Guilt and Shame in Who You Are: an Analysis of Kinbote in the Novel Pale Fire

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  • Topic: Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, Homosexuality
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  • Published : June 3, 2012
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Annalynn Winters
English 250
Dr. Sarah Barber
9 May 2012

Guilt and Shame in Who You Are: An Analysis of Kinbote in the Novel Pale Fire

Out of the many forms of literary criticism that have been imposed on Pale Fire, there is one in particular that Vladimir Nabokov consistently refutes: psychoanalytic criticism. Though Nabokov regularly discredits psychoanalysis, I believe that it is crucial to use a psychoanalytic lens when looking at Pale Fire in general but more specifically when looking at the character of Charles Kinbote.

As discussed by Peter Welsen in his article, “Charles Kinbote’s psychosis—a key to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” throughout his career, Vladimir Nabokov showed clear disdain for Freudian psychoanalysis. Nabokov consistently refuted Freudian readings of his work through interviews, forewords, and essays (383). While Nabokov is anything but subtle concerning his dislike for Freud and his theories, rejecting the “vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud” (383), he does not dismiss psychoanalysis as a whole; rather, he is dismissing those that look at his literature from a purely traditional Freudian standpoint. Welsen explains that in an interview, Nabokov states, “all novelists of any worth are psychological novelists” (384). Nabokov dismisses most psychoanalytic critics due to the fact that they are interpreting him from a Freudian standpoint. Nabokov writes his works from a psychoanalytical viewpoint; however, from the stance of a traditional Freudian critic, it is as if Nabokov has projected his own being into the literature. Nabokov is more than aware of psychoanalytic conventions; he employs them in his works while using them as a tool in which to construct his literature. Therefore, it is my opinion that a psychoanalytic reading of Nabokov’s Pale Fire is necessary. Rather than view this novel from a traditional Freudian standpoint, which Nabokov blatantly refutes, I will be looking at Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire from a Freudian standpoint that is a little different. Unlike traditional Freudian critics, I will not attempt to find the author’s personal being in the novel, in other words I will not psychoanalyze Nabokov through his novel. Instead, I will be looking at the main character Charles Kinbote without any contextual influence from the author’s own personal life.

In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the main character Charles Kinbote epitomizes Nabokov’s psychoanalytic theories. Therefore, one must view Kinbote through a psychoanalytic lens. Shame, self-hatred, and guilt are three powerful themes consistent throughout the novel. These themes are key factors that Freudians look at when addressing social trauma, making it imperative to look into them further. It would seem as if these themes are primarily due to Charles Kinbote’s homosexuality. The connection between Kinbote’s guilt and self-hatred, in relation to his homosexuality is made clear through Kinbote’s creation of his fictional realm of Zembla. As explained by Geoffrey Green in his article “Splitting of the Ego: Freudian doubles, Nabokovian doubles,” Kinbote’s homosexuality has ultimately created a “split” in his being. This split is brought into light through Kinbote’s creation of Zembla, Kinbote’s alternate world in which he is revered as the king, “Charles the Beloved” (370). Each of these three themes directly influences Kinbote’s creation of Zembla, eventually transgressing into and conflicting with this alternate world. While analyzing Kinbote one needs to ask: How were these themes brought back into light within his newfound fantasy world? My argument proves that Kinbote’s guilt and shame about his homosexuality drove him both to create the land of Zembla as well as corrupt it and infecting it with the same grievances that plague him in his reality.

Two of the main themes in the novel Pale Fire are shame and guilt. But what exactly are these emotions? As explained by Gabriele Taylor in her book Pride, Shame,...
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