In Lolita’s afterword, Nabokov describes two opposing views of the book, displayed by two readers. One felt that Lolita was a tale of ” ‘Old Europe debauching young America,'” while another saw it as ” ‘Young America debauching old Europe'”(p. 314). The question is, who or what exactly represents young America and old Europe? In the context of the book, young Dolores Haze is the embodiment of young America and its culture, while Humbert Humbert represents the older, refined European culture. Just who is debauching whom is another question entirely.What exactly is young America? During the post-war period in which Lolita takes place, young America was a new culture of consumers – materialistic, spoiled, obsessed with objects. These are teenagers who are obsessed with movies, soda fountains, and roller rinks. To a European like Humbert, their culture is shallow. Thoughts of Europe evoke images of cathedrals, fine art, elegant cuisine. Compared to this, American culture seems cheap and unsophisticated. Culture would prove to be one of the greatest differences between Dolores and Humbert – other than that most important difference in age.Dolly’s childish love for Humbert began in the image of a man in an advertisement. Humbert comes across this advertisement in Dolly’s bedroom, taped to the wall with the letters “H.H” written next to the man’s face. How fitting, then, that Humbert would later remark, “She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster” (p.148). In fact, Dolly’s desire to consume would prove to be profitable for Humbert – it enabled him to buy her love (or perhaps her sex would be a more appropriate term). Humbert takes advantage of the idea of America as a nation of consumers through Dolly. The promise of movie matinees, sweater sets, and ice cream sundaes were all that could keep Dolly with Humbert. He marvels at the price of Dolly’s love: “Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed – during one schoolyear! – to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks” (p.184). In a sense, consumerism drives the relationship between Dolly and Humbert.Yet Dolly’s “Americanness” is precisely what Humbert detests most about her. He adores most parts of Dolly, as is evident in his writing about her. But he cannot stand her infatuation with pop culture. He laments: “Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things” (p.148). Dolly represents a cheap, frivolous culture through the eyes of Humbert. Their relationship is made more complex by the opposition in their backgrounds – old Europe can’t relate to young America. Perhaps Dolly was never quite able to satisfy Humbert’s longing for his first love, Annabel, because she couldn’t be exactly who Annabel was. Annabel was classy Europe; Dolly was fast-food America. Humbert just couldn’t seem to connect with Dolly.Humbert’s disdain for parts of American culture are made evident in some of his statements, such as when he describes Mrs. Haze as “bland American Charlotte” (p.83). His European background gives him an elegance in the eyes of others. In Charlotte’s confessional love letter to Humbert, she essentially apologizes for her stereotypically American tendencies. She gushes: “I know how reserved you are, how ‘British.’ Your old-world reticence, your sense of decorum may be shocked by the boldness of an American girl!” (p.68). The comparisons between European and American culture always hint at the eloquence of Europe, the brashness of America.Despite Humbert’s distaste for many aspects of American culture, he is in awe of many parts of this country, as is evident during his and Lo’s cross-country trip. He is entranced by the American landscape. He sets out on the road, exalting that “I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of the forty-eight states” (p.152). Humbert is quite affected by the American countryside, the fusion of nature and pop culture:Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance toward us to cluster self-consciously be the roadside and provide a bit of humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground…lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out – scarred but still untamed – from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it (p.153).America has always represented vastness, an expanse of land waiting to be tamed, the frontier. Europe may be the more “civilized” country, but America has a wild beauty to its youth that Humbert appreciates. Conversely, Dolly “had no eye for scenery” (p.152), further illustrating the distance between her and Humbert. Perhaps Dolly saw what was American in the landscape – neon gas station signs, looming billboards – while Humbert regarded the landscape with a European outlook, appreciating the hills and trees.Maybe Humbert didn’t feel that he was old Europe, debauching the young American Dolly Haze. He seemed more concerned that young America was debauching Dolly. He granted her permission to indulge in parts of that culture – the movies, the ice cream parlors – simply to extract favors from her. But Humbert knew that this was a culture that was more attractive to Dolly, thus jeopardizing whatever enchantment he could hope to have over her. Humbert detested Dolly’s Americanness because he knew it was what would separate them.
In this brief essay, I will draw upon Lolita to demonstrate how Vladimir Nabokov uses the techniques of rhetoric to create an explication of the female body, encapsulated in the characters of both the adolescent Lolita and her older, less nubile mother, Charlotte.In the novel, we as readers are presented with the spectacle of a man facing the awful truth of his own existence: that he has come to a point of no return in his life, and he has no one except himself to thank for this problem. It is his fascination with women as sex objects and with his own sexuality that has brought him to this pass. Nabokov is said to work hard to purge his narrator’s voices of all commitments save one that is all-powerful, as well as preoccupying in the extreme. Nabokov makes his narrators both commentators and participants in the plot and action of the story. The all-powerful commitment central to Lolita is the commitment of Humbert Humbert to his own sexual, erotic passions and drives. In the name of these passions and drives, he is ready to sacrifice everything, even financial security. Nabokov believes in the ironic interest and the poignancy of a man’s fated self-destruction. Thus, what we see in the character of Humbert Humbert is a sense of detachment from the action that surrounds him; even the discovery of his infidelity and his lust for a teenage girl by his wife (who coincidentally is the mother of the child in question) does not penetrate the shell created by his self-centered determination to have what he wants. While we know that he has and will continue to go to great lengths to secure the physical and emotional attention of his Lolita, we also recognize that even as he tells us the story he is distancing himself from its uglier and more sordid ramifications.Lolita is a story of how a man’s sexual preoccupation with a teenage nymphet destroys his self-esteem and his life. Stories of this type may be thought of as allegories. Allegories are inherently analytic stories that preserve conventional distinctions between the real and the imagined, and which also demonstrate that the line dividing these two constructs may be far less well-defined than we would like it to be. We know from the beginning of Lolita that Humbert Humbert is a man dedicated to the preservation of the self. He has married a rude, rough woman solely because as her husband he will be financially secure. He tolerates this woman’s abuse and contempt because, in a strange manner, she gives him control; she recognizes that there is something superior about this husband of hers, and even though she treats him badly she also flatters his self-image. When she realizes that his attraction to her daughter, Lolita, has become a reality and not an abstract, she must die and he must be free. Humbert has been encouraged by Lolita, who no doubt finds the attention of her mother’s lover to be a form of coming of age herself. Lolita, who also rejects her mother, allows Humbert to play out his fantasy because it suits her; like her mother, she sees this man as a means to an end. However, unlike her mother, she will not always be willing to put up with his demands, and will finally reject him, caring little for his pain. Humbert is, for the most part, a man who thinks of himself as an actor, but in reality an audience member.Nabokov himself made this point about his character. He did not find Humbert likable, nor did he respect him. He felt instead that he had created in this character a model of all men who allow passion to become more important that self-awareness. Nabokov was also interested in creating a character who could become a symbol of man’s preoccupation with his own sexuality; and in this he was highly successful. In fact, as much as he wished to present Humbert as an aging Don Juan with a penchant for little girls, he also managed to create in the character of Lolita a stereotype of young girls who know that they are attractive to older men and capitalize on that attractiveness (Nabokov 312). It is interesting that Nabokov said that he wrote this novel quite literally to “get rid of it” (Nabokov 311). One suspects that this is indeed the case with many writers, who find themselves creating characters out of some experience of their own life and then writing a book to put those characters in their proper, fictional place.In Lolita, Nabokov has Humbert reveal that he, in spite of the intolerable nature of his marriage and the pain of his loss of Lolita, had managed to be happy. In fact, in all the suffering and humiliation of his affair with Lolita, Humbert claims that he has placed himself “beyond happiness,” and on a plane where sensual experience is the only reality. This is a state of “oculate paradise” (Nabokov 163). Paradise, therefore, might well mean that all standards of proper and decent behavior must be abandoned. Humbert also tells his reader (once he has lost Lolita and his “paradise” is an empty house) that he has no remorse. He states, for example “I see nothing for the treatment to of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art” (Nabokov 283).One of the most delightful aspects of Lolita is watching Humbert almost make a case for himself. Throughout the boom we hear again and again that the passion of his involvement with Lolita is so strong that he was unable to resist her attractions. He chooses, very deliberately, to risk everything on the chance that a nymphet will remain a child, remain attractive as only a young woman can be attractive, and remain interested in him. When he sees the now-pregnant, blowzy Lolita after an absence, his attraction is over. He might feel some remorse, but he in no way feels that he should be held accountable for having stolen her childhood and her innocence. Even then, he makes it seem that she was as much a partner in their escapades as he was himself. Both Lolita and her mother seem almost incidental to the stories or the male characters. We could argue, of course, that Lolita, as the object fixe of Humbert’s somewhat inexplicable passion for a young girl, is very important in the story and in the development of Humbert’s self-centered analysis. In point of fact, however, what emerges from a careful reading of the novel is a sense that Lolita is more of a symbol than a reality. We have noted above that once she is no longer a nubile nymphet, much of her attraction is lost in Humbert’s opinion. We must suspect that what made her attractive in the first place – pure sexual response set aside – is that she was forbidden; there is a suggestion that the relationship borders on the incestuous, and this is a very forbidden fruit. There is also the fact that Lolita has a way of putting her mother in her place and gaining some control over the marriage. In any event, one finally must conclude that Lolita mattered very little to Humbert. What mattered was his own sense of fulfillment and pleasure.In the case of Humbert, he has managed to escape a loveless unhappy marriage to an unattractive and domineering woman, find temporary