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 professor Charles Kinbote, has lost his homeland and, more importantly, he has lost himself. Kinbote suffers from severe mental illness that causes him to create new identities (Nabokov implies that Kinbote is actually the professor V. Botkin who believes himself to be the exiled King Charles of Zembla living in disguise as a man named Kinbote to escape assassins). In the face of loss, Kinbote longs for a new identity, a sense of community, and even death, while Shade longs for assurance that his deceased family is still with him somehow and that his own death won’t mean the loss of everything that he loves. Reacting to loss with life-altering longing is a defining story of Pale Fire’s characters, showing how loss can change a life for better and for worse.
Kinbote’s losses are somewhat difficult to define, since he’s never lucid about his real backstory. He claims, of course, that his true identity is King Charles of Zembla, and that his losses include both of his parents, his crown, his homeland, his friends, and his position as a beloved and powerful figure. However, Nabokov hints that Kinbote’s actual identity is professor V. Botkin, a Russian-born language professor who is universally disliked in New Wye. Reading closely, it seems likely that Botkin fled Russia after the revolution, losing his family, homeland, social status, and feeling of belonging. Furthermore, Botkin has lost his sanity, and he suffers from his inability to make friends and his taboo sexual preferences (he’s gay with a tendency towards pedophilia). Regardless of the murkiness of Botkin’s past, it’s clear that he has suffered a lot of loss, and he reacts to this with destructive longing. He’s so lonely, for instance, that he longs for Shade to have a heart attack so that he can rush over to his neighbor’s house and try to save him, and he’s so miserable in his life that he longs, almost ecstatically, for his own death. Since his reality is too painful for him to bear, his longing for a different existence leads him into delusion: he concocts a backstory in which he is the beloved King of Zembla who was so admired that his many supporters risked their lives to help him escape Zembla after a nefarious revolution. But believing this doesn’t save him; after finishing his editorial work on “Pale Fire,” Nabokov implies that Kinbote succumbs to his longing for death and takes his own life.
Shade, too, has lost more than most, but his reaction is quite different than Kinbote’s. His parents died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his Aunt Maud, whom he lost a few years before the novel begins. He also lost his only child, Hazel, who died by suicide as a young adult. As a child, in the wake of his parents’ death, Shade prayed for everyone else in his life to remain healthy. Then, as he grew older, he became obsessed with the idea that perhaps his losses weren’t so final; maybe the dead lost their bodies, but not necessarily their minds, and maybe their consciousness stayed with him on earth somehow. Shade longed to confirm this theory, both to assuage his grief over the deaths of his relatives, and also to comfort him in the face of his own mortality; he loved being alive so much that he could not imagine death stealing his ability to perceive beauty or to feel joy and pain. This longing for affirmation of an afterlife obsessed Shade for his whole life, but it was a positive influence. His awareness of mortality made him treasure each moment of his life, and his desire to grapple with death made him look directly at all of his losses (even the devastating loss of Hazel), challenging himself to find meaning and beauty in his life regardless of what he suffered. The purpose Shade felt in the wake of his losses meant that he died at peace with himself and his beliefs; by all accounts, he was a happy man. Shade and Kinbote’s divergent fates show that loss itself doesn’t define a life—but the longing that follows can determine a person’s course, sometimes catastrophically and other times for the better.
Loss and Longing ThemeTracker
Loss and Longing Quotes in Pale Fire
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.
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.
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, […].
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.