Pale Fire: Novel Summary: Canto One

In the first canto, Shade describes his current physical environment, his current physical condition, his childhood circumstances, and his childhood physical condition. He begins by describing a snowy scene outside his window when he was a child and a bird walking upon it. He also is confused as to why he can no longer see what the distances he used to see and why his physical environment somehow seems different beyond the few renovations he has made.
Then, he explains that his parents died when he was young and he was raised “by dear bizarre Aunt Maude” (line 86). He stopped believing in God as a small child, becoming artistic. His artistic nature imprisoned him, as he was constantly taking in sights and sounds. He lacked friends due to his oddness. As a young child, he had fainting spells every afternoon for an entire winter, which the doctor ascribed to growing pains.
There is some conjecture that Shade is based loosely on the American poet Robert Frost. While the opening nature scene is akin to Frosts descriptions of the rustic life, Shade is not as accomplished a poet as Frost. Some lines are poetic, such as when he says of his deceased parents, “Ive tried/So often to evoke them that today/I have a thousand parents” (lines 72-74).Yet he follows this with lines that are forced in their rhyme, meter and content: “But certain words, chance words I hear or read/Such as bad heart always to him refer,/And cancer of the pancreas to her” (lines 76-78). Shade falls far short of being the iconic poet that Kinbote describes him as.
This canto sets up a context for the later cantos. He gives a snapshot of himself as a remarkably sensitive youth. He still lives in the same house, and he has kept Aunt Maudes room the same. But, he is saddened by the fact that things have changed since he was a child or a young man, and the place does not seem the same. This is indicated by the contrast between present tense describing the physical scene and past tense also describing the same town. For example, “I had a favorite young shagbark there” (line 49) which “Is now stout and rough” (54). Something has occurred between this past-tense town and the present-tense town in which he lives.
Commentary on Canto One
Commentary on stanza one, lines 1-4 and line 12
Kinbote first points out that Shade is referring to a bird hitting a window, although he does not note that Shade is comparing himself to that bird. He also points out that Shades bird is similar to one found in his own native Zembla. He notes that, while he would like to say that Gradus left Zembla the same day Shade began his poem, Gradus left four days later.
He then goes on to say that “that crystal land” on line 12 is “Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country” (74). He explains that the reign of King Charles the Beloved (Charles Xavier) was wonderful and there was great contentment in Zembla when he ruled. He loved literature, so he disguised himself for periods and taught literature to college students.
Clearly, “that crystal land” is a reference to the snowy scene that Shade is describing. This is a big clue to the reader that Kinbote is not a particularly reliable commentator on the poetry. He is inclined to relate everything to Zembla, whether the comparison makes sense or not. He also wishes to bend the poem to his commentary, rather than fitting his commentary to the poem. He actually admits this when he says he would like to coordinate Graduss movements to the writing of the poem. Most of the time, he is not as conscientious and simply tries to make the poem fit his own commentary.
At this point, the reader knows nothing about Gradus or Charles Xavier. There is probably a connection, however, since he calls Gradus a “would-be regicide” (74) and Charles is, after all, a king.
Notes to lines 17, 29, 27, 34-5, 39-40
Kinbote now does find a way to relate Gradus to Shades poem. The word “gray” is a root of Graduss name and his many pseudonyms. Gradus apparently left Zembla the same day that Shade began Canto Two. Kinbote also includes some variant lines that he got from old drafts of Shades poem.
Kinbote is trying very hard to coordinate Graduss movements with Shades poem. There is, however, no indication Shade knew of Gradus or his trip. As he says, Shade was “an innocent poet in an innocent land” (78), apparently quite unaware of Gradus at all. Hence, it seems a bit forced to connect the poem to that trip, since Shade was obviously not writing about Gradus.
Kinbote also verifies that he lacks the scholarly resources to be commenting upon a poem. A reference to Sherlock Holmes brings an explanation that he is a character in Conan Doyles stories, but he admits, “I have no means to ascertain at the present time which of these is referred to here” (78). He lacks the tools to do real scholarly work, so he gives a general description that is not at all helpful. Instead, he finds it appropriate to comment upon the travels of a man Shade knew nothing about. The commentary is designed not to help the reader understand the complexities of a poem, but to connect himself to the poem as he sees fit.
This self-serving attitude is clear in the next note when he comments upon Shade writing about winter in the summer. While many poets write of winter to evoke sadness, beauty, or desolation, Kinbote prefers a less traditional interpretation. He writes “One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season” (79).
His note to lines 39-40 reinforces the limited nature of his resources, as he uses a badly botched version of Shakespeares play, Timon of Athens, to comment upon a variant reading. However, it also demonstrates his insistence on using these variants, which cannot be verified since he is the only one with a copy of them. He could just be making them up. It is interesting to note that the poems (and books) title comes from this particular play.
