Pale Fire: Novel Summary: Canto Two
Shade describes first falling in love with Sybil in high school. He was attracted to her beauty and does not understand why such a lovely woman would respond to the advances of awkward John Shade. He loves her more all the time, especially when they remember their daughter together.
Their daughter was awkward and unattractive. When she was younger, they tried to excuse it, but as she grew older it was painfully clear that she would never be attractive to men. They worried over this and wanted to help her. Her friend, Jane Dean, fixed her up with her cousin, Pete. Pete Dean took one look at his blind date and made an excuse to leave. She then took a bus to a lake and drowned herself. Shade goes back and forth between their evening of watching television, anxious that the date would go well, and the heartbreak their daughter was experiencing. They only found out about her death when a police car drove to their door to tell them.
Shade explains that he himself was susceptible to physical beauty in choosing his love. Hence, he is especially saddened that his daughter does not have this attribute that he knows is important for finding happiness. The contrast between the way he fell in love and the way his daughter did not is poignant.
Also quite poignant is the way that he puts the reader into a parent's shoes. He describes his daughter's sadness through his own experiences, such as crying in the men's room because she is cast as Mother Time instead of a fairy in the school play. The reader then experiences the suicide with the grief of a parent at a child's heartache.
This canto points out that Nabokov has intentionally made Shade a sort of lesser Frost. Although Nabokov claimed to not know much about Frost, he certainly understood the type of fireside poetry Frost wrote and he certainly made Shade a mediocre fireside poet. Shade writes of a television program about poetry: "my name/Was mentioned twice, as usual just behind/(one oozy footstep) Frost" (lines 424-26). This is not to say that Shade is a bad poet; he is simply a bit clumsy and ordinary at times. But, he does succeed in evoking the sadness of a father losing a child to suicide.
Notes for Canto Two
Notes for lines 167, 169, and 171
Kinbote continues to chronicle Gradus's actions. Gradus, an immigrant, got mixed up with the Extremists, otherwise known as the anti-Karlists. He is the kind of man who helps plan intrigues but does not actually put the plans into action. Hence, he probably was not the ideal man to be chosen to kill the king.
The government, run by the Extremists, believed that the King and Odon had not left the country. Only after a year, when Odon showed up directing a movie in Paris, did they realize the king had probably fled.
Kinbote is making his own attempt at poetry by hijacking Shade's poem. He does this in two ways: by forcing the congruence of facts and by creating his own poetic rhythm. For example, he decides that Gradus was chosen for the fatal act on July 2, "which happens to be also the date upon which an innocent poet penned the first lines of his last poem" (151). He has no evidence for this, but he likes to think the dates coincided.
More striking are his attempts at poetic composition. He explains how he has chosen to present Gradus: "I have staggered the notes referring to him in such a fashion that the first. is the vaguest while those that follow become gradually clearer as gradual Gradus approaches in space and time" (152). Not only does he want his notes to reshape the entire poem, but he wants them to be a poem unto themselves, using language to create a tone.
Note to Line 172
Kinbote includes some things Shade said to him that he had transcribed into a notebook "in order to refer to them in the presence of people whom my friendship with the poet might interest or annoy" (154-55).
When referring to the Head of the Russian Department, Kinbote writes, "happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque 'perfectionist'" (155). This is a strange comment, because the reader does not know who Botkin is. Fortunately, there is an index to clarify that he is an "American scholar of Russian descent" and that his name comes from "king-bot" (306). His name sounds suspiciously like Kinbote reversed. Is Kinbote then really an American named Botkin? If so, is he then disguised as King Charles Xavier, disguised as Kinbote? If so, why would Kinbote reference Botkin at all? The index points the reader to the note for 894, which sheds additional light on this issue.
Note to Line 181
On July 5, the Shades did not invite Kinbote to a huge birthday party for John Shade. He watched the party through his windows and then came over the next day with a present he had purchased for Shade and made pointed remarks to Sybil so she could see that he felt hurt and snubbed.
This is the strongest indicator thus far that Kinbote is far overstating his relationship with Shade. Shade appears to have tolerated his neighbor but not to have wanted him around at gatherings with other people. This makes sense, given that Kinbote rambled on about Zembla and obviously was socially awkward. Only in his fantasies is Kinbote popular and successful; in real life, he is snubbed openly.
