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 Charles of Zembla living in America under the assumed name of Kinbote to escape assassins—a classic persecution fantasy of a megalomaniac. At the heart of Botkin’s delusional belief that he is King Charles lies simple loneliness. By showing how isolation can lead a person to reject their identity in favor of a more bearable narrative, Nabokov shows the tremendous suffering behind Kinbote’s stubborn desire to become someone else.
To understand how identity and delusion work in the novel, one must first understand the relationship between the novel’s true plot and the plot it seems to advance. At first glance, Pale Fire’s plot seems to be as follows: shortly after finishing an autobiographical poem called “Pale Fire,” the celebrated poet John Shade is murdered. Charles Kinbote—Shade’s friend, colleague, and neighbor—is in charge of writing the scholarly commentary that will accompany the poem’s publication. However, Kinbote’s Commentary, Foreword, and Index all have little to do with Shade’s poem. Instead, they tell a jumbled story of Kinbote’s homeland, the nation of Zembla, where a revolution recently forced King Charles the Beloved into exile. It becomes clear that Kinbote is King Charles—he has fled Zembla and disguised himself as a professor to avoid being assassinated. Nonetheless, the assassin Gradus hunts the king down and, while trying to shoot him, misses and kills Shade instead.
Although this appears to be the plot of the novel, Nabokov drops hints throughout the book that Kinbote’s version of events is untrue. A careful reader can piece together the true plot: V. Botkin is a Russian-born professor who is (due to his unpleasantness, insanity, and sexual predilection for underage boys) not well-liked by his American colleagues. He has rented a house from a local judge, Judge Goldsworth, that happens to be across the street from John Shade’s home. Botkin, a desperately lonely man, becomes obsessed with Shade, spying on him and badgering him constantly for attention. Kind and generous Shade sometimes humors Botkin while he tells delusional stories about being the exiled King of Zembla—stories that Botkin erroneously believes Shade to be immortalizing in verse.
On the day that Shade is set to finish the poem he’s been writing, Jack Grey—a mentally ill man whom Judge Goldsworth once sentenced to an institution—escapes from that institution and appears on Goldsworth’s doorstep, not knowing that Goldsworth is away and Botkin is renting his home. Mistaking Shade for Goldsworth, Grey kills Shade, and Botkin gains possession of Shade’s poem, convincing Shade’s widow to let him write the scholarly commentary. The entire academic community realizes that this is a terrible idea, since Botkin is a lunatic who isn’t academically qualified to explain the poem (he’s not even in the English department), but it’s too late—Botkin writes the Commentary, which is mostly about his Zemblan delusions, and then (probably) takes his own life.
The discrepancy between the apparent plot and the true one resides in Kinbote’s genuine confusion about his own identity—he believes that he is the exiled king of Zembla, living in America under the assumed name “Kinbote.” To understand why Kinbote has rejected his actual identity, one must see how lonely he is in New Wye. As a foreign-born gay man living in midcentury small-town America, Kinbote’s identity and experiences aren’t well-understood by his peers, leaving him socially isolated. There are more sinister aspects to his isolation, too; his pedophilia, of course, isn’t socially acceptable, and his behavior is genuinely unpleasant and erratic (he’s insulting, self-centered, and openly delusional). Between Kinbote’s own personal failings and his town’s hostility towards difference, he’s left alone and insecure, which makes him reject his identity and invent a whimsical backstory that casts him in a better light—one in which he is Charles “the Beloved,” an exiled king who brought peace and prosperity to Zembla and whose many friends and admirers helped him escape to America after he was unfairly deposed. Nabokov depicts Zembla as a sort of mirror-world (Zemblan is dubbed “the tongue of the mirror” and the name Zembla is said to derive from “semblance”) in which Kinbote can be the man he wishes he were—competent, important, well-liked—rather than the man he is.
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness ThemeTracker
Identity, Delusion, and Loneliness 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.
Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
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.
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.
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, […].
In its limpid tintarron he saw his scarlet reflection but, oddly enough, owing to what seemed to be at first blush an optical illusion, this reflection was not at his feet but much further; moreover, it was accompanied by the ripple-warped reflection of a ledge that jutted high above his present position. And finally, the strain on the magic of the image caused it to snap as his red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger turned and vanished, whereas he, the observer, remained immobile. He now advanced to the very lip of the water and was met there by a genuine reflection, much larger and clearer than the one that had deceived him. He skirted the pool. High up in the deep-blue sky jutted the empty ledge whereon a counterfeit king had just stood. A shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves) ran between his shoulderblades. He murmured a familiar prayer, crossed himself, and resolutely proceeded toward the pass. At a high point upon an adjacent ridge a steinmann (a heap of stones erected as a memento of an ascent) had donned a cap of red wool in his honor.
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.
“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 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.
Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; kingbot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a, Danish stiletto.