What would Nabokov think of HTML?

                My current goal with this hypertext version of Nabokov’s Pale Fire is to mimic the explicit connections created by the author, not to add more interpretive and subjective connections later found by enterprising and imaginative critics.  I believe that if Nabokov had hypertext technology, he might have used it to create his novel about John Shade and Charles Kinbote.  In Kinbote’s Foreword he even comments: “I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table” (Nabokov, 28).  This could be taken as an amusing way to establish Kinbote’s character as shamelessly self-promoting; however, I believe Nabokov is emphasizing the importance of exploring this text in a way the reader usually does not.  Obviously, from the very beginning of this novel Nabokov is instructing his reader to pay attention to the connections between the poem and the commentary.  How better to explore this world so concerned with the navigation of text than to convert it to hypertext?  Hypertext eases the transitions between sections, eliminating “the bother of back-and-forth leafings”.   Also, I have attempted to give the viewer/reader at least two windows to look at so they may place them “in adjacent positions” to more easily compare passages from one to the other.

                Much of the criticism that has been written on Pale Fire supports my adaptive technique, in that, critics often focus on analyses of the connections or links that Nabokov creates.  “Nabokov uses discordant, competing genres and precomputer ‘hypertext’ as part of his alienistic strategy to check the recruiting, ‘overstanding’ assaults of the ordinary and the utilitarian” (Monroe). The affect of having the text divided into the separate pages of a website only serves to enhance this feeling of reading discrete and distinctive pieces of text.

Brian Boyd believes that the linkages of the pieces of text are what Nabokov was focused on in this novel and that understanding what Nabokov is saying can only be accomplished by realizing the implicit meanings in these connections.  “But he [Nabokov] was also interested in the surprising patterns that could be discovered in particulars and that could perhaps help explain them at some deeper level.  The unusual tension between particulars and pattern in Nabokov is an intensification of the give-and-take between the clarity of reflection and the clutter of experience in all reading and interpretation, in every interplay between life and thought” (Boyd, 257).  Boyd is saying here that the information we are given in the form of poetry and commentary constitutes an overwhelming amount of data that must be painstakingly sifted, evaluated, and absorbed in order to grasp Nabokov’s intended meaning.  Boyd is able to analyze every disjointed trail of inter-references and establish the implicit connections between these pieces of text.  However, not every critic agrees with Boyd on this point.

“Many of the cross-references are to minor connections:  They serve the parody and the characterization of Kinbote rather than the actual process of reading. . . . I do not think they reorganize the text or dictate a specific change in the order of reading.  They call explicit attention, rather, to links of a kind which exist in all novels and which readers discover, generally, in no determined order” (Wright, 261).  Wright disagrees with Boyd to a certain degree.  Wright is saying that Nabokov is simply “exposing the skeleton” of his writing process as a way of guiding the reader, whereas Boyd places more importance on the cross-referencing as an actual way to understand the book.  I guess Wright is not really saying the cross-references will not lead to a greater understanding, just that they are not the way you would actually read the book (for the first time?).  This is why I left the sections of the book in order, enabling a viewer of this site to use the back and next buttons to proceed in a linear fashion through the text as it was published.

As we have discussed in L460, hypertext is often taken less seriously than traditional publishing.  Translating a Nabokov (a writer who is taken very seriously) novel into hypertext gives the reader an unprecedented access to this author.  It could help the reader look at the text in a new way and try reading it differently than they usually would.  “Nabokov thinks that only by paying attention to the infinitely complex particulars of our world and their inexhaustible combinations is it possible to appreciate the limitless generosity of things.  Only by finding these things out for ourselves, with all the effort and imagination it requires to master something new and rich and intricate, can we feel in discovery a thrill as close as possible to the rapture of creation” (Boyd, 247-248).  Boyd thinks that Nabokov creates a puzzle in Pale Fire for the reader to solve.  I think converting the novel to hypertext encourages the modern reader to treat the connections more playfully, increasing the chance that they will follow one of the paths through the text that Nabokov has created for them.

