Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire: Commentary: Lines 873-1000 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Line 873: My best time. When Shade began this line, Gradus was boarding an airplane and then flying, “desecrating the sky.”
In this passage of “Pale Fire,” Shade is saying that he writes best in the morning. It’s important that, in the moment when Shade is doing his best work, Gradus is boarding an airplane to America, beginning his final approach to Shade’s fated death. This is another example of the novel suggesting that somehow Shade’s writing itself propels Gradus.
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Lines 887-888: Since my biographer may be too staid or know too little. If Shade had known that Kinbote would be the commentator, he would not have presumed this. In fact, Kinbote once saw Shade doing the very thing he goes on to describe—one morning in March, Kinbote dropped by to see what it was that Shade wanted him to look up at the Library of Congress, and, despite Sybil’s objections, Shade allowed Kinbote to speak with him while he bathed. Neither Shade nor Kinbote remembered what it was that he needed to have looked up.
The final canto of “Pale Fire” contains an extended sequence of Shade shaving, and Shade rhetorically justifies subjecting readers to an explanation of how he shaves by saying that his biographer might not know this about him. Kinbote, however—creepy as he is—claims to know from experience how Shade shaves, since he once was in the bathroom with Shade while he was shaving in the bath. It’s possible that this is fabricated, though, since it’s clear that John and Sybil didn’t let Kinbote into their house very much at all and this seems far too intimate for the relationship they had with Kinbote.
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Line 894: a king. At the beginning of the Zemblan Revolution, pictures of Charles the Beloved circulated in America. Sometimes, people in New Wye would tell Kinbote how much he looked like King Charles. Once, at a Faculty Club event, a visiting scholar made several comments about it, and Kinbote brushed it off, saying that all bearded Zemblans look alike, and the word “Zembla” itself does not derive from the Russian zemlya, but from words related to “resemblance.” When the scholar prodded Shade, he denied the resemblance, saying that “resemblances are the shadows of differences.”
Kinbote is making an important point about Zembla when he claims that the country’s name isn’t derived from “Zemlya” (the real name of a Russian island that is sometimes called “Zembla”—the same one that appears in the Alexander Pope poem that Shade cites) but is instead related to the word “resemblance.” This echoes Conmal’s statement that Zemblan is the “tongue of the mirror”—it’s a fictitious language that resembles other languages (many Zemblan words have Slavic or Russian roots) and the world of Zembla overall mirrors the real world with important distortions. Kinbote and King Charles are mirror images of one another—they’re both named Charles, they’re both narcissists, and they’re both pedophiles, but one is beloved and the other is isolated, one is important and the other is marginal. Perhaps when Shade says that “resemblances are the shadows of differences,” he's drawing attention to what’s different between Zembla and New Wye, since those differences reveal Kinbote’s psyche.
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Different faculty members started speculating about King Charles’s fate—whether he escaped in disguise or was executed, and whether history will treat him unkindly—and then Shade noted that he himself is said to resemble several other people, including a cafeteria worker at Wordsmith who is herself said to resemble Judge Goldsworth.
This passage contains a subtle clue that is key to understanding the novel’s true plot. When Shade says that he resembles a cafeteria worker who resembles Judge Goldsworth, he’s implicitly suggesting that he himself resembles Judge Goldsworth. While Kinbote insists that Gradus killed Shade while aiming at Kinbote, everyone else accepts the story that the escaped lunatic Jack Grey came to Goldsworth’s house (which Kinbote was renting) to get revenge on the judge who locked him up. That Shade resembles Judge Goldsworth explains why Grey shot Shade—he thought that Shade was Goldsworth. Kinbote will reject this narrative as being a media cover-up (for political reasons) of the attempted assassination of the former king of Zembla, but the Jack Grey story is much more plausible than Kinbote’s.
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A professor then told Kinbote that he’d heard Kinbote was born in Russia and his name was an “anagram of Botkin or Botkine.” Kinbote replied, sarcastically, that he was mixing Kinbote up with a “refugee from Nova Zembla.” Shade remarked that, in Zemblan, kinbote means “regicide,” and Kinbote affirmed him before Shade told the others that Kinbote is the author of a book on surnames.
