Literature Study GuidesPale FireLines 922 1000 Summary

Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Lines 922–1000 | Summary



Kinbote and Shade share a dislike of 19th-century Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whose ideas are very popular in the English department at Wordsmith. Kinbote also remarks on the one direct mention of Zembla in Shade's poem: "old Zembla." Its source is 18th-century British writer Alexander Pope's poem, "An Essay on Man." The scant mention makes Kinbote "a weary and sad commentator." He asks, "So this is all treacherous old Shade could say about Zembla—my Zembla?"

Gradus arrives in New York. Kinbote observes Gradus has no capacity to enjoy new things. The next day Gradus eats a lot and then takes a plane to New Wye. Feeling ill from something he ate, Gradus asks around campus for Kinbote, but Kinbote eludes him. Gerald Emerald gives Gradus a ride to Kinbote's house.

Arriving at Kinbote's house, Gradus is distressed by food-poisoning. Kinbote imagines he couldn't decide whether to "discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels."

Kinbote remarks on a line from the poem: "Help me, Will. Pale Fire." Shade prayed to Shakespeare for a title for his poem, but Kinbote is not sure which play "pale fire" is from. In Cedarn, where he writes the commentary, he has only "a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens—in Zemblan!"

Kinbote comments on "Line 1,000," which is not in Shade's poem as printed in Pale Fire. Kinbote says the missing line is the same as the first: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain." Thus, it rhymes with "lane" in Line 999.

Shade tells Kinbote he has nearly finished his poem. Kinbote invites him to come over to his place and celebrate with "half a gallon of Tokay ... a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas." Shade holds the poem—written on index cards—in a large envelope. As they walk to his house, says Kinbote, Kinbote holds the envelope. He believed at this point Shade's poem was about Zembla: "I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart."

As they walk in the lane between their houses, Shade says, "You have a caller." Gradus stands on Kinbote's porch. Kinbote mutters, "I will kill him." He does not want "the rapture of the poem ... delayed." Gradus fires several bullets. He misses Kinbote but hits Shade, killing him. Kinbote's gardener then hits Gradus on the head with a shovel, knocking him out. The gardener attends to the killer while they wait for the police. The killer gives his name as "Jack Grey," an escapee from the "Institute for the Criminally Insane."

That night, Kinbote reads the poem. He admits now he had "stupidly ... believed that Shade was composing a poem ... about the King of Zembla." But there is nothing of the kind in the poem. He is crushed: "Oh, but I cannot express the agony!" Later he calms down and rereads the poem. This time he finds "echoes and spangles of [his] mind, a long ripplewake of [his] glory" in the poem.

Sybil expresses her deep gratitude to Kinbote for "having 'thrown [himself]' between the gunman and his target." In gratitude, she "strok[es] [his] hands" and says "no recompense" could repay him for his heroism. Kinbote asks for permission to edit Shade's last poem and she agrees. They sign a contract.

Kinbote has several interviews with Jack Grey. Later, he learns Grey killed himself: "Exit Jack Grey." Kinbote spends another week in New Wye. Not knowing where to keep the poem safe, he sews its index cards into his suit. He walks around New Wye "plated with poetry, armored with rhymes ... bullet-proof at long last."

Returning to the present, Kinbote says it's time to wrap up his commentary: "My work is finished. My poet is dead." However, he says not everything is over. He might turn up on another college campus. He is sure another assassin is coming for him, "a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus."


This part of the commentary tells of the death of Shade and of Kinbote's first encounter with the poem. Kinbote's first reading of the poem is a deeper crisis for him than is the death of Shade, murdered before his eyes. Even while Shade lies on the ground, Kinbote dashes into the Goldsworths' house to find a hiding place for the poem. Later that night, he is crushed to find no mention of Zembla: "Where was Zembla the Fair ... and the whole marvelous tale?" But he then redoubles his efforts to find correspondences to Zembla in the poem. Thus, he finds "pale phosphorescent hints" and "many subliminal debts to [him]" in Shade's words. Sybil too is indebted to Kinbote, Kinbote claims. In a scene that seems invented to gratify Kinbote's ego, Sybil uncharacteristically "strok[es] [Kinbote's] hands" and cries out she can never pay him enough.

Later, Kinbote decides to hide the poem in the lining of his suit, a symbol of his over-identification with the work of Shade. He is "plated with poetry" as his body becomes indistinguishable from the manuscript. This scene brings a new meaning to Kinbote's saying in the foreword, "It is the commentator who has the last word." Kinbote literally has possession of Shade's last words because he has stolen them. Then he moves from holding the words to secreting them upon his person, so he becomes Shade's last words.

Kinbote claims Gradus's pleasure in killing the king is very slight. Likewise, in the story of his pursuit of Charles in New Wye, Nabokov gives Gradus a physical ailment to contend with, diarrhea. Heaping physical suffering on a character is a standard narrative technique. Here, the urge to kill the king is likened to a distasteful bodily function when Gradus cannot decide which he wants to do more: "Discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels."

At the same time, Gradus is associated with embodiment, Kinbote insists Gradus does not exist. On one level, Kinbote is saying Gradus is so morally undeveloped he is not a person. Thus, Kinbote calls him "this primate" and says, "Spiritually, he did not exist." However, he also tars Charles with the same brush of nonexistence: "Morally, [Gradus] was a dummy pursuing another dummy." He could mean Gradus is pursuing the alias Charles Kinbote. He could also mean both Gradus and King Charles are fictional characters. Morally, the assassination of the fictional king does not have the weight of a real murder.

And yet, John Shade appears not to be a made-up character. Kinbote claims the dummy Gradus's weapon is real and "his quarry [is] a highly developed human being." This fact (of Shade's humanity) belongs "to our world of events." He also refers to Shade as one who "stumbles ... into the line of fire and perishes in the clash between the two figments." However, the fictional status of Gradus and Kinbote also entails Shade's fictional status.

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