passion with a desirable young girl, and escape from that relationship as well. He has suffered a few pangs of loss, but has little real remorse for any damage that he might have inflicted on the girl. In fact, he is resentful of her having changed from the nymphet to the young woman and holds against her the inevitable process of maturing. If we find that he is alone, and that his life is boring and futile, we must conclude that he is the author and architect of his own problems.In describing his sexual approach to Lolita, Humbert refers to the fact that “his pillow smelled of her hair” (Nabokov 131). Her body evokes “mists of tenderness,” encourages “tremors and gropings,” and he contends that it was she who seduced him (Nabokov 131). Lolita revels in the pleasure of her own body and is more than willing to use that sexuality to obtain the things (material and otherwise) that she desire. Her older mother, Charlotte, is all too well aware that her body cannot stand a comparison with her daughters; what Nabokov appears to be suggesting, particularly in Humbert’s continued fascination with a “nymphet’s” body and sexuality, is that older women automatically become less desirable to males as they become physically less firm. Humbert’s final commentary upon his sexual involvement with this young girl reasserts his fascination with youth and young girls. His soul actually “hang(ing) around her naked body” which he claims is his carnal knowledge of Lolita and his greatest pleasure with her (Nabokov 285).In sum, Nabokov explicates the female body in all its stages of development as little more than a vehicle for satisfying men. That body is most appealing when it is young, “fresh,” and relatively untouched. Older women have certain attributes – mostly intellectual – that younger ones certainly lack, but it is the younger female that fascinates a man like Humbert Humbert.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, Humbert Humbert narrates the story of his love affair with a twelve-year old ‘nymphet,’ of whom he takes charge, as both lover and quasi-father figure, after her mother’s death. Humbert’s conversation with Headmistress Pratt of Beardsley School, where he plans to send Lolita, defines the distance between his and Lolita’s views of the world. Humbert is an introvert who lives among words and abstract thought, while Lolita longs for a typical American adolescent’s social life and depends on the sensory world; these differences, as established in the course of the meeting with Pratt, reverberate throughout the novel.Of the ‘four D’s’ that Pratt says Beardsley emphasizes, ‘Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating,’ the most significant for Lolita is Dramatics, because it allows her to create a role for herself in a different, happier reality. Humbert grudgingly permits Lolita to participate in the school theater program, seeing it as trivial but harmless; in retrospect, however, he comes to believe that by doing so he has ‘suffered her to cultivate deceit’ which eventually facilitates her escape from him (209). Humbert is missing the broader point, however: the theatre has given Lolita freedom from the role he has cast her in. In taking on a theatrical role, Lolita is able not only to imagine but also to viscerally experience an alternative life. Lolita needs this didactic experience, for she is grounded in the real, sensory world, and she cannot or will not learn to make her escape through books. Furthermore, the theatrical experience is highly social, permitting Lolita the rare interpersonal contact she craves.Unlike Lolita, Humbert loathes ‘the theatre as being a primitive and putrid form, historically speaking: a form that smacks of stone-age rites and communal nonsense’; Humbert, a ‘closeted reader’ of plays claims to extract their ‘individual injections of genius’ not by seeing them performed but by reading them silently on his own (182-3). This view reduces the separate art of the theater to a bastardized, inferior form of literature and reflects Humbert’s poor opinion of all things social. Plays are not written to be read to oneself, but to be performed in three dimensions, shared with an audience. What draws Lolita to the theatre is exactly what repels Humbert from it: the community effort inherent in the production of a play and the concrete, here-and-now realism of acted, rather than imagined, story.Pratt’s claim that Beardsley is ‘more interested in communication than in composition’ also reveals the polarization of Lolita (communication) and Humbert (composition) (162). Beardsley teaches its students ‘to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books’ (162). Communicating ‘freely’ suggests a lack of serious attention to content, but content at Beardsley is less important than the act of communication itself. This is the side of Pratt’s dichotomy to which Lolita aligns. Though she is not terribly successful at communication, it is the ideal to which she aspires. During her and Humbert’s first road trip, she grows so desperate for real human communion that she promises she will ‘do anything’ if only Humbert will allow her to speak to her friends the McCrystals, whom she has spied at a distance (144).The ‘musty old books’ that Pratt derides are Humbert’s means of communicating, not with the live world around him, but with the world of the abstract. While for Lolita, content is the means, the excuse, for the act of communication, for Humbert, communication is simply an unavoidable side effect of composition. The written page communicates to any literate person, but Humbert writes primarily for the love of words and the act of composition. This solitary, interior endeavor of the mind suits introverted Humbert, while Lolita seeks admittance to the realm of communication, which is by definition social. Humbert lacks social inclinations and abilities to the point that he reads a teen advice column in the newspaper ‘to find out how to behave’ as a father figure (169). His lack of social interest parallels Lolita’s lack of literary interest; her teachers not that she ‘handles books gracefully’ (emphasis added); they also note that she ‘cannot verbalize her emotions’ (178). She does, however, show her feelings in her actions, a nonverbal form of communication, while Humbert composes his feelings in unspoken words, on paper. Neither Humbert nor Lolita verbalizes emotion aurally, but the different ways in which they cope with unspoken emotion reveal their respective alliances with composition and communication in Pratt’s dichotomy.Pratt goes on to expound a philosophy of education that not only contrasts with but condemns Humbert’s own academic background. Beardsley School, like Lolita, is concerned with the practical world, the world of facts and daily necessities and physical realities. Pratt’s suggestion that ‘the position of a star is important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be even more important to the budding housewife’ illustrates a philosophy of education foreign to Humbert, one concerned more with practical household realities than with the larger cosmic picture (162). Beardsley will teach Lolita the skills that adults ‘need in managing their lives’: skills that Humbert, well-schooled in the ‘mass of irrelevant topics’ with which Beardsley has ‘done away,’ has never learned (162). His increasing inability to manage his own life manifests in his obsession with chance, coincidence, and Mc Fate, as his life gets more and more out of control. Humbert is a product of the ‘old days’ that Pratt mocks, when ‘education was in the main a verbal phenomenon’ (162). His verbal education bears strongly on much of his life and personality; he is an academic who reveals his fascination with words in his verbally clever narrative style and his strong preference for books over people. Pratt, by dismissing this as out-dated and incomplete, obliquely challenges not only the sufficiency of Humbert’s education but the values of his daily life, wherein words give meaning and solace.Lolita’s introduction to adolescent social life would have occurred at any school, but Beardsley goes out of its way to socialize its students, a task that Humbert undermines with all his might by forbidding dates of any sort and following Lolita anywhere there might be boys. The process of socialization, explicitly part of the Beardsley curriculum, will play a role in taking Lolita away from Humbert as she matures and becomes more independent.While Beardsley is ‘concerned with . . . the adjustment of the child to group life,’ Humbert has no interest in community or in Beardsley’s four D’s; his are the four L’s: Letters, Loneliness, Love, and Lolita (161). For Humbert, the educated European scholar, education has always been verbal, abstract, and solitary, while for Lolita at Beardsley, it consists primarily of social and practical, real-world elements.Finally, Pratt reminds Humbert that they ‘live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless’ (162). Humbert creates a solipsistic world around himself to which he molds external events by giving them verbal disguises; he sees the external world in terms of prefabricated templates lifted from literature. In his obsession with Poe, for example, he recreates his ideal love in the image of Annabel Lee, to whom Lolita in actual fact corresponds in no other way than chronological age.Humbert’s personal universe dates from his childhood. He grew up in the Hotel Miranda, ‘a kind of private universe, a whitewashed cosmos within the blue greater one’ where his father read him Cervantes and Hugo (12-13). This ‘private universe’ has significance less as a physical place than as a state of mind that Humbert carries with him thereafter. For Lolita, however, it is the ‘outside world that [is] real’ (259). She dreams of the world of ‘hot-dog stands, corner drugstores, malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and even hair-fixing parties’; although Humbert successfully bars her from much of it, it still constitutes the ideal reality for her (162). Humbert lives a very solitary, introverted life overrun by words and dominated by the abstract, while Lolita is ruled by immediate, often visual, impressions of the sensory world.Lolita and Humbert inhabit different realities. Headmistress Pratt, by contrasting old and new educational values, unwittingly highlights the fundamental differences between Humbert’s and Lolita’s world views: differences so profound that, combined with the unusual circumstances of Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, they make any real communication between the two impossible.Humbert’s acceptance of Beardsley for Lolita, a school that espouses values antithetical to his, shows that the nature of his affection for her has nothing to do with any desire for an intellectual soul mate; in truth he finds her rejection of his beloved authors for her dreadful movies, pop magazines, and comic books, very appealing. If she were interested in ‘high’ culture, it would diminish the childlike qualities that draw Humbert to his nymphets. And it is important to Humbert, whether he quite recognizes it or not, that his Lolita be a child not only in body but in mind. He loves the otherness of Lolita: young, pop-cultured, social, carefree, drawn to images (movies, celebrity photos, the aura of certain motels). He is revolted, in contrast, by ‘the heavy, low-slung pelvis, thick calves, and deplorable complexion’ of the ‘typical’ female college student, in whose ‘coffin of coarse female flesh’ possible former ‘nymphets are buried alive’: a state (regardless of all his claims to good looks) that is not so far from his own; for Humbert, as for the college students, physical, outward reality has been subordinated to the inner life of words and the abstract (159).The gap between Lolita’s physical world and Humbert’s literary world fosters a mutual lack of honesty that far predates Lolita’s involvement in theatre. Only after he has lost her does it occur to Humbert that he knows nothing about Lolita’s mind, since ‘we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss . . . anything of a genuine kind’ (259). Despite Humbert’s love of words, his and Lolita’s mutually exclusive monistic views of the world occlude the possibility of meaningful communication.