Notes to lines 42 and 47-48
Kinbote explains that he was feeding stories about Zembla to Shade to try to get him to write a poem telling the story of the king, since it seems to him such great material for a poem. However, he fears that little of the story plot he told his friend made it into the poem. Nonetheless, he asserts that the flavor of the story he told suffuses the poem.
He blames Sybil, Shades wife, for keeping more of the story out. Once, he came upon the Shades crying over some notecards, which he later came to realize were the poem. He realized that Shade was reading the poem to his wife, and he supposes that Sybil forced her husband to censor out everything about Zembla. His assumption is that their tears reflect emotional discussions of this censorship.
He also describes the house he was renting from the Goldsworths. Not only was it uncomfortably drafty, but it was filled with pictures and books from a prosaic family life that offends Kinbote. The Goldsworths left innumerable notes on everything from how to feed the cat to how to adjust the window shades to avoid sun on the furniture.
Kinbotes eagerness to insert his story into the poem continues. Since the poem is really about the death of the Shades daughter, it is most probable that the tears are because they are remembering the tragedy, not because they are discussing the escape of the Zemblan king. Nonetheless, that is how Kinbote interprets it.
When describing the Goldsworthss belongings, Kinbote tells of clippings about the people Judge Goldsworth had condemned. One is “a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques dArgus)” (83), which he has already said is one of Graduss pseudonyms. This line opens the interpretation that Gradus might really be the maniac that Goldsworth once condemned.
Notes to Line 49, 57, 61
Kinbote insists upon the accuracy of his dating of variants or versions of parts of the poem, despite what other scholars or Sybil might say.
Note to Line 62
Kinbote describes his loneliness in the Goldsworth house. He imagined intruders, fantasized about Shade having a heart attack so that he could come to the rescue, and took in a boarder. He also dealt with the cruelty of the people on the faculty.
These fears indicate that Kinbote does have a tendency to imagine things and to fear persecution. However, there is some indication that he is persecuted, at least by the people at the college. He explains that, after a get-together when he showed off some wrestling moves, he found an anonymous note in his pocket saying “You have hal…s real bad, chum” (98). Any sympathy the reader might feel is supplanted by disbelief that he actually interprets this word to be “hallucinations” (98). While it is clear that he does have hallucinations, as the rest of the note and all the notes indicate, it is also clear that the word he cannot (or prefers not to be able to) read is “halitosis.”
Note to Line 71
The line in the poem is a reference to the death of Shades parents. Kinbote provides what background he can on Shades parents, information that is gleaned from an obituary of the poet. Then, he goes into a detailed description of the death of King Charles the Beloveds (Charles Xavier) parents. King Alfin was absentminded, yet he loved mechanical equipment. Hence, he died in an airplane crash that his son was watching and his wife was photographing. His son later came across photographs of the tragedy. The Queen died of a blood ailment when Charles was a teenager, and he was coming back from a ball when she died. Finally, Kinbote laments that Sybil will not send him a detailed diagram of the castle that he made for Shade, which he would like to have print with these notes. His current migraines make it impossible to recreate something so detailed.
This note confirms, in case the reader was in doubt, that Charles Kinbote is indeed Charles Xavier, or Charles the Beloved, King of Zembla. He always writes about the king in third person, but he slips (accidentally? on purpose?) and writes about King Alfin as “my father” (102). He also reveals more clearly that he is homosexual. Homosexuality in the middle of the twentieth century was not widely accepted, so often gay men had to find each others companionship in rather sordid ways, such as shame-filled affairs or the type of masquerade he describes in this note.
Kinbotes inability to recreate the diagram of the palace is suspect. Is he afraid it wont match the other one he drew? Is his memory fading? Why, if he could draw if before, can he not draw it now?
Note to Line 79
This line includes a variant from one of the draft notecards. Kinbote indicates that he believes Shade was influenced by a Zemblan poem he quoted to him.
As with all the variants that come from the twelve draft notecards Kinbote says survived, Shades authorship is suspect. These variants are the lines that most directly relate to Zembla. Kinbote claims that Sybil made her husband remove these references to Zembla, but it is also possible Kinbote invented the variants. His publisher has copies of the fair copy notecards, so the easiest way Kinbote could alter the meaning of the poem is by introducing variants that supposedly come from drafts.
Note to line 80
After the death of his mother, Charles Xaviers aunt, the Countess, tried to get Fleur to seduce the king-to-be, who remained completely homosexual. Fleur, the daughter of the former queens servant, slept in his room but he saw her as a cousin and not as in any way sexual. She was there for three days until several officials had her removed because they did not want a low-born woman to be the queen. Thus ended this failed attempt at seduction of the king. Kinbote explains “He was to go through a far more dramatic ordeal thirteen years later with Disa, Duchess of Payn, whom he married in 1949” (112).
