The foreword is written by Charles Kinbote. In the foreword, Kinbote discusses a poem written by John Shade, a friend who has recently died. John Shade's poem is called "Pale Fire." It is divided into four cantos and Kinbote offers extensive commentary on the poem later on. Most of the novel is composed of Kinbote's commentary.
Kinbote is the sole "editor" of John Shade's poem "Pale Fire." Kinbote notes that this has caused some problems among his jealous academic colleagues. Though Kinbote is a literature professor, his colleagues don't believe that he is academically qualified or emotionally stable enough to function as sole editor. John Shade's widow, Sybil, is also concerned about Kinbote.
The narrative structure of Nabokov's novel Pale Fire is complicated from the beginning. Two of the central characters are writers: John Shade, a poet; and Charles Kinbote, a literary critic. Following Kinbote's "Foreword" is John Shade's poem. Shade's poem is followed by Kinbote's long, extensive commentary on the poem.
In several key ways, Charles Kinbote will become a parallel to Humbert Humbert, the character/narrator of Nabokov's novel Lolita. Humbert and Kinbote are both foreigners who are unaccustomed to living in 'Smalltown, U.S.A.' The theme of exile permeates both novels. Pale Fire is considered one of the early novels of postmodernism because of the complicated narrative structure. Parody adds to the complicated roles of author/writer, and in the end, the novel questions our understanding of what is "real" and "true." Within the fictional world of the novel, we are asked to determine what is true or false. The name of the poet - "Shade" - ultimately parallels the name "Haze" (from Lolita) as a symbol of confusion. The details of what is true and false, of what actually happened and what is imagined become shady and hazy.
Canto One: Summary:
Shade's poem, "Pale Fire," is an autobiographical narrative. As a child, Shade enjoyed investigating nature, especially birds, trees and their shadows. His early life is marked by tragedy. Both of Shade's parents died when he was young and so his eccentric Aunt Maud raised him. Shade remembers his childhood well. As he is writing the poem, he is in his early sixties. Shade is both a poet and a professor of renown and he is happily married.
Besides giving autobiographical detail, the poem also dabbles in philosophical commentary. Shade tells us that he does not believe in God and that he is generally skeptical of most schools of thought.
John Shade's poem continues in the tradition of James Joyce's famous novella Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As in Joyce's work, Canto One focuses on the budding artist and tries to explain how Shade formed himself into a poet. The death motif is pervasive in Canto One: Shade's parents die when he is very young and the images of "snow" and "shadows" sustain a somber tone. This tone is balanced by the idea of nature as a life-giving force. The excess of verdant images, variety of trees and insects keep life going on a smaller level, in between the discussions of death and mortality.
There are a few puns and literary references in Canto One: Shade refers to two literary figures called "Goldsworth" and "Wordsmith" and this is a revision of the names "Goldsmith" and "Wordsworth." Oliver Goldsmith (1730?-1774) was the author of The Vicar of Wakefield. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is a far more famous Romantic poet. In a sense, Shade becomes a "wordsmith" by inventing these new names.
There is also a reference to "Chapman's Homer" and this combines popular and literary culture. The newspaper headline refers to a home run scored by Ben Chapman, a player for the Boston Red Sox. The literary reference is John Keats' poem entitled "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." In this poem, Keats discusses his impressions while reading Chapman's translation of Homer's great works. The importance here is that the process of reading and interpretation is confused. Names have been conflated and references crisscross. Later on, Kinbote's reading of Shade's poem will make gross errors of interpretation. This theme of reading and "misreading" is introduced early on. Behind this theme, there are larger aesthetic questions that we can ask: Is there a right way and a wrong way to interpret a literary work? How important is the author's intention? How do we know what the author intended? These questions lead to considerations of the proper relationship between a literary work and literary criticism.
Canto Two: Summary:
In Canto Two, Shade focuses less on his personal history and focuses more on his ideas and their formation. He is in his early sixties as he recalls his "demented youth." As a young man, Shade believed in God and he believed that the "truth" could be found in books. However, he soon became a skeptic and as a questioner, Shade saw nature as something worth investigating. Shade believed that by paying attention to small details in nature, he might understand larger, cosmic issues.
Shade remembers when his ailing Aunt Maud was struck by paralysis. One day Shade watched a bug land on Aunt Maud's armand yet, Aunt Maud didn't even move or seem to notice the presence of the bug. Shade wondered: Did Aunt Maud still "think?" His conclusion was that Aunt Maud was trapped in a cycle of trying to think: "she sought in vain/To reason with the monsters in her brain." Shade feels compassion for Aunt Maud, even after she has died. Perhaps feeling guilty for disclosing this information about Aunt Maud, Shade takes a step back from his poem. He asks the question of whether poetry is an appropriate way to balance "private" images and "public" ideas.