“… in the destructive element immerse…”(from Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad)Through the lens of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with la nymphette Lolita, (“Lo-lee-ta… light of my life, fire of my loins…”(9)), Nabokov explores and illuminates the cyclical and ever deepening spiral of human desire. Humbert Humbert, thrown back and forth between “… desire and decision, the two things that create a live world…”(71), crosses countless times the slim and shadowy line between purest ecstasy and most wretched despair. In Lolita, Nabokov blurs the defining lines between love and perversion, right and wrong, presenting them, in uncomfortably close juxtaposition, as essentially dependent upon each other.Humbert Humbert is a tortured man, deeply divided between a sensitive rationality, and his undeniable lust for a forbidden and unripened fruit. United in him are the impulses of a romantic European gentleman, and the obsessions of a lascivious and lecherous old man silently lusting after the tantalizingly ephemeral nymphet — he is a volatile, fatal juxtaposition of opposite extremes. After years of this silent lust, of “… abusing himself in the dark…”(88), Humbert Humbert finds Lolita. An ultimate nymphet, Dolly Haze gives herself up to H.H.’s desire, going with him on a perverse holiday across the American landscape. This “… satisfaction of [Humbert Humbert’s] passion…”(175) is the seed of his own destruction. It is at this point in the novel that the reader discerns in its entirety the complex tragedy of Humbert Humbert. In his capacity, he loves Lolita with all the tenderness in his heart, (“… I loved her hopelessly… it was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight…”(270)); his love transcends his lust for her as a nymphet and he is painfully aware of the harm he inflicts upon her, but he cannot ignore his desires and carnal passions: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty we have to pay on mortal sense of duty.”(283) As his tortured pleasure spree continues (“… a paradise whose skies were the color of hell flames…”(166)), Humbert Humbert’s guilt and self-loathing heighten, manifesting themselves in Quilty, the phantom follower, “… that red ghost swimming and shivering with lust in my mirror…”(217). Cue enters the novel as a representation of Humbert Humbert’s destructive element’; a decadent and salacious paedophile, Quilty is a personification of the depravity that is H.H’s downfall — he is the demon, and with every paranoid glimpse of Cue, Humbert Humbert is confronted with his transgressions against Lolita’s soul.The full impact of Humbert Humbert’s guilt doesn’t strike until he visits Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, and sees with brutal and overwhelming clarity the destruction he has brought upon her. Imploring her to come away with him, to “… live happily ever after…”(278) with him, Humbert Humbert pleads for his life, knowing that unless he has the chance to love Lolita the no-longer-nymphet, he can never forgive himself his sins against her; when she refuses him, he understands the ultimate and irrevocable nature of his transgressions. . At this realization, his anger toward Quilty the demon-shadow who has cheated [him] of [his] redemption'(300), overwhelms him. In a fantastical, comical, and surreal sequence, Nabokov pits Humbert the Moral against his inhabiting devil. It is a grueling exorcism; Humbert Humbert, flounders ineptly with Chum’, the devil bargains for survival, but finally, Humbert Humbert kills the demon. In the only conceivable penance, Humbert Humbert kills Cue, committing a symbolic suicide. In routing out the demon, H.H. destroys so great a part of himself that he is left a withered shell, containing nothing but his dark and tragic story. One ha[s] to choose between [Quilty] and H.H.'(309), but H.H. does not exist as an entity separate from his destructive element’. He remains only a witness; once he has told his story he submits to his inevitable and necessary death.Nabokov asserts that between desire and decision'(71), Humbert Humbert cannot win. He give[s] years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet'(88), but that touch kills him. The satisfaction of [his] pleasure'(175) becomes to him a monstrous indulgence'(257) — he is mortified by the fulfillment of his fantasy. Humbert Humbert’s tragic conflict deems this live world'(71) uninhabitable for him. “He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity…” (from All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy). The paradox of Humbert Humbert’s spiritual but depraved love for Lolita, (who is herself a paradox of innocence and seduction), is a tragic testament to this diverging equity’. The world’s opposites abide close beside each other, and exist only at a mutual cost — light and darkness, good and evil, love and lust. Near the beginning of the novel, Humbert Humbert states that he and Annabel were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly… because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh'(12). Similarly, Humbert Humbert and Lolita are casualties consumed by and lost to the greater immortal'(309) love that only exists at a supreme cost.
