Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 149-214 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 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 stuttering man had finally told someone he saw the King, which meant that there were already checkpoints on the roads when they got out of town. To avoid the checkpoints, Odon drove into the woods and dropped Charles off, instructing him to hike over the mountains while Odon returned to town as a “decoy”—leading Charles’s pursuers astray by means of disguises. Odon’s mother was American, from New Wye, and she liked hunting wolves from an airplane.
“Mountain” is a charged word in Pale Fire, since Shade describes at length the mix-up between the words “fountain” and “mountain” that led him (erroneously) to think he had solved the mystery of death. Here, Charles is trying to escape death by climbing the mountains while Odon dresses like him to throw his assailants off his trail. Since Zembla represents what Kinbote wishes his life were like, it’s telling that Odon is so eager to help and imitate Charles—Kinbote wants to be liked and admired, and he has trouble feeling rooted in his identity (Kinbote, after all, is really Botkin), which mirrors the ease with which Odon slips into King Charles’s identity.
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Alone, Charles struggled through the brush, lost his cloak, and was about to give up when he saw a light from a farmhouse. There, the farmer’s family seemed to mistake Charles for a lost camper and they offered him food and a place to sleep. At daybreak, the farmer said he would send “Garh” with him. While Garh is a name given to both sexes, Charles was anticipating a young boy, a “tawny angel.” Instead, Garh was a girl in disheveled boy’s clothing—she would be guiding Charles to the pass.
In Charles’s predilection for masquerades in which girls dress as boys and vice versa, he has already shown his love of feminine boys. Here, he’s hoping that the ambiguous name “Garh” belongs to a young man, and the use of “tawny” (a brownish color) shows that he’s already thinking about Garh’s bare skin. Garh is actually the opposite of what Kinbote wants, though—she’s an ugly girl wearing boy’s clothing, not a feminine and alluring boy.
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When they arrived at the pass, Charles sat down on the grass and Garh began to take off her clothes. Alarmed, Charles stopped her, sent her home, and went quickly on his way. Soon after, he sat by a small, still lake and glimpsed the reflection of his own body clothed in bright red. But a distortion in the water made the reflection appear not at his feet, but farther away—his reflection seemed to be perched on the reflection of a ledge above his head. In a moment, that reflection vanished and he was left with a normal, much bigger and clearer reflection at his feet. Above him was the ledge where the “counterfeit king” had been, and he felt a pang of fear.
When Charles sits by the lake and sees his own reflection, there’s an odd distortion that makes his reflection seem distant from his body. This could be interpreted in several ways. It could be that the distant reflection evokes the way in which Botkin is so distant from his own identity—he sees himself as Kinbote/King Charles, which is a vision of himself that is quite distant from his true identity. Using the phrase “counterfeit king” to describe the reflection evokes other possibilities—it could be that Charles was literally seeing one of the King Charles impersonators who were, at that very moment, running wild across the countryside, or it could be that, in the moment in which the reflection vanished, Charles was accepting that he was no longer the King of Zembla. Regardless, his realization that his reflection wasn’t quite right made him feel afraid, which could signal how wedded he is to his delusions about himself—he doesn’t want to have to acknowledge that the way he sees himself is false.
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Continuing on, Charles reached the pass and began descending the other side of the mountain. A few hours later, once he’d reached a road, a police car pulled up alongside him and told him that the “joke has gone too far.” There were, he said, 100 Charles impersonators in jail already, and they can’t fit any more—the next impostor will be shot on sight. Charles claimed to be a British tourist and he gave the cop his red hat and sweater.
This passage suggests that the King Charles impersonators succeeded. The police have now stopped the real King Charles, but they’re so fatigued from the impersonators that they don’t realize it at all, allowing King Charles to shed his red clothing and become even less legible as the escaped king. The proliferation of Charleses is an almost comical reflection of Botkin’s disordered and multiplying identities.
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In town, Charles found armed extremists everywhere, but as he passed a hedge, a “gloved hand” gave him a note instructing him to go to “R.C.” Trying to seem casual as he walked towards Rippleson Caves, Charles scrutinized passers-by to see who might be an undercover cop. He saw a disfigured man reading the paper, and on the front page he saw Odon’s picture with a reward for his capture. The disfigured man began to speak, and Charles realized that this was Odon wearing stage makeup to disguise his face. Odon ushered the King to a boat.
While King Charles hid in plain sight, Odon disguised his identity by essentially creating a mask. The way that all of these characters so effortlessly step in and out of identities again mirrors how slippery Botkin’s own identity is. This is also a moment when the Zembla fantasy seems too convenient to be believable—a “gloved hand” emerges from the bushes, correctly identifying King Charles and giving him instructions on where to go, while Odon sat on a bench disguised and reading about himself. All of this further suggests that Zembla is merely a delusion.
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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 same curve of the tracks, every day…until nature repaired the damage.” Kinbote cannot forget the sweaty faces of railway workers watching the windows of trains passing by.