    The flexibility of hypertext aids in reading this novel on different levels.  “His [Nabokov’s] art dazzles on the surface, but he hides far more below.  Many suspect he mocks his audience, but in fact he allows us the chance to discover more for ourselves in the work and the world than any other author I know” (Boyd, 262).  Many readers will be able to read this novel for simple entertainment.  The poetry is beautiful and can be understood on a simple level, while the story of King Charles the Beloved is a lovely and outrageous adventure. The careful and conscientious reader will be able to discover many deeper meanings present in this novel.

                In Pale Fire, “Two worlds are brought together and forced to merge, not by resolving the incompatibility between them but by forcing them to coexist . . .”(Wright, 275).  Having the novel presented in hypertext emphasizes the differences between the poetry and commentary, while allowing the reader to lay them side by side and examine the differences more closely.  This makes it much easier to compare and contrast the styles while allowing them to remain separate and different.  This is important, since,  “John Shade’s poem is accompanied but not framed by Charles Kinbote’s Commentary” (Corn, 84).  The interwoven nature of hypertext is more conducive to this attitude toward the novel rather than a linear paper format, which presents the poem as sandwiched in sequence between the foreword and commentary.  This linear structure imposes a stereotyped role upon the poem—it is the main work—and the commentary is only ancillary, whereas Nabokov seems to be attempting to subvert this traditional structure by making the commentary very complex and inter-relational.  I think this level of complexity (in a segment of the text that should be making thing more understandable, not less!) might indicate the amount of emphasis he wanted to place on the parts of the text written by Kinbote.  “In his usual inadvertent and perverse way, Kinbote in his Commentary offers a perspective on Shade’s poem that enriches our reading of it and shows us how, as in a hall of mirrors, Shade’s poem comments on Kinbote’s Commentary” (Corn, 85).  The more mobile and reversible nature of the hypertext link enables the reader to more easily see this flexible relationship.

The different stories within this novel are embedded in layers, not told in sequence.  “In Pale Fire, Nabokov uses each narrative in surprising and subtle ways to deepen our understanding of the other, providing his readers an experience of ‘combinational delight’ peculiar to the reading of a well-wrought Russian doll work.  His novel demonstrates some of the great variety of literary effects made possible by the doubling of narrative planes and a reader’s efforts to integrate them” (Corn 89).  Russian doll fiction “consists of two distinct narrative planes, on which reside two distinct stories . . . each Russian doll story is substantial, developed at length, and neither exists merely to frame the other” (Corn, 83).  This “combinational delight” that Corn is referring to is only enhanced by the conversion of the novel into hypertext, which makes it even easier for the viewer to perceive and compare the narrative planes.

Cowart believes “Pale Fire demonstrates the validity and exemplifies the ubiquity of literary symbiosis” (87).  This symbiotic relationship is conducively displayed by presenting the text in a hypertext format.  “Nabokov wants the disorientation that comes of encountering a text outside the usual literary venues” (Cowart, 71).  Hypertext presentation of Pale Fire can only aid in jarring the reader outside the box while reading.  “[T]he real subject of “Pale Fire” (the poem) is its own intertextuality” (Cowart, 71).  Intertextuality is very easily displayed in hypertext format—it is expected.  “The interplay of the several fictions and the corresponding puzzle of their relative validity produces the curious effect of solidifying the picture of Shade and his poem”  (Sprowles, 227).  Layers of validity in a text are a common concern with electronic text.

After the reading and re-reading of Pale Fire required by my manipulation of it, I have realized that Nabokov’s work can be considered a maze that must be navigated through by the conscientious reader.

One of the strangely coincidental things I found out is that Nabokov was fascinated by the image of the spiral.  Nabokov writes in his autobiography (Speak, Memory:  An Autobiography Revisited ([1967]) p. 275  New York:  Vintage, 1989): 

“The spiral is a spiritualized circle.  In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.  I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel’s triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time.  Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series.  If we consider the simplest spiral, three stages may be distinguished in it, corresponding to those of the triad:  we can call ‘thetic’ the small curve or arc that initiates the convolution centrally; ‘antithetic’ the larger arc that faces the first in the process of continuing it; and ‘synthetic’ the still ampler arc that continues the second while following the first along the outer side.  And so on” (quoted in Boyd, 10).


The image of the spiral is intrinsic to the figure of the spiral labyrinth.  This may just be a fortuitous coincidence of imagery, but I think it bears mention.