In his “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, Vladimir Nabokov recalls that he felt the “first little throb of Lolita” run through him as he read a newspaper article about an ape who, “after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” The image of a confinement so complete that it dominates and shapes artistic expression (however limited that expression may be) is a moving and powerful one, and it does, indeed, reflect in the text of Lolita. Humbert Humbert, the novel’s eloquent poet-narrator, observes the world through the bars of his obsession, his “nympholepsy”, and this confinement deeply affects the quality of his narration. In particular, his powerful sexual desires prevent him from understanding Lolita in any significant way, so that throughout the text what he describes is not the real Lolita, but an abstract creature, without depth or substance beyond the complex set of symbols and allusions that he associates with her. When in his rare moments of exhaustion Humbert seems to lift this literary veil, he reveals for a moment the violent contrast between his intricately manipulated narration and the stark ugliness of a very different truth. In one of the most elaborately vivid scenes in the novel, Humbert excites himself to a sexual climax while Lolita sits, unaware, on his lap. Rejoicing in the unexpected and unnoticed fulfillment, he asserts that, “Lolita ha[s] been safely solipsized” (60). Solipsismthe epistemological theory that the self is the only knowable thing and that reality consists solely of its perceptions and active modificationsvery closely reflects Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. Through his language, he creates a distance between Dolores and Lolita, between the child and the “solipsized” creature upon whom he can “safely” impose his sexual desire. Humbert’s version is a blend of several tightly connected, often conflicting personal images. Some are the products of his own imagination, while others stem from classic works of literature or popular songs. He makes no effort to separate these images, but shifts rapidly from one to another as the narrative demands. They come together to form a new Lolita, one who is only Humbert’s projection of the original, one who possesses only those qualities that he imposes upon her, and who shows no evolution beyond that which he allows her.Lolita’s primary frame, and the most persistently reductive, is that of the nymphet. Humbert claims that this category is not his own creation but a specific natural quality to which he has assigned a clever name. It is well defined, if difficult to accurately describe, and it pre-exists its members:Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched traveler… reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate “nymphets”…. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. (16-17) This definition serves two complementary purposes. It dehumanizes the nymphet by making her foreign (“demoniac”), and it absolves the passionate admirer who is not in love, but “bewitched”. Humbert can, and does, use this identity to justify his sexual urges toward Lolita. Recalling the restless hour spent wandering through the Enchanted Hunters hotel, waiting for Lolita to fall into a drugged, defenseless sleep, Humbert confesses that he was gravely mistaken in his assumption that Lolita was powerless and innocent:I should have understood… that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation would make the secrecy impossible and the delectation lethal. (124-125) Through this characterization, he attributes to Lolita not only the responsibility for their first sexual encounter, but for the suffering he would later undergo. She can do such things because she is more than human, because she is an “immortal demon disguised as a female child” (138). The darkly sexual image of the nymphet openly conflicts with another of Lolita’s adopted identities: the reincarnated Annabel Leigh. From his very first encounter with Lolita, Humbert equates her with his lost love:I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition. In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child… the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. (53)The weight of this image is much greater than it seems at first, because Annabel’s identity is in itself a complex and intricately shaded tangle of meanings. By his own admission, he “remembers[s] her features far less distinctly today than [he] did a few years ago”. By naming her Annabel Leigh, Humbert simultaneously confines and expands her to fit Poe’s mythical Annabel Lee, and many of his descriptions in fact contain direct references to the poem. When he meets Lolita he transfers onto her this perfect image, an artificial image that is all that remains of his first love, an image that is now at the root of both memories and so creates them:My real liberation [from my obsession for Annabel] had occurred… at the moment, in point of fact, when Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta, had appeared to me, golden and brown, kneeling, looking up, on that shady veranda…. (167)Here he refers to Annabel Lee, not Annabel Leigh. Humbert cannot distinguish between the original girl-child and the literary filter through which he remembers her. Likewise, the image he imposes on Lolita is a crystalline, artificial one, colored by visions of envious angels and a mythical kingdom. Over the course of the novel, Humbert’s Lolita adopts countless other disguises. When overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his love, or by the dangerously volatile nature of his situation, Humbert refers to Lolita as his Carmen. The name first appears as the refrain of a popular song depicting promiscuity, a song that Humbert twists into a frantically stilted poem about Lolita’s absence. It slowly evolves, so that by the end of the novel it refers to the gypsy heroine of Merrimée’s famous novella, another sometimes cruel and elusive creature. When he glimpses the signs of age on Lolita’s face and manner, he makes her an echo of her mother, “Charlotte [rising] from her grave” (275). She can be a “simple child” (180) one moment and a “plotter” the next (183). When, long after she has escaped from him, he visits her and her husband, the changes he sees in her make him uncomfortable. He finds an instant of peace only when she returns to a more familiar shape, a shape of his own creation, when “for a momentstrangely enough the only merciful, endurable one in the whole interview[they] were bristling at each other as if she were still [his]” (272).These contrasting imagesthe reverent and the bitter, the sacred and the profanecome together in a larger, more complex image. At times Lolita ascends to the most abstract of forms: she becomes only the object of artistic expression. She represents some immense truth he wishes to capture; she is his creation, his inspiration. She is his girl, “as Vee was Poe’s, and Bea was Dante’s” (247). She is his Lolita. She gives his life purpose, for only through him can she “live in the minds of later generations” (309). In turn, he uses language to shape and define her identity; she is not real without him. This web of images persists throughout the story, and Humbert rarely allows the reader to see his young lover without the lens of his interpretive imagination. At times, however, the veil of language does lift, and we see Lolita without her masks and costumes. As readers, we cannot know whether this, simpler, Lolita is in fact Dolores Haze and not just another product of Humbert’s imagination. Nonetheless, these ostensibly honest moments provide insight into a wholly different creature than the capricious nymphet to which Lolita is often reduced:I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the nightevery night, every nightthe moment I feigned sleep. (176)Her nightly sobs, for which we are given no analysis, suddenly change the entire narrative. The reader must sift back through the details of the story and place, among the cynical judgments and ecstatic sexual references, this beautifully simple image. Among the novel’s moments of rhetorical clarity, perhaps the most poignant are those in which Humbert claims to feel remorse. In these rare instances, Lolita loses all of the wickedness, the sexual power, and the cruelty that Humbert so often attributes to her, and becomes nothing more than a child:There was the day when having withdrawn the functional promise I had made her on the eve… I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face… that look I cannot exactly describe… an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration. (283)Humbert cannot see this Lolita, the child Lolita, without the aid of a “chance combination”. As he delves deeper into his past, he claims to discover other such “smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain” (285). He recalls a particular moment of beautiful lucidity, when he saw Lolita in her own anguished form, free from his imposed images:There was the day that… as Avis clung to her father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and became a frozen little shadow of itself…. (286)This is not Carmen, or Annabel, or the fey nymphet of Humbert’s preceding tale. This is a real child, without a father or a home, who must settle for a twisted parody of life.Does Humbert Humbert love Dolores? Does he even see Dolores, or can she never be more than Lolita to him? Ultimately, the novel provides no conclusive answers to these questions. It is Humbert’s tale, colored with his suffering, speckled “with bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies”, and it has as many shades and subtleties as his convoluted psyche (308). It takes on many formsmemoir, confession, testimony, elegyand each provides a different perspective on Humbert’s immense rhetorical distance from Dolores. Perhaps he cannot see her in any other way, trapped as he is by the grim bars of mental instability, or perhaps he can and refuses to do so. Whatever his true purpose for creating this abstract Lolitaand in all likelihood, Humbert himself does not knowhe makes her more real than her flesh-and-blood counterpart. Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Dolly Schiller, is dead from the very first moments of the novel, so that only the nymphet, only the starlet, only Lolita truly exists.
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. So says Humbert Humbert at the start of Lolita in his account to the “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (9). He refers to himself as a murderer (he is, after all, “guilty of killing Quilty”), not as a rapist, the far more serious offense Lolita levels at him. That I, and everyone else who reads the book, call Dolores Haze by the name “Lolita” demonstrates the efficacy of Humbert’s fancy prose style – under the spell of his aesthetic mastery, we, the jury, must bend to his subjective vision through memory, and thus we see the twelve-year-old nymphet as Lolita, as she is in Humbert’s arms. It is difficult to castigate Humbert when we see the world through his European eyes.Humbert’s main strength is his sense of humor. Nabokov is sure to throw Humbert’s way all the American kitsch he can handle – mostly in the form of Charlotte Haze. His sly insults sail over her head, but Humbert wins our approval by making sure we understand them. Similarly, we admire him because we must recognize that he is above us, too – untangling “Vladimir Nabokov” from “Vivian Darkbloom” may seem easy once it has been pointed out, but there are scores more that are worth the reader’s time (or not, as the case may be). His graceful facility with other languages mocks our desire to have his control over English, not even his native tongue (or Nabokov’s). His humor constantly deflects attention from the seriousness of his crime. When Humbert calls himself a “pentapod,” the image of him as a sexual predator is offset by the work we must do to appreciate the inventive coinage of the word. His poetry obscures his perversity; he is not the rapist – Freud is the(rapist). Humbert is always moving us sideways with his playful and conscious malapropian language, “watering” his car by his “west-door” neighbors. Humanity is defined by its capacity to play, the demonstration of an individual freedom which has no value for anyone else. But Humbert’s play has value for us, since we are enchanted as youthful readers (Nabokov believes that all stories should be fairy tales of some sort), just as Humbert’s play attempts to keep Lolita forever young. Humbert’s poetry even lets down his guard at times, drawing us further to his side: “And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears” (280).Humbert’s control over language also extends to his control over the novel and, one might argue, over the actual events. At an inconsequential moment, Humbert writes “‘Doublecrosser,’ [Lolita] said as I crawled downstairs rubbing my arm with a great show of rue” (65). Charlotte is struck by a car crossing the street, and this event was foreshadowed by Humbert nearly hitting a dog when he first pulled up to the house – the double fatal crossing of the street (there is also a dominant motif of doubling throughout the novel, Nabokov’s parody of the European doppelganger tale, but for our purposes we will look only at its relationship to the street). This may seem a stretch, but “rue” is also French for “street.” This precision makes us wonder if Humbert is fabricating parts of his story. The number 342 recurs constantly, as house numbers, hotel room numbers, days on the road, and so on, and can be viewed as either a series of fatidic checkpoints through which Humbert must travel, or as his authorial revision of the events within his prison. In either case, the reader is the true prisoner, caught up in Humbert’s web and turning him from anti-hero to hero. We cannot judge him harshly; the true punishment he receives for his crime is not imprisonment but “coronary thrombosis” (3), or a broken heart. This, too, told to us in the foreword, only brings us closer to the silver-tongued rapist.
