Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Foreword | Summary

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Nabokov breaks the novel Pale Fire into four parts: the foreword, the poem, the commentary, and the index. This study guide further breaks down the commentary into sections that list the lines commented on. Because Kinbote does not comment on every line of the poem, the sequence of line numbers sometimes contains gaps.

Summary

Charles Kinbote introduces the poem "Pale Fire." He is writing the foreword in October 1959, in the fictional town of "Cedarn, Utana." He begins by describing the poem's form. It has 999 lines in heroic couplets. Heroic couplets are rhyming pairs of poetic lines in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a term describing the meter and length of the lines in a poem. Meter is a term for the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in certain kinds of poetry. In iambic meter, every unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. Together the two syllables, stressed and unstressed, make up one metrical foot. Iambic pentameter has five iambic feet in every line. Thus, in the first heroic couplet of the poem "Pale Fire," "slain" rhymes with "-pane," and there are five iambic feet in each line:

I was/the shad/-ow of/the wax/-wing slain,
By the/false az/-ure in/the win/-dow-pane.

Kinbote gives other textual details of the poem's composition, including how many lines were written on each index card. The poet John Shade composed the poem "during the last twenty days of his life," beginning on July 2, 1959, in his home in "New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A."

Kinbote defends himself against criticisms of Shade, the poem, and especially himself. He admits he took charge of the manuscript "even before [Shade's] body had reached the grave." He works with a publisher he trusts, "good old Frank." Kinbote has refused all requests to work with other Shade specialists as co-editors.

The friendship between Kinbote and Shade is described. Kinbote considered Shade "a very dear friend indeed," though they only knew each other a few months. They became neighbors in February 1959, when Kinbote rented the house next door. Like Shade, Kinbote was teaching at Wordsmith College. He recalls his first meeting with Shade, "at lunch time in the faculty club." A few days later he gives Shade a ride home "in [his] powerful Kramler [car]."

Soon Kinbote was "seeing more and more of [his] celebrated neighbor." He claims other academics became envious of their friendship and recounts some of the slights and insults he received from others. His and Shade's friendship "was on that higher, exclusively intellectual level," Kinbote claims.

Kinbote concludes with some remarks about his commentary on the poem. He advises readers to "consult [his notes] first," before reading the poem. Readers should then consult the notes again while reading the poem, and afterward, they should consult them "a third time so as to complete the picture." He adds, "Without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all." He signs and dates his foreword, "Oct. 19, 1959, Cedarn, Utana."

Analysis

The foreword uses dramatic irony to paint two different pictures of Charles Kinbote. In dramatic irony, readers know more about something than the characters do themselves. Kinbote presents himself as Shade's dear friend, and as a sensitive and indispensable commentator of Shade's work. At the same time, Kinbote's own words and the testimony of Shade's friends, colleagues, and neighbors show readers Kinbote is wrong in his estimation of himself. The claim that their friendship was very close is undercut by Kinbote's own remarks. Kinbote claims he began "seeing more and more of [his] celebrated neighbor." His very next statement describes not social contact with Shade, but Kinbote spying on Shade through his windows. He literally "sees more and more" of Shade, but in a creepy rather than a friendly context. He also suggests "in all modesty" something entirely immodest, even vain: "[Shade] intended to ask my advice after reading his poem." Precisely because Kinbote says it, a reader doubts Shade planned to ask his advice or read the poem to him.

A similar irony bedevils Kinbote's presentation of himself as concerned with that "higher, exclusively intellectual level." He makes occasional, abrupt references to his physical situation and its discomforts. He suddenly disrupts his account of the poem's composition to remark, "There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings." He would like to be making lofty aesthetic and intellectual comments in a comfortable and leisurely setting. But his own few remarks about where he is give the picture of a hounded and irritable fugitive.

There is a complex play of irony when Kinbote writes, "For better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word." These are the last words of his foreword, so in a literal sense, the statement is true. But the use of dramatic irony has already shown how Kinbote's meanings are subject to revision in the reader's mind. Kinbote's claim to be a "dear friend" of Shade's is not the last word on the matter. Kinbote also occasionally lets other voices be heard in the foreword, much to his detriment. Thus, in a grocery store a woman gives a flat, contemptuous account of Kinbote's character: "You are a remarkably disagreeable person," and adds, "What's more, you are insane." In recounting it for the reader, Kinbote dismisses the insult as "nonsense," but his commentary fails to overcome the woman's objections to him. As 20th-century critic and author Mary McCarthy remarked, readers might suspect the views of the woman in the grocery store are widely shared in New Wye. In this instance, the commentator, Kinbote, literally has the last word, in that he writes the latter two-thirds of the book. But he does not have the last word because dramatic irony often gives his words a meaning he didn't intend and cannot control.

The relationship between Kinbote's commentary and Shade's poem is like the friendship between the two men. In Kinbote's mind, he is as perfect a commentator as he is a friend, but his exaggerated claims about the importance of his commentary make readers suspicious of him. He says it is time to turn to the poem, but he acts like someone who cannot bear to exit the stage and leave the limelight. He pleads with readers to read his commentary first, before the poem, and then to return to his commentary twice more.

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