Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 49-98 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 49: shagbark. “Shagbark” is another word for hickory. Years ago, Charles the Beloved’s wife, Disa, copied into a letter a passage of a John Shade poem that compares a gingko leaf to a butterfly. Kinbote quotes the passage (from a letter he received in April). On the Wordsmith campus, there’s a street lined with ginkgo trees, and the word for “tree” in Zemblan is grados.
That Kinbote has a letter from Disa suggests, again, that he is Charles the Beloved. That the Zemblan word for “tree” is grados evokes Gradus, the Zemblan assassin that Kinbote believes is hunting Shade down. Kinbote appears to think that Shade, via his interest in nature, is actually referencing his future assassin.
Themes
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Line 57: The phantom of my little daughter’s swing. After this line, Shade cut a draft variant about architects and psychoanalysts colluding to not put locks on bedroom doors so that children will go to the doctor after witnessing a “primal scene.”
The “primal scene” is a Freudian term for a child witnessing their parents having sex. This variant is making a joke about analysts paying off architects to omit locks from bedroom doors so that children are more likely to walk in on their parents having sex and then need therapy. Shade did seem to hate Freud and psychoanalysis in general, so it’s possible that this variant is authentically Shade’s (and not Kinbote’s fabrication), but it’s impossible to know for sure. It’s also telling that Kinbote wholly ignores the key line that he’s supposedly analyzing, a line that alludes to the loss of Shade’s daughter via the “phantom” of her swing and instead focuses on a petty joke that Shade cut. Kinbote isn’t doing his job of explaining the poem to readers.
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Line 61: TV’s huge paperclip. In John Shade’s vapid obituary, Sybil provides a short poem that John wrote in June. It’s about the things that break his heart, and it includes a line about the sunset hitting “TV’s giant paperclips.” The poem is entitled “the swing” and its final stanza mentions an empty swing under a tree. Kinbote suspects that this poem was actually written much earlier than June, and that Shade mined it for several images that appear in “Pale Fire.”
This passage makes it especially clear how negligent Kinbote’s commentary to line 57 (about the “phantom” of Hazel’s swing) was. If the swing is the primary image in a poem about things that break Shade’s heart, then it must be incredibly important to him and readers deserve a commentary that dives into the swing imagery in “Pale Fire.”  
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Line 62: often. Throughout 1959, Kinbote was desperately lonely and “often” feared for his life. Loneliness is hard for an expat, particularly since Zemblans are so prone to killing their kings. After dark, Kinbote would pace around the Goldsworth house, covered in sweat and believing that every sound was a murderer. On these nights, Kinbote began spying on Shade’s house, hoping that the poet would have another heart attack so that Kinbote could rush over and “resurrect” him with Zemblan herbal remedies.
The connection between “often” in the poem and Kinbote “often” fearing for his life is nonexistent—Kinbote has essentially abandoned all pretense of explaining the actual poem and is now blatantly talking about only himself. Furthermore, this passage shows how paranoid and delusional Kinbote was. Not only did he sincerely believe that assassins were coming for him (a classic delusion), but he was also narcissistic enough to hope for Shade to have a heart attack so that Kinbote would have an excuse to go save him. Of course, it’s pure delusion to think that he could fix a heart attack with herbs.
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Sometimes, it seemed that suicide was the only way to thwart the “advancing assassins who were in [him], in [his] eardrums, in [his] pulse, in [his] skull.” Once, when the cat appeared in the music room, Kinbote called the police. It’s quite easy for mean people to make their victims believe that they have “persecution mania” or hallucinations.
This is one of the novel’s major hints that Kinbote is suicidal. While Kinbote mostly insists that Gradus is a real assassin who exists outside Kinbote’s imagination, this passage seems like a half-confession that Gradus might simply be an attempt to externalize the suicidal impulse that is always “advancing” within Kinbote. Furthermore, it shows how unhinged Kinbote is that he calls the police when the cat—who lives in the house—appears in the music room. The police were probably being rational when they told Kinbote that he had a persecution complex and was hallucinating, but Kinbote interprets this as evidence that the police are conspiring against him—classic paranoid delusions.
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Related Quotes
Among several young professors “whose advances [Kinbote] rejected,” there was one who played jokes. Once, after an “enjoyable and successful” meeting in which Kinbote demonstrated Zemblan wrestling moves on “several willing pupils,” he found a note in his pocket saying “you have hal…..s real bad, chum.” While the author meant “hallucinations,” he’s clearly unqualified to teach English, since the number of omitted letters suggests that he can’t spell. That spring, Kinbote’s fears disappeared after he took in a young boarder, his gardener.
