Pale Fire: Novel Summary: Canto Three
Shade focuses this canto on attempts that can be made to make sense of death.He was engaged to be a guest faculty member at the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter (I.P.H.), also known as "If," when he was younger. He writes satirically of the unanswerable questions about death that If tried to answer. Then, after Hazel's death, he struggled more seriously with issues of life and death. He had a fainting fit similar to the ones he had as a child and died, seeing a white fountain. When he came back to life, his doctor assured him he had not died. Later, he read of a woman who saw a white fountain when she died and was brought back to life. He thought this proved his experience had been real until he found out it was a misprint and she had seen a white mountain. Then he realized he could not make sense of death and he had to instead make sense of life, with all its strange occurrences and congruencies.
Losing a child has left Shade with the difficult task of making sense of life and death. But, his attempts to figure out death are rendered ridiculous. I.P.H. teaches people how to deal with what might happen if they were reincarnated as toads. Later, when his child has died, he tries again, but just when he thinks he has figured out death, it is a mere misprint in the paper. For a man of letters interested in linguistic precision, a misprint is a very big deal. He demonstrates that one stray letter can render meaningful something that is meaningless.
However, what he comes to decide is that we make our own meaning out of the twists and turns of life. What is important is not some outside meaning, but rather our ability to "Mak[e] ornaments/Of accidents and possibilities" (lines 828-29). This is exactly what poetry does; it brings together stray images to create a sense of meaning. He does not wish to rely on symbols, such as a white fountain, because symbols can be ascribed any old meaning. Instead, he wants to bring together different events or images that have meaning when related to one another.
Notes to lines 501, 502, and 549
Shade and Kinbote argued about God. Shade did not believe in God, but Kinbote feels that "With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk" (226).Shade decided that the hereafter is unknowable and he did not even want to pierce this mystery: "Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one" (225).
Often those who have lost someone turn to religion to find meaning, but Shade decided that he could never make sense of death. Kinbote, on the other hand, wants to believe that there is redemption for him somewhere along the road, perhaps because he has so little joy in life. It is also possible that Kinbote is more likely to believe in religion because he takes all of his comfort in that which cannot be proven in real life, such as his story about Zembla.
When discussing religion, Shade pointed out that without three of the seven deadly sins, "poetry might never have been born" (224). Kinbote asked, "Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?" (225). Shade repeatedly insisted upon the importance of precision in terminology, so it makes sense that obsolete terminology sounded like a very good reason to criticize religion to him.
Notes to lines 550 and 557-58
Kinbote admits that an earlier variant he included probably was not correct and that his interpretation was "tainted by wistful thinking" that Shade might choose to write about his story (228).
This is a remarkable note. Kinbote is actually admitting that the poem is not about Zembla, that he has no reason to be writing his own history in the commentary, but that he is going to continue to do so. This brings up the issue that runs throughout. The commentator is frustrated to be relegated to a secondary role and is trying to assume a primary role.
Note to line 579
Kinbote refutes the rumor that Shade had a student as a mistress, saying he even had the girl over for dinner with the Shades. He also summarizes the social calls he and the Shades made to one another.
Kinbote claims that he tried to put an end to gossip about Shade's mistress, yet he reprints the rumors here.
Notes to lines 584 through 619
Kinbote finds that Gradus's name is hidden in the poem. He asserts that Gradus was an inferior man to the person he was hunting.And he says his hideaway hotel is not as noisy as it once was.
The notes become more disorienting as the text continues. There is, of course, no reason for Gradus to appear in the poem, as Shade never knew him. But Kinbote is determined to create his own poem in which the writing of the poem and Gradus's movements counterbalance one another.
Notes to lines 627 and 629
Professor Starover Blue is a respected, eccentric professor at Wordsmith College. At a party, Kinbote overheard Shade defending a man who invented a glorious past for himself, saying the man was a poet, rather than a madman.
Kinbote argues that "the plunging of a real person. into an invented milieu where he is made to perform in accordance with the invention, strikes one as a singularly tasteless device" (236). This calls into question the nature of fiction. Can fiction have elements of reality in it? How much reality is too much reality? These are poignant questions, given that Kinbote has removed much of reality from his own life and replaced it with fiction. However, he wanted Shade to take the fiction that now approximates reality for him and put it into a work of fiction.
Moreover, Starover is arguably not a real person once he is in the poem, precisely because he is "made to perform in accordance with the invention." His name is real, but it can be argued that once someone is within a work of fiction, he is a product of that literature. How much reality can really be attached to an actual name? In Kinbote's case, the name is everything, because once he has changed names, he has changed realities. Here, he is arguing that a name carries the person with it, which makes sense because he expects his name to carry his identity along with it.
At the end of the note for line 627, he writes of another great man in the poet's circle, "that distinguished Zemblan scholar Oscar Nattochdag" (237). Who is Nattochdag? Is this another identity for Kinbote?
Shade defends Kinbote's choice by saying that "a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention" ought not to be called mad. "That's merely turning a new leaf with the left hand" (238). Shade is allowing that a man can remake himself, renaming himself something interesting. Shade himself renames a madman as a poet. These two notes bring up the questions of whether identity is fixed or can be rewritten by rewriting a name and how closely tied to a name is the person.
Notes to lines 662 and 671-72
Kinbote comments upon the use of literary allusions.
Kinbote condemns "the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy" that entitles "a collection of essays or a volume of poetry-or a long poems, alas-with a phrase lifted from a more or less celebrated poetical work of the past" (240). He is condemning the very poem on which he comments, with a title from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. However, just one note earlier, he praises Shade's allusiveness, perhaps because he feels it easier to own Goethe's lines as relating to himself.
Note to line 678
Kinbote criticizes Sybil Shade's French interpretations of poems.
