Pale Fire is a novel written in the form of a scholarly work: the annotated edition of the poet John Shade’s final poem, “Pale Fire.” As such, the novel consists of the text of the poem itself, plus a Foreword, Commentary, and Index written by Shade’s colleague and neighbor, Professor Charles Kinbote. As the poem’s editor, Kinbote’s job is to help readers understand Shade’s poem by providing analysis and context—a task at which he comically fails, since he devotes most of his Commentary to telling unrelated stories of King Charles the Beloved, the deposed king of Kinbote’s native country of Zembla.
Pale Fire has, in a sense, two plots: the apparent plot (which is what the delusional Kinbote tells readers has happened) and the true plot (which is what actually happened, although it takes a lot of careful reading to discern). In the novel’s apparent plot (the storyline that Kinbote earnestly believes and narrates to his readers), Kinbote and Shade are close friends and neighbors in the college town of New Wye. On their frequent nightly walks, Kinbote tells Shade true stories about King Charles of Zembla: his reign, the revolution that overthrew him, and his daring escape from Zembla. Kinbote believes that the poem that Shade is working on will be all about Zembla, incorporating these stories about Charles the Beloved. As Kinbote reveals more about King Charles, it becomes clear that Kinbote believes that he is King Charles—he is merely disguised as Charles Kinbote, a professor of Zemblan at Wordsmith College, to avoid the extremist Zemblan assassin Gradus who is trying to hunt him down.
On the day that Shade finishes his poem, Kinbote invites Shade to dinner. As Shade and Kinbote cross the street, Gradus appears on Kinbote’s doorstep, pulls out a gun, and accidentally kills Shade while attempting to murder Kinbote (whom he knows to be King Charles). In her grief, Shade’s diabolical and conniving widow, Sybil, grants Kinbote permission to edit Shade’s final poem, but when Kinbote reads the poem, he’s devastated to find that it’s not about Zembla—it’s actually an autobiographical poem about Shade’s family, the natural world, and his obsession with the idea that human consciousness can survive death. Nonetheless, as Kinbote re-reads the poem, he realizes that Shade has subtly inserted many references to Zembla and to Kinbote’s stories about King Charles, and Shade has even predicted the approach of his own assassin, Gradus—this is miraculous, since Shade knew nothing of the man until the moment he died. Kinbote blames Sybil’s nefarious influence for the fact that Zembla isn’t more explicitly at the center of “Pale Fire,” and he devotes his Commentary on the poem to explaining how the poem is actually about Zembla.
Of course, this is not at all what has happened—Kinbote is a delusional megalomaniac and his narration is completely unreliable. In fact, his name is not even Kinbote; the novel’s narrator is actually the professor V. Botkin who believes himself to be the exiled King of Zembla living in disguise as Charles Kinbote. A careful reader can piece together Nabokov’s clues and arrive at the novel’s true plot, which is as follows.
V. Botkin is a Russian-born language professor at Wordsmith College. He’s not well-liked by his colleagues because he’s unpleasant, eccentric, thin-skinned, self-centered, gay, and a pedophile—not to mention clinically insane, suffering from delusions and hallucinations that he cannot control. Botkin is renting a house from Judge Goldsworth, a local judge with a reputation for being excessively punitive, and the house happens to be across the street from where John and Sybil Shade live. Botkin admires Shade’s poetry, he’s desperately lonely, and he’s deteriorating mentally, so he becomes obsessed with the notion that, if he tells Shade stories about his homeland of Zembla (which is not a real place—it’s part of Botkin’s delusion), then Shade will incorporate those stories into a masterful poem.
Believing that he and Shade are close friends, Botkin relentlessly badgers Shade for attention, and, whenever he gets it, he prattles on about Zembla and King Charles, failing to ask Shade anything meaningful about himself or his life. While Shade finds Botkin to be annoying and even occasionally offensive, he humors his neighbor out of kindness, since he knows how lonely and distressed Botkin is. Botkin speaks of King Charles in the third person to try to disguise what he believes is the truth: that he himself is King Charles, living in disguise in New Wye. Shade knows that Botkin believes this, but (perhaps out of kindness) he treats these delusions as though they’re real.
Throughout the month of July, Shade is working on a poem, although he won’t tell Botkin any specifics about it. Certain that the poem is about Zembla and unable to contain his excitement, Botkin obsessively spies on Shade. He looks in the windows of his home and even once barges in through a back door unannounced. Meanwhile, his mental state deteriorates further, and on the day that Shade finishes his poem, Botkin hallucinates that Shade is standing behind him telling him to come over that night.
Botkin does go to Shade’s house that evening, and he finds Shade crying quietly and carrying the newly finished manuscript of “Pale Fire.” Shade agrees to go to Botkin’s house for some celebratory wine, and Botkin grabs the manuscript—ostensibly to steady Shade as he crosses the street. On Botkin’s doorstep is a stranger, and this man turns around and fires a gun at Shade, killing him instantly. When the police arrive, the murderer tells them the truth: that his name is Jack Grey and he’s an escaped inmate at a facility for the criminally insane. He hitchhiked to New Wye to kill the judge who sentenced him: Judge Goldsworth, who owns Botkin’s house. It was previously mentioned that Shade resembles Judge Goldsworth, so this was a case of mistaken identity—Grey believed that Shade was the judge. Botkin dismisses this story as a cover story meant to disguise the politically inconvenient fact that an assassin came so close to killing a former king.
In the wake of Shade’s death, Botkin manipulates Sybil into signing a contract giving him full control of the publication of “Pale Fire.” However, Sybil and the members of the English department at Wordsmith quickly realize that this is a terrible idea—Botkin is completely unqualified to edit the poem, as he’s mentally unhinged and he’s not even a scholar of literature (he teaches in an unspecified foreign language department). It’s too late, though—amidst all this local unpleasantness, Botkin flees New Wye to an isolated cabin out west where he holes up to write his Commentary on “Pale Fire.” Once he’s finished, Nabokov implies that Botkin takes his own life.