“Pale Fire” is a 999-line poem in four cantos, written in heroic couplets. The poet John Shade (1898-1959) wrote “Pale Fire” during the last three weeks of his life at his home in New Wye, Appalachia, in the United States. The manuscript was written on 80 index cards, each dated and neatly penned. Canto One takes up 13 cards, while Canto Two (“your favorite,” the unnamed narrator writes) and Canto Three take up 27 cards each, and Canto Four (like Canto One) is 13 cards. Unlike the rest of the cards, however, the poem’s last four cards—written on the day of Shade’s death—are not a final copy, but rather a corrected draft.
Pale Fire is a novel written in the form of a scholarly work about a poem. In keeping with academic conventions, the novel consists of four sections: a foreword (in which the scholar introduces the poem being examined), the text of the poem itself, a scholarly commentary on the poem (meant to help readers understand the poem’s meaning), and an index that catalogs the poem’s references. The very first line of this foreword is something of a literary joke: a poem written in couplets (rhyming pairs of lines) cannot have an odd number (999) of lines. This gestures to the fact that the poem is unfinished—something that the narrator does not immediately acknowledge, even though it would seem to be a key fact when introducing this poem to readers. The fact that the final four index cards (written on the day of Shade’s death) are not a final draft further indicates that Shade never finished his poem because he died in the process of composing it, and it’s odd that the narrator—the scholar introducing Shade’s work—seems to gloss over this crucial fact. Another oddity is the narrator’s use of the phrase “your favorite” in reference to Canto Two. He seems to be addressing someone directly, likely John Shade himself, which would be out of place in a scholarly work. This is even stranger since the reader already knows that John Shade is dead—the narrator seems to be trying to speak to Shade even after his death.
John Shade, a man of strict routines, would write a particular number of lines each day and then copy the day’s lines onto his index cards at midnight. Although he may have revised these cards later, he always dated the cards with the date of their creation, not the revision. The narrator notes that the amusement park outside his window is very loud. Because of Shade’s dating system, his index cards are a “complete calendar of his work” on “Pale Fire.” He began the poem in the early morning of July 2 and finished the first canto on the 4th. On his birthday, July 5th, he began the second canto, which he finished on the 11th. During the following week, he wrote Canto Three, and then he began Canto Four on July 19th.
Throughout the book, Shade is portrayed as a routine-bound suburbanite—a man married to his high-school sweetheart, devoted to his hometown, and interested in quiet domesticity. The strict writing routine he keeps is part of this characterization—he’s not an erratic genius experiencing ecstatic highs and devastating lows, or capitalizing on brief flights of inspiration, but rather a methodical and practical artist who schedules his writing time and finds inspiration and creativity within routine. The narrator, on the other hand, already seems sort of erratic and eccentric—he interrupts a straightforward discussion of Shade’s creative process to bizarrely remark on the loud amusement park outside his window, which has no bearing on the topic at hand. It shows his mind to be somewhat disordered, and it also casts doubt on his rigor and discipline as a scholar, since no credible scholar would include something so personal and irrelevant in a foreword. It's worth noting the attention paid to dates here. Throughout the book, Nabokov will synchronize events, giving readers who cross-reference dates a deeper understanding of the novel’s plot and themes.
The last third of the final canto is full of “erasures” and “insertions,” but the text itself is remarkably clear. Nonetheless, a “professed Shadean” gave a newspaper interview following Shade’s death suggesting that the poem is merely a draft, rather than a definitive text. The narrator believes this to be a personal insult to his own competence and honesty. Right after Shade’s death, another professor—Professor Hurley—gave an interview suggesting that Shade intended “Pale Fire” to be far longer than four cantos. This is nonsense—aside from the “internal evidence” in the poem, the narrator has heard both John Shade (while he and the narrator were on a walk) and his widow, Sybil, affirm that the poem was only going to have four parts.
