Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Course Hero. "Pale Fire Study Guide." May 9, 2018. Accessed December 15, 2018.


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Pale Fire | Lines 1–61 | Summary



Kinbote begins the remaining poetic commentary by explaining the line about the "waxwing slain," but he soon turns the topic to himself and his own story. He "often saw those particular birds [waxwings]" when he lived next to Shade. And the heraldic emblem of Zembla contains a waxwing (along with a reindeer and a merman). He finds an allusion to Zembla in the poet's description of the reflection in the window. For Kinbote, "that crystal land" in Line 12 is "Zembla, my dear country." He describes the reign of the last king of Zembla, and he tells the story of the king, Charles, a "translator of Shakespeare" and "passionately addicted to the study of literature."

Also alluded to in the poem, according to Kinbote, is the "would-be regicide," Jakob Gradus. According to Kinbote, Gradus left Onhava, Zembla, on July 2, 1959, the day after Shade began the poem "Pale Fire." Kinbote also has recourse to a "disjointed, half-obliterated draft" of Shade's poem. In the draft he finds still more references to Zembla, Charles, and Gradus. Kinbote explains he told Shade all about Zembla and King Charles, and this would form the content of Shade's poem. Even in May, Kinbote thought he could "make out the outlines of some of [his] images" in the poem Shade would not write down until July. Kinbote believes "the material [he] contributed" was "deliberately and drastically drained" from the manuscript of the poem. He concludes Sybil, Shade's wife, "made him tone down or remove ... everything connected with the magnificent Zemblan theme."

Kinbote refers to Shade as "my dear friend." But he also reveals he has been watching the Shades at night with binoculars. He carries on his quarrel with Sybil by making snarky remarks about her contribution to Shade's obituary. The poem by Shade that Sybil has published is just a draft, "a much earlier effort" of "Pale Fire," as the expert Kinbote can see.


Kinbote uses authoritative, scholarly language, and his explanation of the "waxwing" image is not wrong. But already the first comment about the first line betrays the weaknesses of Kinbote's interpretation. He says the reader can "visualize" John Shade as a boy, "experiencing his first eschatological shock." (Eschatology is a branch of theology dealing with death and the final events of the world. Kinbote means this is Shade's first encounter with death.) From the moment Kinbote describes the boy, he is writing his own novel. Although the commentary is usually secondary to the work of art, Kinbote is a rival artist, creating his own work behind the mask of commentary.

Another of Kinbote's failings as a scholarly commentator is his belief that everything is about him. No sooner has he movingly pictured the slain bird than he segues into a comment about himself: "When ... I had the fortune of being his neighbor ... I often saw those particular birds." His own artistry and his own story take the place of Shade's. He claims he has "no desire" to make the commentary into the "monstrous semblance of a novel," but this is exactly what he does. His literary commentary becomes the monstrous semblance of a novel, parodying the way scholarly commentary swells in importance, overshadowing the work it comments on.

Here and elsewhere in Pale Fire Kinbote's remarks are a parody of scholarly commentary. The title of the work is also a reference to scholarly commentary. In Shakespeare's play Timon of Athens are the lines "The moon's an arrant thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun." The lines refer to the fact the moon emits no light of its own—only the glow of the sun. Similarly, scholarly commentator Charles Kinbote piggybacks on the literary glory of the poet John Shade. Like the cold moon, Kinbote has no creative fire of his own. However Pale Fire also reverses this relationship. For most readers the thoughts of a fictional poet are not very compelling; most readers find Kinbote's narrative of daring escape over the mountains of Zembla much more engaging than Shade's rhymed couplets.

In these first notes, Kinbote also gives the first hints he is King Charles. Charles is a "translator of Shakespeare" and "passionately addicted to the study of literature." These turn out to be Kinbote's traits as well. Kinbote also gives the first hint Zembla is not real. Zembla is "that crystal land." But in Shade's poem, "that crystal land" is the illusory world, the reflection hanging above the snow. If Zembla is that land, it has no reality, or only the reality Kinbote's literary creation gives it.

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