Perhaps even more dynamic than the conflict between Gradus and King Charles is the inherent conflict between John Shade, the author of the poem "Pale Fire," and Charles Kinbote, the expert who writes extensive commentary on the poem. In terms of volume, it is immediately obvious to the reader that the critic's commentary is far longer and far more involved than the actual poem. Kinbote really ceases to be a critic and he creates his own work of creative literature, presenting a romantic portrait of an exiled king and a crystal land. The question remains as to which work of art is true; this is complicated because both the poem and the commentary follow the conventions of their respective genre. The poem "Pale Fire" is a work of ekphrasis, in that it is "art about art." We find that the artist John Shade primarily defines himself in terms of his artistic and aesthetic experiences. Likewise, the use of the written text in Kinbote's hands is much like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita, who writes as a means of immortalizing himself and his love. If there is any tragedy on display in the creative lives of the novel's characters, it is the sad unhappy fact of too much artistic passion exceeding artistic capability. One can't help but genuinely pity John Shade at the beginning of his Canto IV, when he stresses "Now I will do that none has done before." His repetitive strains ("Now I will") produce the effect of someone trying to get out of a rut.
Reality, Disguise, and Delusion
Charles Kinbote is really at the center of this theme, as one of the novel's plot elements forces the question of whether or not Charles Kinbote is really King Charles the Beloved of Zembla. Either reality has been seriously disrupted and Kinbote is the exiled king of Zembla, or else Kinbote is dangerously delusional. Kinbote's descriptions of his rival critics and professors have a way of making him seem less honest and less professional. For that matter, Sybil explicitly states that Kinbote is deranged. The difference between the poem and the biography that Kinbote produces also suggests that reality is difficult to understand and "know" in a comprehensive, satisfying way.
Besides the disguise of Charles the Beloved as Charles Kinbote of New Wye, there is the red-clad escape from the Zemblan palace and the one hundred look-alike Royalists. Gradus, the incompetent assassin is nonetheless, a man full of disguises and pseudonyms. D'Argus, Gradus, Degre becomes disguises that also refer to the meaning of disguise. Not mere pseudonyms, D'Argus and Gradus are anagrams. Gradus and Degre refer to gradations of change, from one identity to another. Gradus' disguises meet with varying degrees of success in New Wye. The irony of all of the efforts to disguise oneself is the fact that Gradus makes his way to New Wye quite by accident. When Gradus has the opportunity to kill Charles Kinbote (who may or may not be the exiled king of Zembla), he accidentally kills John Shade (who is definitely not the exiled king of Zembla). In the end, none of Kinbote's commentary can be assumed to be "true."
Exile and Memory
Exile is one of the autobiographical themes that dominate the body of Nabokov's major work. There is, of course, a major parallel between Nabokov (who fled the Soviet Union and eventually ended up teaching in New England) and Charles the Beloved/Charles Kinbote, who flees Zembla (a Russia-like place, whose name is, in fact, derived from that of a Russian island Novaya Zemlya). There is generally a combination of nostalgia and memory-loss in addressing ones homeland. Kinbote remains full of nostalgia to the point that he sees Zembla, his "crystal land" in John Shade's descriptions of the wintry New England landscape. It is also worth noting that Kinbote is double-exiled, for after leaving Zembla, he moves to New Wye only to be ostracized after the events surrounding John Shade's death. He is literally writing the commentary form some hideout among the desolate caves of the American West.
Charles the Beloved's exile is described as far more political, while the cultural displacement experienced by Charles Kinbote is much like Humbert Humbert's bewildering experiences in Lolita as a continental European in 1950s America. The exiled individual in this novel however is less of a participant than Humbert was. Instead of trying to get away from the Americans, Kinbote is trying to get join their midst. He remains disconnected from the larger community and he does not participate in the family-centered activities that dominate the lives of the people around him.
Fate and Destiny
The idea of fate and destiny is challenged throughout Nabokov's novel. The underlying argument that Nabokov essentially makes is that there are so many accidents (so much chaos) that it is difficult to thread a direct connection between "act" and "consequence." The most dramatic example of this is the murder of John Shade by Gradus, an assassin who intended to kill the disguised exiled king of Zembla. If fate does exist, Nabokov shows that it is not determined by intention, but can be foiled by disguises and by human error. The idea of destiny is related to "purpose." In one sense, the exiled king represents the idea of destiny (dynasty) gone awry; on the other hand, Gradus, the assassin, is described as a man who is inept but full of purpose. His trajectory goes from Zembla, through Europe, across the Atlantic and deep into New England, and it is described as the workings of fate to bring murderer to victim. Logically, the concept of "fate" cannot really be proven or denied.
Pale Fire Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Pale Fire is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.