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Pale Fire | Context


Reception of Pale Fire

Some critics have been ambivalent about Nabokov's fiction, admiring his skill while finding the emotional tenor of his novels chilly. Twentieth-century American novelist John Gardener called Nabokov an "undeniable master," but he also believed Nabokov's fiction showed hatred toward "large groups of people." British critic Frank Kermode felt "the personality that presides over [Nabokov's] work is not amiable."

This same ambivalence showed in the initial critical reception of Pale Fire. Pale Fire consists of two parts. The first is a long poem by a fictional poet, John Shade. The second is a parody of literary commentary by a fictional professor, Charles Kinbote. Part of the pleasure of Pale Fire is seeing how Kinbote misunderstands the poem by the poet he claims to adore. Some reviewers found this too intellectual. A reviewer for the New York Times admitted Nabokov displayed "ingenuity," but he thought Pale Fire "a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip," not "a book which can be read straight through with pleasure." He compared Nabokov's brilliant handling of his characters to a child enjoying making a toy train cars run off the tracks: "They lie on their backs and the wheels whiz uselessly in the air." A reviewer in the magazine Commentary offered an acidic opinion along with some grudging admiration: "Despite all this brilliance, Pale Fire is a total wreck [because] it isn't funny."

Pale Fire had an early champion, however, in 20th-century American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. Writing in the New Republic, McCarthy called the novel "a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine"—and she evidently meant those descriptions as praise. The "chess problem" of Pale Fire lies in figuring out how its parts relate. For example, readers can puzzle over which things in Kinbote's story actually happened in the same world shared by John Shade, and which things are Kinbote's delusions. Even though other reviewers were put off precisely by the "clockwork" intricacies of Pale Fire, McCarthy reveled in them. Alone among early reviewers, McCarthy laid out a theory of Kinbote's identity. She argued Kinbote was actually Professor Botkin, "a harmless refugee pedant ... who teaches in the Russian department." This interpretation was soon confirmed by Nabokov in an interview with the New York Herald Tribune. Other similar theories followed. In his biography of Nabokov, scholar Brian Boyd speculated John Shade actually invented Kinbote.

Literary Devices

Dramatic Irony

However, as McCarthy noted in her review, Pale Fire is "not a detective story." She means Pale Fire has no solution, and theories about Botkin or Shade as the real author cannot be accepted as final. The use of dramatic irony makes such interpretations difficult to maintain. In dramatic irony, readers know more about the characters than the characters do about themselves. Kinbote tells readers a story about John Shade's birthday party, to which he was not invited. Kinbote portrays it as a social triumph for him. Kinbote scores points on the socially inept Sybil, he claims, by thrusting an insulting gift at her. But readers can see through Kinbote's words. Readers realize Kinbote is a lonely man, not much liked by either of the Shades.


Another of Pale Fire's literary devices is the use of allusions. Literary allusions are references to other well-known stories, poems, or novels. Reminding readers of these other works can illuminate something about a character or scene. In Pale Fire, the literary allusions make readers more aware that Pale Fire is a literary work and not reality. For example in lines 671–72 of John Shade's poem, Shade refers to "my bunch of essays The Untamed/Seahorse." The fictional scholar in Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, comments on these lines, "see My Last Duchess." Kinbote means John Shade named his book of essays after some lines in a poem by 19th-century English poet Robert Browning, My Last Duchess (1842). In that poem, the speaker, a wealthy man, shows someone a portrait of his former lover, his "last [previous] duchess." In the course of praising the painting, he reveals that he killed her. He felt she gave her affections away too easily, was too friendly and happy with everyone. In a jealous rage, he killed her. But as he speaks, he focuses on boasting about his collection of artworks, and he seems unaware he has revealed himself to be a terrible human being. At the end of that poem, the speaker proudly refers to another work of art he owns, a bronze statue of "Neptune .../Taming a sea-horse."

In Pale Fire the scholar Charles Kinbote spirits away the manuscript of John Shade's poem, "Pale Fire." Like the speaker of My Last Duchess, Kinbote is unaware of the way his own words reveal he is a terrible person: self-centered, irritable, and irrational. Like the wealthy man in Browning's poem, Kinbote may have killed the person he claims to love, the poet John Shade. The literal killer is Grey, but Kinbote put Shade in the killer's path, accidentally. Like the speaker in Browning's poem, Kinbote feels possessing a work of art makes him a bigger, grander person.

Pale Fire also makes allusions to works by 19th-century English poet John Keats, 16th-century English author William Shakespeare, and 18th-century German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, among many, many other allusions. The cumulative effect is to continually remind readers Pale Fire is the work of an author's imagination.

Unreliable Narrator

Another literary device Nabokov uses in Pale Fire is the unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is one the reader realizes cannot be fully trusted. Since the narrator is relaying fictional events, the reader cannot find out the truth for themselves. Readers of Pale Fire cannot visit "New Wye" in "Appalachia, U.S.A." to find who really killed John Shade and why. Thus when Charles Kinbote turns out to be an unreliable narrator of the events in New Wye and in Nova Zembla, readers are forced to wonder how to interpret those events. Kinbote claims he is in possession of early drafts of Shade's poem. He sometimes quotes from them to support his claim Shade was really writing about Nova Zembla. But in his comment on line 550 of Shade's poem, he reveals he may have made up some lines he claims Shade wrote in the draft. This leaves the reader uncertain: Did Kinbote invent only a few lines, or are the so-called drafts entirely Kinbote's fictitious invention? The more a reader puzzles over such questions, the more they are forced to confront the entire work is the invention of Vladimir Nabokov.

Metafiction and Mise en Abîme

Metafiction calls attention to its status as fiction, in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. The term metafiction was coined by American novelist William H. Gass to describe playful, self-conscious American novels written after World War II (1939–45). Despite the newness of the term, the concept of metafiction is old. For example, in Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes's 17th-century novel Don Quixote (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn a book has been written about their adventures and are aware of themselves as literary characters from that point on. Pale Fire calls attention to its status as something written, first by recounting the story of the poem's composition. The book also emphasizes its fictional status by having Kinbote make manifesto-like statements about art and reality. Kinbote claims the human reality of Shade's poem is "a reality that only my notes can provide." Because this statement comes from Kinbote, who often seems out of touch with human reality, readers question it. Kinbote also proclaims: "True art ... creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality.'" Pale Fire thus invites readers to question the relationship between art and reality.

Mise en abîme or mise en abyme is a French literary term meaning "placed in the abyss". Mise en abîme refers to the technique of placing a copy of an image within an image. The classic visual example is the Droste cocoa package. The cover of the Droste box shows a woman holding a box of Droste cocoa, and on that box is another, smaller image of the woman, who must be holding another box containing the same nested images, and so on. In literature, mise en abîme places a story within a story. For example, in English playwright William Shakespeare's play Hamlet (1609), the traveling players put on a play called The Mousetrap. The events in The Mousetrap mirror the events in Hamlet, including the murder of a king.

John Shade's poem "Pale Fire" is a work within the novel Pale Fire. Kinbote's commentary purports to be more real than the poem. The poem is a work of imagination and the commentary is a sober work of scholarship. However, Kinbote may be the invention of Professor Botkin, who also teaches at Wordsmith. This is suggested by the scene in which a professor asks Kinbote whether his "name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine." Regardless of the Botkin/Kinbote puzzle, readers are aware Nabokov invented Shade, Kinbote, and Botkin. Pale Fire thus invites readers to question the relationship between art and reality.

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