Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 469-629 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 469: his gun. As he drove to Geneva, Gradus wondered when he would get to use his gun. Back at his hotel, he called Headquarters and talked to them in a mix of code and broken English so as not 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 instruction.
Kinbote can never resist describing Gradus’s incompetence. It’s pathetic to think of him wandering Europe, longing to use his gun, but unable to even communicate to his superiors the limited information he has about the King.
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Line 470: Negro. After one of their colleagues made an anti-Semitic remark, Shade and Kinbote discussed prejudice, with Shade saying he hated “vulgarity and brutality,” which are both at the heart of racism. From the standpoint of verbal precision, Shade preferred “Negro” to “colored,” but Kinbote’s Black gardener thought that “colored” was more respectful. Kinbote asked about Shade’s “artistic” objection to the word “colored,” and Shade explained that, in old scientific works about nature, watercolorists filled in outline drawings of plants and animals. Sometimes, they would miss one, and the phrase “colored” reminded Shade of his longing that these unfinished outlines be properly filled in. Furthermore, he said, white people aren’t white, but rather “all kinds of repulsive colors.”
Shade is generally a respectful and kind man, and it does seem that he’s happy to call Kinbote’s gardener “colored” if that’s what is most respectful (obviously that is no longer the preferred term today). But here Shade shows that his aesthetic sense does, in some ways, compete with his moral and political convictions, as it’s hard for him to accept the linguistic imprecision of calling a Black person “colored” when it implies that white people do not have color (untrue) and also reminds Shade of the unfinished drawings in old books. Obviously, that’s a highly personal association that has nothing to do with whether a term is respectful, so this is a moment of Shade indulging his poetic side more than his kindness.
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Line 490: Exe. Exe refers to Exton, which is a town on Omega lake. Its natural history museum displays many birds that Samuel Shade collected.
Omega lake is the nearby lake where Hazel Shade drowned (Omega, the final letter of the Greek alphabet, seems to allude to Hazel’s fate). Samuel Shade was John Shade’s father, and this underscores the association between him and birds.
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Line 493: She took her poor young life. What follows isn’t a defense of suicide, but rather a realistic description of a “spiritual situation.” People who believe in God feel a greater temptation to be done with life, although they also fear the sin of suicide. Any “serious conception” of the afterlife involves a belief in God, and Christian faith relies on a belief in “spiritual survival.” This afterlife doesn’t need to be specific—Zemblan Christianity, in fact, insists that faith shouldn’t paint a picture, but should instead provide “a warm haze of pleasurable anticipation.”
While Kinbote insists that he’s not defending suicide, that does seem to be what he’s doing by sympathetically describing a “spiritual situation” (what a euphemism!) in which someone might prefer death to life. He’s saying this in response to Hazel Shade’s death, so one might interpret this as a surprising burst of empathy for the suffering of another person, but the fact that Kinbote immediately turns to the beliefs of Zemblan Christianity reveals that he’s really talking about his own suicidal thoughts. While Kinbote uses the phrase “spiritual survival” (a phrase that Shade himself might use to describe his interests), this passage makes clear the difference between Shade’s belief in a mysterious and almost transcendental afterlife in which human consciousness remains in the universe and Kinbote’s notion that it’s not worth inquiring into the details of the afterlife, but instead one should merely feel “pleasurable anticipation” for whatever it will be. To Shade, belief in the afterlife enhances the meaning that he finds in mortal life on earth, whereas Kinbote sees the afterlife as an escape hatch, a promise that makes him want to end his life on earth altogether in search of something better.
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Feeling this, it makes sense that one might be tempted by the weight of a gun in its suede leather case. Kinbote has chosen these images “rather casually.” Some people believe that a man should put one pistol to each temple or use a “bare botkin (note the correct spelling),” and that women should poison themselves or drown. However, of the known methods of suicide, falling is the best—although it’s important to select the location carefully so as not to hurt others or fail in the attempt. Were Kinbote a poet, he would write an ode to the desire for death—the loveliness of the “universal unknown” taking over the “miniscule unknown” of a person’s life. It does seem that people of faith, who believe that God will save them for eternity, should be forgiven the “one sin that ends all sins.”
