Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 502–680 | Summary



Kinbote explains Shade's "execrable pun" on "the grand potato." On his deathbed, 16th-century French writer Rabelais is supposed to have said, "I go to seek the great perhaps." In French, as Kinbote explains: "Je m'en vais chercher le grand peut-être [or "grand potato," in Shade's terms]." A spiritual man, Kinbote finds Shade's remarks on the afterlife in Canto 3 "flippant."

Kinbote recounts a discussion with Shade about spiritual and philosophical matters. He writes it in the form of a drama or philosophical dialogue. Kinbote is a Christian and Shade an atheist. Shade thinks there might not be poetry without sin, but he does not believe in original sin. Without God, Kinbote says, then "poor Kinbote's ghost [and] poor Shade's shade" would wander through eternity with "no support, no protection, nothing."

Kinbote shifts focus to an earlier part of the poem. In his note to Line 12 he discussed two lines he said came from the draft: "Ah, I must not forget to say something/That my friend told me of a certain king." Now Kinbote admits, or half-admits, he made those lines up. He "tarried in [his] distress and disappointment, on the brink of falsification." He asks readers to ignore those two lines, but he says he doesn't have time to change the comment.

In the comment about Line 579, "the other," Kinbote discusses the foibles of college English departments. He says the Wordsmith "United English Department" is "soaked in literary talent, Freudian fancies, and ignoble heterosexual lust." He says he won't go through the "tedium" of recounting the rumors about Shade's mistress, but then he does so. Switching to one of his favorite topics, his friendship with Shade, he then recalls the three times he dined at the Shades'. The third time he dropped in, uninvited.

Kinbote reproduces some lines from a draft: "Or perish must/Alike great temples and Tanagra dust?" (Tanagra is a town in Greece.) He points out the final words contain "the name of the murderer," Gradus, in the last letters of "Tanagra" and the first letters of "dust." As proof this code is intentional, he offers the fact very few "such combinations are possible and plausible." That is, there are very few English words ending with "-rad" that could be combined with another word beginning with "us-." He says only "a scrupulous regard for the truth" kept him inserting these lines of the draft into the finished poem.

Kinbote narrates Gradus's time in Geneva while he waits to take his next steps. Gradus sinks into idleness ("otiosity"), a paradoxically-common state for "men of action." He reads "the multilingual literature that comes with nose drops and digestive tablets." This is the extent of Gradus's "intellectual curiosity," according to Kinbote. Kinbote then considers what might have happened if King Charles had been caught "between the palace and the Rippleson Caves." He thinks Charles would have behaved "as he does in lines 606-608." Thus, Kinbote speaks as if the executed man imagined in the poem were King Charles of Zembla.

Kinbote then turns to a line of Shade's that refers to a poem by the 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "The Erl-King." He examines the metric form of Goethe's poem. He shows how the quoted lines rhyme in Zemblan, though they do not rhyme in English. He says "another fabulous ruler, the last of king of Zembla," recited these lines to himself in English and German as he climbed the mountains to escape.

He then comments unfavorably on using titles based on "a phrase lifted from a more or less celebrated poetical work of the past." He comments on Sybil's French translations and on the practice of giving hurricanes feminine names.


In the philosophical dialog, readers get a glimpse into Kinbote's inner world. When he remarks on what "God is not," he unwittingly gives a catalog of the torments he himself has suffered. According to Kinbote God is "not despair, He is not terror." God is also not the mortality Kinbote fears: "He is not ... the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing."

Kinbote admits something in this part of the commentary. He states it in a convoluted way: he "tarried ... on the brink of falsification." In fact, he went over the brink by inventing some lines of a draft. Apparently, John Shade never wrote the lines "Ah, I must not forget to say something/That my friend told me of a certain king." This admission undoes Kinbote's commentary. If he falsified that part of the draft, what has he not falsified?

The impression that the whole commentary is a series of fabrications is strengthened by Kinbote's remarks on the poem "The Erl-King," by Goethe. The title literally means "the alder-king," as in the type of tree, alder. But it has also been translated as "The Elf-King." The poem is based on a legend of a wicked forest-elf who preys on travelers, stealing their children. In the poem, a father rides with his child through the forest at night, menaced by the Erl-King. The first lines are, "Who's riding so late where winds blow wild/ It is the father grasping his child." John Shade's poem alludes to these lines with "Who rides so late in the night and the wind?/It is the writer's grief." But rather than comment on Shade's loss of his daughter, Kinbote uses the Goethe reference to segue to "another fabulous ruler, the last king of Zembla." This means King Charles of Zembla is a fable, just like the Erl-King.

Another clue to Charles's fiction lies in the closeness of Shade's poem and Charles's story. "The Erl-King" is often alluded to in Shade's poem. Kinbote claims King Charles recited its first two lines to himself, over and over, while he escaped over the mountain. This coincidence suggests one mind created Shade, Kinbote, and King Charles. Something similar happens with convergences between Shade's poem and Kinbote's story. Kinbote again produces lines of the draft he claims are genuine. Shade's alleged draft mentions "the exile ... /In a chance inn exposed to the hot breath/Of this America." Kinbote finds here a reference to the place he inhabits now, the "log cabin ... where [he is] trying to coordinate these notes." When Kinbote finds traces of Zembla in the poem, he has a story about how they got there. He told Shade his story. But it is not possible for Shade to have foreseen Kinbote's exile after his death. Kinbote's proof points to the possibility he wrote Shade's draft, if not his poem.

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