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 kill him), but at other times, Kinbote seems eager to die, since the afterlife might be preferable to the sufferings of mortal life. Of course, Kinbote is a maniac and a fool, while Shade is a kind and wise poet, so it makes sense that the novel takes Shade’s view of death more seriously. Shade believes that death and life are inseparable, and that the universe is designed and orderly rather than chaotic and random. He is certain that an afterlife exists, although it is unknowable in its particulars. While the novel has many interpretive possibilities, Nabokov does subtly suggest that life transcends death in ways both beautiful and mysterious.
John Shade’s obsession with death began when he was a child. Both of his parents died when he was an infant, but his first personal experience of death happened when, as a boy, he had a seizure that made him feel “distributed through space and time”—he felt simultaneously in the future and in the past, on a mountain and underground, in the sky and on the earth. This experience of losing his body but retaining some form of consciousness made him ardently curious about death—so curious, in fact, that he couldn’t imagine how a person retained their sanity without knowing what happens after death, and he decided to devote his life to this question. After many false starts (a stint at the outrageously silly Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter, a vision of a white fountain during a heart attack) and after suffering the most profound loss of his life (the suicide of his daughter, Hazel), Shade arrived at a belief system that made sense to him: that although some “accidents” and “coincidences” seem like “flimsy nonsense,” the universe is actually a “web of sense.”
To Shade, human beings are like chess pieces, played from afar by mysterious players who cannot be understood through human perception. In other words, something outside of humanity imparts order to the universe and controls human life. When unrelated things seem linked but Shade is unable to precisely say what the connection is, he finds this to be evidence of the mysterious “pattern” that underlies the whole world. Shade considers this to be proof that life is more than just individual consciousness, and that death of the body does not mean disappearance of that being altogether. This notion puts him at ease about his own mortality—he’s fine with losing his body, or being reincarnated as a flower or a fly, as long as he retains enough consciousness to register beauty, which is what makes his existence meaningful. This also helps Shade find peace with Hazel’s death. By the end of the poem, he states that he’s “reasonably sure” that Hazel “somewhere is alive,” although he doesn’t expect her to spell her name on a Ouija board or speak to him through the sound of the wind. Life after death, he asserts, must be much more mysterious and strange than human beings could even imagine. He doesn’t speculate about what form Hazel’s presence may take, he just finds comfort in his belief that, somewhere, she’s still there.
Kinbote’s views on death are much less sophisticated and coherent. Sometimes, he seems to fear death. As he believes himself to be the exiled king of Zembla, Kinbote is constantly terrified that Zemblan assassins are going to break into his house and kill him. At other times, though, Kinbote seems to embrace death, suggesting that death is preferable to life. He feels this way in part due to his Zemblan-Christian faith, which insists that one should await the afterlife with a “warm haze of pleasurable anticipation.” In writing about Hazel Shade’s suicide, Kinbote says that the greater one’s “belief in Providence,” the more eager they are to “get it over with, this business of life,” and he himself seems quite eager. He describes his “intolerable temptation” towards suicide, his “burning desire” to join God, and his “ecstatic” anticipation of the “warm bath of physical dissolution.” This all makes sense; Kinbote does not find much pleasure in his life, as he is lonely, widely disliked by his peers, and tormented by his mental illness. It seems that he finds hope and comfort in the notion that the next life might be better than this one. Nabokov implies that, after finishing his Commentary to “Pale Fire,” Kinbote succumbs to the “relentlessly advancing assassins” inside him and takes his own life.
While both Shade and Kinbote speculate about death and the afterlife throughout the novel, scholars disagree about the extent to which Nabokov himself endorses the notion that consciousness can survive death. At the very least, Pale Fire includes enough strange, inexplicable events that supernatural interference on earth is a real possibility. The clearest example is perhaps the message that Hazel Shade receives while investigating paranormal phenomena in an old barn in New Wye; a dancing light (whose source is unexplained) spells out to her the message “pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told.” The book doesn’t explain this message (Kinbote is unable to make sense of it), but Nabokov himself translated it in a letter after the novel’s publication. When read aloud, the message loosely sounds like an instruction for father not to cross the lane to the Goldsworth house to hear a tale of a foreign land—read this way, the light relaying the message knows the fate that awaits Hazel’s father (he gets shot after crossing the street to Kinbote’s house, which Judge Goldsworth owns). Due to the garbled nature of the message, it’s possible that this is a message from Aunt Maud, who experienced extreme speech difficulty at the end of her life. Perhaps she is desperately urging Hazel to warn her dad about what will happen to him. If so, Shade is correct that consciousness survives death, although he believes that it’s impossible to know with any certainty what form that would take. As Shade tells Kinbote, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.”
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife ThemeTracker
Death, Mystery, and the Afterlife Quotes in Pale Fire
Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.
As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?
How fully I felt nature glued to me
My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.
Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
It isn’t that we dream too wild a dream:
The trouble is we do not make it seem
Sufficiently unlikely; for the most
We can think up is a domestic ghost.
How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one’s private tongue a public fate!
Instead of poetry divinely terse,
Disjointed notes, Insomnia's mean verse!
It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed
What mostly interests the preterist;
For we die every day; oblivion thrives
Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.
I’m ready to become a floweret
Or a fat fly, but never, to forget.
And I’ll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
[…] Are found in Heaven by the newlydead.
Nor can one help the exile, the old man
Dying in a motel, with the loud fan
Revolving in the torrid prairie night
And, from the outside, bits of colored light
Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past
Offering gems and death is coming fast
He suffocates and conjures in two tongues
The nebulae dilating in his lungs.
Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.
I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.
At times I thought that only by self-destruction could I hope to cheat the relentlessly advancing assassins who were in me, in my eardrums, in my pulse, in my skull, […].
pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told
The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table flows
Another man’s departed bride.
And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.
Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.
And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.
With this divine mist of utter dependence permeating one’s being, no wonder one is tempted, no wonder one weighs on one’s palm with a dreamy smile the compact firearm in its case of suede leather hardly bigger than a castlegate key or a boy’s seamed purse, no wonder one peers over the parapet into an inviting abyss.
I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia.
KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?
SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.
KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote’s ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere—oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature—if there be any rules.
“That is the wrong word,” he said. “One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That’s merely turning a new leaf with the left hand.”
I patted my friend on the head and bowed slightly to Eberthella H. The poet looked at me with glazed eyes. She said:
“You must help us, Mr. Kinbote: I maintain that what’s his name, old—the old man, you know, at the Exton railway station, who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains, was technically a loony, but John calls him a fellow poet.”
“We all are, in a sense, poets, Madam,” I replied, and offered a lighted match to my friend who had his pipe in his teeth and was beating himself with both hands on various parts of his torso.
Lines 734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable
A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics. The poet’s plan is to display in the very texture of his text the intricacies of the “game” in which he sees the key to life and death (see lines 808-829).
Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc.
If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.
We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.