Pale Fire: Novel Summary: Canto Four
Shade writes of his method of composition. There are two ways to write: sitting with pen and paper or thinking about the poem while doing something else. The second way is much more frustrating because he must keep the ideas in his head, along with the meter, the rhyme, and the plan for the rest of the poem. However, when sitting and writing, his best ideas often come when he puts down the pen. Although writing when going about his life is the most frustrating way, his muse follows him everywhere while he is composing, and he writes of getting inspiration while shaving.
Writing and poetry help him to make some sense of his life. If he can create order of his jumble of ideas, fitting them into a set meter, he can create some order and sense in the confusion of events that is life.It gives him some control and the capacity to make sense of his existence.
Many poets have written of using poetry to make sense of life, but it is poignant that he is writing this in a poem about the death of his daughter. He is creating this poem to help him make sense of an event that is so painful and meaningless to him. It allows him to put his daughter's life and death into some perspective.
Kinbote's commentary is an eerie parallel, as it makes sense of the death of Shade. Shade writes that "I am reasonably sure that I/Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July/The twenty-second" (lines 979-81). As the reader already knows from Kinbote, he will not wake because he is about to be murdered.
Notes to Canto Four
Notes to Lines 835-838, 841-872, 873, 887-88
Kinbote asserts that he had a close and familiar relationship with the poet, even though he is fairly critical of the poem itself.
Kinbote's adulation for the poet and criticism of the poetry seems to be a defensive move to cover his hurt feelings at Shade's rejection of him.
Notes to lines 894 and 895-99
People around town or campus often told Kinbote how much he resembles Charles the Beloved. Once in the Faculty Lounge, a visiting German lecturer kept pressing the resemblance. Shade tried to dismiss the topic.
Either Kinbote imagined these conversations as a result of his feelings of persecution or he turned other conversations around in his head and imagined they were talking about his kingship. It is also possible people really did tell him he looked like the king to goad him on, knowing about his delusions.
This note contains an additional clue that Botkin and Kinbote are the same man. One professor says to him: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?" (267). That Kinbote is Russian explains so many of his comments about Russia. He keeps speaking of how Russia used to be an admired place in Zembla, but that was the old, monarchist Russia. The new, communist Russia is degraded in his eyes. A Russian in the United States just after the McCarthy era would justly feel persecuted and so it is not surprising that Kinbote makes up a whole identity that shuns his Russian past, as well as the entire Russian Revolution.
Notes to Lines 920, 922, 929, 934, 937, and 939-40
Kinbote comments upon what kind of razor Shade refers to, the mistakes Shade makes when quoting an advertisement, his conversation with Shade about Sigmund Freud, and his friend's neglect of Zembla as a theme.
Neither Shade nor Kinbote put any stock in Freud or his theories. Perhaps it was all too representative for them and not concrete enough. They simply did not see psychology as based in reality. This is odd for a poet and even odder for a man whose entire identity is a fantasy. Kinbote asks "Do those clowns really believe what they teach?" (271). This question could refer to any scholar, who is doomed to comment upon great thinkers, rather than to actually do the thinking himself. Kinbote himself is frustrated with his role as commentator, and he loses no opportunity to counteract what the poet wrote. This is contrary to the usual nature of a scholar, who is indeed supposed to believe what he or she teaches.
Notes to Lines 949
Gradus arrived in New York and checked into a hotel. The next day, he ate a leftover sandwich, read newspapers in the park, had a big meal, and then took an airplane to New Wye. He had severe indigestion after landing and could not get a room at the hotel. He went to the library to look for Charles Xavier, alias Kinbote. He chased around the library looking for the man, stopping to have more diarrhea, and then got a ride from Professor Emerald to Kinbote's house.
Kinbote attributes the detail with which he describes Gradus's movements to having interviewed the killer in jail. However, he also admits the police will claim much of it is untrue. His description of Gradus is very detailed and unflattering. He describes him as a very coarse man, which is the opposite of how Kinbote would like to imagine himself. He sees the vulgar people of the world on their way to take him out in all his refinement.
Kinbote is intent upon turning this poem into his own literary achievement by coordinating Gradus's movements with the poem and hence creating some kind of lyric correspondence. "Two silent time zones had now merged to form the standard time of one man's fate," he writes, "and it is not impossible that the poet in New Wye and the thug in New York awoke that morning at the same crushed beat of their Timekeeper's stopwatch" (272-73). His poem has tragedy, grandeur, and synchronicity, all of which are missing from Shade's humbler theme. Shade does not find a way to attribute meaning to all events; for him, the act of writing is the only sense to be made of the tragic events of his life. Yet, Shade's meaning has more resonance because it is less grand; the reader can relate to his tragedy while the lyricism and perfect coordination that Kinbote creates all falls apart because it does not ring true.
