Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



A former professor at Wordsmith College, Charles Kinbote, introduces the poem Pale Fire. He writes from the fictional town of Cedarn in the fictional American state of Utana. Kinbote and the poet John Shade were once neighbors in "New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A," but Shade was killed a few months before the writing of the foreword. Kinbote tells readers he interviewed Shade's killer in jail. He describes his friendship with Shade, although Shade seems not to have reciprocated his feelings. Kinbote invites readers to start by reading his extensive commentary first, before turning to the poem.

Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos

In Canto 1, the poet John Shade describes his brushes with mortality, which made him into the poet he is. He saw a waxwing bird "slain" by running into a plate glass window, perhaps when he was still a boy. His childhood was also marked by a series of fits or seizures, which suddenly resolved themselves.

In Canto 2, the poet describes his ideas about life after death. He also recounts the life and death of his daughter, Hazel. She was an awkward girl who unfortunately inherited Shade's looks. One winter night in 1957, Hazel mysteriously drowned in a lake. It is unclear whether she got lost in the snow or intentionally killed herself.

In Canto 3, Shade describes his experiences as a lecturer for the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter. Shade pronounces the acronym "I.P.H." like the word if, signifying uncertainty about the afterlife. Although he is interested in questions about life after death, Shade is an atheist. He describes a near-death experience during which his heart stopped and he saw a vision of a white fountain. He reads of a woman, "a Mrs. Z.," who also saw such a fountain in a near-death experience. He meets with her but their conversation is unsatisfactory. Later, he learns the word "fountain" was a misprint in the article. She actually claimed to have seen a white mountain.

In Canto 4, Shade discusses poetry-writing and his standing as a poet. He has an idea: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem." He saves the idea for "further use." Canto 4 ends unfinished. The final rhyming couplet is missing its second half, the line to rhyme with "lane" in Line 999.


In commenting on the poem, Kinbote gives many details about the "distant northern land" of Zembla. Gradually it becomes clear Kinbote is—or believes himself to be—the exiled King of Zembla, Charles Xavier Vseslav, also known as Charles II or Charles the Beloved.

Kinbote tells the story of Charles's escape from Zembla. A revolution broke out, led by the "Extremists." Charles was placed under house arrest in his palace and was soon confined to a lumber room to keep him from sending messages from the window. However, he discovered a secret passageway leading from the lumber room to a theater outside the palace grounds. With the help of his friend Odon, an Extremist but also loyal to the king, Charles escapes Zembla. He climbs over the Bera Range to Blawick, a coastal city of Zembla. There, a motorboat waits for him in a cave. He makes his way to the French Riviera, and from there to the United States. He arrives by parachute at the estate of a friend, Sylvia O'Donnell, Odon's mother. Sylvia arranges for Charles—now using the pseudonym Kinbote—to teach at Wordsmith College in New Wye. Kinbote rents a house from Judge Goldsworth, next door to Kinbote's "favorite American poet."

In spring and early summer, Kinbote tells John Shade the story of the last king of Zembla. Kinbote believes he is furnishing Shade with material for a poem and is excited when he learns Shade is writing a poem. Meanwhile, Jakob Gradus, member of an Extremist group called the Shadows, is chosen to assassinate the king. He makes his way from Zembla, to Paris, to the French Riviera, to New York, and finally to New Wye.

On July 21 Shade tells Kinbote he has nearly finished the poem. Kinbote invites Shade over to celebrate. Shade accepts, bringing his manuscript—an envelope full of index cards. Outside Kinbote's house, they are accosted by a stranger. Kinbote believes it is Gradus, the assassin. Later, the man says he is Jack Grey, an escapee from a lunatic asylum in New Wye. Grey fires a gun. Kinbote believes Grey is aiming at him, but the bullet strikes Shade and kills him.

Kinbote spirits the manuscript away. He reads the poem that night and discovers it says nothing about Zembla. He rereads it and claims there are subtle hints about Zembla, which only he can tease out. He gets a promise from Shade's widow, Sybil, to allow him to be the sole editor of Shade's final poem. This later arouses consternation from the Wordsmith faculty. Kinbote has several interviews with the imprisoned Grey, who then kills himself. Kinbote flees to the mountain town of Cedarn to write the commentary to Shade's poem.


Kinbote's index to Shade's poem is overwhelmingly about Zemblan people, places, and topics. Like Shade's poem, the final entry is unfinished.

Pale Fire Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 King Charles flees Zembla.

Rising Action

2 Kinbote tells Shade about Zembla.

3 Shade writes "Pale Fire."

4 Grey or Gradus kills Shade.


5 Kinbote reads "Pale Fire" and learns it is not about Zembla.

Falling Action

6 Grey kills himself.


7 Kinbote's commentary turns into the story of the king.

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