When Kinbote says that he rejected the advances of many young professors, the truth is certainly that those professors rejected his advances. Rather than demonstrating wrestling moves at a work meeting, it seems that Kinbote was inappropriately grabbing his colleagues, and one of them left a note that (based on the number of letters left out) was letting him know that he had halitosis, or bad breath (presumably, their faces were close together when Kinbote was “wrestling” this man). To assume that the man meant “hallucinations” and—despite being an English professor—couldn’t spell the word properly is an overly complex explanation for a pretty straightforward situation, and it shows how disconnected from reality Kinbote is. The fact that a lot of his anxiety ended when he got a roommate shows how connected loneliness is to his mental illness.
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Line 70: The new TV. In a draft of “Pale Fire,” there are some lines following this one that Shade may have planned to use later in the poem. They describe a “northern king” who escaped from prison because his supporters impersonated him to assist his escape. Kinbote writes that Charles the Beloved only escaped because his supporters dressed like him and spread out across the land, confusing the “revolutionary police.”
Instead of commenting on the actual poem, Kinbote comments on a draft that he claims Shade may have intended to use at some point—but, in the Index, Kinbote confesses that he wrote this fragment himself, so really it’s just a way to make the story he is about to tell seem relevant to Shade’s poem. As Zembla is a reflection of what Kinbote wants his life to be like, it’s telling that Charles the Beloved had so many admirers who wanted to imitate him in order to help him—it’s clear that Kinbote is very lonely and wishes he had friends and admirers.
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Line 71: parents. Right after Shade’s death, Professor Hurley wrote an obituary in a mediocre journal. While bashing an obituary isn’t fit for the “placid scholarship” of a Commentary, Kinbote mentions it because he learned some information about Shade’s parents from this document. His father, a doctor, had a passion for studying birds—he even had a bird named after him, the Bombycilla shadei. Shade’s mother was also passionate about birds, and while discussing the history of her maiden name and other surnames, Kinbote notes that the name “Botkin” means “one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear.”
Here, Kinbote is backhandedly confessing that Professor Hurley’s obituary provided him with new and accurate information about Shade, which ironically shores up Hurley’s credibility when he criticizes Kinbote’s ability as a scholar. Kinbote doesn’t dig into this (even though that’s his job), but “bombycilla” is the genus to which waxwings belong, the bird from the opening line of “Pale Fire.” That Shade’s father had a waxwing named after him makes the image of the slain waxwing in “Pale Fire” more complex—it’s invoking both of Shade’s dead parents. This is the kind of information that’s important to include in an annotated edition of a poem, but Kinbote is incapable of such focus and rigor. It’s also noteworthy that he brings up the name “Botkin”—throughout the novel, he makes several offhand yet conspicuous references to the name “Botkin” and to professor Botkin, which hints at his true identity.
Themes
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In Hurley’s obituary, there’s only one reference to “Pale Fire”—that Shade was working on an autobiographical poem before he died. Furthermore, Hurley gets wrong the facts of Shade’s death, perhaps because he—like the media—changed the murderer’s motives for political reasons. The most bizarre part of the obituary is that it never mentions Kinbote’s close friendship with Shade.
Despite Kinbote’s loathing of Hurley, Hurley does seem credible—after all, he’s an English professor, a colleague of Shade’s, and he seems to have information about Shade that Kinbote doesn’t, which suggests that Hurley knew Shade better than Kinbote did. Since Hurley does seem credible (while Kinbote is hopelessly unreliable), it’s worth taking seriously that Hurley doesn’t agree with Kinbote about the facts of Shade’s death. Hurley believes the accepted story about how Shade died (which is that Judge Goldsworth sentenced a man to an asylum and that man escaped, went to Goldsworth’s house for revenge, and killed Shade whom he mistook for Goldsworth). Nobody else believes Kinbote’s story about Gradus the Zemblan assassin, which Kinbote tries to paint as a deliberate distortion for political reasons, but it is most likely a rational acceptance of the facts.