Note to line 680
Commentary on the American convention of naming hurricanes after women.
Kinbote writes: "Why our poet chose to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name. is not clear" (243). It is clearer to the reader, who is aware that Nabokov's controversial Lolita was released in 1958. Nabokov seems quite amused at this fact and delights in drawing the reader's attention to his joke. He is pointing out his own authorship, making the question of Kinbote's or Shade's identity moot because he is the ultimate author.
Note to line 681
Two Russian experts were hired to find the crown jewels of Zembla, which were hidden outside of the palace. They were splendid specimens of men and joyous. However, they would never find the crown jewels, which were hidden outside of the palace. Charles Xavier also had some Russian heritage, which is deemed desirable in Zembla.
Kinbote describes one of the men as having "a big boyish smile remindful of scoutmasters with something to hide, or those gentlemen who cheat in television quizzes" (244). He refers to the quiz show Dotto, which was investigated for fraud in 1958 because the producers were rigging the show.
Note to line 682
Kinbote comments that he never saw a portrait of Sybil in the house.
Note to line 691
Kinbote now fully reveals that he is Charles Xavier, the Beloved, when he explains that he dropped from a plane with a parachute into a field near where Odon's mother lives in Baltimore. She helped him get the job at Wordsmith, which is in New England, and helped him rent his house. Delighted that he would be living next door to the poet, he sent a fan letter to the Shades that was never acknowledged. He is puzzled why it was not acknowledged, even though this is a note about the fact that Shade had just had a heart attack, an event that may have taken more attention in his mind than an odd fan letter.
Given Kinbote's earlier musings on jumping out of a plane without a parachute, this note is especially interesting. He has remade his desire to end the unhappy life he led before into a different kind of end to a different life. Instead of killing himself, he has sloughed off his old identity and assumed a new one, as Charles the Beloved, and this passage is about Charles the Beloved sloughing off his old identity and assuming a new one. Throwing himself out of an airplane is about creating a new life, rather than terminating an old one, as it would be without a parachute.
Notes to lines 697, 704-707, 727-728, 734-735, 741, 747-48
Gradus arrived in Nice and was told to sit tight by headquarters. Eventually, however, the Shadows broke into Villa Disa and found a letter from King Charles saying he was in New Wye, so Gradus was sent along to kill him.
Kinbote draws attention to Shade's play on his own name: "just half a shade." "The subtle pun here turns on two additional meanings of 'shade' besides the obvious synonym of 'nuance.' The doctor is made to suggest that not only did Shade retain in his trance half of his identity but that he was also half a ghost" (253-54). Name is again tied to identity here. Shade may be simply playing with words, but Kinbote, who feels identity is strongly linked to name, believes that to be half dead would be to lose half of one's name and half of one's identity.
His choice of "Shadows" for the conspirators against him is also significant. He gives them this name as the text progresses, which also coincides with the Shades' rejection of him. Shades make shadows, of course, and one reading is that the "Shadows" who were out to get him were actually the neighbors he wished to befriend. The Shadows could also be the shadows of people around campus who he believed were persecuting him.
The job of a commentator is to point out the context for obscure references. However, Kinbote has no library and instead goes to a lot of trouble to point out that he is not commenting upon obscure references, claiming "such humdrum potterings are beneath true scholarship" (256). Actually, they are the work of true scholarship in such a case, but he wants to be a poet, and poets leave such work for their commentators.
Notes to lines 768 and 782
Kinbote includes the letter he sent to Disa that eventually led the Shadows to his hideaway.
Here, he refers once again to the boarder he threw out of his home. This young man betrayed him in some way and was kicked out with no warning. "I believed," he writes, "in the affection of a person who lived here, under my roof, but have been hurt and betrayed" (257). Clearly, his lovers (or potential lovers) in New Wye have not proven very devoted. The reason why he has so many (real or imagined) brief romantic encounters could be because secrecy and the taboo against homosexuality have not allowed him longer relationships. However, he also tends to choose much younger men, who may not really want long-term romance with a middle-aged man. This boarder comes up several times in the text and is probably one of the reasons he feels persecuted in New Wye.
Note to line 802
Kinbote heard a voice like Shade's telling him to visit. He called the poet and insisted they take a walk together. On the walk, Shade said he was writing about mountains, which Kinbote understood to mean he was writing about Zemblan mountains.
The fact that he heard voices indicates a certain level of paranoid schizophrenia on Kinbote's part, if the fear of persecution and invention of a whole new identity were not enough to indicate that diagnosis. He also refers again to his lover, who he indicates actually left him. One wonders how much of his obsession has to do with being a rejected lover.
Notes to lines 803 and 810
Translators of the poem will have trouble indicating the significance of the misprint. The owner of Kinbote's motel is an older man who lent him a book.
Kinbote focuses a lot on word games, and the issue of translation brings up more word play. A scholar and a poet both focus on the play of words against each other, but the poet does this to construct meaning while the scholar does it to deconstruct meaning.
He indicates that the motel owner reminds him of Shade. While it is probably clear that he is not a Zemblan king and has made up that whole world, this reference brings up the possibility that he is not a scholar who is hiding from New Wye enemies. Perhaps he made up Shade and all he says about his life there. Shade could be a delusion stemming out of a motel owner who lends him books and Goldsworth's house could be a delusion embellishing his cabin motel. If that is the case, he probably wrote the entire poem and is creating all these levels of fiction himself.
Notes to lines 819, 822, and 830
Kinbote wishes there were a variant about a Zemblan king, but there is not. He reports on the word games he played with Shade.
Word games make sense for a poet who is honing his skills. Kinbote contends such games were childish. However, he himself played with words in a very similar way two notes earlier. He simply wants to be the poet who gets to decide theme, content, and word choice.