Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 662-872 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 662: Who rides so late in the night and the wind. This passage is an allusion to Goethe’s poem about the erlking—a spirit in the woods that falls in love with a traveler’s young son. “Another fabulous ruler,” King Charles, repeated Goethe’s lines to himself while climbing the mountains during his escape from Zembla.
Kinbote is extrapolating a little bit in his description of the plot of Goethe’s “Erlkönig.” The Erlking doesn’t fall in love with the young boy—he maliciously lures him away from his father and then kills him. However, the Erlking does at one point claim to love the boy and feel charmed by his beauty, after which the terrified boy informs his father that the Erlking has now grabbed him and hurt him. While the Erlking seems not to actually be a pedophile (but rather a sinister murderer who is trying to confuse and manipulate the boy by declaring his love), Kinbote has a tendency to distort stories so that they’re more reflective of his own life. In this way, it seems that he has magnified the detail about the erlking falling in love with the boy (since Kinbote himself is a pedophile) without considering how nefarious the parallel becomes (by analogy, then, Kinbote is also an evil spirit harming young boys). When Kinbote uses the word “fabulous” to describe Charles, it has a double meaning—at first, it seems like he’s calling Charles “great,” but he also probably means “fabulous” in the sense of “fable”—as in, fictitious. This could be an admission that King Charles is just as invented as the erlking.
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Lines 671-672: The Untamed Seahorse. This is a reference to Browning’s My Last Duchess, and readers should reproach the “fashionable device” of titling a written work with a quotation from a celebrated work from history. These titles have a “specious glamor” that depends on easy allusions rather than original invention. 
Kinbote scolds Shade for titling his book after a quote from Browning, saying that this is lazy and merely following a fad when one should be original enough to come up with a title that doesn’t rely on allusion. This is ironic for several reasons. First, Kinbote is piggybacking on another writer in a way far worse than borrowing a title—he has hijacked the publication of “Pale Fire” to tell his own unrelated story about Zembla. Second, later on in “Pale Fire,” Shade himself subtly pokes fun at the period of his life when he borrowed titles from other writers, and the title “Pale Fire” is itself a borrowed title about borrowing inspiration from more inspired places, so by titling his poem “Pale Fire,” Shade is being self-deprecating about his abilities. It seems, though, that Kinbote missed this subtext altogether, or else his critique of Shade would have been more nuanced.
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Line 678: into French. A couple of Sybil’s translations referenced here appeared in a journal that Kinbote read during the last week of July. Out of tact, he did not send his critiques to her, but he does note that a few of the lines can be “mimed and rhymed” in a lovely way in Zemblan (which Conmal termed “the tongue of the mirror”).
Kinbote gives himself credit for his tact when he says that he didn’t send Sybil a critique of her translations during the week after her husband’s death, but actually this would be the bare minimum of common decency. It’s revealing of the nature of Zembla that Sybil’s lines could be imitated (“mimed”) and rhymed in Zemblan, as Zembla is a delusion that mirrors Kinbote’s life in New Wye, and many Zemblan words derive from (or mirror) words in real languages.
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Line 680: Lolita. In America, major hurricanes get female names. It’s not clear why Shade gave this hurricane an obscure Spanish name rather than an American one like Linda or Lois.
Obviously, Nabokov is playfully referencing his explosively popular (and controversial) 1955 novel Lolita. Some readers have observed a parallel between Hazel Shade’s name and Lolita’s name (the character Lolita’s last name is Haze, and by last name and first initial, she would be “Haze, L.”).
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Line 681: gloomy Russians spied. Gloom isn’t inherent to the Russian temperament—it’s just the result of gross nationalism and a sense of inferiority, something that Russians under Soviet rule and Zemblans after the revolution shared. But not all Russians are in poor spirits; the two men from Moscow that the Zemblan government hired to find the crown jewels were fun-loving people. They were wrong to think that the jewels must be in the palace, though—in fact, the jewels are in a “quite unexpected” part of Zembla. When they tore the palace apart, they did find a hidden chamber, but no crown.