This passage makes it even more explicit that Kinbote wants to kill himself. When he says that he has chosen the images that he uses casually, it’s a cue for readers to pay close attention to his language (since Kinbote never means what he says). Saying that a man should die by a “bare botkin” is an oblique reference to Hamlet. During his famous “to be or not to be” monologue, Hamlet contemplates suicide, suggesting that it might be better to die by a “bare bodkin” (meaning a dagger) than to live. Kinbote echoes this phrase, but instead of “bodkin,” he uses the word “botkin”—and he calls attention to his spelling correction. However, “bodkin” (with a “d”) is the word that appears in Hamlet, so it seems that Kinbote isn’t correcting Shakespeare; Kinbote must be changing the spelling for another reason, then. It’s likely that he’s subtly inserting a clue that his own name, Kinbote, isn’t the correct spelling—evidence that Kinbote’s true identity is the professor V. Botkin.
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Line 501: L’if. French for “yew.” Oddly, the Zemblan word for weeping willow is also “if.”
Here, Kinbote is supposed to be analyzing an incredibly complex passage that involves multi-lingual wordplay. He doesn’t explain much—he doesn’t even remark on the fact that L’if resembles the word “life” or that yew sounds like “you.”
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Line 502: The grand potato. This is a bad pun meant to express Shade’s lack of respect for death. Kinbote remembers learning Rabelais’s last words in French class: Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.
Kinbote does prove himself to be somewhat adept here, as he correctly identifies the origin of Shade’s cryptic phrase “the grand potato” (in English, Rabelais’ last words mean “I am going to search for the great maybe,” and the French “grand peut-être” sounds like “grand potato” in English). But it doesn’t seem right to interpret this pun as a sign of Shade’s disrespect of death—Shade profoundly respects death, as he loves and respects life and he sees death as inseparable from life. It could be that Shade, by emphasizing the sound of Rabelais’ words rather than their sense, is drawing his readers’ attention to sound in the passages that follow (pronouncing IPH “if,” for example). This could also be Nabokov’s cryptic clue that the nonsense syllables that Hazel received from the ghost in the haunted barn should be read phonetically to decipher their sense.
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Line 502: IPH. While Kinbote cannot (for reasons of law and taste) reveal the real name of the institute that Shade is mocking, he also wants it to be known that he doesn’t approve of the “flippancy” with which Shade addresses “aspects of spiritual hope which religion alone can fulfill.”
This is something of a joke, as Kinbote has, throughout his Commentary, impugned the professional ability and personal character of many living people, so it’s not clear why he suddenly chooses to protect IPH. It’s also telling of Kinbote’s foolishness that he gets moralistic about Shade mocking the silliest parts of IPH. If Kinbote sees his own religion in Shade’s depiction of IPH, then it’s another reason to mistrust Kinbote’s notions of spirituality and the afterlife. Besides, he has just recently described the “spiritual hope” that religion provides him as an incentive to suicide, and it’s quite clear that Shade finds real “spiritual hope” without any organized religion at all.
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Line 549: While snubbing gods including the big G. This is the essence of what Shade missed. For Christians, the afterlife is impossible without God, which implies punishment for sin. Zemblan Protestantism is more high-church than low, while Sybil and John—initially Catholic and Episcopalian—wound up outside the Church with their own personal “religion.” In a conversation in late June, Shade and Kinbote spoke of sin, and Kinbote talked about going to confession as a child and feeling that the priest’s ear was too big to receive his “peccadilloes.” Shade replied that all the seven deadly sins are “peccadilloes,” but that a few of them (pride, lust, and sloth) are necessary for poetry.
