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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
Set largely in 1959, the story takes place in a variety of locations, mostly fictional but representative of real places. The main action takes place in "Appalachia," a town in the northeastern United States, roughly where the actual Appalachian Mountains come to their northernmost point. The town in the story is a college town, and some of the action takes place at the private liberal arts college where the two main characters teach. These characters, Charles Kinbote and John Shade, are also neighbors for a brief period. Much of the action of the plot occurs between their two houses.
There is also the fictional northern European country of "Zembla." Charles Kinbote claims Zemblan heritage and implies that he is the country's recently deposed king. The country is tiny and faces "extremist" and Communist infiltration. Much of Charles' account concerns his Zemblan life and his last days of reign there as king. This thread of the story also includes other European and U.S. settings.
Finally, there is the fictional Cedarn, Utana. It is a rural town, intended to be in Utah or the northwestern United States. Charles goes into hiding there. It is also from there that he supposedly writes this book; it is intended to be his account of and notes on "Pale Fire," the 999 line poem written by his dead friend, John Shade. Every once in a while, Charles makes a disparaging comment on Cedarn, his hideout.
The time period of the book really spans from the early twentieth century to 1959, with most of the action taking place in the late 1950s.
The form of Pale Fire is totally unconventional. The book is really intended to be an explication of a poem, divided into three sections: Charles' "Forward"; "Pale Fire", the poem by John Shade; and Charles' extensive notes on the poem's Themes and content. These three are not necessarily in order, and the reader is constantly asked to skip around in the text to gain further background or to add another layer to a present point. It obviously becomes a spoof of a scholarly work. In this sense, Pale Fire is a metafictional text, meaning that it plays with the usual format of a novel and challenges the typical format of "scholarship" and what it represents. Primarily, the book makes fun of self-important scholars and their writing; it also pokes fun at the political and social situations of the late 1950s in the U.S. and Europe. As a result, both the form and "message" of Pale Fire is quite representative of the experimental writing of the mid-twentieth- century. Although it is not always an easy text to read, the story is quite humorous and clever, and the characters are uproariously human.