That a professor brings up the relationship between the names “Kinbote” and “Botkin” gives further evidence that Kinbote’s true identity is Professor V. Botkin—this passage suggests that everyone knows about Professor Botkin’s delusions, although they mostly humor him by treating him as if he is Kinbote. Here, they are teasing him by telling him that he resembles the King of Zembla and peevishly pointing out the resemblance between the names “Kinbote” and “Botkin,” perhaps seeing if they can get him to break character. Shade seems to be trying to get the others to stop, since he recognizes that this distresses Kinbote. When Kinbote says that they’re perhaps mixing him up with a refugee from Nova Zembla, Kinbote might be revealing something about Botkin’s background. From other parts of the novel, readers know that Professor V. Botkin is a Russian émigré—perhaps he is actually from Nova Zembla (the Russian island to which Pope alludes), which would mean that Kinbote’s delusions of Zembla really are a reflection of his (Botkin’s) homeland.
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Gerald Emerald, who had left the group to search the encyclopedia for a picture of King Charles, returned to show everyone a picture of young Charles in uniform, calling him a “fancy pansy.” Kinbote then insulted Emerald, who tried to make up with a handshake that Kinbote did not return.
Gerald Emerald is consistently antagonistic to Kinbote about his sexuality, often making nasty comments (like “fancy pansy”) that deeply hurt him.
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Line 920: little hairs stand on end. In The Shropshire Lad, Alfred Housman says the opposite: that hairs raising on end makes shaving more difficult. This discrepancy, however, may be due to them using different razors.
In this part of “Pale Fire,” Shade is suggesting that the way in which poetic inspiration makes the hairs on his neck stand on end reminds him of the men in highly produced commercials whose neck hair seems to stand up naturally, therefore making it easy to shave. Kinbote’s pedantic note about Housman saying the opposite, perhaps because he used a different razor, tells readers about Kinbote’s taste (he likes Housman—perhaps in part because Housman was believed to be gay) but says nothing about Shade or “Pale Fire.”
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Line 929: Freud. Kinbote can still see Shade literally falling down in laughter as Kinbote read to him from an important book on psychoanalysis. The two snippets that Kinbote wrote down, both “quoted by Prof C.” from other sources, are about how nose picking is essentially lustful, and how the red hat in Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of menstruation. Kinbote cannot believe anyone would teach such things.
Both Kinbote and Shade have a lot of antagonism towards psychoanalysis. This fits with a lot of Shade’s other beliefs—for example, he hates literary symbolism (finding it reductive of the complexity and mystery of life), and psychoanalysis notoriously proposed that dreams contain various stock symbols that illuminate a person’s emotions in waking life—surely, Shade would hate that. It’s likely that he is so attuned to mystery and the limits of human understanding that he bristles at the psychoanalytic attempt to find clear answers in the unconscious mind.
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Line 937: Old Zembla. Kinbote is tired and sad today. In a draft of these lines, Shade quoted Pope’s “Essay on Man”: “At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.” While Shade might have meant to put this in a footnote, Kinbote can’t believe that this is all that Shade could say about Zembla. 
When Shade mentions Zembla in passing in “Pale Fire,” it’s an allusion to the line quoted here from Pope’s “Essay on Man.” Kinbote is unbearably sad that, despite feeding Shade all of his incredible stories about Zembla, Shade didn’t write about Zembla at all and only mentioned it as an allusion to Pope (who was himself talking about an island in Russia, not Kinbote’s imagined homeland). All his efforts to immortalize his homeland in verse by making Shade write about it were for naught. 
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Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc. If Kinbote is interpreting this correctly, Shade is trying to say that life is essentially a series of footnotes to a “vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”
Kinbote’s commentary here is both ironic and true. Shade certainly believed that human life was merely a footnote to the vast and inexplicable universe—a universe that he often explicitly compared to a poem. So it’s completely plausible that Shade meant the line “Man’s life as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem” as a metaphor for the relationship between humanity and the universe. However, Kinbote is missing the obvious fact that this line describes exactly what he is literally doing as he writes his Commentary: he’s taking an “unfinished masterpiece” (Shade’s “Pale Fire”) and telling his own life story as a series of notes on that poem. This is another moment of odd unrecognition; Kinbote usually sees himself at the center of everything, but he oddly cannot see himself in this line. Perhaps this is because he’s in denial about what he’s doing—he really believes that he’s illuminating the subtext of Shade’s poem by telling his stories of Zembla.
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Line 949: And all the time. Shade began these lines on his final day alive. It’s possible that Gradus woke at the exact same time.
In the poem, the phrase “And All the time” refers to Sybil’s constant presence in Shade’s poetry, but Kinbote takes this as an indication that Shade and Gradus have further synchronized their timelines, moving towards Shade’s fate later that day. 