Notes to Lines 181-2, 189, 209, 213-14
These are short notes with Kinbote's brief opinions on things.
Note to Line 230
Shade's late daughter, Hazel, was interested in the supernatural. In her youth, for about a month, she brought about a haunting of the house, during which objects moved about of their own volition.
Kinbote gets his information from Jane, Shade's former secretary. He writes that "in this canto he has unburdened himself pretty thoroughly, and his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete; maybe a little too complete, architectonically, since the reader cannot help feeling that it has been expanded and elaborated to the detriment of certain other richer and rarer matter ousted by it" (164). He is, of course, referring to his stories of Zembla, which did not make it into the text. Despite all his stated admiration for the poet, Kinbote shows no respect for Shade's actual poetry. It seems he wanted to be chummy with Shade so as to get the reflected glory of a poet, which could then legitimize into art his hallucinations. When Shade rejected the Zemblan theme, Kinbote was in effect told that his ramblings were not legitimate, which is why he tries again to legitimize them in the commentary to the poem.
Note to Line 231
A variant from Shade's draft is supplied. The variant mentions diseased minds but leaves a dash for one. Kinbote wonders whose name it could be, wondering if it should be his.
The first issue here is the same issue as always with the variants, which is that there is no reason to accept at face value that they even exist at all, even if we do accept that both Kinbote and Shade exist. With this particular variant, there are additional issues. If Kinbote is writing the variants, why would he write one in which he is a tragic figure? Perhaps he prefers being tragic to being pathetic. He expresses the belief that Sybil made Shade take out the offending name. If Shade did indeed write the variant, why would Kinbote include something so critical of his own bloated sense of self-worth? Perhaps he would prefer to be mentioned in the poem in this way than in no way at all. Nothing is certain but that the text gets less and less clear with each note.
Note to line 238
Despite Kinbote's efforts to get Shade to talk about the poem on an evening walk, the poet refused. Kinbote tried telling more stories about Zembla to get Shade engaged, but he would not discuss the work in progress. Finally, he told a pointed story about an emperor who liked a particular storyteller in private but shunned him in public.
The anecdote refers, of course, to the fact that Shade only likes Kinbote in private and is ashamed of him in public. This is especially tragic because Shade himself was treated as a social outcast as a child, as was his daughter. Perhaps this is why he has some sympathy for Kinbote and lets him hang around at all. However, Kinbote keeps trying to read more into the friendship and bring it out in the public, which is more than Shade can bear now that he is socially successful.
Notes to lines 240, 246, 247, and 270
Sybil Shade snubbed Kinbote and did not want her husband to associate with him. While Shade's poem speaks of her with devotion, Kinbote's notes are not flattering.
Sybil Shade referred to Kinbote as "a king-sized botfly" (172). The Index lists "king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths" (306) in the entry on V. Botkin, the professor referred to earlier. This is another clue that Botkin and Kinbote are probably one and the same. Kinbote then writes "I pardon her-her and everybody" (172). He is pardoning people for treating him badly, for shunning him. They may have done so because he is socially awkward, sometimes offensive, and probably insane. However, it is hard to know whether his delusional nature came from being shunned or if he was shunned because of his delusions.
It is quite possible that Kinbote feels persecuted for being homosexual, as many references in the notes indicate, such as when he disguises his lovers as ping pong partners. The delusion of being the King of Zembla might be a way that he can have a safe space in which his homosexuality does not create social problems for him and where he can indulge in his desires. Even in the Zembla fantasies, however, he is pushed to be heterosexual. For example, the note to 275 indicates that his advisors "had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife" (173). By portraying the stigma against homosexuality this way, he does two things. First, he again turns sexual encounters which were tinged with shame (and probably not all that successful) in his real life into acceptable and numerous conquests. He also turns the pressure to be heterosexual into merely a part of his high place in society, rather than an issue that lowers him in the esteem of others. If he was facing the social stigma that a homosexual in the late 1950s was likely to encounter in the United States, it is not unreasonable that he found relief in this type of fantasy in which he is above all of his tormenters. Thus, he might be stigmatized for being insane, or he might be delusional because he feels stigmatized for his sexual preferences.
