The entire book, as you see it, was written by John Shade. Charles Kinbote, in the form in which he appears in the book, does not exist.
- John Shade, having written his poem, decided that one way to further explore some of the themes therein — and pad the poem out to first-novel length — was to pretend that he had died and that someone as unlike him as he could possibly imagine, and who was also insane, had caught hold of the poem and was attempting to annotate it.
- Nabokov's biographer Brian Boyd makes this very argument in his chapter on the book, although he apparently changed his mind a few years later.
The entire book, as you see it, was written by Charles Kinbote, or the man calling himself by that name. John Shade, in the form in which he appears in the book, does not exist.
Not only is Zembla unreal, being Kinbote's delusion, Kinbote HIMSELF is not real, being a personality adopted by a delusional associate of John Shade.
- Nabokov pointed out that he left several clues as to who exactly it was that underlay the "Charles Kinbote" persona. There is a Professor Botkin whose name appears once or twice in Kinbote's commentary, rather irrelevantly; Kinbote mentions that Botkin, since he does not teach Russian, does not have to subject himself to the humiliation of being Professor Pnin's subordinate as Kinbote does. Someone very pointedly asks him whether "Kinbote" is not intended to be a close anagram of "Botkin or Botkine", but John Shade, who empathizes with Kinbote's desire for escape, covers for him. And the name appears again, as "V. Botkin", in the index; the V is not explained, but the index also notes that King Charles' full name is Charles Xavier Vseslav.
Shade and Kinbote are both "real" for the purposes of the story, but neither of them is entirely in charge of what they are writing; there is another influence at work.
- Shade professes to keep a completely open mind as to what lies beyond the visible world, and expresses a "faint hope" — he dares not be less vague — that his dead daughter Hazel still exists in some way. There is some suggestion in the book that higher powers are indeed at work with regard to Hazel, but John never finds the clues. Kinbote does find them, but since he himself isn't John, he fails to see their importance.
- Shade briefly mentions, in his poem, some strange manifestations that Hazel spent three nights investigating in an old barn. Kinbote, speaking to an acquaintance of Hazel's, finds her record of a Morse-code message that a supernatural light blinked at her; he reproduces it in his commentary and confesses that he can find nothing related to Hazel's suicide in the message, which is hopelessly garbled. It is garbled precisely in the fashion of John Shade's aunt Maud, who — as mentioned in the poem — suffered a stroke near the end of her life which gave her paraphasia. And it refers not to Hazel's suicide, but her father's impending death from a madman's bullet; Kinbote, of course, is too wrapped up in his narrative of John's death to notice this.
- Nabokov explored this theme before, most especially in his short story "The Vane Sisters", in which the narrator is revealed not to have had full control of his narration; he has been unknowingly, subtly influenced by spirits outside himself, and innocently drops clues that mean nothing to him but which an attentive reader will pick up on immediately. Hazel Shade, or perhaps even John Shade himself, may be serving as a subtle influence on Charles Kinbote as he spins out the bizarre story in his notes.
Neither John Shade nor Charles Kinbote exist, being the product of someone else's imagination.
- While this is the strict truth, both characters being the creation of Vladimir Nabokov, Nabokov may have intended there to be yet another layer of fiction between them and him.
- At one point in Kinbote's commentary, his narration makes reference to looking up articles from the New York Times in the Wordsmith University library. Strictly speaking, this is impossible for either of the writers in question; John Shade is dead, and Kinbote notes repeatedly that he is working on his commentary in a town several thousand miles away from Wordsmith, with no convenient access to any library. There is another author in this book, quite possibly the person who invented both Kinbote/Botkin and Shade... but since Wordsmith University is as fictional a place as Cedarn and New Wye, HE has to be fictional as well. (He may be Nabokov's Author Avatar, but he can't be Nabokov the actual author.)