Life with Lolita by Nabokov: The Story of One Love
When you hear the word “Lolita,” what comes to mind? Is it the subculture? Maybe it’s images of young girls wearing gingham bathing suits and heart shaped glasses. It is rare for someone to think of the horrific acts described in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lolita is commonly described as a love story. Even the 1992 movie advertises it as a love story, which it is not. It is, in fact, a story of abuse which has been romanticised way too often. Though the movie does give “Lolita,”her real name being Dolores, a perspective, and it does occasionally show her hatred for her abuser, it was still heavily implied that it was a love story.
What most people seem to forget when reading the story, is that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, is unreliable. He manipulates the reader throughout the story, and rarely talks about the hatred Dolores has for him. I however, have compiled a short list of quotes from the book that prove it is not a love story: “How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty”. And her sobs in the night every night, every night”. “Lo looked up with a semi-smile of surprise and without a word I delivered a tremendous backhand cut that caught her smack on her hot hard little cheekbone”. “And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it”. After reading only a few quotes that show how disturbing the content is, it’s hard to imagine people could possibly label it as a romantic novel. Not only is it clearly abusive based on these quotes, the actual subject matter is quite disturbing. Dolores is a 12 year old girl who is kidnapped by Humbert, her mother’s husband, after her mother dies while she is at camp.Though there are times when it may seem Dolores is “in love” with Humbert, such as when she kisses him, the reader must remember that she is impressionable and naive. Crushes on older people aren’t uncommon. The adult in that situation should know how wrong it is, and should ultimately be the one to stop the younger person’s advances.
Humbert is well aware of this, yet he continues to sexually, physically, and psychologically abuse Dolores while taking advantage of the fact that she has no way out. There is one point in the novel where she escapes him, only to be put in another bad position. At the end of the novel, she contacts him asking for money, which he gives. When visiting, she tells him that her other abuser, Quilty, broke her heart, while Humbert broke her life. As he drives back from murdering Quilty for taking her, he stops for a while and listens to the sound of children at play. He realizes then that he is not sad because she is absent from his side, but from the chorus of the children’s laughter. “Lolita” has become a big part of pop culture. Precocious young women are often called nymphets, a term used by Humbert to describe “attractive” and sexually mature, but still prepubescent, children between the tender ages of 9 and 14. In relationships with age gaps, Lolita is commonly associated with them. Many believe it is about a young seductress, or a consensual relationship between two people with a large age gap. The author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote the book to show how art can often be misinterpreted, and how the reader should have been disgusted by the content, or themselves if they had, at any point in the novel, sympathized with Humbert.
The language and rhetoric he uses is corrupt and dishonest on purpose, and the romanticisation of his Lolita only proves him right. Not once do you get Dolores’s point of view. The whole time you see “Lolita” through Humbert’s eyes, in which she is nothing but an object. He hides her pain from the reader behind his fantasy and desire for her, giving the reader no choice but to see her that way also. Even the cover of the book is somewhat suggestive. This shows how much the purpose of the novel is misunderstood.Many of the covers have images of young girls or close ups on them, such as their lips or legs. However, Nabokov wanted nothing to do with girls on the cover. His vision for the cover included cloudy skies, pure colors, a highway. Love is always reciprocated, and this story is anything but. It is a one-sided narrative of obsession. It is filled with rape, murder, and pedophilia, disguised by the speaker, Humbert, as a twisted story of star-crossed lovers.
Analysis Of “Lolita” By Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955. Nabokov was a Russian American novelist who is still famous for his controversial writings. In this novel, the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who is a middle-aged professor named Humbert. The professor is obsessed with the early age girls between 9 to 14. The story revolves around his sexual bond with his step daughter and implications of this unnatural relationship.
