Pale Fire


Vladimir Nabokov

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Themes and Colors
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Theme Icon
Loss and Longing Theme Icon
The Nature of Art Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Pale Fire, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness

Pale Fire is a novel full of confused identities and deluded characters, but the primary mix-up of identity involves the narrator, Charles Kinbote, believing that he is the exiled king of Zembla. In fact, not only is the whole nation of Zembla a delusion, but the name Kinbote is a delusion, too—as the novel unfolds, Nabokov provides subtle clues that the deranged professor V. Botkin falsely believes that he is the exiled King…

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Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife

John Shade and Charles Kinbote are both—in their own way—obsessed with death. In his poem “Pale Fire,” Shade says that his life’s work has been to try to understand death, particularly how a person or their consciousness might live on after they die. He writes at length about his relationship to mortality, both his own and his family’s. Kinbote, too, is obsessed with death—sometimes this manifests as fear (his terror that assassins are trying to…

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Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence

Various patterns and motifs repeat throughout Pale Fire: wordplay, the interplay of the colors red and green, and the notion of counterpoint, for instance. The book is so richly patterned, in fact, that it’s impossible to pick up on everything that Nabokov is doing in just one reading. To Nabokov, writing a book that requires such careful re-reading isn’t just a petulant demand that his readers keep up with his intelligence; it is, as…

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Loss and Longing

While Pale Fire is a novel about a murder, a delusional professor, and the fantastical escape of the deposed king of Zembla, at its center is something much more humane and universal: the experience of loss and longing. The novel’s central poem, “Pale Fire,” is about the poet John Shade’s various losses (his parents, his Aunt Maud, and—most profound of all—his teenaged daughter, Hazel). Meanwhile, the novel’s narrator, the lonely and delusional…

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The Nature of Art

Pale Fire is a fictional story told in the form of a non-fiction scholarly work: it’s the annotated edition of the poem “Pale Fire” by John Shade, with a Foreword, Commentary, and Index written by his neighbor Charles Kinbote. While Kinbote writes in a traditional academic form, he himself is not a scholar of poetry and he lacks the focus, knowledge, and sanity to be a helpful critic of Shade’s poem. The result…

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