I agree with Brian Boyd, who sees evidence of spiral imagery in Pale Fire.

“In Pale Fire the process of discovery awaiting the Shades and the reader retraces the spiral that Nabokov describes in Speak, Memory.  John Shade’s positives form the first, thetic arc, the serene confidence at the end of his poem in his waking up tomorrow, in his surviving beyond death, in the harmony of galaxies divine.  The second arc, the antithesis, the negative counter-curver, corresponds to his murder and its consequences, his uncompleted poem, his travestied life and work and death.  In his discussion of the chess problem in Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes how in this antithetical stage he entices the would-be-expert solver toward a ‘fashionable avant-garde theme.’  The same stratagem recurs here in Pale Fire, in the savage irony, the metaphysical debunking, as Gradus’s and Kinbote’s mayhem undercuts Shade’s sense of order.  In the third arc the poem continues from line 999 to line 1000 by spiraling back to the beginning, in a sustained explosion of positive ironies that suggests an afterlife might transform even what looks like maximum meaninglessness into a synthesis of radiant sense.  Within Shade’s life, his confidence in the beyond could never be justified.  But from the outside, it is perhaps that very frailty and unfinishedness of mortality that allows for the munificence of the pattern that he can see from beyond” (Boyd, 233). 


With the hypertext version of Pale Fire, the possibility of true endlessness for the text exists for the first time.  When the viewer selects the link for line 1000, the first line of the poem is displayed, and they are actually back to the beginning of the text.

This text also conforms to a larger concept I have of the labyrinthine nature of text, in that the reader is led by a roundabout route to the reality Kinbote is trying to flee (Boyd, 90).  The image of the labyrinth has traditionally signified a suspension of experience, a time of confusion ending with a revelation at the center—a solution to the mystery.  As the spiral of the maze is navigated, the participant is led by a much less than direct route to the center of the maze, the resolution of the confusion in the maze.  In the same way, the reader is led to the “true” story of Kinbote’s reality (ostensibly that he is the king of an imaginary land only in his imagination), by a roundabout, confusing, and less than direct route.  Nabokov’s manipulation of the reader’s cognitive path through the text is masterful and highly complex.  The navigation of the maze he constructs with the text of Pale Fire is analogous to the maze of relationships and confusion we navigate in everyday life.  “One of the real difficulties of Nabokov’s patterns is that they all interconnect, as things do in this complicated and interesting world of ours.” (Boyd, 133)

Not all critics find this confusion a positive aspect of the text:  “. . . any reader who attempted to follow up all cross references would soon find herself locked in an infinite and self-referential maze” (Smith, 187).  Smith has not found any relevance to the cross-references within Pale Fire, but Boyd finds much of the meaning crucial to his unique interpretation of the novel in these spaces in between the pieces of text.  He places great importance on the connection between seemingly dissimilar passages of poetry and prose.  “Thus has Nabokov succeeded in creating the world’s first lemniscate novel.  The reading of Pale Fire is a strip of infinite discontinuities between prose and verse” (Smith, 190).  Smith realizes the infinite nature of the text, but does not see any resolution to the discontinuity between prose and verse.

    Monroe discusses yet another possibility for the confusion that Nabokov imbeds in his novel.  He believes the cross-referencing is meant to foil any attempts to appropriate the text for criticism or political gain.  “Nabokov’s index is, among other things, a maze to discourage and frustrate the predatory virtues of a Kinbote or a Humbert” (Monroe).  Because of the complex and inter-referencing nature of the text, a commentator like Kinbote will not be able to use Nabokov’s text to promote his own version of reality.  Nabokov has exposed him before he even attempts it.  “It is as if Nabokov set out, thirty years before the current critical fashion, to provide a text so aesthetically pure that it could not be reduced to an ideological product of extraliterary forces” (Monroe).  “And Nabokov realizes—perhaps he learned the lesson only too well from his Pushkin exercise—that scholarship unleashed on hapless texts is inevitably a process of domination and control” (Monroe).  “In the end Nabokov makes a profoundly cogent case for the violability of any text—whether Shade’s or his own—by the parergonal gloss” (Cowart, 83).  Although he has made his text somewhat “bulletproof” against appropriation, that does not mean that Nabokov has sacrificed literary ambiguity.  Nabokov leaves extraordinary gaps for the reader to fill.  The incredible depth of meaning that can be read into the subtle insinuations of his prose is truly staggering.

