55 pages 1 hour read

Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1962

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Summary and Study Guide


Pale Fire is a 1962 experimental novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the author of seminal novels like Lolita and Pnin. The novel consists of a 999-line poem by a fictional poet and the accompanying notations by a fictional editor. Rather than analyze the poem, however, the notations create a new narrative. Pale Fire has been heralded as a landmark example of metafiction and one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

This guide is written using the 2011 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide discuss suicide and mental health conditions.

Plot Summary

Pale Fire begins with a short foreword by fictional editor Professor Charles Kinbote. Writing from the town of Cedarn in the fictional state of Utana, Kinbote describes his relationship with the author of the poem “Pale Fire,” John Shade. The men were neighbors, though Shade was disinterested in their friendship. Shade was killed shortly before the poem’s publication. Kinbote suggests that readers would benefit from reading his analysis before Shade's poem.

In the first canto of “Pale Fire,” Shade describes his encounters with death and the supernatural. The poem is a digressive look into periods of his life, including his childhood seizures, which have apparently stopped. In the second canto, he details his family life with his wife and their daughter, Hazel. Hazel drowned in a lake after being rejected by a date. Whether she meant to die by suicide or had a terrible accident is not clear.

In the third canto, Shade outlines his hope that life has meaning. As a lecturer, he was once employed by the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter. Despite his interest in the afterlife, Shade is an atheist. He describes his own near-death experience, in which he had a vision of a white fountain. The same vision has been seen by other people, one of whom he meets. Later, he discovers that she actually saw a mountain. The fourth canto is about poetry, Shade's creative process, and why he believes poetry is a means for understanding the universe. The poem ends abruptly at Line 999, leaving the final rhyming couplet unresolved.

Through his commentary, Kinbote begins to tell the story that he has always wanted to tell, about an exiled king of Zembla, King Charles. He is privy to many details that no one but the king would know, hinting that Kinbote believes himself to be King Charles living under an assumed identity. The king he describes is scholarly and beloved by his people. His father’s hobby was airplanes, and he died in a crash. He has no relationship with his mother, who wants him to marry and produce an heir. He cannot do this because he is gay. He does eventually marry a woman, but Queen Disa leaves him to live on the French Riviera. The country is taken over by extremist revolutionaries who hold the king hostage until he finds a secret passage that leads him out of the castle. He escapes through the mountains, and loyal subjects aid in his escape by dressing like him. He visits his wife but then leaves to teach at a university in America. There, he rents a house, which happens to make him a neighbor of his favorite American poet.

Kinbote tells this story to his new neighbor, John Shade. Kinbote suggests that the king is the inspiration for Shade’s poem, though Shade makes no explicit references to King Charles. He also discusses an assassin named Jakob Gradus, who has been dispatched to kill the exiled king. Gradus travels across Europe to America, eventually arriving in Kinbote's neighborhood.

As Shade nears the completion of the poem, Kinbote invites him to celebrate. Shade comes to Kinbote's house with the near-complete manuscript. A stranger— who, Kinbote suggests, is the assassin Gradus—accosts them outside the house. He shoots his gun at Kinbote but hits Shade before the assassin is knocked unconscious by Kinbote's gardener. In the last notation, in place of the missing Line 1,000, Kinbote explains that the assassin killed Shade, mistaking him for the deposed king. However, the man later claims that his name is Jack Grey and that he escaped from a nearby mental health facility.

Kinbote takes the unfinished manuscript and reads the poem. He becomes obsessed, annoyed that Shade is not describing Zembla in apparent defiance of all the inspirational stories Kinbote told him. Shade is survived by his widow, Sybil, who gives Kinbote permission to edit her husband's last work despite the consternation this causes at the university. Kinbote visits Grey, who then dies by suicide. Kinbote escapes to the mountains, taking up residence in the fictional town of Cedarn to begin the process of annotating Shade's poem.

The novel also includes an index, written by Kinbote as an accompaniment to Shade's poem. The index provides further information about the people of Zembla, as well as the country itself. Just like the poem, the index is infused with Kinbote's agendas and opinions, as well as suggestions that he is King Charles.