Here, Kinbote is subtly expressing his politics—he supports monarchy through and through, and he finds revolutionary societies (Soviet Russia, post-revolution Zembla) to be characterized by gloom and insecurity. There are many parallels between the Zemblan revolution and the Russian revolution, and many people interpret the book’s depiction of Zembla as being based, in part, on Nabokov’s own experience fleeing Russia after the revolution. The novel never spells out where the crown jewels are hidden, but the Index contains a major clue. The entry for “Kobaltana” describes an old mountain resort that rates an entry in the index despite never being mentioned in the book—it’s likely that this is Nabokov’s clue that the crown jewels are hidden there, which would indeed be “quite unexpected.”
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This is all “the rule of a supernal game”—it’s fate, not a reflection of the Russian men’s skills. Their names (though possibly invented) were Andronnikov and Niagarin and they were quite attractive and nice people. Andronnikov was tall, happy, and handsome, whereas Niagarin was short, squat, and manly. When Kinbote was young, Russia was quite fashionable in the Zemblan court, although this was a “different Russia” that did not abide tyrants or injustice.
While Kinbote is highly critical of Gradus’s failure to carry out his mission, he takes care not to criticize these two Russians for not finding the jewels they’re assigned to locate—this is merely part of a divine game, he says (extravagantly excusing them), not a reflection of their competence. Perhaps Kinbote is so much harder on Gradus because he is a Zemblan revolutionary (emblematic of everything that Kinbote hates), whereas these Russians remind him of pre-revolutionary Russia when the monarchy was still in place, which Kinbote misses. Kinbote’s nostalgia for monarchy and his (false) assertion that Tsarist Russia contained neither tyrants nor injustice suggests something about his background. Professor V. Botkin (Kinbote’s true identity) is known to be an exile from Russia, and he may (like Nabokov himself) have come from a wealthy background, socially adjacent to the Russian court, and then had to flee after the revolution, losing the luxurious life he loved.
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Line 681: the attack. In October of 1958, Shade had a heart attack, which neatly coincided with King Charles arriving in America. In disguise, Charles dropped from a plane and landed, with a parachute, in a field. Sylvia O’Donnell’s chauffeur picked him up in a Rolls Royce, and inside Sylvia had left a newspaper with a story about Shade’s heart attack marked in red. “I” had been excited to meet Shade, but—believing he would die—“I” shrugged it off.
Sylvia is Odon’s mother—Kinbote previously informed readers that Odon’s mother lives in New Wye, and the name “Odon” appears in the first four letters of “O’Donnell.” It seems that Odon’s final attempt to help Charles’s escape from Zembla was to enlist his mother’s help. At this point in the story, Kinbote switches to first person when describing King Charles—he's no longer pretending that they’re separate people.
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Sylvia was Wordsmith’s primary trustee, and she arranged for Kinbote’s job there. When Charles arrived at her house, she informed him that Shade would be okay, so he would get to meet the famous poet after all. Shade is “strictly hetero,” she cautioned, and told him that he needed to be very careful. Otherwise, she thought he would like it in New Wye, although she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to teach Zemblan. 
When Sylvia explicitly cautions Kinbote that Shade is heterosexual and that he should be careful in New Wye (presumably about openly expressing his sexuality), she’s suggesting that New Wye has more conservative social norms than Zembla. This seems obviously true, as Kinbote’s sexuality is certainly a big part of his social isolation there.
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Shade recovered quite well, and readers shouldn’t take literally the part of “Pale Fire” about the doctor in the front row. Shade said that his heart didn’t get manually compressed and there was no emergency surgery; if his heart even did stop, it was momentary. This doesn’t undermine the beauty of the lines, though.
It's not clear what to believe in this passage—it’s possible that Shade might have invented the doctor to make that section of “Pale Fire” more dramatic and to set up the joke about him being “half a Shade” while he was supposedly dead, but it seems likely that this is another instance of Kinbote being unreliable. If Shade’s heart didn’t really stop—or if it only stopped momentarily—then that means that his whole experience of being dead (involving seeing the white fountain) was invented, too. That doesn’t seem likely, since this is an event whose consequences (finding the woman who he believed had also seen the white fountain) became the foundation of his spiritual beliefs.