Kinbote seems to be unraveling a bit, as his Commentary is getting less coherent. Here, he describes Shade’s epilepsy as a “derailment” of nerves, as though they’re trains on a track, and then he changes the topic without segue to railway workers he once saw. In other words, he’s not even pretending to say something relevant to Shade’s poem, but instead he’s taking his own metaphor—nerves being like derailed trains—and associating his way to his memory of railway workers. None of this is relevant.
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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 61st.
This passage makes clear that Kinbote didn’t bother to revise his Commentary before publishing it. It’s easy to cut the mistake from that sentence, but Kinbote didn’t.
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Line 169: survival after death. Kinbote directs the reader to his note to line 549.
Survival after death is, of course, the major theme of “Pale Fire,” and Kinbote has so far devoted no sustained attention to what the poem has to say on the matter—in fact, he seems to have almost entirely missed Shade’s fixation on death and the afterlife, focusing instead on Gradus as the manifestation of Shade’s fate. Here, Kinbote’s lack of attention is funny—he highlights a key phrase of the poem that explicitly spells out the animating question of Shade’s life, and yet he doesn’t explore it at all. Instead, he directs readers to his note to another line, in which he transcribes a theological debate between himself and Shade and—instead of focusing in on Shade’s key comment that “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one”—Kinbote simply talks over Shade to explain his own thoughts.
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Line 171: A great conspiracy. After the King escaped, the extremists believed for almost a year that he and Odon were still in Zembla. As the extremists were obsessed with planes, the government shut down airports and then instituted strict checks of passengers and cargo, never considering that Charles may have fled by other means. They searched the countryside and interrogated Charles impersonators, but then—when they got word that Odon was directing a movie in Paris—they realized that somehow he and the King had escaped.
Here, Kinbote paints the extremists (the revolutionaries who deposed King Charles) as profoundly inept. They were so obsessed with slick, modern planes that they never thought to secure other means of crossing the border—an unlikely mistake, even for an inept government, which suggests that the Zembla fantasy springs in part from Kinbote’s need to feel important, superior, and beloved.
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Out 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 but had never done it. Nonetheless, the Shadows selected him as Charles’s assassin just after midnight on July 2nd, 1959—the very moment at which Shade began his poem. For his whole life, Gradus had been somewhat blundering and his hatred of injustice and deception would be laudable if it didn’t spring from his stupidity, his dogmatic refusal of nuance and his insistence on calling anything he didn’t understand deceptive. 
That Gradus was given his assignment to kill King Charles at the exact moment that Shade began Pale Fire is another indication that Kinbote somehow believes that the force propelling Gradus to New Wye is the writing of “Pale Fire.” In other words, by beginning “Pale Fire,” Shade inadvertently sealed his fate to die at Gradus’s hands. The notion that the Shadows and Shade were fated to meet is also implied in their matching names—“shade” is a variant of “shadow.” Nabokov is poking a little fun at leftist groups here (which were responsible for a lot of the political upheaval in Nabokov’s early life) by suggesting that Gradus’s desire to fix injustice isn’t admirable since it comes from an inability to grapple with complexity.
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Line 172: 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 and bad ones. Shade said of the authoritarian head of the Russian department that it’s strange how Russian intellectuals are humorless, while Russian writers could be so funny (luckily, Kinbote notes, Professor Botkin taught in a different department and wasn’t subjected to that professor’s whims). Shade also said that he is hard on students for a few particular errors: not reading or reading poorly, trying to discern symbolism in a work, and claiming that an author is sincere—this last one always means that “either the critic or the author is a fool.” 
This passage contains a key clue about Kinbote’s identity. When Shade disparages the head of the Russian department, Kinbote notes that it’s lucky that Professor Botkin doesn’t have to deal with that man. Kinbote is a narcissist who has proven himself to be utterly unable to see the world from anyone else’s perspective and unwilling to entertain any ideas that don’t directly pertain to himself or his stories of Zembla. Because of this, it’s extremely strange for Kinbote to suddenly show an interest in the professional wellbeing of a man (Professor Botkin) whom he has barely ever mentioned before. The logical conclusion is that Kinbote is happy that Botkin isn’t in the Russian department because he himself is Botkin and he’s happy that the head of his department is not this man. Shade’s disparagement of trying to identify symbolism or sincerity in literature is a direct articulation of Nabokov’s own beliefs—he was particularly averse to writers who used straightforward stock symbols to communicate pat ideas (a skull is a symbol of death, etc.).
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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 then returned to work after his guests left. Kinbote watched him from the window. On that same day, Gradus departed Zembla for Copenhagen, and Kinbote was having a bad time. He’d taken an interest in a “young friend” who’d lost his driver’s license, and the night before, he’d driven the man to his parents’ house for a party. At the party, he lost track of the “silly boy” and was instead trapped in a full night of insipid socialization with boring strangers. The next morning, he located his car (where it seems a man and a woman had been having sex) and drove back home alone, the car breaking down along the way. When he got home around 6 p.m., he realized that he had almost forgotten Shade’s birthday.
