Pale Fire

Pale Fire Study Guide

There is a major political context to Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. Within the chronology of Nabokov's works, Pale Fire was published in 1962, years after Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Pale Fire conjures up the unreal world of Zembla, and one can't help but consider Zembla in terms of the transformation of Russia into the Soviet Union. Certainly, the theme of exile is autobiographical, and it is also worth noting that politically, Nabokov remained a Tsarist. He never condoned the Russian Revolution that forced his family into exile, and he dreaded the Soviet Union. It is no stretch of the imagination, to conclude that Nabokov's sympathy for King Charles stems from his own experiences of exile. His contempt for Gradus (who is assisted by the Soviets) is based upon his own political stance in favor of enlightened monarchy and entirely opposed to Soviet-style one-party rule.

By 1962, the Soviet Union was only growing in power and ascendancy, and its political hold on Eastern Europe grew only tighter. The triangular relations between the U.S., U.S.S.R. and Cuba only further dramatized the political structure that Nabokov describes. Politics never comes to the foreground of the novel; rather, the consequences of politics on the private lives of Charles remain the primary focus. Exile produces a sort of nostalgia that becomes a form of dementia. Stranded on an alien and bitter continent, Kinbote admits at one point: "Solitude is the playground of Satan," essentially arguing that his intense loneliness has moved him to madness.

Besides the political context, the literary context of Pale Fire is also well worth mentioning. Pale Fire is considered to be one of the antecedents to Post-modernism. This is mainly because of the focus on narrative structure. There is a willingness to interrogate the narrator and expose the inherent fallibility of human record. There is also the tendency to expose the vulnerability and changeability of pre-recorded texts, whether they are the poems of a next-door neighbor or allusions to Classical Greek mythology. The instability of the text forces us to continually question truth vs. falsehood and exposes the hazy, shady lines that traditionally divide fiction from non-fiction. Perhaps for this feature alone, Pale Fire enjoys a prominent status on college reading lists devoted to "Post-modernism." The novel also appeared as number 53 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century (Lolita was #4).