At this point, the narrator’s motivations and scholarly credibility are thrown into question. The last part of the fourth canto isn’t yet a final draft (and it has an uneven number of lines, even though the poem is written in couplets, which implies that at least one line is missing)—nonetheless, the narrator insists that the poem is basically complete. Furthermore, he is personally defensive about the suggestion that the draft isn’t finished, taking this not as the dispassionate opinion of other scholars, but instead as a personal insult to the narrator himself. This is bizarrely self-centered, since these scholars seem only to be talking about the poem draft, not about the person editing it. Nonetheless, the narrator uses his personal knowledge of Sybil and John Shade’s opinions to discredit dissenting scholarly opinions, something he’ll do throughout the book (with decreasing credibility as the plot unfolds).
The narrator believes that only one line of the poem is missing—the thousandth line—which is meant to be identical to the first line. This is part of the poem’s structural symmetry, in which the first and last cantos are the same length, and the second and third cantos are the same length. And, on July 21st, the narrator himself heard Shade say that he was almost at the end of the poem.
The narrator doesn’t give any direct evidence that the final line (if there is, in fact, only one line missing) is supposed to be the same as the first, although—as readers will see in the next section of the book, which contains the full text of “Pale Fire”—the poem’s rhyme scheme suggests that the first line (which ends with “slain”) could pair with the final line in the draft (which ends with “lane”). Instead of doing a close reading of the poem and exploring the evidence for and against the final line being the same as the first, however, the narrator expects readers to take his word for it. This is more evidence that the narrator is a poor scholar. The mirror structure of the poem (in which the lengths of the first and fourth sections match, and the lengths of the second and third sections match) will resonate with both the content of the poem (which includes a lot of imagery that involves reflections) and with the world of Zembla that the narrator will describe (Zembla, which sounds like “semblance” or “resemblance,” turns out to be a sort of mirror world of the narrator’s life).
The narrator also has a dozen index cards containing drafts of couplets that don’t appear in the poem’s final copy. Shade always destroyed his drafts when he was finished with them—the narrator often watched from his porch as Shade burned stacks of cards in a “pale fire,” stooped like he was in mourning as “black butterflies” filled the air.
This passage contains the first reference to the book’s title, in the “pale fire” of Shade’s burning drafts. The phrase “pale fire” comes from a passage in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “the moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” (In other words, the moon itself doesn’t produce light; it merely reflects—or steals—the light of the sun.) Here, the burning drafts produce a “pale fire” that is (per the Shakespeare reference) stolen from somewhere else. Perhaps the implication here is that the poem “Pale Fire” is so brilliant that even the literal fire of the burning drafts is pale compared to the poem. If this is so, then it seems that art burns brighter than life itself, an idea that Nabokov will continue to develop. It’s also worth noting the imagery comparing the floating ashes of the drafts to black butterflies. Throughout the poem, mentions of birds and butterflies will be intimately tied to Shade’s love for his family. As the poem “Pale Fire” is, in large part, about Shade’s wife and daughter, he might literally be burning drafts of lines about his family, which produces ashes that look like butterflies.
The 12 cards that remain might have been spared because Shade intended to insert some of the unused materials into his final draft, or because he was attached to those variants but couldn’t include them for structural reasons or because they annoyed his wife. Perhaps, “in all modesty,” Shade saved the variants because he meant to ask the narrator’s advice. In the Commentary, the narrator will indicate where these unused variants—which are sometimes better than the final poem itself—might have gone.
When the narrator suggests that, “in all modesty,” Shade might have saved draft couplets to ask the narrator’s advice, he is not being modest—as will become clear, he is wildly exaggerating both his closeness with Shade and his expertise in poetry, making himself seem more important and knowledgeable than he is. Furthermore, as the novel unfolds, the narrator’s claims about the draft materials will seem increasingly suspicious; in both the Commentary and Index, the narrator will admit that at least some of these drafts were not Shade’s—they were written by the narrator himself. This casts the narrator’s claim that some of the drafts are better than the final copy in a different light; he’s basically complimenting himself here, which is another sign of his egomania.
The narrator became the editor of “Pale Fire” because, after Shade’s death, fearing the petty academic dramas that would have otherwise swirled around the manuscript, the narrator asked Shade’s wife, Sybil, to sign a contract giving him permission to publish it with his commentary and send her the profits. Despite how fair the contract is, Shade’s lawyer called it “evil,” and his literary agent wondered if it was written in a “peculiar kind of red ink.” But these people simply can’t understand the narrator’s connection to Shade’s masterpiece, especially because the past of the poem’s “beholder and only begetter” is personally connected to Shade’s fate.
