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Pale Fire | Themes

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Doubles and Reflections

John Shade's poem "Pale Fire" begins with an image of reflection. The young Shade was fascinated by the reflection of the living room in the plate glass window. The living room furniture seemed to hang above the snowy yard. Shade calls it "that crystal land." Kinbote seizes on the phrase and understands "that crystal land" as a reference to his lost homeland, Zembla. In a way Kinbote is wrong—Shade's poem is not about Zembla. But to the extent Zembla is "Semblerland, a land of reflections, of 'resemblers,'" Kinbote is right. "Pale Fire" the poem and Pale Fire the novel explore art as the reality of resemblances.

The story is full of doubles—some are doppelgängers and some are mirror opposites, like reflections. A doppelgänger is a literary figure, a person who likes exactly someone else. King Charles's escape from Zembla is made easier by his countrymen dressing like him in a red cap and red sweater. Charles comes upon a man like this, his "doubleganger," and initially mistakes him for his reflection in the water.

Other doubles function as mirror opposite. Thus, the handsome, honest, and accomplished Odon has "Nodo," his "epileptic half brother who cheated at cards." King Charles's loyal supporters, the Karlists, have "a romantic and noble glamor," while their "shadow group," the Extremists, are "Gothic and nasty." Other characters, like Odon and Nodo, are connected with mirror-image names. Thus, Kinbote's name, with its syllables reversed, becomes Botkin. The image in the novel's title, pale fire, is also about reflection. In Shakespeare's Timon of Athens the moon is said to steal its "pale fire" from the reflected light of the sun. This means the moon has no light of its own. Kinbote, as the commentator, only has what light he steals from John Shade's literary glory. Thus, Kinbote the commentator is also in a way the poet's double.

Pale Fire uses doubles and reflections to explore the ways in which art mirrors life. The mirror reflection is perhaps unreal, like the furniture hanging in the air over the snow. The reflection of art is sometimes uncanny, as when Charles's reflection in the water becomes an autonomous person who walks away. And the mirror reflection that is art is sometimes the opposite of life, the way a mirror reflection shows objects reversed. In life, people like Gerald Emerald grow old and die. But in art, Gerald Emerald remains frozen with his hand extended forever.

Exile

In the commentary, Kinbote often expresses the pain of exile. Sometimes this takes the trivial form of snarky comments about the adopted land. Kinbote compares American houses unfavorably to "a peasant's room" in Zembla. Even fancy American houses have "only a sleezy front door without a vestige of vestibule," and so are exposed to "deadly drafts." A Zemblan peasant's room in contrast "present[s] a solid of uniform warmth." Disa, however, is not attached to her homeland of Zembla. Once Charles escapes, "Zembla ... could sink in the sea for all she cared."

Kinbote's longing for his homeland also finds deeper expressions in the commentary. When he spirits away Shade's manuscript, believing the poem is about Zembla, he feels he was "holding all Zembla pressed to [his] heart." On another occasion, he mentions "Zembla, Rodnaya Zembla." It is uncertain what language he is speaking just then. At times it appears the Zemblan name of "Zembla" is "Semblerland," as in this Zemblan sentence Kinbote quotes: "Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!)." But when Kinbote says, "Zembla, Rodnaya Zembla," he seems to be speaking Russian, or something close to it. In Russian, the very similar phrase "rodnaya zemlya" means homeland or native land. Additionally, both the Kinbote narrative and the Charles narrative end in exile. First, Charles must flee Zembla and take on the alias Kinbote. Then, Kinbote is exiled from the town of "his" poet and must live in "bookless mountain cave" like the exiled Timon in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Kinbote is doubly exiled—first from Zembla, then from New Wye—and becomes an exiled exile.

Kinbote's native land is no longer welcoming to him. He mentions "Rodnaya Zembla" in the context of a persecution fantasy. In the Goldsworth house in New Wye he fears "phantom thugs" coming for him. He wonders if they will kill him in New Wye or "smuggle the chloroformed scholar back to Zembla, Rodnaya Zembla," where he would face "a row of judges."

Art and Reality

One theme of Pale Fire is the complicated relationship between art and reality. Kinbote claims "'reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art." Thus, true art is not about reality (art's "subject"), nor does true art aim at reality (art's "object"). Kinbote further claims true art "creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality.'" However, Kinbote would not have to argue so forcefully about art's autonomy if art and reality were not alike. Nabokov uses names to emphasize the way artworks resemble reality while also differing from it. In commenting on Disa's family villa, he remarks it is called "Villa Paradiso, or in Zemblan Villa Paradisa." Zembla is "Semblerland, a land of reflections, of 'resemblers.'" Zembla is also the "crystal land" of shimmering reflections in Shade's poem. In short, Zembla stands for art. To say "Paradiso" in Zemblan is to say a name that differs only slightly from the real one: Paradisa. As Shade says, somewhat puzzlingly, "Resemblances are the shadows of differences."

Pale Fire also comments on the interpretation of works of art, showing how subjective Charles Kinbote's interpretation is. John Shade's "Pale Fire" is an autobiographical poem, perhaps modeled on the style of confessional poets. Confessional poetry was popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s—the time of Pale Fire's composition—and it included 20th-century American poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Most readers would conclude John Shade's poem is about the poet, John Shade. Kinbote comes up with an entirely subjective interpretation: it is about himself, the exiled king of Zembla. In exposing how peculiar and personal Kinbote's interpretation, Nabokov makes two opposite points about the reality of an artwork. First, with enough labor, a commentator can make a poem seem to be about anything at all. However, second, the literary artwork has its own reality, which resists being the plaything of the critic. Many interpretations are possible, but some are plainly wrong. Kinbote's commentary, for all its narrative excitement, is wrong about the meaning of Shade's poem.

Homosexuality

Pale Fire presents Kinbote's/Charles's homosexuality in an ambivalent way. Sometimes Nabokov seems to be mocking Kinbote for being homosexual. At other times he seems to celebrate Kinbote's sophisticated pleasures, in contrast to the sullen Gradus's lack of pleasure. Early in the novel, Dr. Nattochdag tells Kinbote to be "more careful" because "a boy had complained to his adviser." Kinbote panics: "Complained of what, good Lord?" Nattochdag explains the student had complained about Kinbote's teaching, and Kinbote heaves a sigh of relief. What is unsaid is that Kinbote feared a male student's complaint about his sexual advances. This scene offers up Kinbote's homosexuality for laughter. His homosexuality is a secret the readers can congratulate themselves on knowing. An early reviewer of the novel, writing in Commentary, found this off-putting. Readers who find it "a scream ... to be a homosexual," said Commentary's reviewer, "will roar [with] the sickly laughter of Nabokov."

However, Kinbote's/Charles's lust and pleasure look positive in contrast to Gradus's refusal of pleasure. Gradus the assassin tries to castrate himself because he dislikes sex so much. Writing in the 21st century, gay American novelist Edmund White admits, "At the time of the novel's publication ... gay men were vexed by the satirical portrait" of Kinbote. Now that critics are no longer "prospecting for positive role models" of gay people, claims White, readers are freer to enjoy this "great gay comic novel, an equally funny and sometimes tender portrait of a homosexual madman."

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