    Other critics believe that the maze of references produces a model for the reader to follow.  It is a model of the way to deconstruct a text.  “As Kinbote deconstructs Shade, the reader deconstructs Kinbote.  The author stages a deconstruction, so to speak, of deconstruction” (Cowart, 67).  In light of this deconstructionist reading, we can see that the images in the commentary and the poem cannot be used as in a more traditional interpretation (e.g., red means love), they can only be viewed as images juxtaposed with other images and thus infused with meaning.  “[The recurring images of the commentary] should not be forced into a symbolic pattern, serving rather to reinforce the ‘web of sense,’ the combinational nature of the fictional world” (Sprowles, 231).  The images serve to reinforce each other and their own internally established meanings, rather than some external symbolism seen by the commentator.  This is similar to the logic used by Boyd when he shows the connections between the Vanessa butterfly and Sybil and then, by association, the connection of the butterfly image to Hazel after her death (Boyd, 137).

                Other critics have explored the idea that Nabokov was attempting to invite his reader, through exploration of the connections between the texts, to discover deeper and deeper meanings embedded between the texts.  Brian Boyd is one of the most vocal proponents of this idea.  It is related to the idea of a maze of confusion and eventual resolution that I have discussed previously, but it has an added nuance in that Nabokov has included clues within the text to lead the reader, rather than allowing just an idle or random wandering leading to the resolution.  This combines the idea that Nabokov creates a maze in his text with the idea that Nabokov is teaching the reader to read (or perhaps examine the world) in a way that makes the text have meaning.

Boyd takes examples from Nabokov’s own life (such as his study of butterflies) to make the case that Nabokov was fascinated by the natural world and would attempt to convey this fascination to his readers.  “One of [Nabokov’s] greatest achievements as a writer was to invent a way to entice his readers to discover little by little the increasing complexity of the world of one of his novels, to lure them, as he felt lured by the mystery of the world around him, into trying to advance along that infinite succession of steps. . . .  He presents something that is immediately accessible (overt structure) but entices readers to explore the deeper structure further” (Boyd, 5).  The inquisitive reader can choose to follow a convoluted path to a hidden meaning or decide to be entertained by the surface structure of the novel.  Additional texts could be consulted to increasingly complicate the novel (such as Hamlet or butterfly reference books) or, like Kinbote, the reader can choose to guess or fabricate the meaning of unfamiliar terms.

Nabokov tantalizes the reader with the simpler discoveries, tempting them to continue, reread, and discover the more complicated things (Boyd, 66).  When the reader realizes that Kinbote is not to be trusted, they might start looking for inconsistencies in Kinbote’s story.  When the reader sees the entry in the Index for Botkin, V., they may question the identity of this individual and go on from there to explore the novel more fully.  It is this process of discovery that Nabokov wants to evoke in the reader.  The joy of finding something unexpectedly (Boyd, 75).  Each of these new discoveries is a treasured surprise. 

                Nabokov himself commented on his intent to imbed the stories within stories.  Nabokov said of “The Vane Sisters”, “Most of the stories I am contemplating  . . . will be composed on these lines, according to this system wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial transparent one” (quoted in Boyd, 214).  “The Vane Sisters” was written prior to Pale Fire, and Boyd believes it is subtly alluded to with reference to “stillicide” which can mean the dripping of icicles from eaves, which is the same image seen by the main character in “The Vane Sisters”—an image which he later realizes was inspired by his dead friend (Boyd, 213).  This affirms Boyd’s theory of Nabokov’s thesis of communication with the dead or the inspiration of the living by the dead.

