Shade and family
The structure is notoriously difficult to unravel, but most readers agree that Shade is a poet married to his teenage sweetheart, Sybil. Their only child, a daughter named Hazel, apparently committed suicide some time before the novel's action begins. Shade lives in the college town of New Wye, amidst the Appalachian Mountains. His fame is sufficient for television pundits to often mention him in the same breath ("one oozy footprint behind") as his fellow poet Robert Frost, an association which Shade does not entirely enjoy, perhaps because Frost is always mentioned first.
Nabokov provides some incidental samples of Shade's work—The Sacred Tree, The Swing— in addition to the title poem. This is a gallant authorial gesture, as when a professor at Cornell, Nabokov had complained from the lectern of authors who ask readers to accept a character's gifts on faith: "The author has hinted already that Gurov [the focus of Chekhov's Lady with the Little Dog] was witty in the company of women: and instead of having the reader take it for granted (you know the old method of describing the talk as 'brilliant' but giving no samples of the conversation), Chekhov makes him joke in a really attractive, winning way." The longest sample is Shade's 999-line work, rendered in heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter), which is also titled "Pale Fire" and provides one facet of the novel's reflexive structure.
Divided into four cantos, Shade's poem describes his life, his obsession with the senses, and his boyhood-to-maturity preoccupation with death. The work is notable for its description of a near-death experience (Shade treats it with a mixture of skepticism and reverence), and for the "faint hope" of an afterlife which it provides.
Shade's poetry is referenced in the last chapter of Nabokov's 1969 novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
John's next-door neighbor is Charles Kinbote, who may or may not be suffering delusions of grandeur. Kinbote is the presenter and annotator of Shade's poem. Some critics assert that Kinbote is Shade's invention, while others maintain that Shade is a literary device or a fiction that Kinbote employs to further his own ends. Other interpretations are possible; Zembla — the country Kinbote claims to come from — is after all a land of "resemblances."
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (Fredson Bowers, Editor), New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1981. p. 257.