Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 130–149 | Summary



Kinbote comments on a line about Shade's lack of athletic ability. Soon Kinbote is telling the gripping story of King Charles's narrow escape from the Extremists in Zembla. "Tell me more [about Zembla]," Shade used to beg Kinbote. Charles had been in a tricky situation in "the first months of the rebellion." Royalists might have been able to save him, but a foreign power poured money and troops into the Zemblan Revolution. Charles refused to abdicate, but he was under house arrest: "The door of every room was guarded."

Charles's friend Odon, an actor, is accused of using a mirror to flash him messages. Thus, Charles is transferred to "a dismal lumber room." As a child, Charles had once discovered a secret passageway from that room. He and his boyhood friend Oleg, Duke of Rahl, had explored the tunnel, but they had not reached its end. Now under arrest, Charles manages to tell Odon about the passageway, secretly. Odon promises to explore the passageway the next day. Charles is anxious to escape because revolutionaries are searching the palace for the crown jewels, and if they find the tunnel they will close it. The search has already reached the Picture Gallery in Onhava Palace, where "two Soviet professionals" take apart a painting of "Count Kernel" by Zemblan court painter, Eystein. That night, Charles enters the passageway alone. It leads him to a dressing room at the Royal Theater. There, Odon grabs some cloaks from "a heap of fantastic raiments" and hustles the king outside and into his car.

Word gets out that Charles has escaped. Odon and Charles must change their escape plans to avoid a roadblock. They head into the mountains. Then they part ways, with Odon "remaining behind as a decoy." Charles spends the night with a peasant family. The next day he descends from the mountains.

A policeman stops Charles. He assumes Charles is another red-cap-wearing impostor. "The joke has gone too far," the policeman says. Charles claims to be a British tourist and is let go after he surrenders his red cap and sweater. A secret message tells Charles to go Rippleson Caves on the coast of Zembla. Charles meets with Odon, who is disguised as a victim of the 1951 Glass Works explosion. They reach Rippleson Caves.


When the "two Soviet professionals," Andronnikov and Niagarin, search for the crown jewels in the Picture Gallery, they come upon one of Eystein's paintings. Eystein employs a "weird form of trickery." Like all realist painters, Eystein uses paint to imitate such materials as "wood or wool, gold or velvet," but then he inserts in the painting a real object made of one of the imitated materials. Thus, in Eystein's painting of "Count Kernel" is an oblong box—one side of it is "made of real bronze."

Kinbote has a different response to the Count Kernel painting than do Andronnikov and Niagarin. He uses the occasion to assert that "'reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art." The two Soviets expect to find reality inside the painted box with the one real side. Odon remarks, "They are in for a surprise." The imitated box does conceal a real "receptacle, an oblong hole in the wall." The surprise is that the real receptacle does not contain anything of real value. On top of the box, in the painting, Eystein has painted "the beautifully executed, twin-lobed, brainlike, halved kernel of a walnut." This is a visual pun between walnut kernel and the subject of the painting, Count Kernel. Nabokov extends the joke by having the two Soviets open the real receptacle. They discover it contains "nothing, however, except the broken bits of a nutshell." Thus, the secret depth of the painting does not contain a kernel of reality. It only contains another surface, the shell.

The experience of the two Soviets is like the experience of readers who try to discover the "real" author of "Pale Fire." Mary McCarthy believed Kinbote was really V. Botkin, a professor at Wordsmith. Thus, Botkin somehow became deluded, believing he was the escaped King Charles of Zembla. The clue is that the names Botkin and Kinbote mirror each other. Did John Shade not have a temporary neighbor named Kinbote? Did Shade exist, or did Botkin invent him too? Botkin is a scholar of Zemblan. Are readers to believe there is a King Charles but no Kinbote? When a reader tears into the story looking for the secret, the trap door and hidden boxes reveal only more trickery, more masks, and more shells.

During Charles's escape through the mountains, he runs into a man dressed just like him in a red cap and red sweater, his "doubleganger." The word is usually spelled doppelgänger. It comes from German and means a person's double. The 19th century saw a flood of European literature about doubles, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double (1846) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). A key event in gothic tales of the doppelgänger is the chilling moment when someone's reflection or double displays independent motion, as if one's mirror image could suddenly walk away from the bathroom mirror. Typically, the reflection or double grows to possess more power than the original person. This is something of Charles's experience in the mountains. At first, Charles believes he is looking at his reflection in the water. Then the "red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger turn[s] and vanish[es]," while Charles "remain[s] immobile." Who is imagining whom, when the double or reflection can walk away from its source?

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