The narrator seems to describe a fair—and even generous—agreement that he made with Shade’s widow about publishing the poem, but the extreme reactions of Shade’s lawyer and agent (calling the contract “evil” and implying that the it was signed in blood, evoking a deal with the devil) should give the reader pause. This casts doubt not only on the narrator’s honesty in relaying the terms of the contract, but also on his moral character; either the agent and lawyer must be irrationally overreacting, or they’re so perturbed by the narrator’s behavior that they think he’s literally evil. In explaining his own connection to the poem, the narrator makes a peculiar claim: that he is the poem’s “begetter” (or that he helped create it) and that his past is intimately connected to Shade’s death. As the novel unfolds, it will become clearer what the narrator means by these strange claims, but this is another example of the narrator’s self-aggrandizement and his desire to make Shade’s life and work about him rather than taking Shade’s own intentions seriously.
The aftermath of Shade’s death revealed some secrets that forced the narrator to leave New Wye just after interviewing Shade’s killer in jail. He wrote the Commentary to the poem disguised in “quieter surroundings” and then flew to New York where the publisher informed him that another professor would advise the editing. Furious, the narrator found a new publisher. This new publisher asked that the narrator mention in the foreword that he (the narrator) is solely responsible for mistakes in the commentary. While he had hoped that Sybil Shade would give him biographical information, they have not been in touch—it seems that “the Shadeans” negatively influenced her into asking that “Prof H.” and “Prof C.” become co-editors of the poem, a request that “precluded collaboration” with Sybil.
Readers should already have the sense that the narrator is perhaps not telling the whole truth, and reading between the lines here is alarming; he’s describing a situation in which certain “secrets” made him flee his home, and in which he is so obsessed with being the only editor of “Pale Fire” that any suggestion of collaboration (by both the publisher and Shade’s own wife) make the narrator cut off contact with those people altogether (even though Sybil is Shade’s wife and could provide helpful information about the poem and its author). This behavior is bizarre and even cruel, although the narrator seems to find it justified. Furthermore, it’s alarming that the new publisher makes the narrator take sole responsibility for mistakes; it seems that the publisher is worried that this edition is riddled with errors, a concern that will prove true as the book unfolds.
The narrator was a dear friend of Shade’s, even though they’d known each other only a few months. In February of 1959, when the narrator moved to New Wye, he rented a house from Judge Goldsworth, who was temporarily abroad. This house was across the street from Shade, and the narrator was ecstatic—years before, he had tried to translate Shade into Zemblan. The two met at Wordsmith College, where they were both professors, first at a faculty lunch, and then when the narrator gave him a ride home. While Sybil invited him to stay and have a drink, the narrator couldn’t because he had a table tennis game scheduled with “two charming identical twins and another boy, another boy.” After this, the narrator began “seeing more and more” of Shade—from his window, he could see directly into Shade’s house.
This passage begins to reveal the actual relationship between the narrator and Shade. While the narrator claims to be a close friend, they’d only known each other briefly and there’s no evidence here that they had anything but a neighborly acquaintance. Furthermore, the narrator says that he began “seeing more and more” of Shade, but the next line makes it comically clear that he meant “see” in the sense of literally looking into his house, rather than seeing him socially. So the terms of their relationship seem clearly voyeuristic and one-sided. Furthermore, this passage gives the first hint that the narrator is gay and has pedophilic tendencies; he’s inviting young boys to his house to play games.
Soon, though, fellow academics became envious that Shade preferred the narrator to anyone else. The narrator once overheard a young professor in a green velvet jacket, whom the narrator will call Gerald Emerald, saying that Shade had left with “the Great Beaver,” mocking the narrator’s beard. As he was leaving the room, the narrator pulled Emerald’s bowtie loose. One day, the narrator’s department head, Dr. Nattochdag, called him in and asked him to be “more careful” because a boy complained. The narrator was relieved when Nattochdag said that the complaint was about the narrator’s mocking a literature course that the boy attended. The narrator wonders if Nattochdag’s kindness to him was perhaps because the professor suspected the secret about him that only a couple people at the college knew. In another incident, a professor told him at the grocery store that he was “remarkably disagreeable” and “insane.”