Humbert Humbert (HH) and Timofey Pnin are complete opposites. HH is assertive and is ready to do everything to reach the goals he sets himself, may it be to master a foreign language or to use his abilities as a manipulator to trick the reader into relativizing his crimes. On the other hand, Timofey Pnin is impotent, and socially awkward, and is being manipulated by his ex-wife. Their only similarity lies in that they both are never idle. This essay will compare both HH and Pnin through their identities as immigrants, their use of foreign language, their manipulator-manipulated relationship, and their constant travels. Though these characters are markedly different, both of Nabokov’s creations help us understand how Nabokov himself grappled with the issues of emigration and displacement that were central to his own life.
Cultural “Other” and the use of foreign language
Timofey Pnin hails from a wealthy family, he is half-German and half-Russian (p.21-22), which emphasizes his identity as an eternal foreigner. Pnin, like Nabokov, first left Russia because of the Bolsheviks’ coup d’état, and then left Europe because of World War 2 (p.34). In the case of Timofey Pnin, the cultural otherness is a weakness manifested in his inability to ever feel at home. The narrator’s use of foreign language and his insistence on Pnin’s foreignness adds to the overwhelming feeling of alienation. The reader cannot forget for one moment that Pnin is not American. For instance, Pnin uses Russian in emotionally charged moments “Slava Bogu” p. 19 which is typical of people who speak in foreign languages. Foreign curse words, or words that simply express surprise or shock tend to have a stronger meaning in one’s native language (Toivo, 2017).The narrator also creates “Pninian” (p.15, p. 39, p.66), Pninzing (p.35), Pningrad (p.63), and indicates that Pnin makes up words “Englishing the Russian for receipt” (p.18). Also, the narrator provides the reader with verbatim quotes of Pnin’s very poor English “What to do” (P.17), “I search John” (p.59), “Cannot exist in such big sea” (p.60) to emphasize his otherness. Pnin crosses his legs “po amerikanski” (p.33), which here is likely written in Russian to remind the reader that Pnin is first and foremost a foreigner even if he crosses his legs as Americans typically do. The narrator does not spare Pnin, and mentions that “If his Russian was music, his English was murder” (p.66), later referring to Pnin’s inability to adapt to the Julian calendar when he mentions that Pnin simply stopped celebrating his birthday (p.67) when he moved to the West.
This incapability to assimilate also prohibits Pnin from making friends with American professors who imitate him behind his back (p. 37), are anti-Pninists (p.141), consider him a joke (p.140), or call him a freak (p.32). The awkwardness of his interactions with American professors are portrayed by his inability to understand jokes “I have reservations, first of all, logic –” (p.60) and seems to be showing off when he cuts his colleague in the middle of a story to tell him that “water in Turkish is ‘su’” (p.33). Moreover, even the electricity is described as foreign to Pnin: “amerikanski electricity” (p. 77). Likewise, the narrator uses Russian words or adds a Russian accent to American landmarks such as Reeverside (p.62), Tsentral park (p.62), and Soedinyoniie Shtatii (p.11), hence once again using language to widen the gap between Pnin and his surroundings.
However, the use of foreign language in Lolita does not accentuate Humbert Humbert’s (HH) “otherness”. HH, like Timofey Pnin, is of mixed descent (p.9), but his identity as a foreigner does not define him; he is defined by his complete lack of a moral compass. Nabokov could very well had created HH as an American character. HH’s English is not taxed by his insertion of French words “eh bien, pas du tout!” (p.105), “Enfin seuls” (p.119) “ Comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille” (p.149), “que dis-je” (p.168), etc. HH sounds more like the literary version of a bilingual Montrealer than an immigrant in a foreign country who is unsuccessfully attempting to assimilate, since his process of assimilation is now complete and HH now masters the English language “the reader will notice the pains I took to speak Lo’s tongue” (p.149). In short, while Pnin’s otherness makes him a social outcast, and his colleagues laugh at him when he announces that he will “soon be considered an American” (p.37), HH pretentiously uses French to stand out from the American masses, and is hence willingly alienating himself (although in a positive fashion).
HH is a manipulator while Pnin is victim of a manipulating ex-wife. Indeed, she seduces him “you Timofey are the water father” (p.55) even though she simply wants his money (p.57). Pnin is completely in love with Liza “I offer you everything that I have” (p.183) even though he knows she got pregnant from Eric in an extramarital affair. Pnin truly is a mere slave to his desires “to hold her to keep her […] with her cruelty, with her vulgarity” (p.57) whereas HH tries to convince the reader that he, like Pnin, is merely a victim of his strong feelings towards an underaged girl. Much like Liza Wind, HH attempts to manipulate the reader to using post-modern humor and word play (p.184). As I already mentioned, HH uses humorous descriptions to trick the reader into ignoring the gravity of his actions: he was committing statutory rape. Further, as a classmate correctly noted, HH murders Quilty and attempts to dehumanize his victim with his use of language. He uses black humor in replying to his victim saying that he’s “dying for a smoke” with “you’re dying anyway” (p.296). In short, Pnin is a poor victim of manipulation throughout the novel whereas HH is an expert manipulator.
Displaced Russian and Pervert European
Timofey Pnin’s identity as “the other” is not limited to his incapacity to speak English and to his social awkwardness. He always appears to be a misfit, wherever he finds himself. For instance, the novel begins with him being on the wrong train (p.8) right after the narrator informed us that Pnin has moved from Russia to Prague, from Prague to Paris, and from Paris to America (p.8). Pnin formulates his desire to be alone during his apartment-search: “privacy is absolutely necessary” (p.34) and complains that there are “too many people” (p.34) in rural America. Indeed, “nothing was quiet enough for Pnin” (p.63). He is a permanent exile and is always out of place (displaced Russian). He would also express his desire to feel at home in “pninzing”(p.35) or having pninized (p.69) his new home, but he would be forced to change lodging every semester (p.62). Pnin also spends a summer teaching in Washington (p.69).He only appears to find himself at home when he is surrounded by fellow Russians “only another Russian could understand” (p.71) and feels comfortable chatting with his friend Chateau “of pure Russian lineage” (p.125). The library is another of the very few places in which Pnin feels at home since it is “intimately and securely connected to Pnin’s heart” (p.72). Furthermore, Pnin teaches Russian literature in the German department with Dr. Hagen (p.139), and there is also indication that he is teaching Russian at the wrong university since there is only one student of Russian (p.9).
As previously stated, HH is, much like Pnin, of mixed descent. His generic European identity perhaps helps him be a better fit in the American society than Timofey Pnin, since HH has after all never left the West. HH attended an English day school in France and mentions frequent trips to Italy which he remembers fondly (p.11). HH’s travels do not seem forced like Pnin’s do, and the reader gets the impression that HH only seems out of place when he is “forced” to stay in the same place because of his feelings towards Lolita. Indeed, it is his pedophilia and perverse thoughts which make him seem out of place, not his identity as an immigrant. When HH recalls his childhood memories, he remembers that his father “taught him everything about sex” (p.11). This detail stands out of an otherwise typical description of someone’s youth. HH, like Pnin, is always moving, although in a much more casual fashion. For instance, he mentions that “we passed and we passed through the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants” (p.155). Here, the word choice indicates that his travels in America were positive.
Was Nabokov More Pninian or Humbertian?
Lolita (1955) and Pnin (1957) were almost published at the same time, and it appears that Pnin and HH both show a different side of Vladimir Nabokov’s identity as a foreigner. In interviews, Nabokov is at times very Pninian, whereas in other instances he sounds more like HH. When Nabokov speaks in Frenchor English his slight charming accent does not make his audience uncomfortable. In his famous Playboy interview, Nabokov refers to himself as a “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library” (Toffler, 2018). In this sense, Nabokov is more Humbertian than Pninian. In an interview conducted by one of his former Cornell students, Nabokov mentions that he remembers the “pang” of switching from being a Russian writer to an American writer (Appel Jr., 1967), which is similar to HH saying that he remembers how hard it was for him to learn Lolita’s language (p.149). He also mentions having traveled extensively much like HH and Pnin (Toffler, 2018).
