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Pale Fire is a complicated, layered metafictional text. It is difficult to understand all the points that Nabokov might have wanted to get across to his reader. He wrote the book, along with Lolita, after coming to the U.S. in the fifties and teaching at a small eastern private college. As a result of his experiences, Pale Fire is a spoof -- a wry look at scholarship, American academics, and small eastern private colleges. The book also ridicules the political forces at work in the nineteen fifties, especially America's fear over the threat of Communism after World War II. Like Lolita, Pale Fire also takes deadly aim at American middle class values and sexual ethics.
The main character, Charles Kinbote, is a deposed European king, the remnant of a way of life made obsolete by two world wars. He represents the last of the monarchs who could simply ignore political pressures. Zembla is set up in the novel as a space somewhere between Germany and Russia, geographically and politically. For the Zembla sequences, Nabokov incorporates the Communist and Hitler-esque qualities of these countries, making fun of the Germanic and Russian character, especially in their outlandish extremes. This is the measure of Nabokov's art: his ability to present the most depraved characters who cause the reader to laugh.
Pale Fire becomes a psycho/sexual drama of exquisite crafting. Although Charles makes fun of Freud, for example, he is also a ribald example of Freudian psychoanalytics. He is also the ultimate repressed homosexual. His reign in Zembla is imagined as a long feast of happy boys. His escape is a drama of extreme proportions, just like his relationship with Shade. Charles becomes so paranoid after the shooting of Shade that he is hiding out in trailer park, somewhere in fictional Utana, between a type of Utah and Montana. The reader wonders if Charles is really telling the truth about Shade's murder since he cannot be trusted as a truthful narrator.
Charles' life is pathetic. All he has left is the last poem of an old poet who never did appear to return Charles' attentions. As a result, he tries to romanticize his own life in notes on "Pale Fire" that are supposedly disguised as academic editing. Through him, Nabokov gives credence to the idea that all writing, all editing, is essentially self-referential, and that any "editor" can only interfere with a text to his or her own ends. In Charles' case, this end is both sad and funny.
Nabokov also pokes fun of contemporary American poetry. John Shade writes very much in the 20th century American tradition of the personal and confessional poet, loosely interested in form. His poem is an attempt at totaling up his own not-very-interesting life. His self-awareness comes across as somewhat glib and pitiful. The innuendoes and comic boost from the phrasing are certainly Nabokov's sense of how such poetry cannot even really take itself seriously.
Nabokov also points out the pathetic nature of characters like Shade. He is an alcoholic and an aging professor who preys on his students. Although he is interested in proving the existence of an afterlife, he is barely living the life he does have. His end is as meaningless as his life, and Nabokov describes his death with some degree of humor. His shooting at the hands of a stranger is not exactly a grand poetic death.
Overall, the mood of Pale Fire is negative, due to the constant reminder of couples who do not reproduce or do it badly, the dry political systems, the failure of the academic community, the constant misunderstanding and reassignment of meaning, and the missed opportunities in life. In fact, the negatives are so extreme in the book that they reach flagrant and ribald proportions. Nabokov invites to reader to laugh at how seriously people take themselves.