniscate (a mathematical term for curves that resemble a figure eight or infinity sign) is so technical and obscure that Kinbote can’t figure out what a lemniscate actually is. Kinbote’s own style often relies on needlessly obscure words, so this is a bit of a joke about the silliness of his writing and also his cluelessness as a scholar explaining “Pale Fire.”
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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 toy on a shelf: a Black boy with a wheelbarrow. It was Shade’s toy, and he said he kept it as a “memento mori” since he once had a fainting fit while playing with it.
In the passage of “Pale Fire” that Kinbote is analyzing, Shade describes playing with this toy at the moment that he had his first seizure. A “memento mori” (Latin for “remember that you will die”) is a reminder of death. Since this first seizure made Shade feel, for the first time, like he lost his body, he associates the seizure with his first real awareness that he will someday die and with his lifelong curiosity about what will happen after. The fact that the toy is a Black boy pushing a wheelbarrow is important, since this image will recur in the moment before Shade actually dies—one of the last things he sees is Charles’s Black gardener pushing a wheelbarrow in the yard.
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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon