Pale Fire

Pale Fire Summary and Analysis of Commentary on Cantos 3-4

Commentary/Canto Three: Summary:

Shade and Kinbote discuss philosophical issues but they don't usually agree with each other. Shade does not believe in God, but Kinbote does. Kinbote also believes in organized religion, much to Shade's chagrin. Shade believes in moral relativism, that standards of wrong and right are truly different in different societies. On the other hand, Kinbote believes that a universal standard of wrong and right can be applied to every society.

Shade and Kinbote also disagree on aesthetic questions. Specifically, Shade makes two arguments that stand out. First, he argues that there is no such thing as "original sin." In place of the "original sin" of the Garden of Eden, Shade contends that "L'homme est né bon" (Man is born good). Shade's second main argument is that "sin" is necessary for art, and the finest works of art tend to celebrate and illustrate sinful activities. Overall, Shade is a Romantic and Kinbote is a Conservative.

Gradus spends some time in central Europe, eventually leaving Geneva for Nice, a small resort city on the French Riviera. By this time, the king is long gone, having parachuted from an airplane and disappeared. Gradus senses that time is not on his side. He considers continuing on his trail without waiting for instructions. Gradus comes into contact with two Soviet agents named Andronnikov and Niagarin. Gradus is friendly with the Soviets and he is put in contact with a man called Izumrudov. Izumrudov gives Gradus a piece of paper with classified information. The paper confirms that the exiled king is in New England, teaching literature under an assumed name. Gradus then eats the paper to hide the evidence.


The interactions between Gradus and the quirky Soviet agents are a farce. Extremely important affairs have been placed in the hands of extremely incompetent men. Andronnikov is a name that alludes to Russian history. Andronnikov was a man rumored to be involved with Rasputin, a famous enigmatic figure in late Tsarist Russia. Nabokov's political views are not well hidden here. Nabokov's father was very involved in reform movements during the rule of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. A desire for parliamentary reform is not the same thing as a desire for revolution‹and certainly not communism. Nabokov held sympathies for monarchy, despite its flaws. This sympathy is matched with a contempt for the Soviet regime. At one point, Kinbote (the king in disguise) says that "the one who kills is always his victim's inferior." While Nabokov can't argue that the Tsarist rule was bloodless, the Communist coup and subsequent regime was far bloodier.

The argument about whether sin is necessary for art is important to our considerations of Nabokov's collected work. Nabokov consistently exposes the taboos and subjectivity of American small towns and totalitarian state regimes alike. Nabokov's novel Lolita suffered censorship, even in a democratic nation like the United States. Here, Nabokov's response to censorship is that the body of sin includes many things worth writing about.

Kinbote draws a parallel between God and the Artist when he describes the artist as a God-like "Judge of life andŠDesigner of Death." This serves to emphasize the number of editorial decisions required of a writer, once the characters are in place. Kinbote draws criticism for his abuse of his position, however. As a writer, Kinbote has the ability to "judge" and "design" as he pleases, but he has been arbitrary and dishonest. Kinbote admits that at one point he found himself at the "brink of falsification" because he did not like a section of Shade's poetry. Of course, Kinbote has already falsified much the story. Kinbote consistently refers to the "Fair Copy" of Shade's poem but as a critic, Kinbote has been consistently unfair.

Throughout this section, there is a balance between the comic and the tragic. This balance is maintained even in the literary allusions. Kinbote's term, "Hudibrastic," is a word that refers to a poem by Samuel Butler called "Hudibras." "Hudibras" was a parody of Professor Hudibras, written in doggerel verse. "Hudibras" fits well within the context of Nabokov's parody of Professor Pnin and mainly Professor Kinbote.

The allusion to "Arcadia" is more tragic in significance. Kinbote borrows the ideas of "Arcadia" and "Dementia" from Greek Mythology. Arcadia was a town that represented the perfection of nature. To this day, the phrases "Arcadian" and "Arcadian rhythm" describe a natural utopia. Dementia was a personality of characteristic insanity and delusion (dementia). Like Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote is a demented man who has found his way into Arcadia. Kinbote writes: "ŒEven in Arcady am I,' says Dementia, chained to her gray column." This sinister combination of opposing images is a pollution. In terms of the plot, this phrase foreshadows the arrival of Gradus in Arcadian New Wye. In terms of character development, Kinbote's personification of Dementia (as a chained woman who speaks) alerts us to Kinbote's own pain and suffering.