Charles preferred his pages to Fleur. This could be read as an abuse of power, as he had quick little affairs with one subject or another. There are indications throughout the text that Kinbote the professor would have sordid relations with students, which would also be an abuse of power, taking advantage of those who had little opportunity to refuse. It is important to note that the culture that reviled homosexuality would drive a man to this, as there were limited opportunities to have an open and healthy homosexual relationship.
Notes to lines 85, 86-90, 90-93, 91, 92, 98, 101, 109, 119, 120-121
This is a series of short notes, most of which try to elucidate a reference Shade makes. Two of the notes explain that Aunt Maud was Shades eccentric aunt who raised him and liked to collect lurid advertisements. Kinbote also calls into question Shades assertion that “No free man needs a God” because of “the numberless thinkers and poets in the history of human creativity whose freedom of mind was enhanced rather than stunted by Faith” (note to line 101, page 116).
The comment about God demonstrates that Kinbote has a faith in God that his friend lacks. There are several notes in which Kinbote claims he is unable to verify Shades facts, such as the note to lines 120-121. While he cannot check Shades claims as to how much sand goes through an hourglass in an hour, it is unclear why he cannot check Shades rather simple calculations. Notes like this again point out that he lacks the tools to do a commentators job and the interest to comment helpfully on the poem. Instead, he puts his energy into trying to turn the poem into a commentary on Zembla.
Note to Line 130
Kinbote describes Charles Xaviers escape from Zembla. There was a revolution and he was imprisoned in the castle by the Extremists. Eventually, he was moved from his nice room to an abandoned room. Then, he remembered that this particular room had a long secret passage leading from it to outside the castle. He had discovered this passage with his friend, Oleg. The King managed to get in touch with a royalist, Odon, who had infiltrated the Extremists and was working as a guard. Odon was also an actor in the Royal Theater. That night, the King had an opportunity and snuck out the secret passage, which terminated a mile away in the Royal Theater. Odon helped him to escape from the theater. Because he had to dress in the dark, the king was garishly dressed in all red.
This note contains many erotic descriptions of Oleg and the Kings pubescent experiences with his friend. Assuming Kinbote is hallucinating the whole Zemblan king scenario, the eroticism of this passage indicates that part of his delusion is erotic fantasy. This calls into question many of the interactions he describes having with people in the college. He is much more subtle and does not describe them erotically, but he alludes to relations with students. Are these also erotic fantasies? If so, is the entire Zemblan hallucination a distortion of the persecution he feels at the hands of colleagues? And, does he fear this persecution because he is a very thinly closeted homosexual? When he describes the pressure to become heterosexual that he faced as a young king, it seems to reflect pressure that he feels at the college. However, it is impossible to tell if what he writes about the college is real or just more persecution complex.
Notes to lines 131-2, 137, and 143
Kinbote again compares Graduss travels with the meter of the poem. He also describes the clockwork toy that Shade kept from his childhood.
Kinbote writes that “Although Gradus availed himself of all varieties of locomotion. somehow the eye of the mind sees him, and the muscles of the mind feel him, as always streaking across the sky with black traveling bag in one hand and loosely folded umbrella in the other, in a sustained glide high over sea and land” (135-6). This image is itself poetic, availing itself of the convention of the eye of the mind. Kinbote seems to fancy himself a poet. One read could be that he is trying to turn this into his own poem, which certainly makes sense, as he is disheartened that the poem did not turn out as he wished. To take over as the poet allows him to fix what he considers an error. Of course, since it is likely he is fantasizing the entire Zembla scenario, he is already an imaginative writer and is using the medium of John Shade to create the poem he wants, even though Shade did not write the poem that way. Another read of this could be that he is the poet and John Shade does not really exist. Perhaps he has written everything in the text.
The note to line 137 complicates matters, as he dismisses a word of Shades that he does not understand, saying “Shades phrase has no real meaning” (136). He is willing to read meaning into the poem only when it suits his tale but dismisses meaning that is really there. Hence, to read the notes, this is Kinbotes poem, but to read the poem, it is Shades poem.
Notes to Lines 149 and 162
King Charles Xavier the Beloved escaped with Odon and they parted, with Odon planning to divert attention while the king escaped over the mountains. The King spent a night in a farmhouse where he refused the sexual advances of the farmers daughter. When he arrived over the mountains in a seaport town, he found that hundreds of people had been imitating him by dressing in all red to help him escape. He reunited with Odon, who was disguised as a disfigured man, and they headed for a boat.
Given that Nabokovs family fled the Russian Revolution, it is rather humorous that he has a king dressed in all red escaping revolutionaries. Red was a color used to denote communists, who of course were opposed to royalty. So, it is ironic that the king is best identified because he is in all red and that to protect him hundreds of other people become “reds.” This text also came out in the decade after Senator Joseph McCarthys “red scare,” when American citizens were persecuted for being communists, even when little or no evidence against them existed. People were persecuted much like the King feels he is persecuted, but for an opposite reason. And, people could have protected one another if they had all claimed to be reds, instead of trying to deny it and blame others.