Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 240–404 | Summary



Kinbote speculates on the identity of a poet referred to, but not named, in Shade's poem. Then he speaks of the "sunset rambles" he went on with Shade. On July 6 Shade had taken such a walk with Kinbote "in compensation for a bad hurt," the hurt he suffered for not being invited to the party. Shade pointed out natural phenomena on their walks, while Kinbote tried to find out how much of Charles's story had made it into Shade's poem.

The poem mentions Shade's wife, Sybil. Kinbote says, "From the very first she disliked and distrusted me." He learns she refers to him as a "monstrous parasite" and a "king-sized botfly." Kinbote says, "I pardon her—her and everybody." He uses the poem's discussion of Sybil and John's marriage as an excuse to discuss the marriage of King Charles to Disa, Duchess of Payn. Many advisors tried to get Charles "give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife." After he had a wife, the pressure was on for him to "engender an heir." Kinbote refers to a draft verse about Shade's name. He says it would have been better if Shade had pursued the line of thought in the draft, rather than "the embarrassing intimacies" of the passage about Sybil.

Gradus flew to Paris as the poem was being written, says Kinbote. Gradus poses as a man selling historical papers from Zembla. In this way, he meets with a loyal Karlist, Oswin Bretwit, the Zemblan consul in Paris. Kinbote pauses to "salute" Bretwit's bravery and loyalty. However, Bretwit lets slip Charles has indeed escaped from Zembla. Gradus asks to be "recommend[ed] to Mr. X." Bretwit, alarmed, asks Gradus for the secret Karlist handshake, which Gradus cannot give. Bretwit accused Gradus of being a reporter.

Back in New Wye in the present, Kinbote runs into the Shades in town. Sybil says they are taking a trip later in the month, but she and Shade are vague about where exactly they are going. The news distresses Kinbote because Shade had not yet finished Kinbote's poem. Later that day, a doctor tells Kinbote the Shades are going to a mountain cabin in "Cedarn in Utana." Kinbote immediately goes to a travel agent and books a cabin in Cedarn. He says nothing to the Shades. He looks forward to his "sudden emergence ... from behind a boulder ... [and] John's sheepish but pleased grin."

The poem's mention of Hazel waiting for a date prompts Kinbote to recall pining after Shade. "Would he ever come for me?" the lonely and lovelorn Kinbote wonders.

Kinbote tells the story of Hazel's flirtation with paranormal investigations when she is in college. Some college students had encountered a ghost in a barn, they said. Hazel decided "to investigate the 'phenomena' herself" for a class paper. Her parents gave her permission to spend the night in the barn. Hazel heard "scrabbly sounds" and sees "a roundlet of pale light." She recited letters of the alphabet for the spirit to communicate with her. The result, however, was a string of nonsense syllables, which Kinbote later pores over "with a commentator's infinite patience and disgust." Hazel became frightened and left the barn. On another night she returns with her parents. Kinbote presents "the scene" in the form of a dramatic dialogue. John and Sybil Shade are skeptical and Hazel asks them, "Why must you spoil everything?"

Kinbote mentions a letter circulated by Paul Hurley, the head of the English department. Some faculty members were "painfully concerned over the fate of a manuscript poem ... left by the late John Shade." The poem had fallen into the hands of someone who is "unqualified for the job of editing it" and "known to have a deranged mind."

In brief comments on the lines of Canto 2 about Hazel's death, Kinbote finds this part of the poem "too labored and long." The poem interweaves narration of the Shades' evening at home and Hazel's evening out. Kinbote says this "synchronization device has been already worked to death by Flaubert and Joyce."


Sybil's cruel nickname for Kinbote is like one of Kinbote's mirror words. She turns his name, Kinbote, into "king-sized botfly." However, this nickname also reveals new clues about Kinbote's identity. The index entry for "Botkin, V." contains the note "kingbot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and ... hastened their phylogenetic end." On the one hand, both Kinbote and Botkin are associated with the botfly. But in the comments to Line 894, Kinbote is compared to a king-killer. "Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asks Shade. Kinbote agrees his name means "a king's destroyer." Thus, Kinbote is apparently both a king and "a king's destroyer." Commentating on Shade's ungainly looks, Kinbote says in the foreword, "He was his own cancellation." This is also true of Kinbote.

By pardoning Sybil, Kinbote actually heaps blame on her, and he emphasizes how he is surrounded by those who have done him wrong. He says, "I pardon her—her and everybody." By pardoning "everybody," Kinbote implies "everybody" has wronged him and insulted him.

In many ways, Pale Fire is a struggle over who is to have the "last word," as Kinbote notes in the foreword. Who has ownership of the poem's meaning: the author or the commentator? In Kinbote's struggle to take over the poem, he has to ignore significant parts of it. Thus, when Kinbote quotes Line 287 he writes only the words "humming as you pack." The full line in the poem is addressed to the poet's wife, Sybil: "I love you when you're humming as you pack." Kinbote's quotation leaves out the poet's love for his wife. Likewise, when he comments on the lines, Kinbote says Shade should have left out these "embarrassing intimacies." In this same note, Kinbote reveals the confusion or struggle over who is the real creator, the true poet. On learning the Shades will go on vacation, Kinbote exclaims (to readers), "And what is more he had not yet finished 'my' poem!" The quotation marks indicate Kinbote knows the poem is not really his and is not really about Zembla. But in fact, Kinbote persists in writing a commentary to prove the poem is about Zembla and so is really "his" poem.

Kinbote criticizes an aspect of Shade's poem shared by his own commentary. He points out Shade has synchronized the events of the Shades' evening at home with those of Hazel's last night alive. Kinbote sniffs, "The whole thing strikes me as too labored and long." He adds, "The synchronization device has been already worked to death by [19th-century French writer Gustave] Flaubert and [20th-century Irish writer James] Joyce." But Kinbote has already begun synchronizing the story of Shade writing his poem with the story of Gradus coming to kill Charles. In his very first comment on Lines 1-4, Kinbote admits he gave in to the "temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the ... regicide Gradus," with the date on which Shade began his poem. Kinbote's criticism of Shade's literary effect calls attention to his own.

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