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Line 949: and all the time. Gradus arrived in America to a thunderstorm unlike anything that Gradus, Jacques d’Argus, or Jack Grey (“let us not forget Jack Grey!”) had ever seen. The next morning, Gradus awoke in New York and pulled from his suitcase a ham sandwich he’d bought in Nice last Saturday, which he ate for breakfast. Utterly uncurious about New York, Gradus read the paper in the park until lunchtime, when he ate some “pinkish pork” alongside tons of French fries and an overripe melon. It’s odd that he ate such a meal when he was about to commit murder, but Kinbote thinks it’s fair to assume that he couldn’t imagine anything beyond the murder itself. He wasn’t aware of the all its possible consequences, the way that a chess player is aware of all possible moves in advance, even as he chooses only one.
Kinbote mocks Gradus by paying close attention to his bizarre eating habits—particularly noting that he ate a perilously old ham sandwich, some alarmingly pink pork, plus some other sickening additions (overripe melon, for instance). Not only is this a strangely large amount of food for someone about to commit murder to be able to eat (showing Gradus’s lack of conscience), but it’s also bound to make him sick even though he has an important job to do (showing his incompetence). Nabokov was obsessed with chess and he loved designing chess problems (puzzles that challenge the solver to plot a particular course of game play, as opposed to competing against an opponent). In his writing, Nabokov was many moves ahead of the reader (he designed “Pale Fire,” for instance, to require several re-readings in order to uncover all the clues and connections that he planted) and he explicitly saw a connection between designing chess problems and writing novels. It's significant, then, that Shade in “Pale Fire” describes human life as a game played by far off players whose design human beings can never understand. Being able to see a matrix of possibilities and project the consequences of human actions into the future is, for Shade and Nabokov, a pale imitation of divine consciousness. It’s highly insulting, then, that Gradus cannot do this even at an elementary level.
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Gradus then flew to New Wye (the trains would be too slow), and as he came “nearer to us in space and time” than he was in earlier cantos, one could make out more of his details: his rumpled suit, hunched posture, poor complexion, and even—as “phantom-like, we pass through him”—the churning in his stomach. Gradus was soulless and he liked the importance of being assigned to kill someone. He might have even gotten a small, sensual, gross thrill from imagining the act. God made human beings so beautifully that rational inquiry into their motives can never explain why someone would be capable of murder. So, with Gradus, it seems that the plausible explanations for his actions are “human incompleteness” or madness.
As Kinbote describes Gradus, he asserts that “we” (presumably the readers) can “pass through him” like a ghost and see his stomach churning (his food poisoning, probably from the uncooked pork). This is perhaps an acknowledgement that Gradus doesn’t have a real physical being—he’s a novelistic figment, and therefore readers can literally see inside of him. This is more evidence for the strange notion that Gradus has been given life by Shade’s poem alone. Kinbote’s religious faith leads him to believe that human beings cannot rationally choose to do something as horrible as murder someone, so he concludes that Gradus is either not fully human (“human incompleteness”) or he’s mad. Certainly, “human incompleteness” is a fair explanation for Gradus, since he’s not human—he’s Kinbote’s delusion. Jack Grey, the man who actually does murder Shade, truly is mad.
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On the flight, Gradus’s stomach was quite unsettled, and in a taxi to the Wordsmith campus he was so overtaken with misery that he had to use the bathroom immediately after getting out of the car. Even afterwards, as he walked through campus, his stomach continued to churn. Gradus asked someone at the library for Charles’s address, but she only knew where Charles might be on campus, and Gradus got lost trying to follow her directions. When he returned to her desk, she looked up and noticed that Charles was passing by; Gradus saw Charles the Beloved disappear behind a bookshelf.
It's pathetic that Gradus, as he attempts to stalk his victim, is too overtaken by food poisoning to focus on his task and instead retires to the bathroom with diarrhea—Gradus essentially has no dignity left as he approaches the moment of truth. This shows how much Kinbote loathes Gradus, and it reflects Kinbote’s profound hatred for all the people he sees as persecuting him and undermining his authority and not appreciating him. Instead of engaging with criticism and trying to do better, Kinbote delusionally reduces all his critics to a bumbling idiot assassin whose cause is wrongheaded and who humiliates himself at every turn.