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Line 697: Conclusive destination. Gradus arrived in the Côte d’Azur on July 15th. His hotel was somewhat squalid, but he liked the noise outside because it kept his mind occupied. He hadn’t yet been told that Andronnikov and Niagarin would be helping him, and he passed them on the street having only barely recognized them as being familiar. Gradus got into a cab bound for Disa’s villa, but the chatty driver told him before he arrived that nobody lived there at present, so he turned around.
Andronnikov and Niagarin are the two Russians previously mentioned for their role in trying to find the Zemblan crown jewels. It’s quite a coincidence that they pass Gradus on the street in France, and it’s clear how out of the loop Gradus is with headquarters based on his not knowing that they’ve been assigned to help. Gradus’s actions here also show how bad at his job he is. He gives up easily when a cab driver tells him that nobody lives at the villa right now without knowing if that’s even true.
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Back at the hotel, Gradus had a telegram from headquarters telling him to pause his work and have fun for a while. But Gradus had no hobbies or pleasures—not even sex, since he’d tried several times to castrate himself—and he felt furious at not having any work.
This is one of the most scathing passages about Gradus, as Kinbote suggests that he is so insipid and deranged that he castrated himself, leaving him unable even to enjoy sex. In this description, Gradus’s revolutionary work springs not from moral conviction, but from boredom: an inability to entertain himself without a specific task to do.
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Lines 704-707: A system, etc. When Shade repeats “cells interlinked” three times, he does it quite well, particularly because of the resonance between “stem” and “system.”
This is, at least, on topic—Kinbote is discussing the language that Shade uses in his poem and not bringing up anything irrelevant for once. He doesn’t get into the meaning of this passage at all, though. It’s pretty interesting that when Shade was having a heart attack, during the period of time in which he insists he was dead, he was experiencing a pattern that felt cellular. He doesn’t say that he felt the presence of God or heard heavenly music or anything like that—he brings up cells, which are bodily and fundamental to life on earth. In this way, he suggests that the seeds of the universe and of eternal life are within him somehow.
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Lines 727-728: No, Mr. Shade…just half a shade. This passage makes a pun on the “two additional meanings of shade”—plus it being a synonym for “nuance.” The doctor is suggesting that, during this “trance,” Shade was half himself and half a ghost. But knowing the doctor who treated him there, Kinbote believes he’s not clever enough to have actually said that.
Just prior to this, Kinbote instructed readers not to interpret the anecdote about the doctor literally, but now he says that he knows the doctor who treated Shade, which implies that the doctor really was there. This unreliability is maddening and it is actively counterproductive to helping readers understand the poem. When Shade told the doctor that he died during his heart attack, the doctor responded “Not quite: just half a shade.” Kinbote points out that this is a pun on Shade’s name—he’s both saying that Shade only died slightly (he was only “half a shade” dead) and also that Shade was half a ghost (another meaning of the word “shade”) and half himself (since he is Shade). Saying that Shade was in a “trance” is different from conceding that he died—in a trance, someone might receive supernatural messages, but they’re still alive.
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Lines 734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable. Here, Shade is trying to make his poem mirror the “intricacies of the ‘game’ in which he seeks the key to life and death.”
The sound of all these “b” syllables does mimic the erratic rhythm of a failing heart. By saying that Shade is using his poetry to mimic the “game” that provides the “key to life and death,” Kinbote appears to suggest that mimicry and resonance between things that otherwise do not resemble one another (poetry and the body, for example) is a way of understanding or mirroring the order of the universe.
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Related Quotes
Line 741: the outer glare. While Shade worked on July 16th, Gradus was bored, sitting in his hotel lobby in Nice. He flipped through the paper and saw that Disa’s villa had been burglarized. While trying to figure out how to communicate this secretly to headquarters, a high-up Shadow knocked on his door: it was a man named Izumrudov who wore a green velvet jacket. While his name sounded Russian, it actually referred to an “Eskimo tribe” that liked to boat around the “emerald waters” of northern Zembla. The man told Gradus he would be flying to New York—Andronnikov and Niagarin had found in Disa’s home a letter with the King’s new address. Izumrudov then left, probably to continue “whoring.” Kinbote hates men like him.