Nonetheless, Nabokov also has a Pninian side. Nabokov says that he never permanently settled anywhere in America because “nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me” (Toffler, 2018). He also mentions that he was an American writer while living in Switzerland, and wrote Russian language poems in Berlin and New York, all of which indicates that he always was “out of place” like Pnin. He had to invent America after having spent his entire life inventing Russia (Toffler, 2018). Nabokov also spoke of his aversion to groups (Appel Jr., 1967) hence hinting at the fact that he is a non-conformist like Pnin. Nabokov also fondly remembers his ability to access magnificent libraries (Appel Jr, 1967), one of the few places where Pnin felt at home, a positive memory of his time as a university professor. To conclude, both Pnin and HH show facets of Nabokov’s peculiar identity as a Russian émigré writing American novels. In interviews, he sometimes characterized himself as perfectly fitting the American mold despite his background (like HH) whereas at other times he speaks of his permanent otherness (like Pnin).
Appel Jr., Alfred. “An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Spring 1967, 127-52. Accessed April 12, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1207097.pdf. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. NY, NY: Vintage Books, 1989. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Penguin Books, 2015. Renaud, Maxime. Postmodern humor in Lolita, March 24th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/topics/143485/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 Roger, Anais. HH kills Quilty, March 25th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/threads/551052/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 Toivo, Wilhelmiina. “Bad Language: Why Being Bilingual Makes Swearing Easier.” The Guardian, March 27, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/mar/27/bad-language-why-being-bilingual-makes-swearing-easier. Toffler, Alvin. “Playboy Interview: Vladimir Nabokov.” Playboy, January 1964. Accessed April 12, 2018. http://reprints.longform.org/playboy-interview-vladimir-nabokov.  Maxime Renaud, Postmodern humor in Lolita, March 24th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/topics/143485/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018  Anais Roger, HH kills Quilty, March 25th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/threads/551052/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018  Please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpjTgHMUbAk  Please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8171K40pJho&t=853s
In his mind’s eye, Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita lives in a world of eternal nymphets and time unchanging, of frozen crystals and glass. But reality is mobile and unfrozen, and try as he may to reject it H.H. is forced to recognize the impermanence of the external world through its mirror projection into his mind. Thus, H.H. struggles to freeze time behind glass surfaces only to be foiled by the harsh mirror reflection of transient reality.
Humbert Humbert’s misunderstanding of “Our Glass Lake,” truly “Hourglass Lake,” reveals his desire to cease the flow of time and the obstruction of this dream by the stark reminder of reality reflected in mirrored surfaces. H.H. dreams of an “enchanted island” of “entranced time” in which all nymphets reside, eternally unaffected by age (Nabokov 16-17). This longing to freeze time is emphasized by H.H’s visions of frozen water. If surging, rushing water suggests the relentless motion of time, then ice and crystallization evokes its cessation. Indeed, before visiting the Lake, H.H. imagines it as “glazed over with a sheet of emerald ice” (54). By this glacial lake, H.H. dreamt of having a “quiet little orgy” with Lolita after feigning the loss of his “wrist watch” to escape from Charlotte (54). The loss of his timepiece further emphasizes H.H’s wish for the disappearance of time. Later when he takes glasses for whiskey and soda, he thinks of the ice cubes as “little pillow-shaped blocks… pillows for polar teddy bear, Lo” (97); he wants a frozen Lo, an everlasting nymphet Lo untouched by temporality, “emprisoned in… crystal sleep” (123). The addition of liquid into the glass produced “rasping, tortured sounds as the warm water loosened [the ice cubes] in their cells” (97). Thus, H.H.’s predilection for crystallized, glassy surfaces and his aversion to flowing water depict his desire to halt the surge of time.
However, his fantasies of time immobilized are shattered by mirrors, which constantly remind him of reality’s temporality. Hourglass Lake is a “curious Mirage” (56). A mirage itself is “an optical effect that is sometimes seen at sea… that may have the appearance of… a mirror in which distant objects are seen inverted.” Thus Hourglass Lake emerges as a mirror and, far from being frozen, resides in reality in “great heat” (81). The liquidity, heat, and inverted mirror quality of Hourglass Lake reveals it to be the polar opposite of the crystallized Our Glass Lake H.H. envisioned in his mind. Its true evocative name further accentuates the temporality of reality that opposes H.H.’s internal frozen glass fantasies. Furthermore, while in his dreams he loses his wrist watch in order to tryst with Lolita, in reality his wrist watch remains on and perfectly intact, undamaged by the moving waters because it is “waterproof;” within the mirror lake, H.H. cannot physically destroy or escape time (89). Thus mirrors in reality diametrically oppose H.H.’s internal fantasies and reveal to him the impossibility of his dreams of frozen time.
H.H.’s memories of Lolita in cinematographic terms reveal further his longing to halt time. Motion pictures are formed from the projection of light through a glass lens onto a reel of film onto a screen. The replaying of film suggests a breach in time, a reliving of past images that intrude into the present. Glass imagery thus recurs in the lens and shows again H.H.’s struggle to preserve still moments behind glass surfaces. In the despair of remembering the beauty of Lolita’s tennis stroke, he laments, “I could have filmed her!… I could have had all her strokes, all her enchantments, immortalized in segments of celluloid;” she would be timeless behind the glass lens of the film projector (232). When he closes his eyes he sees an “immobilized fraction of her, a cinematographic still” (44) as if she is a “photographic image rippling upon a screen” (62); film creates the illusion of movement by the rapid succession of frames, but like his aversion to moving water, H.H. here wants “segments,” “still[s],” a “photographic image,” the individual, unmoving fragments that freeze her; he doesn’t want the reminder of time.
But once again, mirrors negate his dreams and force him to confront reality. He admits his struggle to freeze time by replacing time with space: “I substitute time terms for spatial ones” just as he substitutes cinematographic time with stills (16). But even so, control of time eludes him; mirror reflections, even if they are photographic stills, inevitably reveal age. H.H. writes, “I would have the reader see ‘nine’ and ‘fourteen’ as the boundaries – the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks – of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine” (16). Mirrors form the boundaries of H.H.’s fantasies. Most noticeably, one would have no realization of self-aging or the physical, external change of self without a mirror reflection. External reality of the self exists separate from internal perception until a mirror projects what is outside into the mind. Hence, mirrors force H.H. to see not only the ephemerality of nymphets but also his own mortality. As he passes a “dead” town without Lolita, he sees a “display of artificial diamonds reflected in a red mirror” and a “lighted green clock” to remind him of ever fleeting time and another crystal of phony permanence (282). In the end, the “crystal” of his wrist watch “was gone but it ticked” (304). His symbol of time halted, the crystal, disappears and time surges on.
Ultimately, H.H.’s internal world of everlasting nymphets and immortality stands at stark odds with the external reality of impermanence that mirrors project into his consciousness and force him to see. However, in writing Lolita, he vies for dominance against this external transience. He projects his internal reality out into external space and fights to materialize the everlastingness that is his entire mental world.
Humbert Humbert, Nabokov’s protagonist in his masterpiece Lolita, will rarely miss a chance to prove to the reader that he is as smart and well-read as they come. The references are vast, from Poe to Joyce to Freud… and one element that seems to plague the novel is the story of Adam and Eve. Humbert seems to be acutely aware of the fact that, yes, although Adam fell, it was all because of Eve, and so he constantly tries to push upon the reader the image of Lolita as a modernized version of Eve, and him as a modernized Adam.
His Edenic fantasies are not even subtle, for on the morning when Lolita sits on his lap and she “gives” him an orgasm, he describes her as holding in her hand “a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple” (57-58)—and there it is, the clear and direct reference. They stay together, he takes the apple, she takes it back, they flirt and play, and on the exact same moment when she finishes the apple, he climaxes, creating a correlation between Eve biting the apple, and him climaxing.
However, the way he describes having “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor” (62), breaks the continuity with the biblical parable. Humbert believes that, although he has tasted sin, he has not been corrupted nor has corrupted Lolita. “Lolita was safe—and I was safe” (62) he proclaimed.
Here it is evidently seen how this character goes out of his way to prove to the reader that he is, after everything, innocent of perverting and sexualizing her. Even if he does confess of having killed Quilty, he is never able to bring himself to accept the fact that he has broken the child.
What he must do instead, to be able cope with the guilt (or whatever feelings this evokes, for arguably, he is never able to fully repent or feel remorse), is what Eric Lemay explains on his essay Dolorous Laughter: “To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity” (par. 2).
