When poet John Shade died, he left behind his just-completed epic poem "Pale Fire", which was snatched up by his neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote, who planned to write an analysis of the poem. Kinbote - an immigrant from the northern European country of Zembla - expected the poem to be about Zembla's ousted king Charles the Beloved, as Kinbote had been relaying stories of Zembla and its king to Shade for months and assumed this would serve as inspiration for his epic poem. He is disappointed to learn the poem is about Shade's impressions on life and death - particularly the death of his daughter Hazel.

Kinbote analyzes the poem anyway, but quickly turns his focus away from Shade's words toward himself, his relationship with Shade, his conflicts with Shade's wife, and the escape of King Charles from Zembla. He begins by describing (and likely inflating) his close kinship with the author; then describes his stalking of the author during the writing of the poem; followed by a detailed description of the ouster of the King Charles. Frequently, Kinbote follows a sentence fragment of the poem with a multi-page monologue completely unrelated to that fragment. On rare occasions when the analysis focuses on the poem itself, Kinbote admits that he cannot be bothered to look up any references.

In Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov weaves a great deal of humour into his work. Kinbote suffers from extreme hubris - exaggerating the influence he had over Shade's work and underestimating the contempt in which he is held by everyone around him. Of course, everything is imaginary - the poet, the narrator, the king, and Zembla. The unreliable narrator provides his own absurd story, weaving together fact, fiction, personal prejudices, and narcissistic rants about himself. In the end, it is impossible for the reader to identify exactly what is real.