Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 367-434 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lines 367-370: then—pen, again—explain. John Shade had an American accent, which meant that he would rhyme “again” with “pen” rather than with “explain.” Because of this, the rhymes in this section of “Pale Fire” are odd.
In this section of “Pale Fire,” Shade follows a then/pen rhyme with an again/explain rhyme. Since Shade is American, his accent should mean that this second couplet doesn’t work—“again” should rhyme with the “pen” that precedes it, not the “explain” that follows it. But there’s a reason that Shade does this; Shade (and Nabokov) are subtly mocking T.S. Eliot, who was American born but used British rhymes in his poetry. The lines of “Pale Fire” in which these rhymes appear describe Hazel reading Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” but Kinbote is nonetheless unable to pick up on the joke.
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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 doesn’t want to name it without confirming. He does not approve of Shade’s criticism of “distinguished poets.”
The words that Hazel brought up prior to this line (“grimpen” and “chtonic,” for instance) make it absolutely clear that Shade is referencing Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which was popular at the time in which this novel was set. This casts further doubt on Kinbote’s ability as a scholar. When Kinbote refers to the isolated cabin where he’s writing his Commentary as his “mountain cave,” he is casting himself as Timon in Timon of Athens, the source of the novel’s title.
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Lines 376-377: was said in English Lit to be. In the draft, this line was better: “the Head of our Department deemed.” That department head might be the one in place when Hazel was a student, but it’s also possible to take it as a reference to the current head, a professor Paul H., Jr. who is a terrible scholar. He and Kinbote sometimes interacted, but not often. Once, due to a migraine, Kinbote had to leave a concert where he was seated next to 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 Fire” had fallen into the hands of an “unqualified” and “deranged” person.
The head of the English department is Professor Hurley, and Kinbote has already expressed tremendous offense at Hurley’s refusal to acknowledge in Shade’s obituary how close Shade and Kinbote were. It’s important to remember that Hurley is the credible one in this scenario, not Kinbote. It’s not likely that Hurley was maliciously using a migraine as an excuse to denounce Kinbote—it’s much more likely that Hurley found out that Kinbote was writing the Commentary on “Pale Fire” and became (rightfully) alarmed that Kinbote lacked the academic qualifications and sanity to do a good job.
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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 Kinbote only sort of remembers and cannot quote exactly.
The phrase “supremely blest” comes from the same Pope poem in which the word “Zembla” appears: “An Essay on Man.” As is always the case when Kinbote can’t remember a reference, this reference is thematically important. “An Essay on Man” is a long philosophical poem that argues, among other things, that human beings cannot perceive or understand the universe, and that—despite human incomprehension—the universe is a “vast chain” that is orderly and intricately designed. This is obviously thematically resonant with Shade’s conclusion in “Pale Fire” that the universe is designed, but human beings can never perceive or imagine its complex order.
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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 he said that he had to keep a promise to one of his fraternity brothers. Jane wrote the Shades a letter after Hazel died, but they never wrote back. Kinbote replied to Jane with some recently learned slang: “You are telling me!”
Shade uses “Dean” as a pseudonym for “Provost” (dean and provost are both administrative positions at a university). Pete Provost (Jane’s cousin) was the man that Hazel went on a date with the night that she died—in fact, it was his ditching her with the excuse that he’d forgotten another obligation that drove her to suicide. Jane tried to cast Pete’s behavior in a better light to the Shade family after Hazel’s death (a pretty insensitive thing to do), and the Shades never replied. Since this is an experience that Kinbote has constantly (the Shades not reciprocating his insensitive and relentless attempts to reach out), he is excited to tell Jane that he understands her experience—and he’s also excited that he now knows some American slang. Both of these details gesture to his incredible loneliness.
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Lines 403-404: it’s eight fifteen (And here time forked). At this point in the poem, two events unfold simultaneously: the Shades watch TV at home while  Hazel leaves her blind date, rides the bus to the lake, and drowns. This narrative seems “too labored and long,” and the device of synchronization is a bit tired since Flaubert and Joyce used it so well.
For the rest of the canto, Shade interlinks his narration of what happened to Hazel just before her death and what the Shades were simultaneously doing at home. In many instances, the banal things they’re doing at home—watching commercials on TV, for instance—will seem related to Hazel and her experiences, even though these events are unfolding separately. Kinbote criticizes this as an overused literary gimmick, which is ironic because he himself has been using this very technique of synchronization throughout the Commentary to suggest that the writing of “Pale Fire” was related to Gradus’s travels to New Wye.
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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 who was possibly harboring Odon. 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 Zemblan and therefore likely to be a “spy or worse.”