And how he manages to do it, how he accomplishes the task of ridding this girl of her humanity is one of the most genius and artful features of the novel, and it shows how deep and complex Nabokov’s understanding of his work and his character was.
Put simply, it can be delimited to one strategy that Humbert creates and uses constantly: the language, the vocabulary, the words. Through this strategy, he dehumanizes her and exempts himself from any moral blame.
One must only remember how he sees her, how he defines her. By this it is not meant the way her physicality is described, or the way his feelings are explained, or the way he loves her, but the names, the brands that he gives her.
The first: the infamous nymphet, which he so gracefully defines:
“Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’” (7).
Here we see how, in a very literal way, he says she (or any other nymphet) is “not human”. Need anyone explain that nymphets don’t actually exist? This is a clear rationalization from Humbert’s part, similar to the one he faces after having his first orgasm by the child, which seems to absolve him (in his mind, at least) of any guilt of the truth, this being that he has raped a girl. This strategy he creates allows him to denude her of a self, to butcher her integrity and being, and absorb her, create her as his own.
Similarly, he calls her Carmen, a nickname based on a song which describes the toxic relationship between a man and a woman. Many see the woman in the song as an easy woman, some go as far as to say she is a stripper or a prostitute, especially because of the third line in the song: “And the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen” (61). Either way, the character of Carmen is far from the exemplary woman, and for Humbert to define the “love of his life” in that way is surely not romantic, much less something that shows his respect for her.
Thirdly, and the most popular of all, comes Lolita. One usually forgets this distinction, he calls her like this, “my Lolita” (9), and not Dolores. He changes her name and re-brands her as he wills. He drowns who she is, and he makes her his; he not only abuses her physically but also breaks her person completely. When he renames her, he changes her, he destroys her.
Through these three simple labels, he dehumanizes her. He takes her away from the world, where she is real, and he encapsulates her in his words.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop with the names he gives her, but with his whole lavish descriptions, his baroque vocabulary, his constant literary references and French phrases. “His artistry conceals her anguish. The magnificent veils of his masterful prose, wafting sentence after sentence over the readers’ eyes” (par. 4), makes one forget what he is writing about. He hypnotizes the reader with his lyrical sentences, his silky rhythms, his mesmerizing, water-like prose.
One forgets that Dolores and Lolita are two different creations: one by Nabokov and one by Humbert. Lolita is there to be eaten, to be deconstructed, to be dissolved. He even does it for the reader: “Lolita; Lo-lee-ta; Lo. Lee. Ta.” (9) Demonically, he tears her name, preparing it for anyone who wishes to accompany him on his feast, he claws his teeth to eat those few and undignified remains of Dolores.
Humbert’s wizardry in writing creates a toy out of her, and when she is finally destroyed, then he has no emotional or moral obligation over her. This distinction between the two must be made, or otherwise one could get lost in the entanglement of Humbert’s language, from “Lolita” to “Lolita” one could lose sight of what’s real and what’s fantasy, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s Lolita and what’s Dolores.
Then, who is Dolores? How can she be known?
In one of the most honest passages from Lolita, Humbert explains: “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (142). She had absolutely nowhere else to go, one must repeat! For this heart-wrenching moment reveals something that, without it, the whole read of Lolita could change completely. One must have the realization, this above anything else, that Lolita is a lonely, lonely character.
I would dare say that this, and the ending sentence of chapter three (part two)—“…the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep” (176)—are two of the scarce passages where we actually get a glimpse at the character. And what’s interesting is that there is such indifference in how Humbert describes the moments, almost as if Dolores’ suffering were a burden or annoyance on him, and he describes them in such a passing and aloof manner, that one can almost prove how disinterested Humbert actually is of the real human he so proclaims to love.
So lonely is this character that, even being one of the most important and famous images of the twentieth century (either seen as a temptress, as a sex symbol or as a victim), she doesn’t even exist in her own book. Humbert’s Lolita and Dolores Haze are, for all intents and purposes, two different people, and there are so few real glimpses at the true Dolores that it is almost impossible to describe her; she is as elusive as Humbert is pretentious. To get to know why she does what she does, how her mind works, what her circumstances make her feel… it would be a treat. The only thing one can see in the character in a definite manner, especially after the ending of the first part (when she is told her mother is dead, and Humbert describes her as having no one), is that she is a terribly solitary thing.
Even Humbert himself accepts this distinction—“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita” (9)—however, he adheres this changes to Lolita, without realizing that it was him that gave these distinctions, not her. She is a rather constant character (with only one big change, this being after she is told her mother is dead), it is he who sees her as someone different depending on where she is or who she’s with.
Most of the allure and attractiveness of the character is actually this exact indescribability, this multiplicity; who is Lolita? who is Dolores? What did she actually feel? what did she think? what is Humbert’s imagination? what is just an exaggeration?
One can rarely find Dolores without her sole defining attribute: her solitude. A solitude so profound, it transcends her ability or disability to elude the other characters in the novel, and is able to touch even the reader, and prevent him from grasping fully who she is. That is why, even if Humbert has fulfilled his dream by immortalizing Lolita, Dolores—the real Dolores—barely even existed.
Goldman, Eric. “Knowing Lolita: Sexual Deviance and Normality in Nabokov’s Lolita.” Nabokov Studies. Vol. 8. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 87-104. Print.
Lemay, Eric. “Dolorous Laughter.” Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Lolita. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
From the witch hunting hysteria of the 17th century, to the biblical belief that all objects touched by a menstruating woman became unclean, female sexuality has been regarded by men with fear and hostility for thousands of years. Accused by Tertulian of being “the gateway to the devil”, women have long been kept under strict regulation, their sexuality often suppressed by patriarchal societies for fear of what might happen should the “uncontrollable nature” of such “untamed creatures” be given free reign. The woman as a result has been viewed, historically, to occupy a place of contradiction in literature, frequently dismissed by male writers as weak and invaluable to their stories, but simultaneously given power over men because of a societal obsession with their sensuality. Despite the vast differences in the setting of the two texts studied here, “Lolita” being a 1940s “road novel”, and “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is set in post-colonial Jamaica, women and girls are portrayed through the eyes of their male counterparts in each novel in strikingly similar ways. Contemporary writers Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov have captured the emotional conflict between desire and disgust felt by male protagonists towards the women they are attracted to, highlighting the way in which female characters and vilified for taking ownership of their sexuality.
To an extent, both male protagonists are portrayed as viewing the women they pursue as supernatural beings rather than humans, contributing to the women’s vilification. Humbert Humbert may be seen to blur the distinction between the persona of Lolita, the “nymphet” Nabokov creates, and the “North-American girl-child”, who, thanks to the vivid imagination Humbert has been written with, we often forget is named Dolores. The concept of the “nymphet”, Nabokov’s own neologism, comes from the mythological term nymph, meaning a spirit-like woman about whom “the term nûmphe refers to her status as a sexual being”. This is used in reference to a young girl Humbert feels attracted to, whose “true nature is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac)”. Nabokov uses the adjectives “nymphic” and “demoniac” as though they are interchangeable synonyms, suggesting that he intended to present Humbert as viewing sexual attractiveness in girls as akin to being demonic. This may demonstrate Nabokov’s intentions to portray Humbert as viewing Delores as some kind of malignant creature, consequently dehumanizing her on account of his lust for her, and contributing to the idea Humbert is shown to vilify her. During various accounts of Humbert’s encounters with those described as “demon children”, paradoxically meaning the “nymphets” he is “agonizingly in love” with, multilingual Nabokov describes one girl as an “enfant charmante et fourbe”, meaning a child who is lovely and deceitful. This may invite the reader to imagine such “nymphets” as temptresses, using their supernatural powers of deceit to seduce Humbert. This demonic portrayal, which is given to the reader early on in the story, may be the progenitor for Lolita, who is no exception to Nabokov’s extended metaphor.
Through Humbert’s eyes, Lolita is portrayed as “hopelessly depraved” indicating that she is sexually immoral, and he equates this to her being a “daemon child”. The emotive adverb “hopelessly” may suggest that Nabokov intended to portray Humbert perceiving Dolores as being beyond help, which may evoke in the reader the notion that it is for this reason that Humbert was able to rationalize his sexual relations with her. As a first person narrator, it is likely that Nabokov intended to portray Humbert as unreliable; the authenticity of Dolores’ alleged depravity may be questionable to many, considering she is a child of twelve. It can be gleaned that Humbert, by way of Nabokov’s near constant references to satanic imagery, is intended to be received as struggling with conflicting emotions, hence the “agonizing” love he is presented with, and may attempt to pin the blame onto Dolores and other “nymphets” for the lust they are shown to inspire in him. In doing this, Nabokov may be showing Humbert to vilify Dolores for the sexual power she holds over him, and presenting him attempting to justify the behavior that would today be recognized as pedophilia.