On July 4th, Kinbote drove a younger man (whom he describes as a “silly boy”) to a party at that man’s parents’ house. It’s not clear whether this man is a teenager or a very young adult, but either way this alludes to Kinbote’s consistent sexual interest in men much younger than him. The horrible experience of getting ditched at the party, not connecting socially with any of the guests, and then having his car break down had already put Kinbote in an agitated state, but it got much worse when he remembered that it was Shade’s birthday and he watched from the window as Shade’s party guests came and went. This whole passage describes someone wildly lonely and isolated, and his experiences here would be painful for anyone. 
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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 dressing gown, which he’d wrapped and placed in the hall. He quickly showered and got a massage from his gardener, who told him that the Shades were having a party. Sure that he’d simply missed his invitation, Kinbote called, but Sybil told him that John was unavailable and would call tomorrow. Instead of marching over with his gift anyway, Kinbote waited for Shade to call and correct the mistake. He waited by the window all night, watching the guests and drinking champagne alone.
That Shade didn’t tell Kinbote his birthdate nor invite Kinbote to his birthday party shows, again, that they weren’t very close. It’s quite bizarre behavior to buy an acquaintance silk pajamas, which is a fairly intimate present. Instead of accepting that he wasn’t invited to the party, Kinbote assumes that it was a mistake—it’s a tragic scene when Kinbote waits for Shade to call while drinking alone and watching the party unfold from his window. This both accentuates his loneliness and suggests his immaturity—most adults have already learned to cope with not being invited to a party.
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The next morning, after seeing Sybil leave, Kinbote walked over with his gift, but when he arrived at the door, Sybil returned. He handed her the gift and she said that they didn’t invite him because they knew he found parties tedious. Reminding her of a conversation they’d had about how overrated Proust is, Kinbote said they were wrong. He 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, having marked a passage in which one woman rudely didn’t invite another woman to a party and claimed it was because the uninvited woman wouldn’t like it.
Since Kinbote can’t admit that John doesn’t like him very much, he blames John’s distance from him on Sybil and tries to go to the Shade house when Sybil isn’t there to shield her husband from Kinbote’s annoying presence. Here, that plan fails, but Kinbote has concocted a stunningly passive-aggressive revenge: giving John a Proust book with a passage marked in which a woman behaves similarly to Sybil, explaining that she didn’t extend an invitation for that person’s own good. That Kinbote anticipated Sybil’s excuse so well shows unusual awareness of himself and others (usually he's too much of a megalomaniac to interpret or predict the behavior of others), but his insight is not in service of empathy—it’s about revenge.
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Lines 181-182: waxwings…cicadas. Kinbote directs readers to other lines in which waxwings appear, including the poem’s last line. He also points out the lines in which cicadas will later “sing triumphantly.”
The last line (the poem’s 1000th line) never appears—it’s unfinished after line 999, so Kinbote’s assertion that waxwings reappear in the final line is merely an assumption. When he references the cicada that will later sing, he’s referring to a part of “Pale Fire” that describes a cicada’s exoskeleton on a tree, left behind after it molted. In the poem, Shade insists that the cicada’s song is alive, which is a way of talking about life after death, although Kinbote doesn’t appear to understand the subtleties of the passage.
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Line 189: Starover Blue. This Commentary is like the Royal Game of the Goose, albeit played in this instance with “little airplanes of painted tin”: a “wild-goose game, rather.” He directs readers to “square” 209.
Here, Kinbote references an old board game in which players roll dice to move through a series of squares, trying to reach the end. Notably, there are some traps: if a player lands on a square with a skull on it, for instance, they lose. The implication here is that the story of Gradus and Shade (explored further in the note to line 209, which is presumably what’s meant by “square 209”) is essentially a board game whose stakes are death. The reference to toy tin airplanes seems to evoke Gradus, whom Kinbote insistently associates with air travel, and calling his Commentary a “wild-goose game” seems to be a play on the phrase “wild goose chase,” which means an impossible quest. This is fairly apt, since Kinbote’s Commentary is unrelated to Shade’s poem (so trying to understand the poem by reading his Commentary would be a goose chase) and, furthermore, his Commentary relays his delusions, so it’s not always possible to pin down the truth of what he’s saying.
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Line 209: gradual decay. Gradus is moving westward from Copenhagen to Paris. After having “sped through this verse,” he is gone but will soon return.
In the word “gradual,” Kinbote finds an echo of “Gradus.” This passage again suggests that Gradus’s travels from Zembla to New Wye are not happening in physical space, but rather within the poem “Pale Fire” itself (Gradus is speeding not on a road but “through this verse”).
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Lines 213-214: A syllogism. While a youth might believe this, people learn later in life that everyone is these “others.”
This passage refers to a syllogism that Shade quotes in “Pale Fire” saying that, while other people die, “I am not another,” so “I’ll not die.” Kinbote seems to be trying to correct the obviously false logic of the syllogism, rather than engaging with Shade’s implicit point about how tempting it is to believe in one’s own immortality.
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