Immediately after criticizing John’s use of synchronization, Kinbote does it himself—this is unsurprising, though, since Kinbote has never been self-aware. That Gradus’s gestures alone give away his class is ironic because Kinbote previously suggested that the reign of King Charles resulted in the disappearance of wealth inequality in Zembla. Here, it seems that Zembla does still have distinct classes, and that the lower classes are less likely to support the King (which suggests that his reign was less benevolent and equalizing than Kinbote initially suggested).
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When Gradus first arrived at the extravagant villa, he didn’t find anyone. Then, a mysterious footman introduced him to Lavender’s nephew’s governess, who called the boy over to show Gradus the flowers. Gradus perceived Gordon—a gorgeous teenager wearing a leopard-print loincloth—as indecent. When they passed a grotto, Gordon mentioned that he once spent the night there with a friend. In an outdoor toilet, Gradus saw—written in a boy’s handwriting—“the King was here.” When he asked where the King is now, Gordon said he didn’t know, although last year when he visited, the King was headed for the Côte d’Azur. It didn’t matter that Gordon was lying (he actually did know where the King was)—his mentioning the Riviera helped Gradus make the connection to Queen Disa’s villa. Told that he wouldn’t see Lavender after all, Gradus left.
Gordon is a sensuous, barely clad young boy who knows the King, once spent the night in an outdoor grotto “with a friend,” and scrawled on an outdoor toilet that the King had been there—all signs point to Gordon having been a lover of King Charles’s. Like Kinbote, King Charles has a persistent sexual preference for alarmingly young boys. While Gordon thinks that he’s protecting King Charles by not giving up his location (even though he knows it), he slips up by revealing too much in his misdirection. This is quite lucky, because Gradus is so inept that he likely would have done a poor job of impersonating an art collector to manipulate Joe Lavender.
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Line 413: a nymph came pirouetting. In the draft, there’s a more musical variant: “A nymphet pirouetted.”
“Nymphet” is the iconic term that Nabokov coined in his novel Lolita, referring to a sexually attractive young girl. Of course Kinbote would like this version, because it subtly evokes pedophilia.
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Lines 417-421: I went upstairs, etc. In this part of the draft, there is a variant that includes a quotation from Pope’s “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, though, that he cut it to avoid “offending an authentic king”—it seems that Shade may have known Kinbote’s secret.
In his commentary to line 384, Kinbote claimed not to remember what poem the phrase “supremely blest” came from, but here he easily identifies other lines from that same poem. This is another example of Kinbote becoming more mentally acute when he suspects that a reference might be about himself. He’s obviously alluding here to the fact that he believes himself to be King Charles, and he seems also to be conceding his own insanity.
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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.
Shade and Frost share some conspicuous biographical similarities. They’re both poets who love nature, write formal verse, and lost a child by suicide, for example. Their names also seem intertwined, since frost often appears in the shade.
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Line 431: March night…headlights from afar approached. In this moment, the television imagery is “delicately” converging with Hazel’s story.
While Kinbote was previously dismissive of Shade’s use of synchronization, here he seems to reverse himself, becoming appreciative of the “delicate” linking of TV imagery with the story of Hazel’s evening.
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Lines 433-434: To the…sea Which we had visited in thirty-three. The Shades visited Nice that year, but Kinbote doesn’t know the particulars of the trip (which is Sybil’s fault), and so he can’t say whether they ever saw Queen Disa’s villa. Disa grew up there, and then returned in 1953 as a “banished queen,” although the public was told that it was for health reasons. She’s still there.
It's Kinbote’s own fault that he doesn’t know anything about John and Sybil’s trip to Nice—Kinbote apparently never asked John (he was tremendously uncurious about John’s life while he was alive), and Sybil was under no obligation to tell Kinbote anything before or after John’s death. Even in this moment, however, Kinbote doesn’t seem genuinely curious about the trip—he actually wants to know if they saw Queen Disa’s villa while they were there, so Kinbote’s curiosity (of course) is merely about himself and his Zemblan delusions. This passage also implies that Disa and King Charles’s marriage failed and he sent her away to France so that he could continue to pursue men while telling the public that Disa was in poor health. 
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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 replied that he was a captive in the palace, Disa tried to come to Zembla, but some Royalists explained to her that she would merely be held captive there, so she returned home. After Disa heard of the King’s escape, Lavender told her that someone representing King Charles would soon come to discuss business matters. When the visitor came, she instantly recognized him—despite his disguise—as King Charles.