Notes to lines 962, 991, and 993-95
While Shade asks Shakespeare for inspiration for a title, Kinbote lacks access to Shakespeare's works, so he cannot figure out which play provided the title. Arriving home from the campus on July 21, Kinbote found the poet on his porch. Shade told his neighbor he had finished the poem, and Kinbote suggested they have some wine at his house, taking the envelope with the note cards from Shade so he could walk over.
Kinbote only has with him a Zemblan translation of Timon of Athens, yet that actually is the play from which the title comes.
Kinbote describes his feelings at finding Shade alone as akin to "a lean wary lover taking advantage of a young husband's being alone in the house" (287). He has always felt competition with Sybil for Shade's attention, and his bitterness towards Shade for rejecting him and the Zemblan theme is indeed like that of a spurned lover.
Note to Line 998
Kinbote's gardener was an attractive black man who he liked to watch as he worked on the yard.
Kinbote's description of how he would like to attire his gardener is fairly racist. He wants to have him dressed as a Moorish servant. This is a man who actually wants to be studying botany and literature, but Kinbote only sees the physical man. Like his description of Gradus as a coarse laborer, this demonstrates he is a bigot who assumes the physical body shows all there is to know about the man.
He writes of Goldsworth: "I hope no bloodthirsty maniacs are stalking him!" (292), which is yet another indication that Gradus really is the homicidal psychotic the judge had put away who is seeking revenge from the judge. Unfortunately, another older man gets in Gradus's way, and he makes an error.
Note to Line 1000
Kinbote believes that Shade had only one line left to write in the poem, and it would be the same as the first line. So, he affixes both this line and this note to the end of the poem.
He and Shade came up the walk to Goldsworth's house and saw Gradus waiting there. Thinking Gradus was some sort of proselytizer, Kinbote went out in front of Shade. When the man started shooting, Kinbote spread his arms wide, pushing Shade back. Shade was killed. The gardener bashed the killer on his head. Kinbote went inside, hid the poem, and called for help. When the police arrived, the killer "gave his name as Jack Grey, no fixed abode, except the Institute for the Criminal Insane" (295).
Sybil, believing that Kinbote had tried to protect her husband, was easily convinced to sign the rights of editing and publishing the poem over to Kinbote. He spent the next week hiding the poem in different places, eventually sewing it into his clothes. No one believed Grey was Gradus, and no one would corroborate his story. Because his version of events differed greatly from the official version, he had to flee New Wye and go to this remote hiding place. Before he left, he managed to interview Gradus in prison. That prisoner subsequently killed himself.
There are far more questions raised by this note than answers. What are we supposed to think of a man who claimed Shade was his close friend, yet who took the time to hide his poem before calling for help as the poet lay dying? Is poetry immortal and does the poet no longer matter after the poem has been produced? Or, is the person more important than art, demonstrating yet again Kinbote's warped priorities?
Kinbote writes of wearing the poem that he was "plated with poetry, armored with rhymes, stout with another man's song, stiff with cardboard, bullet-proof at long last" (300). How does Shade's poem shield him from the scorn of those around him? Does he feel protected because he has this treasure and so is worthy? Or, does he feel protected because he knows he can turn the poem into his own work of art?
He certainly admits that the poem is not about Zembla. Instead, he freely states, "My commentary to this poem, now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me" (297). In other words, the commentary is indeed an attempt to rewrite the poem. Yet, the question remains: assuming Shade and Kinbote both actually exist, who is the poet and what is the poem? Does the poem become what the commentator makes of it? If so, are poems only a matter of how they are interpreted? Or, is there some finite set of fixed meanings that goes with each work of art and that cannot be denied? In other words, are there limitations on how far we can go in interpreting a work of art to mean what we please?
Of course, we still have absolutely no proof that either man actually exists, even within the fictional world of Nabokov. Nabokov, of course, created these people, but, if we suspend disbelief and accept that some of these characters exist within the world of the text, who really does exist? Did Shade create Kinbote, so that the entire text is his work of fiction? If so, he is sort of in the same position of Nabokov, creating the entire text, rather than creating the traditional work of art that is then commented upon. Or, did Kinbote create Shade, a madman inventing a poet with whom to disagree?
Assuming both men do exist, we do have a clue as to how Kinbote got Grey to corroborate his delusions in his jailhouse interview. "By making him believe I could help him at his trial I forced him to confess his heinous crime" (299). Kinbote manipulates Grey to get him to agree with the story of the Zemblan assassin, and Grey's admission just furthers Kinbote's belief in his own story.
This final note simply reinforces the complexity of the text. Nothing is clear, but everything is intriguing.