Kinbote takes offense to anyone who finds spirituality without the Christian God, including Shade, and a big part of that seems to be Kinbote’s horror at abandoning religious ideas of sin. This is somewhat ironic, of course, as Kinbote seems not to understand how much he himself is a sinner in the eyes of the Church—when he describes his youthful sins as mere “peccadilloes” (minor transgressions), he doesn’t seem to acknowledge how grave a sin the Church would find his homosexuality at this time.
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Turning to original sin, Kinbote stressed its importance while Shade insisted that he never understood it and believed that people are born good. To his mind, there are only two sins: murder and deliberately causing pain. They argued about this, and when Shade said that life is such a surprise that he does not “see why death should not be an even greater one,” Kinbote accused Shade of accepting the horrible possibility that chance determines eternal life, rather than God planning it.
Shade reveals his personal ethics here, which is that conventional morality is mostly nonsense (he has previously noted that some “sins” are actually productive, particularly for poets), and his only moral rule is never causing others to suffer. This is pretty consistent with Shade’s behavior—he’s generally kind to others, but he doesn’t mind some vices (like sneaking a drink, despite Sybil’s opposition). Shade’s comment that, since life is so surprising, it seems reasonable to expect death to be surprising too, is key to his understanding of the afterlife. To him, Kinbote’s notion that the afterlife involves tallying and then punishing human sin is too ordinary to be possible—death must be unimaginable, since it transcends human life. Kinbote seems wrong to take from this that Shade believes only in chaos and chance—Shade believes that the universe is a “web of sense,” it’s just that human beings can’t understand it.
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Kinbote hates the notion of the soul “plunging into limitless and chaotic afterlife with no Providence to direct her.” It’s better, he insists, to accept that God is a “pale light” during a person’s life and then a “dazzling radiance” afterwards. After all, he knows that the world couldn’t have been created by chance and that the mind helps create the universe, so God is as good a name as any for that force of creation.
Kinbote wants the afterlife to have rules, order, and design, and while Shade does believe that the universe (and therefore the afterlife) is designed, the difference is that Shade doesn’t feel any need to fully understand it—he’s happy merely experiencing and observing the sublime beauty of the universe. Kinbote’s characterization of Shade’s spirituality (a soul falling into a chaotic afterlife, fighting through confusion alone) bears no resemblance to what Shade actually believes. Kinbote’s language about life being a “pale light” and the afterlife being a “dazzling radiance” evokes the title “Pale Fire” and the quotation from which it comes. Here, Kinbote suggests that life steals its pale fire from the afterlife—in other words, life itself isn’t radiant, but it seems bright because it reflects the glow of the afterlife. Shade would wholly reject this logic (he finds tremendous radiance in life itself), and that Kinbote believes it emphasizes his suicidal nature: he thinks that life itself is lusterless and it gets all its meaning and allure from death. 
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Line 550: debris. Kinbote needs to say something about his note to line 12. His conscience has led him to admit that the two lines quoted in that note are “distorted and tainted by wishful thinking.” But it’s the only instance in the Commentary in which Kinbote’s distress led him to falsify “Pale Fire.” He could edit them out before publishing this book, but that would mean doing a little rewriting, and he doesn’t have time for “such stupidities.”
Kinbote’s note to line 12 introduces the draft variant, supposedly written by Shade, “That my friend told me of a certain king”—here, Kinbote admits that he himself wrote that line, which he had previously used as proof that Shade meant his poem to be about Zembla but was censored by his wife. Obviously, this admission shreds whatever credibility Kinbote has left at this point (if he has any at all). In fact, Kinbote is still not being completely honest here—in the index, under “Variants,” he admits to fabricating several more throughout the Commentary. Nonetheless, he still insists here that the note to line 12 is the only fabrication.
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Line 579: the other. Kinbote doesn’t wish to insinuate that Shade was seeing another woman. Of course, some gossips said he was sleeping with a student, but Kinbote always shushed them. Once Kinbote invited the woman in question to a party with the Shades, intending to quash the rumor, which brings him to the subject of invitations in New Wye. During his five months of knowing the Shades, he was invited over to eat three times, and they only accepted three of his “dozen or so” invitations, one of those being the dinner with the young woman in question, whom Kinbote had to entertain alone after the Shades left early.