Even though Charles treated Disa cruelly and eventually banished her to the house where she grew up in the south of France, Disa clearly still cares about him. The revolution worried her tremendously, and she offered to shelter Charles and tried to rescue him, even at risk to herself. Furthermore, she cares about him enough to know his voice even when he’s in disguise. It’s clear that King Charles doesn’t deserve any of this love or attention based on the way he treated her, but Zembla is a mirror world that reflects Kinbote’s ideal life. Kinbote is a misogynist who believes that women owe him unconditional support and cooperation (he believes this of Sybil, for instance), so in some sense it’s no surprise that this would appear in his fantasy.
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As she aged, Disa became even more lovely, and Kinbote thinks it’s strange that there’s a passage of “Pale Fire”—lines 261-267—in which Shade’s description of Sybil is also a perfect description of Disa in the moment that King Charles saw her at the villa. Kinbote hopes that his readers appreciate how strange this is, because otherwise there’s no point to “writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.”
That Shade’s description of Sybil reminds Kinbote so much of Disa is strange—Sybil is a woman past middle age, while Disa is quite young. In this coincidence, Kinbote sees something meaningful: the whole point of writing—poetry, commentary, or anything else—is to evoke these echoes between seemingly disparate things. Shade would agree with this, as he sees in the patterning of good art a reflection of the order and design in the universe.
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Related Quotes
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 with her—he told her that he was a virgin (which was true in the way that she interpreted it), so she tried to seduce him. Try as he might, he couldn’t participate. Disa didn’t have family or friends to confide in, so she didn’t know what to make of the rumors she heard. Her distress turned to sarcasm, and while he assured her that he’d given up men, he often fell to temptation. Finally, she was so humiliated that she returned to her villa in France.
Of course Disa is angry and embittered—at a young age, she married a king who turned out to be cruel to her (both unfaithful and inattentive to her emotional needs). On top of that, she’s isolated and publicly humiliated by the rumors going around about the King’s affairs. King Charles doesn’t seem at all empathetic to her plight, as he uses her tantrums as an excuse to spend even less time with her, rather than seeing them as evidence of her suffering and a sign that he should be kinder to her.
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Charles had never loved Disa (although he respected her), but in dreams his feelings were different. Even if he never thought of her while awake, he felt deep emotions for her dream-image. He always remembered her as she was on the day when he told her that he didn’t love her. They were on vacation in Italy, and when he said it, she fell to the ground in despair. In his dreams, he would constantly deny that he didn’t love her—his love for her in dreams was deep and passionate and unlike anything he’d experienced in life. These dreams showed her grief and humiliation and her efforts to keep up the appearance that their life was happy. Sometimes, just as he wanted to tell her he loved her, she would disappear.
This passage provides perhaps the most emotional depth that readers get from King Charles or Kinbote in the novel—it’s a backhanded admission that megalomania and isolation take a profound toll. King Charles is repressing his guilt about how he treats Disa so deeply that it only appears in dreams. Through these dreams, Charles creates an alternate world in which he’s capable of profound love and even empathy for his wife’s suffering. Since his image of Disa is fixed on the moment when he told her that he didn’t love her, it seems that he has—somewhere within him—incredible grief over his marriage, just as she does. Disa is able to show that grief, while Charles can only dream it. That kind of repression is difficult to bear.
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When Charles appeared at Disa’s villa in disguise after fleeing Zembla, he was not troubled by these thoughts. Instead, he told her how he escaped, which amused her. Disa invited him to stay long-term, but he announced that he was headed to America to teach literature. When she asked to visit him there, he wouldn’t respond, and she wailed in despair. He decided to leave.
While Charles does have these persistent dreams about Disa, he’s able to thoroughly cut off the feelings of the dreams in his waking life. This is bad for Charles (who is repressing his suffering) and bad for Disa, as Charles’s lack of empathy and emotion when he is with her allows him to be cruel to her and indifferent to her grief. It’s hard to reconcile the Charles who dreams about wanting to tell Disa that he loves her with the Charles who won’t even agree to let her visit him in America, despite her kind offers to shelter him.
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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 anybody could think to publish it while the people in concern were, presumably, alive. Kinbote assured him that a good poem could not possibly be offensive or false, and also that once Zembla was immortalized in verse, he would disclose a great secret to Shade.
Kinbote is emotionally callous and persistently misogynistic, so it’s possible that he doesn’t totally understand why Shade would find King Charles “appalling.” It’s doubtful that Shade believes that Zembla or King Charles exist, so his question about whether it would be legally permissible to publish such things about live people might just be whimsy or even an attempt to bait Kinbote into either admitting that Zembla is fantasy or affirming his genuine belief in Zembla (he essentially does the latter by saying that he will soon disclose a secret).
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