Izumrudov is wearing a green velvet jacket, which immediately evokes Kinbote’s previous descriptions of the Wordsmith professor Gerald Emerald. The link between Izumrudov and Professor Emerald is then strengthened by Nabokov’s use of the phrase “emerald waters” in describing the origin of Izumrudov’s name—izumrudov, in fact, is Russian for “emerald.” Some scholars believe that Kinbote fabricated the evil Shadows group in the image of the “Shadeans” in New Wye (the English professors who claim to understand Shade better than Kinbote, whom Kinbote loathes). The clear correspondence between Izumrudov and Gerald Emerald gives a lot of support to that theory.
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Lines 747-748: a story in the magazine about a Mrs. Z. With a good library, anyone could find this magazine story and track down the woman concerned, but “such humdrum potterings” are not the stuff of real scholarship.
Actually, a real scholar would likely be very interested to talk to this woman about the conversation that she and Shade had when he visited her house to investigate the white fountain that he thought she saw during her near-death experience. Kinbote finds any work that’s not explicitly related to himself and his delusions to be “humdrum potterings.”
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Line 768: address. In April, Kinbote wrote a letter to someone in the South of France that alluded to Shade. Luckily, he preserved it and he includes the text. The letter tells “my dear” not to write to him at home (where his mailbox could easily be raided), but rather at his office at Wordsmith. He has been quite on edge, especially after being betrayed by someone who lived with him, and he has an older neighbor. 
Kinbote is suggesting that he was writing to Disa in April. Reading between the lines, it seems that he is continuing to be cruel to her. While previously he told her that she couldn’t come visit him in America (which made her cry), now he’s telling her that she can only send letters to his office, not his home (which his wife would likely perceive as quite cold). The implication of this passage is that the Shadows likely got Kinbote’s address from this letter that he sent Disa.
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Line 802: mountain. The morning Shade wrote these lines, Kinbote went to church and felt, because of the cloudless sky, that he might actually be admitted to heaven, despite the “horror” in his heart. As he walked home, he heard Shade’s voice telling him to come over tonight, but when he turned around, he was alone. He called and asked what Shade had been doing at noon, then he started crying and said he needed to see Shade immediately. Shade invited Kinbote for a nighttime walk.
At this point, Kinbote is unraveling to a tremendous degree. He is bouncing between extreme emotional highs (thinking that he’s bound for heaven despite knowing how bad his behavior has been) and extreme lows (his insistent paranoia, loneliness, and despair). While Kinbote has often hinted that he has hallucinations, this is the first time that he describes one: he thinks that he hears Shade inviting him over, but Shade isn’t there (showing how Kinbote’s desires become his delusions, as is the case with his notions of Zembla). When Shade gets an unhinged phone call from Kinbote (who starts inexplicably crying), he is tremendously kind in agreeing to take a walk with him.
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That night, Kinbote asked Shade what he was writing about that day, and he simply replied “mountains.” Of course, this was confirmation that Shade was writing about the Bera Range in Zembla. This so overjoyed Kinbote that he didn’t even mind when Shade asked to return home after only an hour of walking so that he could continue working.
The joke here is that Shade wasn’t writing about mountains—he was writing about the mountain/fountain mix-up that led Shade to erroneously believe that he had concrete evidence that consciousness survives death. There is no literal mountain in “Pale Fire”—instead, the poem describes the misprint in a news article that led Shade to believe that he understood death. Shade is on a roll with his poem and he clearly would rather be working than spending time with his unhinged neighbor, but Kinbote seems to believe that he himself is being generous when he doesn’t complain that Shade only spends an hour with him (which is quite a long time for a nighttime walk with someone Shade doesn’t really like).
