Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Course Hero, "Pale Fire Study Guide," May 9, 2018, accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Pale-Fire/.

Pale Fire | Lines 162–238 | Summary

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Summary

Apart from a few remarks on the poem, Kinbote continues with his story of King Charles. For a year after the escape, Charles's pursuers thought he was still in Zembla. They expected him to take a plane. Then news reaches Zembla: "The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!" The Extremists realize if Odon escaped Zembla, the king must have also escaped. A group of hard-core Extremists called "the Shadows" vows to find and assassinate Charles.

The members of the Shadows include "Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards" and Gradus. Kinbote imagines the Shadows chose Gradus as their regicide (killer of the king) on July 2, just as Shade "penned the first lines of his last poem." Kinbote describes Gradus as a "clockwork man." He worked various jobs and never amounted to much until he joined the Shadows. Kinbote thinks Gradus still doesn't amount to much, even as an assassin: "His likes are never granted the ultimate thrill of dispatching their victim themselves." Gradus is meant to be a number-two man, a kind of assassin's assistant, Kinbote thinks. "But Gradus should not kill kings," Kinbote adds. Gradus flies to Copenhagen.

The poem mentions Shade's birthday, July 5. This gives Kinbote the opportunity to tell the story of Shade's birthday party. The Shades invited a number of people, but not Kinbote, who had purchased a gift for the occasion. Thinking they must have tried to invite him with a phone call while he was away, Kinbote calls the Shades on the evening of the party. Sybil answers, saying they are busy. She hangs up and Kinbote, from his window, watches the guests arrive.

The next day, Kinbote brings his gift next door. He again meets Sybil. To cover the awkwardness, she says, "We did not ask you [to come to the party] because we knew how tedious you find such affairs." Kinbote gives her the dressing gown he bought as a gift for Shade. He also gives her a volume of 20th-century French writer Marcel Proust's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. He has underlined "certain passages" in which one character makes an excuse for not inviting another to a party: "I know you are not overfond of this sort of parties which, if anything, bore you." Kinbote feels he has triumphed over Sybil.

Kinbote recounts Shade's opinion on various matters. He also notes a certain "Prof. Botkin ... was not subordinated" to the head of the Russian Department, Professor Pnin. In the comment to Line 230, Kinbote reveals that Hazel Shade "was involved in some appalling 'psychokinetic' manifestations." A poltergeist moved items belonging to the late Aunt Maud. Kinbote explains this by saying "all the ways of Our Lord" are "inexplicable."

Analysis

Kinbote is meticulous about correcting the minor errors in his commentary, but he seems unaware of his commentary's large, glaring error: John Shade's poem is not about the last king of Zembla. Kinbote notes July 5, 1959, is Shade's 60th birthday. Then he corrects himself: "My slip—change to sixty-first." His very next note ignores Shade's poem entirely. Shade discusses his childhood theory: "a great conspiracy/Of books and people hid the truth [of life after death] from me." In the commentary, Kinbote seizes on the phrase "great conspiracy" and goes off on a wild Zemblan tangent about the king. His scholarly integrity is a façade.

More doubles pile up in this part of the commentary. First, Kinbote describes two opposite political positions as "twins." On the one side are the "Karlists," the supporters of King Charles. Their "shadow twins" are the Extremists. If the Karlists have "romantic and noble glamour," their shadow twins have the opposite qualities, "gothic and nasty." Readers also learn Odon has an "epileptic half-brother," Nodo. In both cases, the reflection or shadow is the mirror-opposite of the original. These hints prepare readers to see Kinbote and Botkin, with their reversed names, as somehow connected.

In telling the story of the birthday gift Kinbote adds a coda. On the evening of the birthday party, Kinbote is snubbed by the Shades, who do not invite him. The next day, Kinbote gets his revenge by one-upping Sybil. Sybil gives a hypocritical excuse for not having invited him. She says they knew he wouldn't enjoy it. He then hands her a book as a gift for Shade. He tells readers he has "marked certain passages" in which a party host says the same kind of thing to someone not invited. However, the order of events is wrong in Kinbote's story of the cunningly-delivered insult. He brings the book over, and then Sybil makes the hypocritical excuse. Kinbote tries to prop up the logic of his story by saying he brought the book with him "just in case." The words are italicized, calling attention to the problem with Kinbote's story: he thinks of the rejoinder before Sybil speaks. It seems obvious Kinbote made up the story of his insult to Sybil, while the pangs he suffered from not being invited were real.

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