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After getting lost again, Gradus went to the bathroom and then returned to the library desk, where the woman told him that she just saw Charles leave. As Gradus looked through a directory for Charles’s address, Gerald Emerald—who was checking out a bestseller—came up beside him and offered to drive him to Professor Kinbote’s house. Gradus told Kinbote all this when Kinbote visited him in jail—quite a divergence from the story that the police spread, in which Jack Grey hitchhiked with a trucker from Roanoke. 
In addition to mocking Gradus to get back at all his critics, Kinbote is relentlessly disparaging of Gerald Emerald (who is certainly quite mean to Kinbote)—here, he maliciously notes that Emerald is checking out a bestseller, which is supposed to make the English professor seem lowbrow and unqualified for his job. When Kinbote recounts the official police account of Shade’s death, he’s actually revealing what happened: Jack Grey broke out of an asylum and hitched a ride to New Wye with a trucker, not with Gerald Emerald. Kinbote is dismissive of this story, claiming that it’s false, but readers can intuit that it’s more plausible than what Kinbote himself claims.
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Line 962: Help me, Will. Pale Fire. To paraphrase, this means that Shade is looking in Shakespeare for a phrase to use as a title, finding “pale fire.” It’s not clear where Shade got this, though—readers need to do their own research, because Kinbote only has his Zemblan edition of Timon of Athens, which doesn’t have anything in it that could translate to “pale fire” (if it did, it would be unbelievably lucky).
By this point in the story, it should be clear that the Zemblan edition of Timon of Athens is the one that King Charles stole from the closet in Zembla before he escaped, which he has since kept with him as a talisman. Kinbote is being obtuse here; it happens that the phrase “pale fire” is actually from Timon of Athens, and Kinbote previously translated in his Commentary the very passage from which the title comes without realizing that the phrase “pale fire” was there. This passage draws attention to the fact that Nabokov has written into the novel many extraordinary coincidences such as this one, which—for him—mirrors the way the universe seems (at least to a careful observer) to be patterned and designed.
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Conmal was the first to translate English works into Zemblan, but he was self-taught and he made mistakes. Part of this is because he lived more in the library than in the world—which Shade could also be guilty of. Only one person ever questioned whether Conmal’s translations were good, and that academic lost his job. Conmal then wrote a sonnet in “colorful, if not quite correct” English to denounce the man, which included the line: “I am not slave! Let be my critic slave.”
This passage intensifies the joke of the previous passage, in which Kinbote doesn’t realize that he in fact does have the Shakespeare book from which Shade’s title comes. Since Conmal (the translator of Kinbote’s Zemblan edition) obviously spoke such poor English, it’s likely that Kinbote’s translation of Timon of Athens is so full of errors and nonsense that it rendered the “pale fire” passage unrecognizable. Kinbote is not being self-aware when he accuses Shade of being more in the library than in the world—Shade in fact had an extraordinary understanding of the natural world around him and he was close with his family, while Kinbote lives inside his own delusions rather than engaging with the world. Conmal’s garbled denunciation of his critic seems to subtly suggest that translators and critics are the slaves of the writers whose books they work with. This echoes one interpretation of the Shakespeare passage from which the phrase “pale fire” comes: that critics steal their pale fire from artists, who are the truly radiant ones.
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Line 991: horseshoes. It was never clear to Shade or to Kinbote which neighbor was playing horseshoes in the evenings, but they heard the clanging sound often. That sound was in the air on July 21st when Kinbote went to Shade’s house to check in. Shade was on the porch, looking teary-eyed, and he pulled out an envelope with “practically the entire product”—his poem, which needed only “a few trifles to settle.” 
It's something of a mystery why Shade would have gotten up from his desk without jotting down the poem’s final line, but if Kinbote’s narration is correct, it seems that Shade really did see the poem as nearly finished at this point and did not intend to add much more. The sound of horseshoes in the air is meaningful—horseshoes are a symbol of luck, and an upside down horseshoe brings bad luck. The clanging sound of the horseshoes is sort of like a bell tolling—it prophetically fills the air with a sound that evokes Shade’s imminent fate.
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Kinbote suggested going to his house for dinner and wine, promising that if Shade showed him the poem, he’d reveal “who gave you your theme.” Shade asked what theme, and Kinbote spoke of Zembla and the King’s escape. Shade cut him off, saying he’d already guessed Kinbote’s secret, but that he would love to have wine. Kinbote took the envelope from Shade as they walked across the road.