Themes
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Just as Shade couldn’t remember his father, King Charles had no image of his father’s face, since King Alfin died when Charles was two. King Alfin was an absent-minded and silly man, but one unfunny story is worth telling since Shade repeated it to his colleagues. Years ago, “my father” took a visiting foreign emperor and a translator on a trip through the Zemblan countryside. At one point, King Alfin stopped to repair his car, and it was only when he was back in Onhava that he realized he left the emperor in the countryside. When Kinbote tried to contribute to Shade’s poem, he asked that Shade write these stories down but not talk about them with others.
Throughout the novel, Kinbote has spoken of King Charles in the third person (suggesting that Kinbote and King Charles are separate people), but here he trips up and refers to the King’s father as “my father.” Kinbote has dropped enough hints that he is (or at least believes himself to be) the exiled king that this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kinbote told Shade that he should use the Zemblan stories in his poetry but shouldn’t share them with others, but Shade did tell his colleagues Kinbote’s stories. This suggests how bizarre and entertaining Shade must have found Kinbote’s delusions, and this is one of the novel’s only instances of Shade being somewhat unkind to Kinbote.
Themes
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King Alfin was an aviator with a tendency to have accidents. Alas, one day when he was trying some tricks in his plane, the plane (his “bird of doom”) went into an uncontrolled dive and, when Alfin managed to pull the nose up, he smashed into the side of a hotel and died. In pictures of the plane right before it crashed, Charles the Beloved could see his father raising one arm in triumph.
This moment echoes the first line of “Pale Fire,” about the waxwing that crashed into the window thinking it was open sky. In the moment before Alfin’s death, he raised his arm in triumph, which suggests that he thought that he had righted his malfunctioning plane and saved his own life—it seems that he somehow didn’t see the building in front of him, which suggests that maybe the windows of the building made it seem that Alfin—like the waxwing—was flying into open sky. This parallel is underscored by the description of Alfin’s plane as a “bird.” It’s not clear whether Kinbote told Shade this story and it inspired the image of the waxwing, whether this is evidence that Kinbote and Shade are the same person, or whether there’s a spookier connection between Charles’s Zemblan stories and their echoes in “Pale Fire” (some scholars believe that both “Pale Fire” and Kinbote’s Zemblan stories were influenced from beyond the grave by Shade’s dead family, which would account for the resonances between the poem and Charles’s stories). Scholars don’t agree about how to interpret this, but nonetheless the parallel between the plane crash and the waxwing is striking.
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After Alfin’s death, Charles the Beloved was assigned a kind tutor who didn’t care about young Charles’s “morals” despite that Charles “preferred ladies to laddies.” Charles grew up loving the study of English poetry and relishing masquerades in which boys dressed as girls and vice versa. His mother, Queen Blenda, died of a congenital blood disease on the night of July 21st, 1936. At the moment of her death, King Charles was strolling with his friends through some trees outside the palace gates—something strange struck them then, and just afterwards the Countess ran out of the palace and gave them the bad news.
From this passage, readers can intuit that Zembla may be a bit more tolerant than New Wye. The man who essentially became young Charles’s guardian didn’t care that Charles was gay or try to make it a moral issue. Zembla reflects what Kinbote wishes his life were like, so it seems that this is a wish that his sexuality would never be an issue. That King Charles and his friends all felt something at the moment of the Queen’s death is another instance of the dead seeming to communicate with the living, suggesting that death is not irrevocable and that the dead remain in the lives of the living in mysterious ways. 
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It’s hard to describe the geography of the Zemblan palace, so Kinbote drew a map of the grounds and the building, hoping this would help Shade understand the events he described. He hopes that Sybil can mail him the map to reprint in later editions of this book, since he is too exhausted and plagued by headaches to draw another.
That Kinbote knows the Zemblan palace well enough to draw a map suggests, of course, that he is King Charles—or that the palace exists only in his mind. His increasing headaches and exhaustion show how he is deteriorating as he writes the Commentary to “Pale Fire,” pointing to the possibility that he kills himself when his work is complete.
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Line 80: my bedroom. Charles the Beloved thought of Fleur—the daughter of his mother’s favorite Countess—only as a sister, although other men found her intensely sexual. She didn’t seem to mind that Charles preferred “manlier pleasures.”
Again, the notion that Charles’s attraction to men is “manlier” than being attracted to women suggests that Kinbote wishes that his sexuality were not only acceptable, but also admired, in his day to day life.