It’s not clear from Kinbote’s narration whether or not Shade was actually having an affair with a student, or whether it was merely a malicious rumor that made the Shades uncomfortable. Nonetheless, Kinbote’s Commentary is revealing of his own unpleasant social behavior. It seems that he relentlessly badgered Sybil and John to accept invitations to his house (a “dozen or so” is likely an underestimation, knowing Kinbote), and when they did accept an invitation here and there out of politeness, he would do things like bring over the very woman Shade was rumored to be sleeping with. This is an incredibly rude and cruel thing to do that clearly put both the Shades and the young woman in an impossible social position, so it’s no wonder that John and Sybil didn’t go over to Kinbote’s house very much.
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Line 596: Points at the puddle in his basement room. Following this line, there are some draft lines about a dead murderer meeting his aggrieved victim, and about whether objects have souls. In these lines appears the phrase “Tanagra dust,” which can be combined to make the word “gradus”—Shade’s murderer. While an average reader might chalk this up to coincidence, Kinbote can hardly find many instances in which “Gradus” would appear across two words. These draft lines are so significant that only scholastic rigor and respect for truth kept Kinbote from inserting them into the final draft and deleting four other lines to compensate.
When Kinbote sees the word “Gradus” hidden in the phrase “Tanagra dust,” he interprets this as a prophecy: Shade naming his murderer, even though he did not yet know of the man’s existence. While it’s totally plausible to interpret this as coincidence and to see Kinbote’s commentary as paranoid and absurd, Kinbote is ironically picking up on the same kind of unexpected coincidence that Shade himself saw as evidence of design in the universe. Even though Kinbote did not put those lines into the final draft, it’s telling that he reveals how badly he wanted to. That rigor and respect for truth were apparently the only things that kept him from inserting the lines isn’t compelling to readers who know by now that Kinbote has a loose relationship to the truth and is a poor scholar.
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On the day when Shade composed those lines, Gradus wasn’t doing much—just waiting in his hotel in Geneva. Without a hearty mind to entertain him, Gradus got bored and told headquarters that he would be relocating to a hotel in Nice.
Kinbote is relentless in his disparagement of Gradus. Here, he suggests that Gradus is so boring and stupid that he’s incapable of entertaining himself and needs to make impulsive travel decisions simply to keep himself occupied.
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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 been caught, he would have gone to his death just as Shade describes in the referenced lines: spitting into the eyes of his idiot executioners.
It's unlikely that King Charles would have behaved as Kinbote suggests; the King isn’t someone who has demonstrated a lot of moral courage or personal conviction (for instance, he chose to marry a woman to keep up appearances instead of publicly embracing his gay identity despite the cost).
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Lines 609-614: Nor can one help, etc. In his draft, Shade wrote this slightly differently, capturing well the “chance inn” where Kinbote is writing this commentary. At first, he hated the music from what he thought was an amusement park, but which was actually camping tourists. Now, it’s quieter except for the wind; Cedarn is a ghost town without tourists or spies.
In the passage of “Pale Fire” that Kinbote is analyzing, Shade accurately describes the motel where Kinbote is currently writing his Commentary, including such specific details as the flashing lights outside his window. Of course, it’s implied that Shade himself may have vacationed at that inn before, so that would explain why he knows about the flashing lights, but it doesn’t explain his seemingly prophetic description in “Pale Fire” of an “exile” holed up in the motel “dying” (this, of course, would be Kinbote, a suicidal expat). Shade wrote this in July, while Kinbote didn’t decamp for the inn until August, after Shade’s death, so it’s not clear how Shade could have foretold the future so accurately. Nonetheless, Kinbote doesn’t remark on this extraordinary coincidence, which is particularly unusual because he’s normally so eager to place himself at the center of everything.
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Line 615: two tongues. Kinbote lists pairs of languages, including: English and Zemblan, English and Russian, English and Lithuanian, English and Bulgarian, and American and European.