It's poignant that—in this moment before Shade’s death, before Kinbote has read his poem—Kinbote still believes that he has inspired the poem and that it will be all about Zembla. Shade, meanwhile, has been so wrapped up in his work that he has clearly forgotten that Kinbote was tirelessly trying to feed him stories about Zembla for his poem. Here, Shade confirms what readers have long suspected: that he knew that Kinbote believes himself to be Charles the Beloved. He almost certainly humored this delusion out of kindness to his lonely neighbor.
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As he held the poem, Kinbote reflected that people find language bizarrely normal—the “miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery…new worlds with live people.” By making language banal, people “undo the work of ages,” disregarding how “poetical description” developed from “the caveman to Keats.” Kinbote asks what would happen if everyone woke up one day without being able to read—it’s a miracle that anything is readable. Kinbote can imitate the prose of others quite well (but not poetry), but he isn’t a real artist except for one thing: he does what only a “true artist” does in seeing the world anew as a web of things and seeing the components of that web. Carrying the poem, Kinbote felt just as amazed as he would if someone told him that fireflies were sending readable messages from “stranded spirits.” He was “holding all Zembla” on his heart.
For a while in this passage, Kinbote really seems to get Shade’s point. In “Pale Fire,” Shade’s poetry suggests something that Nabokov believed: that language itself is so miraculous and full of inexplicable patterns and coincidences that it seems to mirror the miracle of creation itself. Kinbote correctly marvels at the unlikely fact that anyone can read, write, or speak at all—that human consciousness can tie abstract sounds and symbols to objects and ideas in such a way that we can build whole societies and philosophies on them. Shade would see language as akin to life itself—something unbelievably strange and miraculous that people somehow still see as banal, but which should be evidence that the universe is much more marvelous and unexpected than human beings can ever know. He would agree that the mere fact of language existing is akin to learning that fireflies could relay messages from ghosts—if he were to dismiss the latter notion, it would be because it wasn’t strange enough. Furthermore, Shade would agree with Kinbote’s conception of a “true artist” as someone who can see the truth about the miraculous nature of the world by understanding aspects of its structure that others don’t see (Shade calls this a “web of sense” in “Pale Fire”). Despite Kinbote seeming for a moment to understand the major ideas of “Pale Fire” (even without having read it, strangely), he immediately pivots back to Zembla.
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Lines 993-995: A dark Vanessa, etc. Right before Shade died, as they crossed the road between his and Kinbote’s house, a Red Admirable butterfly flitted between them in a “frightening imitation of conscious play” and landed on Shade’s sleeve before disappearing into a bush.
The Red Admiral butterfly (also known as the Red Admirable butterfly or the Vanessa butterfly) is associated—particularly for Russians—with impending death (this is because the Red Admiral population was unusually large just before Tsar Alexander II was assassinated). In this light, this moment quite literally foretells the assassination that’s about to happen when Jack Grey kills Shade. The notion that the butterfly is imitating “conscious play” is quite interesting—it suggests that the butterfly is behaving in a strangely humanlike manner, and it also evokes Shade’s notion that human life is a game played by faraway players. Some scholars believe that the Vanessa butterfly is an embodiment of Hazel Shade’s consciousness, and she is either warning her dad about what awaits him or merely trying to be with him in an important moment in his life. If this is the case, it explains why the butterfly is so humanlike in this moment.
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Line 998: Some neighbor’s gardener. It’s weird that Shade is vague about this, since he often saw Kinbote’s gardener. Kinbote must pay tribute to his gardener because he saved Kinbote’s life. The gardener and Kinbote were the last two people to see Shade alive, and right before Shade died, the gardener had a premonition that made him walk towards Gradus on the porch.
The gardener did not save Kinbote’s life—the bullets that struck Shade were never intended for Kinbote, despite his delusions about Gradus. Furthermore, Shade’s reference to Kinbote as “some neighbor” emphasizes that they weren’t very close at all, no matter what Kinbote wants to believe. The gardener walking towards Shade (out of a supernatural sense of something about to happen) in the moment before he dies is reminiscent of Shade’s first experience of death, when he was playing with a toy gardener in the moment that he had his first seizure. This pattern of gardeners preceding experiences of death hints at Shade’s ideas of a designed universe that people cannot comprehend.
