Pale Fire has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and a large body of written criticism, which Pekka Tammi estimated in 1995 as over 80 studies.The Nabokov authority Brian Boyd has called it “Nabokov’s most perfect novel”,and the critic Harold Bloom called it “the surest demonstration of his own genius … that remarkable tour de force”.The novel’s unusual structure has attracted much attention, and it is often cited as an important example of metafiction; it has also been called a poioumenon. The connection between Pale Fire and hypertext was stated soon after its publication; in 1969, the information-technology researcher Ted Nelson obtained permission from the novel’s publishers to use it for a hypertext demonstration at Brown University. A 2009 paper also compares Pale Fire to hypertext.Starting with the table of contents, Pale Fire looks like the publication of a 999-line poem in four cantos (“Pale Fire”) by the fictional John Shade with a Foreword, extensive Commentary, and Index by his self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote’s Commentary takes the form of notes to various numbered lines of the poem. Here and in the rest of his critical apparatus, Kinbote explicates the poem surprisingly little. Focusing instead on his own concerns, he divulges what proves to be the plot piece by piece, some of which can be connected by following the many cross-references. Espen Aarseth noted that Pale Fire “can be read either unicursally, straight through, or multicursally, jumping between the comments and the poem.” Thus although the narration is non-linear and multidimensional, the reader can still choose to read the novel in a linear manner without risking misinterpretation.
The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious small college town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live across a lane from each other, from February to July 1959. Kinbote writes his commentary from then to October 1959 in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana. Both authors recount many earlier events, Shade mostly in New Wye and and in Europe, especially the “distant northern land” of Zembla.
Shade’s poem digressively describes many aspects of his life. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death and glimpses of what he takes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 is about his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel Shade. Canto 3 focuses on Shade’s search for knowledge about an afterlife, culminating in a “faint hope” in higher powers “playing a game of worlds” as indicated by apparent coincidences. Canto 4 offers details on Shade’s daily life and creative process, as well as thoughts on his poetry, which he finds to be a means of somehow understanding the universe.
In Kinbote’s editorial contributions he tells three stories intermixed with each other. One is his own story, notably including what he thinks of as his friendship with Shade. After Shade was murdered, Kinbote acquired the manuscript, including some variants, and has taken it upon himself to oversee the poem’s publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1000. Kinbote’s second story deals with King Charles II, “The Beloved,” the deposed king of Zembla. King Charles escaped imprisonment bySoviet-backed revolutionaries, making use of a secret passage and brave adherents in disguise. Kinbote repeatedly claims that he inspired Shade to write the poem by recounting King Charles’s escape to him and that possible allusions to the king, and to Zembla, appear in Shade’s poem, especially in rejected drafts. However, no explicit reference to King Charles is to be found in the poem. Kinbote’s third story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. Gradus makes his way from Zembla through Europe and America to New Wye, suffering comic mishaps. In the last note, to the missing line 1000, Kinbote narrates how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.
The reader soon realizes that Kinbote is King Charles, living incognito—or, though Kinbote builds an elaborate picture of Zembla complete with samples of a constructed language, that he is insane and that his identification with King Charles is a delusion, as perhaps all of Zembla is.
Nabokov said in an interview that Kinbote committed suicide after finishing the book. The critic Michael Wood has stated, “This is authorial trespassing, and we don’t have to pay attention to it,”but Brian Boyd has argued that internal evidence points to Kinbote’s suicide. One of Kinbote’s annotations to Shade’s poem (corresponding to line 493) addresses the subject of suicide at some length.
As Nabokov pointed out himself, the title of John Shade’s poem is from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration. Kinbote quotes the passage but does not recognize it, as he says he has access only to an inaccurate Zemblan translation of the play “in his Timonian cave”, and in a separate note he even rails against the common practice of using quotations as titles.
Some critics have noted a secondary reference in the book’s title to Hamlet, where the Ghost remarks how the glow-worm “‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire” (Act I, scene 5).
The title is first mentioned in the foreword: “I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator…”.
Some readers, starting with Mary McCarthy and including Boyd, Nabokov’s annotator Alfred Appel, and D. Barton Johnson, see Charles Kinbote as an alter-ego of the insane Professor V. Botkin, to whose delusions John Shade and the rest of the faculty of Wordsmith College generally condescend. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, stating in an interview in 1962 (the novel’s year of publication) that Pale Fire “is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he professor Kinbote. He is professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman.” The novel’s intricate structure of teasing cross-references leads readers to this “plum”. The Index, supposedly created by Kinbote, features an entry for a “Botkin, V.,” describing this Botkin as an “American scholar of Russian descent”—and referring to a note in the Commentary on line 894 of Shade’s poem, in which no such person is directly mentioned but a character suggests that “Kinbote” is “a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine”. In this interpretation, “Gradus” the murderer is an American named Jack Grey who wanted to kill Judge Goldsworth, whose house “Pale Fire’s” commentator—whatever his “true” name is—is renting. Goldsworth had condemned Grey to an asylum from which he escaped shortly before mistakenly killing Shade, who resembled Goldsworth.
Other readers see a story quite different from the apparent narrative. “Shadeans” maintain that John Shade wrote not only the poem, but the commentary as well, having invented his own death and the character of Kinbote as a literary device. According to Boyd, Andrew Field invented the Shadean theory and Julia Bader expanded it; Boyd himself espoused the theory for a time. In an alternative version of the Shadean theory, Tiffany DeRewal and Matthew Roth argued that Kinbote is not a separate person but is a dissociated, alternative personality of John Shade. (An early reviewer had mentioned that “a case might be made” for such a reading.) “Kinboteans”, a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Boyd credits the Kinbotean theory to Page Stegner and adds that most of its adherents are newcomers to the book. Some readers see the book as oscillating undecidably between these alternatives, like the Rubin vase (a drawing that may be two profiles or a goblet).
Though a minority of commentators believe or at least accept the possibility that Zembla is as “real” as New Wye, most assume that Zembla, or at least the operetta-quaint and homosexually gratified palace life enjoyed by Charles Xavier before he is overthrown, is imaginary in the context of the story. The name “Zembla” (taken from the island Nova Zembla)may evoke popular fantasy literature about royalty such as The Prisoner of Zenda. As in other Nabokov books, however, the fiction is an exaggerated or comically distorted version of his own life as a son of privilege before the Russian Revolution and an exile afterwards, and the central murder has resemblances (emphasized by Priscilla Meyer) toNabokov’s father’s murder by an assassin who was trying to kill someone else.
Still other readers de-emphasize any sort of “real story” and may doubt the existence of such a thing. In the interplay of allusions and thematic links, they find a multifaceted image of English literature, criticism, or glimpses of a higher world and an afterlife.
The first two lines of John Shade’s 999-line poem, “Pale Fire”, have become Nabokov’s most quoted couplet:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane
- Summary of a radio adaptation of Pale Fire broadcast in 2004 by BBC Radio 3
- Criticism (at Zembla, web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society). Contains a chronology of Pale Fire and many essays about it, along with other writing on Nabokov’s works.
- Interactive HypermediaPale Fire likened to Bach fugue and butterfly [Shockwave Player required]