Pale Fire has two story-lines. One story takes place in New Wye, a small New England town, and the other takes place in a foreign land called Zembla. John Shade is a poet and professor who lives in New Wye. Shade is regarded as a success within literary circles. Shade's final work is a poem called "Pale Fire." It is divided into four cantos, and Shade dies before he writes the final line (Line 1000) of the poem.
The novel, Pale Fire, includes a foreword, the text of Shade's poem, extensive commentary, and a table of contents. Charles Kinbote is the author of the foreword and commentary. Kinbote tells us that he is a literature professor. He was also Shade's next door neighbor. Kinbote comes from a country called Zembla, and he is rather lonely in the United States. Despite the mounting criticism of his peers, Kinbote has decided to edit Shade's poem and publish his commentary as well. Kinbote's detractors suggest that he is without sufficient academic qualifications, and too psychologically unstable to complete the work.
Kinbote tells us that he was very close to Shade and knows more about the poem than anybody else. In fact, Shade's poem is largely inspired by Kinbote's stories about his life in Zembla. Throughout the commentary, Kinbote explains how Zembla fits into Shade's autobiographical poem. Kinbote alleges many details that hilarious because they are bizarre and obviously false. One wonders whether Zembla even exists.
Kinbote's ultimate argument is that he is actually Charles the Beloved, the exiled king of Zembla. In the commentary, Kinbote uncovers many of the intricacies and details of court life. Kinbote expresses the frustration of having to choose a spouse (he strongly dislikes both women and politics), and he longs for the luxuries of the royal life. A coup has forced Charles to escape the palace and he has eventually arrived incognito in New Wye.
Unfortunately, a man named Gradus has the task of finding and assassinating the exiled king. Kinbote explains Gradus' unsuccessful maneuvers. As secret assassins go, Gradus is a very poor one, but he inches closer and closer to the king.
In New Wye, Kinbote experiences university politics first hand. Many of his colleagues envy the close personal relationship Kinbote shares with Shade. In the end, Gradus makes his way to New Wye, though he ends up shooting (fatally) John Shadethis, of course, was not his intention. Kinbote's gardener is on hand to swiftly beat Gradus into unconsciousness. Kinbote takes advantage of the opportunity and he hides Shade's manuscript in his house. Kinbote then returns to the scene to wait for the police and authorities to arrive. Gradus soon commits suicide while under psychiatric watch. Kinbote remains confident, however, that it is only a matter of time before a "bigger, more competent Gradus" will continue the mission.