Note to Line 286
Gradus visited Oswin Bretwit, the former Zemblan consul in Paris to try to trick him into telling the Shadows (another word for the Extremists) where Charles Xavier was. Bretwit remained loyal to the king and threw out the imposter when he failed to make the secret sign.
As Shade's lukewarm friendship becomes more apparent, Kinbote pays homage to Bretwit's friendship. "Let there appear for a moment," he writes, "his hand and mine firmly clasping each other across the water over the golden wake of the emblematic sun" (176). Bretwit was a true friend because he remained loyal. Not so Shade, who turned his back on his friend both in life and the poem: "Vainly does one look in Pale Fire (oh, pale, indeed!) for the warmth of my hand gripping yours, poor Shade!" (177). Again, Kinbote's fantasy life supplements exactly what is missing in his real life.
Note to line 287
Sybil tried to hide the Shades' summer destination from Kinbote, but he found out and booked a vacation home nearby.
In this note, Kinbote again seeks to be a poet, rather than a commentator. He writes of fantasizing for two weeks about coming around a boulder in their summer home and surprising Shade with their proximity. He fantasized about this so often that there was "an endless sequence of green-shorted Kinbotes meeting an anthology of poets and a brocken of their wives" (183) running through his head. This is reminiscent of Shade's line in Canto One of his parents: "I've tried/So often to evoke them that today/I have a thousand parents" (lines 72-74). Kinbote aspires to the status of a poet, rather than a lowly commentator, and he here unconsciously mirrors Shade's image.
Notes to lines 293, 316, 319, and 334
These are all short notes.
The note to line 334 is a hint that Kinbote faced the same rejection from potential lovers, "ping-pong friend(s)," as he got from Shade (184). In fact, his romantic rejection mirrors Hazel Shade's own rejection, but he finds refuge in delusion, while her only refuge was death.
Note to Line 347
Hazel Shade decided to investigate a supposedly haunted barn for the purposes of a psychology paper. She saw a good deal when she was alone but nothing on the two trips when she brought others along.
Kinbote has reported that Shade disliked modern psychology. Perhaps this is because of its insistence upon reading meaning into everything, when he disliked people who look for symbols all the time (note to 172). However, his distrust of psychology may also come from the fact that his daughter put them through a painful trial by investigating this phenomenon as part of a psychology paper.
Hazel's experience with the ghosts of course could not be confirmed. Kinbote refers to her "imaginative hysteria" (189). Again, we see that Hazel and Kinbote parallel one another, as she is taking refuge in flights of fancy from the painful realities of her life.
Notes to lines 347, 367-70, 376, 376-77, 384, and 385-86
The head of the English department at Wordsmith, Paul H., has threatened legal action to get the last poem of John Shade out of the hands of "a person who not only is unqualified for the job of editing it, belonging as he does to another department, but is known to have a deranged mind" (195).
Jane Provost has a cousin, Peter, who was the man who rejected Hazel. Jane, however, insists that his excuse was real and he was not ditching his date.
Kinbote is frustrated that Shade attributes something to Hazel that he felt should be attributed to him. "But then it is also true," he writes, "that Hazel Shade resembled me in certain respects" (193). This line is so fraught with possibilities that it is difficult to try to unpack it. Kinbote, of course, would like Shade to have thought of him as a son. Perhaps that is why he includes the line. Perhaps he and Hazel do share common traits, such as unpopularity and tendency to fall prey to crazy ideas, and that is why Shade pitied his neighbor and allowed him to hang around. Perhaps, after all, Kinbote never existed and is Shade's creation to resurrect his daughter. Perhaps Shade never existed and Hazel is Kinbote's way of projecting out his frustrations.
Note to line 408
Gradus went to the villa where Odon was known to be staying to try to find out the king's whereabouts. However, he only had the opportunity to meet a young man who lived there, Gordon. Gordon tried to cover for the king, with whom he had once had a dalliance, by saying perhaps he was in the Riviera. Gradus remembered that Disa, the queen, had a palazzo there and headed off.
The erotic fantasy aspect of these notes is quite evident in the description of Gordon. When he first appears, Gordon is dressed in a "leopard-spotted loincloth" (199), a few moments later he is in "black bathing trunks" (200), and just moments after that he is in "white tennis shorts" (201). Ultimately, he strips completely to go skinny dipping. Kinbote is adding many delicious details to make his fantasy all the more fulfilling. In his delusion, he believes he had an affair with Gordon, so he puts this lovely youth in as many erotic garments as possible.
