Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 681–920 | Summary



Kinbote uses the coincidence of Shade's poem mentioning "gloomy Russians" to discuss two of the Russian Shadows, Andronnikov and Niagarin. They are assigned to hunt for "the Zemblan crown jewels," which "Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure" hid before "he jumped or fell from the North Tower." The two begin excavating the castle. Kinbote suddenly addresses the two Shadows: "But you will never find our crown, necklace and scepter." Thus, Kinbote uses the royal first person to refer to himself, admitting he is Charles.

While the poem discusses Shade's heart attack, Kinbote continues with his Zemblan narrative. In a discussion of King Charles's arrival in America, Kinbote switches from third person to first person. Kinbote describes King Charles in third person, "Wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption," the parachute with which he lands at Sylvia O'Donnell's estate in Maryland. Then Kinbote uses first person when speaking as the king. He remarks that while the chauffeur was folding up that same parachute, "I [King Charles] relaxed ... sipping a delightful Scotch and water." Kinbote then tells readers—in first person—the story of learning he would soon be living next to his "favorite American poet." Sylvia warns Kinbote he will have to be discreet about his sexuality in America: "Your Majesty will have to be quite careful from now on."

Kinbote returns briefly to Shade's poem. He says there was never "anything organically wrong with [Shade's] heart." But this factual error does not "detract from the great epic beauty of the passage."

Gradus arrives on the French Riviera, but Disa has "gone to Italy for the rest of July." Gradus finds himself without anything to do. For Kinbote, this idleness reflects badly on Gradus: "But what (save dreams of blood) could be his amusement?" He does not drink or listen to music, does not go "sightseeing or seasiding." He apparently has no interest in sex, either, since "he had tried several times to castrate himself."

Kinbote returns to the poem to admire its "interplay" of linked words and its "contrapuntal pyrotechnics," as well as the puns on "Shade." Shade is the poet's name, and a nuance (as in, a shade of meaning), and another word for ghost.

Back on the Riviera, Gradus receives some information from an agent "in a green velvet jacket." He gives Gradus "a slip of paper" with the king's American "alias, the name of the university where he taught, and that of the town." Gradus memorizes the information and eats the paper. Kinbote quotes from a letter to a friend. In it, he gives only his campus address and urges his friend to address mail to "Dr. C. Kinbote, KINBOTE, (not 'Charles X. Kingbot')."

Kinbote recounts how he believed he heard Shade address him one day, July 19. "Come tonight, Charlie," he heard Shade say, though Shade was not there. In response, Kinbote calls several times in a row. He says Shade eventually invited him to "go for a good ramble tonight." He appears not to see Shade was trying to get him to stop calling. Kinbote briefly alludes to their next walk after that one, on July 21, the day of Shade's death. That walk "was to be exceedingly brief."

Kinbote then considers wordplay "that would have, I am sure, enraptured [his] poet." He also quotes from a book loaned to him by the motel owner in Cedarn: The Letters of Franklin Lane. He finds the writing reminds him of Shade's poem.

Kinbote recalls people in New Wye often saying he resembled King Charles of Zembla. Kinbote did his best to dismiss these remarks: "All bearded Zemblans resembled one another." He notes Zembla is "Semblerland, a land of reflections, of 'resemblers.'" Since the king is missing, the faculty in New Wye don't know whether he is alive or dead. Shade says the king might be dead or may be very much alive. Kinbote quarrels with Gerald Emerald about the king.


Kinbote comments on the two Soviet professionals, noting their names are "probably fictitious." The reader is aware their names are definitely fictional, however. The words fictitious and fictional mean approximately the same thing: something made up or invented. A work of literature is said to be fictional. Something fake passed off in real life is fictitious. Kinbote's commentary tries to separate the facts from the fictitious. In doing so, it calls attention to the fictional status of the entirety of Pale Fire.

A man in "a green velvet jacket" gives Gradus the name of Charles Kinbote—pseudonym of King Charles. This man is Izumrudov, an agent of the Extremists. Izumrudov is similar to "Gerald Emerald," the green-jacketed instructor at Wordsmith who gives Gradus a ride to Goldsworth's house. This paucity of fictional materials—only a few characters to go around—suggests the same mind made up Emerald and Izumrudov. Of course, Nabokov made them both up, but on another level, it appears possible Kinbote or Botkin is writing the story.

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