Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Pale Fire (1962) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, his fourteenth in total and fifth in English. Many of Nabokov's fans consider it one of his most significant books (typically alongside Lolita), and it has drawn a great deal of critical attention, with commentators offering a wide variety of interpretations.
Pale Fire is at first glance the publication of a 999-line poem in four cantos ("Pale Fire") by the famous American poet John Shade. The Foreword, extensive Commentary, and Index are by Shade's self-appointed biographer, Charles Kinbote, who is Shade's neighbor in the small college town of New Wye. The name of the book alludes to a metaphor about creativity and inspiration 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). Some interpreters have noted a secondary reference to Hamlet, where the Ghost remarks how the glow-worm "'gins to pale his uneffectual fire" (Act I, scene 5).
Shade is murdered and, according to Kinbote, the poem as he left it remains unfinished. Kinbote takes it upon himself to oversee its publication, telling readers that it lacks only one line.
In the Commentary and Index, Kinbote concentrates surprisingly little on explicating the poem. Instead he tells his own story and the story of Charles Xavier, the deposed king of the "distant northern land" of Zembla. The reader soon realizes that Kinbote is Charles Xavier, living incognito—or that he is insane and his identification with Charles and perhaps all of Zembla are his delusions.
Kinbote's apparatus criticus, especially his Commentary (in the form of notes to various lines) and Index, is full of cross-references and narrates his stories in a highly non-linear way. (The book has been cited by Ted Nelson as an archetypal proto-hypertext.)
Some readers concentrate on the apparent story (a minority believe that Zembla is as "real" as New Wye), focusing on traditional aspects of fiction such as the relationship among the characters. They may make a case that Kinbote is parasitic on Shade, or that Shade's poem is mediocre and Kinbote, the inventor of Zembla, is a true genius. In 1999, Brian Boyd published a much-discussed study arguing that the ghost of the poet's daughter, Hazel Shade , influenced the commentary as well as the poem itself, and that the ghost of John Shade influenced Kinbote's contributions. (Boyd accepts the common but not universal reading that Hazel Shade committed suicide.)
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. "Kinboteans", a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Some see the book as oscillating undecidably between these alternatives, like the drawing that may be two profiles or a goblet.
Some readers, including Boyd and Nabokov's annotator Alfred Appel, see Charles Kinbote as an alter-ego of the insane scholar Professor V. Botkin, to whose delusions John Shade and the rest of the faculty of Wordsmith College generally condescend. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, writing in his diary in 1962 (the novel's year of publication): "I wonder if any reader will notice...that the nasty commentator is not an ex-king and not even Dr. Kinbote, but Prof. Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman" (quoted on page 709 of the second volume of Boyd's biography); critic Michael Wood calls this "authorial trespassing."
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 picture of English literature, criticism, or some other topic.
The only consensus is that the book is unique.
The book is full of references to culture, nature, and literature. Many feel the book is more enjoyable if the reader deciphers these references independently.
- Timon of Athens
- Red Admiral
- Novaya Zemlya
- William Wordsworth
- Oliver Goldsmith
- "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
- Franklin Knight Lane
- Lev Yashin
- Gutnish language
Links and references
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