Notes to lines 413, 417-21, 426, 431
These are short notes with variants or explanations of facts that are common knowledge.
The note on Frost indicates just how bitter Kinbote is. He writes about Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods," "With all his excellent gifts, John Shade could never make his snowflakes settle that way" (204).He idolizes Shade, as is evident early in the text, but the further into the text he proceeds, the more he recalls Shade's slights. Hence, he is now cutting down the poet to demonstrate that he is not really all that great and the slights mean less coming from a mediocre poet.
Note to lines 433-34
Charlex Xavier married a woman thirteen years younger than he, Disa, Duchess of Payn. He did so to satisfy the expectations of his kingdom but was unable to consummate the marriage. At first, she was confused, but then she learned the truth and was devastated. He often dreamed of the anguish he was causing her but he never felt that guilt in waking life. She left to live at Villa Disa in Italy, which is where he went after escaping Zembla. They visited for an afternoon and then he left for America.
Kinbote says that Shade's description of Sybil is similar to what Disa actually looks like. Disa is beautiful. The antipathy that Kinbote feels for Sybil stems from the fact that she gets in the way of his relationship with Shade. One gets the sense that he feels all wives are a nuisance, which is supported by his frustration with his own wife. Yet, he idealizes her as beautiful and devoted, just as Shade idealizes Sybil. There are several possibilities. He may actually have a wife that he feels some guilt over hurting. He may also idealize the acceptance that heterosexuals get simply by being married to loving wives. Or, he may be trying to assume Shade's identity as a respected man with a loving wife.
What is certain is that he is the rejecter with Disa, rather than the rejected. He writes that "he was, had always been, casual and heartless" (209), so he feels no guilt for rejecting his wife. This puts him in a position of power because he is able to turn his back on someone who adores him, rather than being shunned by those he admires. This offers another possible interpretation: perhaps he dwells on Disa because he feels Shade is treating him like he treats Disa, and this relationship allows him to turn that around.
Note to line 469
Gradus had a miscommunication with headquarters about the status of his mission.
Throughout his discussion of Gradus's journey, Kinbote includes details that he claims to have gotten from a jailhouse interview with the killer. However, the details are so unflattering to Gradus that it seems unlikely he would have supplied them. For example, he writes "the conspirators conducted telephone conversations in English-broken English, to be exact, with one tense, no articles, and two pronunciations, both wrong" (215). Gradus may have known that the English was not working, but he would not have understood the specifics of why the English failed, which only a fluent English observer could determine. Clearly, Gradus and the jailhouse interview are fictitious, and Gradus is probably simply the homicidal maniac referred to in the notes to lines 47-48.
Notes to lines 470, 475, 490
Shade disliked racial prejudice and objected to the term "colored," even though many people used it to describe themselves.
Shade's dislike of prejudice is more intellectual than social: "more than anything on earth he loathed Vulgarity and Brutality, and. one found these two ideally united in racial prejudice" (217). The note seems to indicate that he dislikes racists and as a result disliked racism. He objected to the term "colored" because it is imprecise, as it implies there are people with a total absence of color while others have exotic coloring. The term "colored" was the preferred expression among black Americans at the time, so one could argue that it should be used because it refers to people in the way they want to be spoken of. However, he, as a white intellectual, deems it inappropriate because the words do not denote what he thinks they should. This can be read as an example of a white person taking power away from black people by claiming the right to name them.
Note to line 493
Kinbote discusses the best methods of killing oneself and contemplates the religious implications of suicide.
It is understandable that a lonely, rejected man would consider suicide, and this correlates with the parallels we have seen between Kinbote and Hazel Shade. This note also reads as a fantasy, but as a fantasy about the joy of jumping from a plane and not having a parachute. What is interesting is his attempt to excuse it from a religious standpoint. Unlike Shade, Kinbote retains a sense of God and religion, so for him, suicide is a sin, yet he muses: "We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins" (222). Kinbote is not comfortable with that choice, however, as in his Zemblan tale he will jump out of a plane with a parachute.