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Line 1000: [=Line 1: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain]. As Shade and Kinbote crossed the road, they noticed a visitor on Kinbote’s porch who had just rung the bell. Quietly, Kinbote said he would kill the man, upset that this might delay his encounter with Shade’s poem, and he rushed ahead of Shade towards the porch. Two bullets flew past Kinbote, but it’s “evil piffle” to say that Gradus was aiming at Shade rather than Kinbote. No, he was aiming at Kinbote and missing—one of those bullets happened to hit Shade in the heart. Then, the gardener hit “gunman Jack” on the head with his spade.
At this point, Kinbote is commenting on a line of the poem that was never written—he’s assuming that this would have been the final line, but Shade didn’t actually write it. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of resonance between the line (Shade declaring himself the “shadow of the waxwing slain”) and what Kinbote is about to narrate (Shade’s death). In describing the moment of Shade’s death, Kinbote seems to protest too much—he emphasizes and re-emphasizes the possibility that the gunman wasn’t aiming at him and then pushes that aside without evidence.
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The poem was fine, but Shade was laying on the ground bleeding. Dazed, Gradus sat on the porch holding his bloody head. Kinbote ran inside and hid the poem in a closet before calling the police. Outside, Shade’s open eyes pointed at the “sunny evening azure” while the gardener and Gradus smoked together, with Gradus totally ignoring Kinbote. When the police arrived, Gradus said his name was Jack Grey and he’d just escaped from an institution for the criminally insane.
Kinbote’s concern here isn’t that his supposedly close friend Shade has just been shot and appears to be dead—he is wholly focused on Shade’s poem, which he hides in his house before he even calls the police. This is psychotic behavior. The use of the word “azure” to describe the sky towards which Shade’s dead eyes are pointed evokes, of course, the “false azure” of the windowpane into which the waxwing flies in the poem’s second line. Nabokov also uses the word “azure” to describe the lights outside the bar when Hazel leaves her blind date for the lake where she drowns, so “azure” in this book is irrevocably associated with death. That Gradus completely ignores Kinbote after killing Shade suggests that he was never after Kinbote at all—he believes that he has killed his target (since he mistook Shade for Judge Goldsworth), so he sits and smokes and waits for the police. Kinbote’s belief that he was the target of an assassination attempt defies all evidence.
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Later that night, Kinbote was able to read “Pale Fire,” and the reader knows the disappointment that awaited him. Kinbote didn’t expect that the whole poem would be about Zembla, but he was sure that at least some of his stories would make it in—when he realized that “Pale Fire” was an autobiographical narrative without the wild magic of Zembla, he was anguished. However, after calming down and re-reading the poem, Kinbote found in it—especially in the drafts—the “echoes and spangles of [Kinbote’s] mind, a long ripplewake of [his] glory.”
Throughout the three weeks of Shade’s writing “Pale Fire,” Kinbote believed—despite evidence to the contrary—that Shade was writing his poem about Zembla. Here, he recounts his disappointment at finally reading the poem and learning that it was actually an autobiographical poem about Shade himself. Of course, Kinbote struggles to accept difficult realities, so it makes sense that his delusions soon took back over. In re-reading “Pale Fire,” he invented drafts that pointed more explicitly to Zembla and figured out ways to read Zembla into the final copy: as he has done throughout the Commentary, Kinbote interprets even fairly straightforward passages about Shade’s life as coded references to Zembla or uncanny prophecies of the moment when his life would intersect with a Zemblan assassin. Kinbote’s megalomania is on display in his insistence that the poem be about him, and also in his notion that the poem reflects his “glory” by showing “echoes” of his own mind—as though “Pale Fire” could not be great without Kinbote’s “contribution.”
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The Commentary to “Pale Fire” has tried to reveal those “wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me.” Kinbote has tried not to be vindictive, despite everything that reporters and Shade’s so-called friends made up about his death. These people will surely question much of this material; Sybil likely won’t remember having seen some of the drafts, and the woman at the library desk will have been instructed not to remember Gradus asking for Kinbote’s address.
Kinbote is incredibly conspiratorial here. He is pre-emptively suggesting that the reason that nobody will corroborate his invented draft variants or his story about Shade’s death is that everyone is working together to thwart him and he is persevering heroically in spite of this—in fact, the reason that nobody believes his story about Shade’s death is that it’s untrue, and people will attack his Commentary because it is abysmally poor scholarship, not because people are unfairly trying to impugn Kinbote’s genius. Kinbote claims that the poem reflects the “pale phosphorescent hints” of Kinbote’s “fire,” suggesting that Kinbote himself was the sun—the brilliant, original, burning presence—whereas the poem is merely the moon, stealing its own luster from Kinbote. Obviously this is a play on the title “Pale Fire” and the Shakespeare passage from which it comes.
