English 12

Pale Fire: Analysis Guidelines and Essay Topics

Pale Fire is a very challenging novel. Listed below are some things to focus on/highlight/note as your read. You do not have to keep track of every reference to every item, but it will help you in your comprehension if you are able to keep track of at least a few of the more commonly occurring items. Be sure to provide direct quotations and page numbers as often as possible, as many of your observations early on may be useful for your eventual essay.


Literary and Historical Allusions

William Shakespeare (especially the passage from Timon of Athens, from which the poem gets its name)

Alexander Pope T.S. Eliot (“Four Quartets” and “The Waste Land) Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll) Robert Browning John Keats Edgar Allan Poe King Charles II (England) fairy tales Nature  birds butterflies trees (and their symbolism) death and ghosts

Other  contrapuntal theme (i.e. poem versus Foreword, Commentary and Index) numbers (especially 3) colours alphabet mirrors (literal mirrors, as well as anything that “reflects”) jewels/crystals play(s) on names suicide insanity dates/birthdays

Essay Topicswrite a clear and thoughtful analytical research essay of 750-1000 words on one of the following topics. Be sure to include direct quotations (correctly integrated, with page numbers) from the book to support your ideas, and include citations from at least two outside sources. Please have an original title, and print your essay on the computer with 1.5 or double-spacing, with standard font and margin settings. (A separate handout on research essay guidelines will be provided later.)

1.) Select any topic from the list above, and discuss how that one item plays a significant role in Pale Fire. Your focus can be either narrow or more broad in scope. (For example, you could choose to focus on animal imagery and symbolism in general, or focus on the use/depiction of only one animal.)

2.) The poet Gregory Orr asserts that

[w]e often experience the world as confusing and chaotic…This confusion can be outside us…or it can be inside us, in the swiftly shifting world of emotions, thoughts and memories. Even as we recognize the power of disorder in our experience, we are likely to become aware of a strong need we have to feel there is some order in the world… [yet] in certain existential crises, disorder threatens to overwhelm us entirely…We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is [poetry]…dramatizing inner and outer experience. [Poetry is] a means of helping individuals survive existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as…suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.” (Poetry as Survival, p.3-4)

Discuss how Orr’s claim applies to both John Shade and Charles Kinbote.

3.) Discuss how Pale Fire can be read as a satire of academic life at the college/university level.

4.) Discuss how the novel—and its characters—demonstrates elements of both humour and pathos.

5.) Post-modernists (namely Roland Barthes) speak of “the death of the author” – specifically, the intentions of an author are irrelevant, as it is the reader who finds (creates?) meaning as he/she reads a text. Discuss how this notion applies to Pale Fire, both in terms of the Shade-Kinbote relationship and the Nabokov-reader relationship.

Important note: As you are aware, other English 12 classes are studying this novel. Even though the book is the same, different teachers may have different approaches in both what and how they choose to teach Pale Fire. By all means, discuss the book with students from other classes and share your thoughts with them, if you feel that this will help you in your understanding and interpretation(s) of the novel. However, ALL work–discussions and essays–are expected to be your own thoughts, not those of another student or teacher. If necessary, you may be called upon to explain your insights, if it appears they may have come from a source other than your own head. Any copying of ideas and/or analyses will constitute plagiarism, and will result in a score of zero on the assignment in question. If you are unsure about anything, please ask.