For a brief moment, the poem focuses on pleasantries, namely Shade's long standing marriage to his high school sweetheart, Sybil. The happiness of their marriage, however, is blunted by the tragedy they suffered as parents. Their daughter was highly unattractive, non-social, and tormented. Despite John and Sybil's best efforts to help their daughter, the teen ultimately drowned in a frozen lake at Lochan Neck. Shade has little doubt that this "accident" was really suicide.
One of the main questions that John Shade asks himself deals with poetry: Is poetry an appropriate medium for philosophical discussion, for remembering the past, and for grappling with grief? We might ask whether Shade's poem still seems like a poemconsidering the fact that it is part of a larger novel. There is tension between Shade's arguments on poetry and the poem's narrative role as part of the novel. We can understand this as a tension between the inner and outer structures of the poem. Within the poem, Shade discusses the functions of poetry as a genre. But as a whole, the poem functions in a narrative way: it becomes an early chapter in a longer story. Of course, if Shade's poem was more lyrical (complicated rhyme scheme, rhythm, poetic devices) it would read more like an individual poem and less like a part of the bigger story.
The death motif continues in Canto Two. The reader should note that death has claimed both the young and the old: Shade's parents, Aunt Maud, and Shade's daughter. Shade tries to discuss life and the afterlife in a theoretical philosophical way, but these actual deaths in the family force Shade to come up with a theory. Shade isn't just philosophizing; rather, he is trying to deal with details of his personal life. Philosophy and poetry are therapy for John Shadethese aren't mental or artistic exercises.
Charles Kinbote mentions Sybil Shade in his Foreword, but Canto Two is the first time that John Shade mentions his wife. Sybil's name is derived from the "sibyl" of Greek and Near Eastern mythology. The sibyls were female prophets with divinely bestowed abilities to foresee the future. Sybil Shade is a reversal of this mythological archetype. By the end of the four cantos, it will be clear that John Shade's life is full of tragedy. At no point does Sybil become a "Sibyl" who foresees tragedy (for example, the suicide of the daughter). Because there is so much tragedy in John's life, Sybil's inability to prophecy stands out. Of course, this isn't actually a character flaw on her part and we can't rationally hold this against her. Nabokov's argument is that in the modern era, "Sybil" is just a name. The Greeks could use sibyls as a way to get through life, get advance notice on death, and prepare for the afterlife. In the modern era, John Shade doesn't have access to the Greek sibyls. He is forced to look elsewhere.
In terms of female mythological archetypes, Sybil/sibyl provides insight into another trend in Shade's poetry. In the Greek tradition, there were many prophetesses (like Cassandra), oracles and sibyls. The male prophet (like blind Tiresias) seldom appears in Greek myth: this vocation was almost exclusively female.
Besides the role of the prophetess, the role of the "Muse" is the only other place where we find an "exclusively female" group making philosophical or intellectual contributions. The idea of the female muse (usually a love interest) recurs throughout western literature, but Shade's poem discards the traditional muse (he presents an alternative in Canto Four). Much later, Kinbote will argue in the "Commentary" that he was Shade's muse.
Canto Two focuses on the strategies of poetry of philosophy, but the canto also provides indirect commentary on "translation." When Shade tries to turn his private drama into a publishable work of art, he admits: "How ludicrous these efforts to translate/ Into one's private tongue a public fate." Shade's private tongue includes words like "Aunt Maud" and "Lochan Head." This personal information makes it more difficult for the "public" to read Shade's argument as a broader commentary that discusses human "fate" in general. At this moment in Shade's poem, "translation" refers to the difficulty of translating poetry into philosophy. The word "translate," however, should provoke thoughts on Nabokov's own literary situation: Nabokov began writing in Russian (and French) well before he began writing novels in English. Part of the exile experience is literary, what is "lost in translation." Of course, Shade's use of the word "translate" doesn't carry this significance. However, later passages of the Commentary will extensively discuss translation between three languages (English, Russian, and Zemblan). In retrospect, these lines of the poem will become important.
Finally, a literary allusion to T.S. Eliot is set within an ironic context. Shade's daughter asks the question: "What does sempiternal mean?" T.S. Eliot is so famous (perhaps, infamous) for his deliberately obscure vocabulary, and Nabokov takes a jab at Eliot here. "Sempiternal" simply means "eternal." The word appears in the poem "Little Gidding," the fourth of Eliot's Four Quartets. The opening lines of the poem read: "Midwinter spring is its own season/ Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time, between pole and tropic."
One of the ironies here is that Eliot's concept of an eternal season is sharply different from Shade's abundance of death and snow, shadows and ice. The more violent irony here is that a teenage girl who later drowns herself in a frozen lake poses the question "What does sempiternal mean?" The suicide of youth (in winter) can be read as condemningor at least, exposing a flaw of modern poetry. Eliot's "sempiternal" poetry fails to communicate in a necessary way here.