Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 408–502 | Summary



On "the day John Shade wrote" Line 408, Gradus was "driving ... from Geneva to Lex [a fictional European town]." Gradus plans to pass himself off as an "agent of a Strasbourg art dealer" and glean clues from Odon about the king's location. He first goes to the villa of Odon's American friend in Lex, Joe Lavender. He is shown around by Lavender's nephew, Gordon, a "slender but strong-looking lad of fourteen or fifteen dyed a nectarine hue by the sun." In an outhouse in the garden these words are carved: "The King was here." Gradus asks where the king is now. Gordon lies but lets slip the location: "Côte d'Azur," in France. This causes Gradus to remember Disa has a house there.

Disa spent "the first fifteen summers of her life" at Villa Paradiso, her family's villa on the French Riviera. In 1953 she returned there, "a banished queen." She was not literally banished, but Charles would not consummate their marriage. Kinbote sees a similarity between Shade's description of Sybil in the poem and Disa. He also sees this similarity between a portrait of Disa at age 30 and the "idealized and stylized" image of Sybil in the poem. He then recounts the story of Disa and Charles's marriage, and Charles's hopeless attempts to consummate their marriage. Charles has dreams of Disa, in which his "dream-love for her" far exceeds anything he has experienced in real life.

Charles goes to Disa's Riviera villa after escaping Zembla. She invites him to stay there and make it his home. He says he will go to America instead, where he will "examine literary masterpieces with brilliant and charming young people."

Gradus tries to communicate with his handlers in coded English. They cannot keep the code straight and the attempt at communication fails.

Kinbote shifts focus to the present. It is said Odon is making a movie "based on a Zemblan legend." Back in New Wye, Kinbote recalls he gave Shade "all this marvelous material"—the story of Disa and Charles. But Shade asks, "How can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true?" Kinbote replies, "Once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true." Kinbote also promises, once the poem is finished, he will tell Shade "an ultimate truth, an extraordinary secret, that will put [his] mind completely at rest."

Kinbote comments on the line, "She took her poor young life." He gives "a simple and sober description of [the] spiritual situation." He says the stronger one's belief in an afterlife, "the greater the temptation to get it over with." But the fear of sin counteracts that temptation. He says if he were a poet he would "make an ode to the ... urge to close one's eyes and surrender ... [to] wooed death."


Presumably, the "extraordinary secret" Kinbote means to tell Shade is that he is really King Charles of Zembla. But if this were true, Zembla would have to be real, and this is not certain. Kinbote's description of Gordon provides some clues. Kinbote seems to enjoy describing Gordon in Lavender's villa in Lex. Initially, Gordon is described as wearing "nothing ... save a leopard-spotted loincloth" and sandals. Then suddenly he is wearing "black bathing trunks" and shortly after that "white tennis shorts." The unreality of Gordon's costume changes points to the fact Kinbote was not there—he is making up these details. This also leaves open the possibility Kinbote has invented not just the details but the entire story.

The fictional town Lex means law. It is also the root of the word lexicon, a list or book of words. Kinbote enjoys describing Lex, but Gradus is uncomfortable being there. If he notices Gordon's allure, he does not enjoy it. Kinbote is metaphorically at home in Lex, in that he is at home in the realm of words. Gradus is not. Thus, his attempts at communication fall apart after the visit to Lex.

When Kinbote finally comments on the subject of Canto 2, Hazel's death, he seems to reveal he is tempted by suicide. Kinbote says, "The more ... overwhelming one's belief ... the greater the temptation to get it over with." He is discussing "belief in Providence." He could mean the belief in a cosmic order, in which God cares for human beings and other things. Since Kinbote has made clear his faith in God is strong, presumably he also feels this "temptation" to be done with "this business of life." However, the temptation is also accompanied by "fear of the terrible sin implicit in self-destruction." This is the crux of Hamlet's dilemma in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. Hamlet asks, "Who would bear the whips and scorns of time" and other travails of life, "When he himself might his quietus [peace] make/With a bare bodkin [dagger]?" Only "the dread of something after death" gives people pause. Kinbote alludes to this soliloquy when he says some people believe "gentlemen" should use "a bare botkin (note the correct spelling)" to commit suicide. Thus, Kinbote's own name (in anagram form) and perhaps the name of his true identity (Professor Botkin) are hidden in the commentary on Hazel's death.

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