Some readers concentrate on the apparent story, focusing on traditional aspects of fiction such as the relationship among the characters. In 1997, Brian Boyd published a much-discussed study arguing that the ghost of John Shade influenced Kinbote's contributions. He expanded this essay into a book in which he also argues that, in order to trigger Shade's poem, Hazel Shade's ghost induced Kinbote to recount his Zemblan delusions to Shade.
Some readers, starting with Mary McCarthy and including Boyd, Nabokov's annotator Alfred Appel, and D. Barton Johnson, see Charles Kinbote as an alter-ego of the insane Professor V. Botkin, to whose delusions John Shade and the rest of the faculty of Wordsmith College generally condescend. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, stating in an interview in 1962 (the novel's year of publication) that Pale Fire "is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he professor Kinbote. He is professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman." The novel's intricate structure of teasing cross-references leads readers to this "plum". The Index, supposedly created by Kinbote, features an entry for a "Botkin, V.," describing this Botkin as an "American scholar of Russian descent"—and referring to a note in the Commentary on line 894 of Shade's poem, in which no such person is directly mentioned but a character suggests that "Kinbote" is "a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine". In this interpretation, "Gradus" the murderer is an American named Jack Grey who wanted to kill Judge Goldsworth, whose house "Pale Fire's" commentator—whatever his "true" name is—is renting. Goldsworth had condemned Grey to an asylum from which he escaped shortly before mistakenly killing Shade, who resembled Goldsworth.
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. According to Boyd, Andrew Field invented the Shadean theory and Julia Bader expanded it; Boyd himself espoused the theory for a time. In an alternative version of the Shadean theory, Tiffany DeRewal and Matthew Roth argued that Kinbote is not a separate person but is a dissociated, alternative personality of John Shade. (An early reviewer had mentioned that "a case might be made" for such a reading.) "Kinboteans", a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Boyd credits the Kinbotean theory to Page Stegner and adds that most of its adherents are newcomers to the book. Some readers see the book as oscillating undecidably between these alternatives, like the Rubin vase (a drawing that may be two profiles or a goblet).
Though a minority of commentators believe or at least accept the possibility that Zembla is as "real" as New Wye, most assume that Zembla, or at least the operetta-quaint and homosexually gratified palace life enjoyed by Charles Xavier before he is overthrown, is imaginary in the context of the story. The name "Zembla" (taken from "Nova Zembla", a former latinization of Novaya Zemlya) may evoke popular fantasy literature about royalty such as The Prisoner of Zenda. As in other Nabokov books, however, the fiction is an exaggerated or comically distorted version of his own life as a son of privilege before the Russian Revolution and an exile afterwards, and the central murder has resemblances (emphasized by Priscilla Meyer) to Nabokov's father's murder by an assassin who was trying to kill someone else.
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 multifaceted image of English literature, criticism, or glimpses of a higher world and an afterlife.