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Between the Queen’s death and Charles’s coronation, he suffered—he didn’t love his mother, and he felt terrified of her ghost. The Countess made him do séances in which the Queen’s spirit would use a planchette to instruct Charles to fall in love with a “flower.” A psychiatrist (bribed by the Countess) told Charles that his “vices” killed his mother and would harm her spirit if he didn’t “renounce sodomy.” In that time, Fleur began sleeping on a large swansdown pillow by Charles’s bed and, under her mother’s instruction, tried ineffectively to seduce him. Her attempts irritated Charles, but he appreciated that her presence kept his mother’s ghost away. Eventually, she stopped pursuing him. Thirteen years later, Charles married Disa, Duchess of Payn.
The Countess clearly wanted her daughter Fleur to marry the King, which would afford both the Countess and Fleur tremendous privilege and comfort. To achieve this, she manipulated Charles horrifically: she hired a medium to pretend that the Queen’s only wish from beyond the grave was for Charles to marry a “flower” (fleur is French for “flower”) and she hired a doctor to tell Charles that his sexuality killed the Queen and would continue to torture her spirit unless he married a woman. This is obviously an evil thing to do to a man grieving his mother. This passage evokes some of the silliest parts of IPH that Shade describes in “Pale Fire”: the notion that a ghost might communicate via a planchette, or that a spirit is lurking around the house. If readers take Shade’s insight about the afterlife at all seriously, then they must dismiss these silly descriptions of the Queen remaining present after death. While Shade believes that consciousness somehow persists when a person dies, he doesn’t think that they hang around in such conventional or straightforward ways. 
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Lines 86-90: Aunt Maud. While line 90 of “Pale Fire” implies that Hazel Shade (John’s daughter) was a baby when Aunt Maud died, Hazel was actually a teenager. Kinbote finds Maud’s paintings “unpleasant but interesting” and her eccentricities must have shocked New Wye.
This passage develops the kinship between Aunt Maud and Hazel. Kinbote clarifies that the two knew each other quite well, having lived together until Maud’s death when Hazel was a teen. It’s clear that Maud influenced Hazel significantly, since both women were eccentric and drawn to morbid things that others found distasteful.
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Lines 90-93: Her room, etc. In the draft, there are lines about Maud’s room containing the cocoon of a Luna moth. Kinbote’s dictionary says that the Luna is a large pale moth whose caterpillar eats hickory. Shade may have cut these lines because the Luna moth “clashed with” the word “Moon” in the following line.
In this part of the poem, Shade is listing some of Maud’s belongings to illuminate her personality. It’s telling that she has a Luna moth cocoon, because the novel associates butterflies (and moths in this case) with dead family members. Furthermore, the fact that it’s a cocoon (which represents a transitional state between caterpillar and butterfly) echoes Shade’s fixation on whether human consciousness transforms but survives after death (like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon transformed). That Luna moths eat hickory when they’re caterpillars calls back to Kinbote’s note on line 49, where he explains that a shagbark tree is a type of hickory. The shagbark tree is where Hazel’s swing used to hang, so the detail that Luna moths (associated with Maud) eat shagbark (associated with Hazel) deepens the connection between Hazel and Maud.
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Line 91: trivia. The objects in Aunt Maud’s room include a scrapbook where she pasted funny or gross news clippings. Once, Shade showed Kinbote the first and last clippings in the book, both from Life magazine, which is known for being prudish about “the mysteries of the male sex.” Readers must have been so surprised to find an ad for a “Talon Trouser Faster” that shows a virile young man and another ad for a “Fig Leaf Brief.”
Maud’s eccentricities are on full display here, and so is Kinbote’s sexuality. The ads he points out are certainly strange and suggestive, and he’s delighted to see a popular magazine making the “mysteries” of male genitalia slightly less mysterious.
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Line 98: On Chapman’s Homer. This refers to a popular Keats sonnet. A printing mistake placed the title of the poem into a headline about a “sports event.”
This is a joke about how little Kinbote knows about America, and it requires a little explaining. The passage of “Pale Fire” that Kinbote is commenting on describes a newspaper headline (“Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman’s Homer”) that Aunt Maud tacked to her door. Of course, the headline is describing a baseball player named Chapman scoring a home run (a “homer”) to win a tied game, but Kinbote—a European expat—has no familiarity with baseball. Because of this, he thinks that the headline is referencing the title of the Keats poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (which refers to George Chapman’s translations of the Greek poet Homer), and he thinks that it’s merely a typographical mistake that has transposed this title into a headline otherwise about sports.
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