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The form and plot of Pale Fire is totally unconventional. The book's most central question addresses the ridiculous nature of Charles Kinbote's life and scholarship and its intersection with the life and work of poor John Shade, a poet and Charles' neighbor and fellow teacher at a private liberal arts college. As a result, the book is best viewed as two separate conflicts with Charles the protagonist of one and John the protagonist of the other.
Charles Kinbote is the main character and narrator of the book. A professor at a small, private liberal arts college, he is a ridiculous figure and a comic pain in the neck. The story is mostly his as he tells about his overthrow as King of Zembla. During the book he tries to superimpose this "thriller" onto the poetry and life of John Shade while trying to make some meaning of his own life.
Charles' antagonist is clearly himself. He is a bumbling idiot who unsuccessfully tries to find some meaning for his life after being overthrown as King of Zembla. He is so self-deluded that the reader is made to wonder if Charles the Beloved really existed at all or was merely a figment of Charles' lively imagination.
Charles goes into hiding in Cedarn, Utana after John Shade is killed, further nullifying his life that already had little meaning.
The book ends in tragedy for Charles. Despite his desperate attempts to find a place of importance for himself in the United States, he fails miserably and winds up in hiding.
John Shade is a professor at the same college where Charles Kinbote teaches; he is also Charles' neighbor in the book. Most importantly, however, John is a poet who writes the poem "Pale Fire." His desire in life is to be left alone to create his poetry, and he finds it hard to tolerate Charles' many intrusions.
Through much of the book, Charles is John's main antagonist, as he constantly intrudes upon his existence. Gradus, however, is John's final antagonist. He kills Shade, while supposedly aiming for Charles. Gradus is always portrayed as a bumbling thug by Charles.
John's climax occurs with his death. Although Charles, as the narrator, reveals that John is dead at the beginning of the book, the actual explanation of his death is delayed until the end of the novel. By the time the details of his murder are presented, they seem outrageous and almost comic.
The book ends in tragedy for John Shade. Not only has he been mistakenly murdered, his poem, "Pale Fire," has been "hijacked" by Charles and published with his eloquent interference. Even in death, John cannot escape Charles.