Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Index | Summary

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Summary

In imitation of a scholarly work, Nabokov has Kinbote write index entries for the people, places, and literary works mentioned in the poem and in his commentary. Almost all the entries carefully note the lines or notes in which the items are mentioned. Only Zembla has no reference numbers. The Zembla entry reads simply "Zembla, a distant northern land."

Analysis

The index explains some oddities. For example, in the comment to Line 596, Kinbote suddenly exclaims "Oh my sweet Boscobel!" The index defines Boscobel as the "site of the Royal Summerhouse, a beautiful, piny and duny spot in W. Zembla." The index entry rambles, as Kinbote adds Boscobel's "soft hollows [are] imbued with the writer's most amorous recollections." Boscobel is "now (1959) a 'nudist colony'—whatever that is." Kinbote also has entries for the principal characters of the story, as well as many lesser figures. Some of the entries function as miniature narratives, such as the one for "Gradus, Jakob," which concludes with "the crowning blunder, [Line] 1,000." Nabokov also plays some games in the index. The entry for "Crown Jewels" leads readers into a circle of cross-references, just as the Soviet agents in the book hunt fruitlessly for Zembla's crown jewels.

The rambling notes and the many references to the commentator's life story may parody Nabokov's own scholarly work. In 1964 Nabokov published a four-volume English translation—with commentary—of 19th-century Russian writer Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin's narrative poem, "Eugene Onegin." It also included two appendices: one on Pushkin's great-grandfather and a 92-page one on a "system of prosody" Nabokov invented. Prosody here refers to the study of poetry's patterns of rhythm and sound. The work appeared two years after the novel, but given its length, Nabokov would have already been working on it before Pale Fire appeared in 1962. In his review of Nabokov's translation in 1965, critic Edmund Wilson noted, "The commentary ... suffers from being overdone." The commentary contained "more information than we need ... about the flora and fauna mentioned in Onegin." He also found Nabokov's appendix on prosody "tedious and interminable."

Almost all the entries are for Zemblan names and places, thus continuing Kinbote's habit of making his commentary more important than the poem. For example, there is no index entry for 20th-century American poet Robert Frost, although he is mentioned in Line 426 of Shade's poem. There is an entry for "Shade, Sybil," but she is given short shrift. Instead of listing the specific lines where she is mentioned, Kinbote uses the Latin word passim. In scholarship, passim means something is mentioned here and there throughout a work. Moreover, the italicized numbers in the index refer readers not to lines of the poem, but to Shade's comments on those lines. The entry for Gradus concludes with "his crowning blunder, [Line] 1000." Gradus is not mentioned in line 1,000 of the poem, only in the commentary to line 1,000. This is another way in which Kinbote ensures "it is the commentator who has the last word."

The final entry in the index is very short: "Zembla, a distant northern land." This gives the final words of the book a more melancholy ring than if the entry had bristled with numbers and references. However, it also gives the impression of being unfinished. Therefore, it parallels the ending of the poem "Pale Fire." Shade's poem is in rhymed couplets, but the second half of the final couplet in missing, so the poem ends on an odd-numbered line. Shade's poem ends this way because he was killed. Thus, the unfinished final entry of the index also suggests Kinbote died before completing his work. Some readers and critics believe Kinbote, like Grey, kills himself.

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