In similarity to the presentation of Dolores through Humbert’s narrative in “Lolita”, it can be interpreted that Rhys has tried to make relations between the presentation of Antoinette as an attractive, sexually free woman, and the presentation of her as a supernatural villain. When describing his wife, Rochester is shown to be in “discomfort” by commenting on her “alien eyes”, which, while likening her to a feared supernatural being, an alien, may also symbolize an inability to relate to her seemingly alien culture. Continual supernatural imagery is used in reference to Antoinette, including the simile Rhys uses, that Antoinette has “eyes like a zombie”. This simile may have been intended to be in reference to her eyes appearing dead, or lifeless, like the zombies of Caribbean folklore. It can be interpreted that Rochester, who easily believes Cosway’s sensationalist stories, is portrayed to associate sexual promiscuity with supernatural evil, especially when in many cases of recorded “zombification” in history, “those who were made into zombis were probably already alienated from their communities”. As Antoinette, who was arguably portrayed as a miscreant due to the sexual affairs she is accused of by Cosway, is compared to a zombie, it can therefore be said that she is vilified for this, to the point of being feared and demonized, as the alleged zombies were.
It can also be argued that Antoinette’s demonization stems from the portrayal that Rochester hates the culture of the Caribbean. Jamaica is presented through the frame of Rochester’s narrative as a hostile place, about which, Rochester remarks, “I hated its beauty and its magic”. The “magic” possibly refers the prevalence of superstition and black magic of Jamaica a religion regarded by many colonizers as being sexually depraved, and the “beauty”, to the sensual landscape Antoinette is a personification of. In using the parallel between the strangeness of Jamaican Obeah to the western reader, and the strangeness of Antoinette’s Creole culture to British Victorian Rochester, Rhys may invite the reader to view Antoinette as a sexual villain through the framing of Rochester’s narrative. Portrayed to associate Antoinette with the “wild place” she is a personification of, Rochester resents Antoinette, “for she belonged to the magic.” Ultimately, Antoinette is “bought for profit, regarded as exotic, hysteric and incomprehensible to her buyer”, and Rochester as a result can be seen vilify her for her perceived sensuality as a Caribbean woman.
Nabokov similarly uses setting to show the vilification of female protagonists, using Dolores to personify various stereotyped aspects of 1950s American culture. Through the first person narrative of Humbert, a foreigner like his creator, Nabokov, the reader is given “the view of America that could only have come from an outsider”, including aspects concerning, as critic Mary Elizabeth Williams phrases it, “maximum lust, hypocrisy and obsession”. Dolores may be intended to symbolise these aspects. Humbert is portrayed with a dislike for them, and can be seen to vilify Dolores because of them. Nabokov describes Dolores as “the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster”. The adjective “foul” serves to make the reader aware of Humbert’s hate for the posters, often containing sexual undertones, possibly because of the manner in which they assert control over his naive love, the “object” of their advertising. Nabokov portrays this control through the metaphor of the advertising “entrancing her”, insinuating that she was under some kind of spell. Humbert is portrayed to hate this fact, possibly because of the over-sexualised manner that Hollywood advertising bombarded consumers with, particularly impressionable youth, at the time. It may be interpreted that is because Nabokov intended to show Humbert with a desire to retain all control over Dolores’ sexual desires.
In noting that Dolores is presented with a love for Hollywood magazines, one of which Nabokov calls a “lurid movie magazine”, it can be seen that she may be exploring her sexuality through the means of Hollywood, something which Humbert may be shown to resent due to Nabokov’s use of the adjective “lurid”, a word which may be interpreted as over sexualised and vulgar. In fact, in a paragraph Nabokov includes about her avid consumerism, and Dolores uses the slang word “swank”, made popular by Hollywood films, and Humbert refers to Dolores as his “vulgar darling”. The juxtaposition of these two opposing words suggest an internal struggle on Humbert’s part, indicating that Nabokov may have intended to present him with a hate of the vulgar and sexualised language she uses, and the way she is presented to feel sexually attracted towards Hollywood actors, due to the negative sexually negative language he uses. This may show Nabokov’s intentions to present Humbert to vilify any aspects of Dolores’ developing sexuality that do not concern him. On a deeper level, Nabokov may also use Humbert’s feelings to show his vilification of sexualised America, as “If Lolita represents America, it is physically attractive, shallow and deeply corrupt”. It is safe to say that lurid Hollywood did, and still does, hold a form of sexual power over many, which is comparable to the way in which Dolores holds sexual power over Humbert. Humbert’s evoked image of Dolores as a “nymphet” may cause him to be presented as viewing her with more of a sexual conscience than she does in reality. After disclosing to him the details of her sexual encounters at summer camp, Humbert is shown to be disappointed that he was “not the first” to “debauch” her.
From this, it may be inferred that for Humbert, with being “first”, would come a sense of ownership, a sense of reassurance that she was, as Nabokov refers to it, “pure” when he first had sex with her. Nabokov’s use of the verb“debauch” indicates that he intended to show Humbert regarding her as corrupted and soiled because someone had had sex with her before. This contrast in emotions may show that Humbert is presented as paradoxically thinking it wrong that Dolores had sex with others, but acceptable for her to have sex with him. After Dolores tells him what happened, Humbert “had Lo […] take a much needed soap shower”, insinuating that as though by asking her to physically clean herself, she could also somehow clean herself of the metaphorical dirtiness that she is portrayed as having because of her sexual history. This may show that Nabokov intended to show Humbert vilifying Dolores because of the possibility of her sexual history.
Similarly, the theme of purity is one that also runs through the entirety of “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Rhys presents Rochester as a stereotypical Victorian Englishmen, feeling a sense of disgust towards Antoinette’s sexual impurity, and with the desire to attempt to vilify this aspect of her. Daniel Cosway says that Rochester isn’t “the first to kiss [Antoinette’s] pretty face”, a claim that can be interpreted as a taunt, insinuating that she may have had sexual encounters before marriage, a taboo at the time. In a similar way to Humbert in “Lolita”, it can be interpreted that for Rochester, being the “first” to touch his wife would give him a sense of power and ownership. This would be especially accurate of the culture of the time, when many Victorian Europeans still, to an extent, viewed women as property. One might even say that Rhys intended Rochester to rename his wife “Bertha”, out of a desire for her to be pure. By taking away her name, Antoinette, a typical French name, Rochester can be seen to take away her identity, both personal and racial. It can be interpreted that Rhys did this to strip Antoinette of her self-owned sexuality, which was tied up with her identity as a Creole woman. Rhys herself once observed, in relation to Dominican women, “Marriage didn’t seem a duty for them as it did for us”, and Victorian Creole women were certainly stereotyped at the time for being more sexually liberated than their counterparts living in Europe. By taking away her French Creole name, and replacing it with “Bertha”, an English name it may be seen that Rochester was trying to mould her into a sexually subservient wife, an ideal for English Victorians at the time.
In hindsight, it seems that both author’s intentions can be seen to be to present their female protagonists as being vilified, largely through the narrative framing of their male protagonists. Both Humbert and Rochester are portrayed with conflicting emotions surrounding Dolores and Antoinette, in a struggle between repulsion and sexual desire. While Humbert’s l desire for Dolores results in the portrayal of him simultaneously vilifying and glorifying her, it can be argued that Rhys portrays Rochester to solely vilify Antoinette. Although the villainous portrayal of both female protagonists are not incongruent with the presentation of other women in literature, they may still be met by the reader with an intense emotional response. However, it can be very much argued that the reasons for these portrayals merely lie within Rhys’ desire to create an accurate depiction of the culture of the time, and Humbert’s inherent affliction of being a pedophile.
 Cato The Elder, Speech in the Roman Senate, 195 BCE
 Judith L. Raiskin, Snow on the Cane Fields: Women’s Writing and Creole Subjectivity, 1995
 Helen Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, 1995
 Mary Elizabeth Williams, Personal Best Review, Salon Magazine, 1996
 Mary Elizabeth Williams, Personal Best Review, Salon Magazine, 1996
 Robert M. Crunden, A Brief History of American Culture, 1990
 Jean Rhys, “Smile Please”, 1987