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Still, Kinbote has had a “little revenge,” since his gardener skewed the story of Shade’s death a bit and told Sybil that Kinbote threw himself in front of the gunman’s bullets. This attempt to save Shade moved Sybil, and she told Kinbote that nothing could ever repay him, who countered that something could: she could give him permission to edit and publish “Pale Fire.” The very next day, she signed a contract that Kinbote’s lawyer drew up.
Recall that, in the Foreword, Kinbote alluded to his peers finding the contract that Sybil signed to be evil. He dismissed those criticisms then, but now—seeing the full context—it’s difficult to believe anything else. Kinbote manipulated a grieving widow within 24 hours of her husband’s death into signing over the complete rights to his final poem based on a lie that Kinbote tried to save Shade. In fact, Kinbote left Shade’s body on the pavement while he went into the house to hide the manuscript of “Pale Fire” and he only called the police after the manuscript was stashed in a closet—he didn’t care about Shade at all in that moment, only the poem (which Kinbote cared about because he thought it was about himself).
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It was so difficult for Kinbote to make people see that he was not an accidental witness to a tragedy, but its “protagonist” and intended victim. This “hullabaloo” made it necessary for Kinbote to escape New Wye to the cabin where he is currently writing, but before leaving town, he did interview Gradus (perhaps even twice) in prison. Kinbote claimed that he could testify at trial to help Gradus, which made Gradus confess to posing as Jack Grey, an escaped lunatic who mistook Shade for the judge who sentenced him. Soon after, Gradus took his own life, unable to live with himself after killing the wrong person.
Kinbote seeing himself as the “protagonist” of Shade’s death is obviously an example of how unpleasant his megalomania is. While Kinbote doesn’t specify what the “hullabaloo” that made him leave New Wye was, readers can infer that Kinbote’s reaction to Shade’s death (including his horrific manipulation of Sybil in getting her to sign the contract turning over the rights to “Pale Fire”) was likely so distasteful for the community to witness that they drove him out of town. It’s not clear what the truth is about Kinbote’s interviews of Gradus—his uncertainty over whether he interviewed Gradus once or twice in prison suggests that he may never have interviewed Gradus at all. If he did an interview, though, it’s not hard to imagine Kinbote manipulating Jack Grey by saying (as Kinbote himself suggests here) that he could get the man out of prison as long as he parroted Kinbote’s harebrained story. Of course, it's quite clear that Jack Grey’s story is more plausible—he was an escapee from an asylum who murdered Shade accidentally while trying to murder Judge Goldsworth as revenge for sentencing him.
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Kinbote will stop there, since his “notes and self are petering out.” Moving forward, he hopes that God will prevent him from “follow[ing] the example of two other characters in this work.” Instead, he will wear different disguises. He might surface on a different campus as a happy, heterosexual Russian writer in exile who has nothing—no fame, future, or audience—except his art. He might work with Odon on a movie about escaping Zembla, or pander to middlebrow theater critics by writing a melodrama about a lunatic trying to kill an “imaginary king,” a different lunatic who believes himself to be that king, and a famous poet who dies in “the clash between these two figments.” No matter what happens, though, someone will be coming for him—a more effective version of Gradus.
This passage strongly hints that Kinbote is about to kill himself. First, he says that his “self” is “petering out” alongside his notes—this suggests that, as he has no more work to do on his Commentary, he has lost his will to live. Second, he’s clearly in danger of following “the example of two other characters in this work,” which refers to Hazel Shade and Gradus, both of whom died by suicide. Third, when he notes that no matter where he is or what he does, a more effective Gradus will be pursuing him, he’s suggesting that he cannot escape his own internal assassins—assassins that he’s already suggested can only be thwarted via self-destruction. When Kinbote imagines alternative futures for himself, one of them looks remarkably like Nabokov himself: the happy, heterosexual Russian writer and professor with no literary reputation. When Nabokov immigrated to the United States, his published works (written in Russian) were unknown there, so he had to rebuild his reputation entirely while he taught at American colleges and wrote novels in English in his spare time. That Nabokov insinuates himself into Kinbote’s story as a possible alternate identity adds another layer of confusion, suggesting that perhaps Nabokov is an invention of Kinbote’s rather than the other way around.
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