Other critics agree with Boyd that there is a surface level at which Pale Fire can be understood, as well as a more complex level, which can be assumed to be Nabokov’s ultimate intent.  “As there is a latent protagonist, so there is a latent, or underlying, plot, in which we can find the principle that unifies and organizes the ‘manifest’ plot” (Wright, 276).  Wright believes that Nabokov has organized the novel with an easily discovered plot that only insinuates the author’s true intention of meaning.  “More than anything else it [the Index] compels us to look closely at the details again.  The net effect is to insist on our attention and to remind us that our attention has been demanded all along.  In such ways the index reiterates the importance of amazement and surprise and confirms the true wonder of this quite wonderful book” (Wright, 287).  Wright emphasizes that Nabokov’s engenderment of amazement and surprise is meant to be a model for the author’s idea of how the real world is meant to be read.  He is attempting to cause his reader to experience the wonder and joy of discovery that he has experienced in his own life in scientific/natural studies of the world.

Boyd believes that this greater truth that Nabokov seeks to express in his text must remain unspoken directly by the author.  “[Shade] cannot express the truth he sees behind things directly, but only through the interrelationships behind things.  In the same way, Nabokov allows his readers to find the interrelationships between the parts of Pale Fire which he must not make over explicit, to approach closer and closer to the ‘something else’ hidden behind the world of his work, a reflection of the ‘something else,’ the great surprise that he thinks hidden behind life and death by the mysterious generosity somehow hidden still further behind” (Boyd, 8).  This mysterious resolution allows each individual reader to draw their own conclusions, rather than have them completely dictated by the author.  Just as Nabokov attempts to protect his text from subversion by commentators, he wants to protect the reader from his dictation of meaning for individual readers.

Many works considered to be postmodernist might be considered confusing and deliberately unclear, but Boyd thinks that Nabokov is different from some of his contemporaries.  Boyd believes Nabokov and James Joyce are very different because Nabokov leads the reader, whereas Joyce has no concern for the reader and does not worry if they cannot follow his logic (Boyd, 12).  Nabokov does not abandon all conventional narrative structures in Pale Fire.  For example, there are no cross references to the note to line 1000; therefore, it will always come last (Boyd, 57).  With the note to line 1000, Nabokov will always surprise the first-time reader.  Boyd believes this constitutes a classic climax for the story.  I have preserved this aspect of Nabokov’s narrative construction in the hypertext version.



Boyd, Brian.  Nabokov’s Pale Fire:  The Magic of Artistic Discovery.  Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1999.

Clark, Beverly Lyon.  “Kinbote’s Variants in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.”  Notes on Modern American Literature.  Summer 1981, 5.3:  Item 18.

Corn, Peggy Ward.  “‘Combinational Delight’:  The Uses of the Story Within a Story in Pale Fire.”  The Journal of Narrative Technique.  Winter 1987 17:1, p.  83-90.

Cowart, David.  Literary Symbiosis:  The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing.  Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Hennard, Martine.  “Playing a Game of Worlds in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.”  Modern Fiction Studies.  Summer 1994  40:2, p. 299-317.

Monroe, William.  “‘Lords and Owners’:  Nabokov’s Sequestered Imagination.” http://www.libraries.psu.edu/iasweb/nabokov/monroe1.htm (article consists of monroe1.htm-monroe5.htm) 23 September 2000.

Morris, J.  “Genius and Plausibility:  Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire.”  http://www.libraries.psu.edu/iasweb/nabokov/morris1.htm (article consists of morris1.htm-morris3.htm).  23 September 2000.

Nabokov, Vladimir.  Pale Fire.  New York: Vintage Books, 1989.  (Original Copyright 1962 by Vera Nabokov and Dmitri Nabokov)

Pilon, Kevin.  “A Chronology of Pale Fire.” In:  A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Carl R. Proffer.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Ardis, 1974, p. 218-225.

Smith, Herbert F.  “The Topology of Pale Fire:  An Analysis Based on Catastrophe Theory.”  In Cross-Cultural Studies:  American, Canadian, and European Literatures:  1945-1985.  Ed.  Mirko Jurak.  Ljublĵana:  English Department, Filozofska Fakulteta, 1988.  P. 183-192.

Sprowles, Alden.  “Preliminary Annotation to Charles Kinbote’s Commentary on ‘Pale Fire’.”  In:  A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Carl R. Proffer.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Ardis, 1974, p. 226-248.

Wright, Austin, M.  “Creative Plot:  Pale Fire.”  In The Formal Principle in the Novel.  Ed. Austin M. Wright.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1982.  P. 260-287.