Humbert lost the love of his life in an early age when both were still in teenage. After the death of his beloved, Humbert developed an obsession with the young girls and referred it to be the reason of grief that he went through after the death of his girlfriend. Humbert married a polish woman to overcome these desires, but their marriage dissolved due to the extra marital relations of the lady. Humbert then married his land lady named Charlotte who already had a daughter. He imagined himself having intimate relations with his 12 years step daughter and used to write it in a diary. Charlotte discovered the truth about his desires but before she could do anything, he was already killed in a car accident. Humbert mentioned in his diary that he used to bring his step daughter home whom he used to call Lolita. He would give her sleeping pills to take advantage of her body but was surprised because she herself initiated the act. Humbert kept her under his eyes after that and did not allow any other person to come near her. They both traveled around the states and for some time and had sex with each other throughout this time.
Humbert was very keen to keep her for himself, but she eloped with another middle-aged person named Quilty who happened to be an old friend of her mother. Later, after two years of constant search for Lolita, Humbert received a letter from her asking for help as she was pregnant. Humbert went to meet her and came to know that Quilty who had abducted her earlier wanted her now to work in a pornographic film which she declined. She worked as waitress after she escaped form Quilty for some time and finally married a simple guy. Humbert asked her to come with him, but she declined the offer. Furthermore, Humbert gave her the money and left to find Quilty. Humbert found Quilty under the heavy dosage of drugs and shot him as a revenge for taking away Lolita from him and trying to manipulate her. At the end of the story, he was arrested by police for driving recklessly as he repented to deprive Dolores (Lolita) of a normal and cheerful adulthood. Lolita is a story of uncontrolled sexual emotions of a middle-aged adult. Humbert suffered from Hebephilia which means to have uncontrolled and stressed desires to get involved in the prepubescent girls aging between 11 to 14. The writer has professionally developed the plot and explained the causes of such unnatural human behavior.
The protagonist in the novel developed this psychological condition due to his unfilled desire to love and being loved as his beloved died in a very early age. It has been proven through research as well that sexual aggressors against children showed more psychopathology, emotional disturbances, and lower self-esteem as compared to the adults (Proulx et al 182). Same happened with the Humbert who was shocked by that death of his beloved since it has also been proven that when a person is deprived of the love of his life, he/she becomes mentally unstable. This unstable condition can lead to positive as well negative extremes. Mostly it pushes that person towards negativity about life or surrounding environment or make him/her indulge in unnatural activities. When Humbert lost his beloved in early age, he started to find that love in every young girl whom he called nymphets. He imagined molesting them and even went to brothels to have sex with the young aged prostitutes. This showed his lack of self-esteem and drastic level of emotional instability. The love for younger girls which was initiated by the unfulfilled love made him ruin the life of his step daughter Lolita, which he regretted later. On analyzing the behavior of a person suffering from hebephilia in novel, it is revealed that he becomes so paranoid and obsessed with his sexual desires that societal norms and values become meaningless. According to Francis, such person acts like an animal and always look to fulfill his evil desires without even considering that his acts will adversely affect the victim. Furthermore, his psychopathy led him to disrespect the relation he has with her.
Similarly, young girls who suffer from such assaults and harassment’s in their younger age, become accustomed to it. They suffer psychologically as well as physically throughout their lives as Lolita had to go through very difficult times in her adulthood (Francis). Novel was met with criticism due to erotic content, but it got appraisal for showing the true causes and effects of hebephilia in a detailed manner. In Lolita, Nobokov has explained that death of person one loves can cause major psychological as well physiological changes. Humbert’s fixations rooted from the death of his beloved. Moreover, if one cannot fulfill his desires, mental instability is bound to take place in that person. This unstable condition may be permanent or temporary depending on the emotional involvement with the deceased. Humbert suffered from this condition throughout the novel until the end when he realized that his paranoid behavior had ruined the life of his step daughter. Nobokov enlightens us through this novel about another reason of murder: the man resorts to slaying due to vengeance. Revenge has been one of the root causes of murders and killings throughout the history. Human beings with violent mindset tend to kill that person whom they hate badly or who hurt them in such a way that they do not have any mercy left for him. Overall, it teaches that human beings are the most civilized specie of the universe. Their civility is what makes them different from other living beings. Humans do have needs and instincts like animals, but the ability to think and choose between right and wrong is the real difference.
