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Pale Fire | Symbols

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Caves

Caves in Pale Fire stand for a retreat from society and also the abode of hidden treasure. In the foreword, Kinbote refers briefly to "my cave in Cedarn." In a comment on Lines 39-40, Kinbote explains the cave is metaphorical. He is in a "desolate log cabin where [he] live[s] like Timon in his cave." Timon is the protagonist in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, from which Pale Fire also takes its title. Timon quarrels with everyone and goes to live in a cave outside Athens. He has given up on humankind. However, he also discovers gold in his underground cave. At first, Kinbote seems to mean he lives like Timon in his cave, in that he too curses humankind. Also, he lives in a desolate place without much comfort: "My bookless mountain cave." But in writing his commentary, Kinbote also digs up gold in the form of references to Zembla in the drafts of Shade's poem.

As Charles flees Zembla, a boat is hidden for him "in a coastal cave near Blawick," a coastal city of the fictional Zembla. Nabokov again makes an allusion to caves as the source of treasure: "[King] Charlie proceed[ed] toward the remote treasure in the sea cave." Charles's dream about Disa also contains an image of caves as the opposite of Kinbote's desolate cave. In Charles's dream, Disa "order[s] breakfast for two in the sea cave." Caves are also the source of another treasure: poetry. When Kinbote thinks about the history of "poetical description and construction," he describes it as stretching "from the caveman to [19th-century English poet John] Keats." The Zemblan translator Conmal, who translates much English poetry, sleeps under a "splendid painted bed ceil with its reproductions of Altamira animals." Thus, caves are a dreary and uncomfortable place of hiding in Pale Fire, but also the source of treasure and creativity.

Fire

Fire is a symbol of literary creation and destruction in Pale Fire. In the title's image from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, fire symbolizes literary creativity. Shakespeare writes, "The moon's an arrant thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun." The lines refer to the fact the moon emits no light of its own—it only reflects the glow of the sun. Likewise, the commentator Kinbote steals the creativity of the poet Shade. This process is concretely represented when Kinbote snatches the manuscript from the dying Shade.

However, fire is also a symbol of the destruction of the written word in Pale Fire. Shade has the habit of destroying his drafts "the moment he cease[s] to need them," says Kinbote. He recalls watching Shade in his backyard, "burning a whole stack of [index card drafts] in the pale fire of the incinerator." Shade stands back and watches the ashes of the cards rise in the air like "wind-borne black butterflies [from] that backyard auto-da-fé." Auto-da-fé was the name given to the burning of heretics in the 16th century by the Spanish Inquisition (brutal judiciary established to fight heresy). The drafts stand in relation to the finished poem as heretics to true believers. The drafts are the errors and "the dross" Shade must destroy in the fire. But Kinbote is also the "arrant thief" who "snatches" the drafts from the poet and saves them. Much of the poem's mentions of Zembla are in the drafts, or so Kinbote claims. Not only does the commentator snatch the "pale fire" of creativity from the poet. The commentator also takes away the poet's right to creative destruction.

Mountains

Mountains in Pale Fire symbolize hardship, peril, and exile. As with caves, the mountain journeys of King Charles and Charles Kinbote are parallel. When Charles leaves revolutionary Zembla, his initial escape route is blocked and he must flee into the Bera Range. He spends a perilous night "stumbling against stumps, falling into ravines, clutching at invisible bushes." Kinbote too must flee to the mountains of "Cedarn, Utana," when all of New Wye turns against him. His life in the mountains of Cedarn is a lonely exile. Imaginary mountains are also symbolic in Pale Fire. A Mrs. Z. reports she has a near-death experience in which she sees a white fountain, just as Shade did. However, when Shade investigates, it turns out she saw a white mountain. The mountain exiles Shade from paradise because Mrs. Z's mountain/fountain misprint dashes his hopes for proof of an afterlife.

Swing

In the poem "Pale Fire" a swing symbolizes the loss of Shade's daughter, Hazel, who died young. Canto 1 mentions the daughter's swing: "Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway/The phantom of my little daughter's swing." The swing is the present sign of Hazel's absence. She died only two years before the poem's composition. Kinbote's comment on these lines, however, goes off on an anti-Freud tangent and says nothing about Hazel.

Sybil Shade includes in her husband's obituary a poem of his called "The Swing." The poem ends with these lines: "The empty little swing that swings/Under the tree: these are the things/That break my heart." Here the swing is so obvious a symbol of loss it seems to need no interpretation. Sybil presents this poem as the "last short piece that our poet wrote." Kinbote disputes the date of composition in his dismissive commentary on "The Swing." He thinks the poem is "a much earlier effort." In contrast to Sybil phrase "our poet," Kinbote calls Shade "my poet." In his comments on the swing image, Kinbote says nothing at all about the death of Hazel. Thus, Kinbote is a poor reader of Shade's symbols, even the most obvious ones. In Kinbote's commentary, the swing stands for Kinbote's obtuseness about the simplest meanings of Shade's poetry.

Questions for Symbols

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