The narrator has so far given no evidence that he was actually friends with Shade, so it doesn’t ring true that other academics were jealous of their friendship. Reading between the lines, it seems like the narrator might simply not be well-liked, and Gerald Emerald’s cruelty wasn’t a result of jealousy, but rather an effect of the narrator’s own off-putting behavior (such as pulling Emerald’s tie loose). The anecdote about Dr. Nattochdag implies, again, the narrator’s sexual impropriety with young boys. It seems that the narrator was worried that a male student might have complained about the narrator’s sexual advances, so he’s relieved when the complaint had only to do with his mean comments. It should be alarming to the reader that the narrator casually describes so many incidents in which other people find him evil, unpleasant, or insane—the narrator himself has proved fairly untrustworthy, so it’s worth wondering whether these observers are right.
The narrator’s friendship with Shade, though, was worth all this jealousy, and the friendship was even more precious because Shade deliberately hid their closeness in front of others. Shade was quite unattractive; greying, pudgy, wrinkled—quite at odds with the “harmonies hiving” within him. His looks seemed to be the “waste products” of the perfection in his verse. The narrator’s friendship with Shade was so close that they didn’t discuss personal matters—only intellectual topics.
This passage makes even clearer that the narrator and Shade weren’t close. The narrator interprets Shade’s social chilliness as a way of hiding their closeness from others, but the much simpler and more plausible explanation is that Shade didn’t like the narrator very much. It’s also significant that they didn’t discuss personal matters, especially since (as the book will reveal) Shade’s family life was so important to him and he certainly would have discussed that with a close friend. The narrator is being unpleasantly shallow here in drawing attention to Shade’s looks and implying that it’s strange that such a talented poet would be ugly. Of course, those things are unrelated, and commenting unfavorably on Shade’s appearance seems petty and irrelevant to introducing his poem.
Shade inspired a kind of awe in the narrator, as he could watch Shade taking the world in and transforming its elements into poetry. This is the same feeling the narrator had when, as a boy, he saw a magician eating a vanilla ice after a remarkable magic show at the narrator’s uncle’s castle. “Pale Fire,” too, is like magic.
To the narrator, Shade’s poetry is a way of imparting sense and beauty on the world. He sees this is a literal act of transfiguration—a magical process by which Shade observes his surroundings and alchemizes them into gorgeous verse. The narrator is both awed by the enormity of such a thing and seemingly fascinated by its banality. He finds it hard to believe that something so amazing could also be ordinary, a disconnect that Shade himself (a man who revels in the ordinary) would never feel.
While the Commentary comes after the text of the poem (as is customary), the narrator hopes that the reader will look at the Commentary first and then decipher the poem while re-reading the Commentary. Without the narrator’s notes, Shade’s poem has no “human reality,” since “Pale Fire” is too “skittish and reticent” to be properly autobiographical and the poem omits many great lines. The poem depends on the author’s reality, and only the narrator’s notes can provide that reality—a statement that Shade wouldn’t have accepted, but the commentator has the last word. This foreword is signed with the narrator’s name: Charles Kinbote.
After all of the narrator’s praise of the “magic” of “Pale Fire,” here he asks readers to spend much more time with his Commentary than with the poem itself. This is a sign of his relentless megalomania. It’s also strange that the narrator (named Kinbote, as this passage reveals) would think that “Pale Fire” has no “human reality” and is not autobiographical—the poem that follows is actually intensely personal and human and rooted explicitly in Shade’s own life. Reading this passage after reading the poem that follows is bizarre, and Kinbote likely knows it, which is why he concedes that Shade wouldn’t have accepted Kinbote’s interpretation that the poem isn’t personal. Nonetheless, Kinbote does have the last word, which speaks to the odd relationship between poet and critic and the way in which a critic can, in the right circumstances, eclipse the poem itself.