By this point in the novel, it’s clear that Botkin/Kinbote is some kind of language professor. Readers know that he doesn’t teach English because he’s not in Shade’s department, and Kinbote has said that he’s not in the Russian department, so it’s likely that he’s a professor of a Slavic language, although he believes himself to be a Zemblan professor. This passage supposedly analyzes the line in “Pale Fire” that refers to the exile dying in a prairie motel while speaking in “two tongues” (a description that fits Kinbote), and here Kinbote is listing various pairs of tongues that might fit the bill. He’s being a bit coy, though—he doesn’t reveal what specific language he teaches at Wordsmith, but the geography of the languages that he includes at least narrows the possibilities to Eastern Europe (Kinbote has shown himself to also speak Western European languages, including French and German, but he leaves those out).
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Line 627: The great Starover Blue. Even with Professor Blue’s permission, it’s somewhat “tasteless” to put a real person into an invented poem where the person has to behave “in accordance with the invention.” This is especially odd since other people in the poem are given pseudonyms. This name must have been alluring because a “star over blue” is so fitting for an astronomer, although his name has no relation to the sky—his name comes from a Russian word for a religious sect to which his father belonged. Starover was beloved by students, and he was one of the men in Shade’s orbit, including the “distinguished Zemblan scholar” Professor Nattochdag.  
In his concern about whether appearing by name in “Pale Fire” is reductive to Starover Blue’s humanity, Kinbote is displaying unusual empathy. Even in moments where he clearly should be worried about a situation’s effects on people (inviting the woman rumored to be Shade’s mistress to dinner with the Shades, for instance), he doesn’t show any empathy at all, so it’s out of character for him to be empathetic towards Professor Blue for such a small issue. Kinbote is probably expressing this concern out of jealousy—he himself wanted to be the star of Shade’s poem, and he’s upset that he doesn’t even get mentioned in passing, so he tries to make it seem like an insult to Starover Blue that he appears rather than being openly jealous. Kinbote has already said that Nattochdag is his department head, so by calling Nattochdag a Zemblan scholar, Kinbote is suggesting that he himself belongs to the Zemblan department (of course, no such thing exists, so Kinbote/Botkin’s real department remains a mystery).
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Line 629: The fate of beasts. A draft variant of this phrase was “the madman’s fate.” Zemblan theologians have speculated on the souls of madmen, concluding that even the most deranged people contain a “sane basic particle” that survives after death and regenerates in an afterlife free of fools.
Here, Kinbote contradicts himself. He has previously said that Zemblan Christianity refuses to speculate on the specifics of the afterlife (preferring only to say that it’s wonderful), but in this passage he says that Zemblan theologians have speculated with a lot of specificity about the afterlife, saying that it’s free of fools and that the insane are resurrected without their insanity. Perhaps this is merely self-serving, since Kinbote knows that he’s insane and he’s excited for the afterlife, so he wants to believe that he will be mentally healthy after he dies.
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Kinbote has never known a madman himself, but there were some good stories in New Wye. Once, at a party at the Hurley home, Kinbote spotted Shade talking to Hurley’s wife. As he approached them from behind, he overheard Shade tell her that she was using the wrong word, and that “one should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention.” When he tapped Shade on the shoulder, Mrs. Hurley said that while she thought that an old railroad worker who thought he was God was crazy, Shade believed him to be a poet. It’s maybe not even worth commenting on this silly passage—the whole part of the poem about IPH could be shorter.
This is an incredibly revealing anecdote, as it backhandedly admits the truth of Kinbote’s identity. Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Shade and Hurley’s wife were talking about Kinbote, not about some nonspecific railroad worker; indeed, Shade’s description of replacing an unremarkable and unhappy past with a brilliant but invented story perfectly describes what Kinbote (or Botkin) has done. By defending Kinbote in this way, Shade shows that he understands the situation and remains incredibly empathetic towards Kinbote, even appreciating the poetry of his delusions, thereby placing Kinbote on the same plane as Shade himself. 
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