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Line 803: a misprint. Translators of “Pale Fire” will struggle to make “mountain” into “fountain” by changing one letter. It can’t be done in several languages, including Zemblan. This reminds Kinbote of a strange coincidental mix-up in which a Russian newspaper twice misprinted by one letter the word for “crown” (korona)—making “crow” (vorona) and “cow” (korova) in the process. It’s such an extraordinary occurrence of a kind that Kinbote has never seen anywhere else, and to see something of such slim odds would have delighted Shade.
Kinbote is saying that it’s essentially a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that there would be three Russian words that each differ from one another by only a letter, and their English translations also happen to differ from one another by only a letter. Shade certainly would have loved this, as he was a word golf enthusiast (a game where players transform one word into another by replacing one letter at a time), and he also found in these kinds of coincidences the very order, design, and beauty that he believes structure the universe itself. 
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Line 810: a web of sense. The other day, the owner of the motel where Kinbote is staying loaned him a book, the Letters of Franklin Lane. Inside, Kinbote found a passage that reminds him of the end of the third canto of “Pale Fire.” Right before his death, Lane wrote about how, in the afterlife, he would seek out Aristotle. It would satisfy him to see Aristotle make human life comprehensible, making “the whole involuted, boggling thing one beautiful straight line.”
Kinbote does seem to be understanding Shade’s metaphysics by this point, even though Kinbote hasn’t devoted much of his Commentary to analyzing how those metaphysics are apparent in the poem. Shade doesn’t believe that human beings can perceive the order of the universe, although he does believe that the apparent chaos of human life is actually linear and orderly (“one beautiful straight line”). Shade also certainly does believe that human consciousness persists after death and that, in death, consciousness has greater access to understanding the structure and order of the universe.
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Line 819: Playing a game of worlds. Shade loved word games, particularly “word golf.” Sometimes he would interrupt conversations to play, and Kinbote remembers one instance where Shade got from “live” to “dead” in five moves, one of them being “lend.”
This might be a misreading—the relevant passage in “Pale Fire” reads a “a game of worlds,” not “words.” More likely, though, Kinbote is being playful, doing a bit of word golf himself by subtracting one letter from “worlds” to get “words” and then riffing on “words” in this passage. It is, of course, significant that Kinbote brings up how efficiently one can get from “live” to “dead” (since Shade believed that life and death were inextricably connected), and it also suggests—as the novel suggests overall—that the patterns of words on a page are evocative of larger truths in the universe.
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Line 822: killing a Balkan king. Kinbote wishes he could say that, in the draft, the line was “killing a Zemblan king,” but the draft of these lines wasn’t preserved.
It’s bizarre that sometimes Kinbote flagrantly invents draft lines (as he did in the note to line 12), and sometimes he admits to his desire to invent them by way of praising his own restraint.
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Line 830: Sybil, it is. This “elaborate rhyme” is the climax of the canto, bringing together the counterpoints of “its accidents and possibilities.”
The rhyme to which Kinbote refers is Shade’s juxtaposition of “possibilities” with “Sybil, it is.” The whole phrase in the preceding line is “accidents and possibilities,” and by drawing attention to accidents and possibilities as being two parts of the same counterpoint (a musical term describing two different melodies that play, harmoniously, at the same time), Kinbote suggests something that Shade would obviously endorse: that what seems like an accident is actually a possibility, or that accidents and possibilities are two melodies that seem distinct but that actually cooperate to become one piece of music. This is also how Shade sees the relationship between life and death.
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Lines 841-872: two methods of composing. There are three methods if one includes the “all-important” one: the “mute command” of subliminal inspiration.
Shade’s explanation of the two methods of writing (writing with a pen in hand and writing mentally while out in the world doing something else) seems to encompass what Kinbote is bringing up here—in the poem, Shade notes that sometimes, while he’s doing something unrelated to writing, he’ll suddenly be struck with the right word or phrase or image. That Kinbote feels the need to note this phenomenon separately shows how important it is for him. It does seem that Kinbote’s delusions about Zembla are given to him via a kind of silent (or “mute”) command that he can’t account for.
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