Commentary/Canto Four: Summary:

The last section of commentary brings the novel to its swift conclusion. Gradus leaves Nice for Orly Airport in Paris. From Paris, Gradus flies to New York City, and from New York, the assassin heads for New Wye. In New Wye, Shade and Kinbote are unaware of the impending danger. In a dining hall conversation, someone asks Kinbote about his history in Zembla. When Kinbote is vague about Zembla, the person raises the issue of Kinbote's strong resemblance to the exiled king, also named Charles. At this point, Shade steps in and dismisses these ideas. Much later, Kinbote is now looking over the dead man's annotations. Kinbote describes himself as a "weary and sad commentator" because some of Shade's notes reveal that the reference to Zembla is casual: "At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where."

When Gradus arrives in New Wye, he travels under the alias Jacques d'Argus. Jacques is focused and determined to fulfill his mission. A torrential downpour makes it difficult for d'Argus to get around. Also, something he has eaten has given him a horrible stomachache and diarrhea.

Once d'Argus gets to New Wye, it is not difficult for him to track Kinbote to Shade's house. Shade has just completed his draft of "Pale Fire" and he is now sharing it with Kinbote. D'Argus gets his gun, takes aim and fires‹but he shoots Shade instead of Kinbote. Kinbote's gardener rushes to the scene and knocks the gunman down. The gardener then takes the gun.

Kinbote looks at Shade's body and sees that he is dead. Kinbote then goes to his house (next door) and hides the poem for safekeeping. He returns to wait with the gardener for the authorities to arrive.

Gradus is placed under psychological observation. Kinbote tells us that he went to see Gradus and the assassin made a full confession. Not long after this, Gradus killed himself. Thus, no one can substantiate this part of Kinbote's story. Kinbote has gone into hiding. At present, he sits in a cave composing this commentary. While he is secure for the moment, Kinbote does not doubt that the Shadows will send a "bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus" to complete the mission.


Kinbote shows us that he was more interested in the manuscript of "Pale Fire" than he was concerned about his dying friend. This character development explains Kinbote's indifference to Shade's poetic concerns.

The motif of synchronicity is resolved in this final section. Certainly, it is ironic that the deliberate "interlinking" of "time zones" would result in an accidental death. One could make the argument that Shade's fate was to die. At the same time though, if accidental death is fate, there is little difference between fate and chance, predestination and chaos.

Another major irony involves Gradus' alias "Jacques D'Argus." The name "D'Argus" is hardly a disguise as it is an anagram of "Gradus." The name "Argus" alludes to Greek mythology. Argus was a watchman‹not an assassin, and another anagram of the name "Gradus" is GUARDS. The earlier commentary foreshadowed the arrival of "Dementia" in "Arcadia." In Greek mythology, Argus was the watchman for the town of Arcadia, ridding the utopia of pests, giants, and monsters. Argus was an ideal watchman because he had one hundred eyes; while some eyes slept, others remained vigilant. D'Argus is a double reversal of Argus then: He is not a watchman, but an assassin. Further, he is not perceptive but blind: D'argus shoots the wrong person.

The distinction between the person who guards and the person who destroys should not be lost. Kinbote physically possesses the one "Fair Copy" of Shade's final poem. Instead of serving as a guardian, Kinbote has taken excessive liberties.

Finally, some literary critics look at Kinbote's name (which means "king-destroyer) and take it as evidence that he is actually the assassin, and that John Shade was actually the king. The mystery of the novel is never resolved, but this shouldn't spoil the book. It is likely that the reader doesn't actually believe that there is a Zembla, a Zemblan king, or a king's assassin. In this novel, the likelihood of Kinbote's dementia removes the burden of solving his mystery.