There have been different studies and researches on the human civilization and almost all have concluded that intelligence and control over instincts and desires are the defining differences between other living organisms and human beings. It relates with the philosophical idea by Aristotle:“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” (A Quote from Politics). It should be noted here that man is an animal by nature. Therefore, any human who masters the art of controlling the animal instincts in himself becomes controller of his fate while anyone who is driven by the negative desire of any form becomes a beast.
Lolita: a Controversial Novel
Considered the best novel of all time according to many journalists and literary geniuses, Lolita caused quite a controversy when it originally came out in 1955. Lolita is the story of a bumbling older man named Humbert Humbert and his lust and desire to find his dead lover recreated in young girls. Our narrator, Humbert himself, is quite a laughable character however he finds himself to be quite suave which as a side note is quite entertaining to read as he is such a fool but thinks of himself as a Lothario. Speaking of other L words that describe someone’s sexuality the title of the novel, Lolita, has become synonymous of a young girl who is very attractive and acts older than her age. Lolita is eventually met by our bumbling narrator as he makes his escape from Europe and realizes that she is his love, Annabel, reincarnated. At face value one could read Lolita as a creepy love story however; if one is willing to dig deeper there is much depth in this novel. The topics shown as one delves deeper give a certain insight into the human psyche on topics such as age, loss of innocence, mortality and loss of love. Due to these things shown in such elegant language amidst the backdrop of the 1950s I would positively recommend Lolita, as a teenage boy, to the majority of society, although perhaps not aged church dwellers.
The novel is quite an uncomfortable one when we first begin the reading as our creepy narrator Humbert Humbert drones on and on about his love for little girls and continually tries to justify his pedophilic actions in many ways. However, we get a glimpse into the woman, or girl I should say, that he truly loves named Lolita. She is described as the “light of [his] life and the fire of [his] loins”(Nabokov 1) very early on. When we look deeper into Humbert’s troubled psyche we see that he is trying to recreate his love, Annabel who died tragically,anew in different girls against of course the laws of France and the United States. Humbert was haunted by her until he “broke her spell by incarnating her in another” (Nabokov 16). When our bumbling main character Humbert goes to America for a change of scenery and little money he did not count on meeting the love of his life in America.
When Humbert arrives he finds refuge with a plain woman who he refers to as “Mrs. Haze” and nothing else. Haze is obviously attracted to Humbert who fancies himself attractive to the ladies however Humbert is instantly taken with Haze’s thirteen year old daughter, Dolores, also known as Lolita. Humbert cunningly bides his time and schemes to be with Lolita and even drugs her, however she wakes up and initiates sex with Humbert and their affair begins. The novel is very beautifully detailed and very decadently worded. Everything is very acutely described which is a major thing that Nabokov did to increase audience awareness of what is going on and there are so many little memorable details that stick within my head. As the novel progresses Humbert ,after marrying old Haze, eventually becomes the caretaker of Lolita and if one were to delve deeper we can see the terror that overtakes Humbert as Lolita is growing older and he thinks he can no longer love her. This is a deep thematic idea that Nabokov presents to the audience about what happens when we lose what we love in someone and is only answered tragically. Humbert also becomes intensely jealous of Lolita flirting with other boys and bribes her trying desperately to hold on to what he loves.
To conclude this review I thoroughly enjoyed this book, perhaps as it was enriched by the lovely annotations of Miss Fox, and I think that anyone who has experienced a significant loss should read this book. It really humanizes even the worst of people, a pedophile and is also witty and comical at many points that I semi-chuckled which does not occur often as I am a laugh miser. To actually humanize a creepy, bungling pedophile and to actually make the reader pity him by the end and his trauma that he experienced is really quite remarkable and identifiable with. Nabokov also masterfully uses personification and simile and metaphor constantly throughout the novel but it is the vivid imagery that he presents the reader with that captivated me. It is like a verbal alliterative piece of art that paints such a vivid picture and is also an enjoyable read as well.
Depiction Of Humbert Humbert in Lolita
To what extent does the unreliable narrative in Lolita continue to captivate?
Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ has been a figurehead for literary controversy ever since its publication in 1955, as Nabokov had constructed a narrative which repulsed and seduced readers and critics alike. Nabokov’s narrative has consistently been deemed unreliable, and was employed so convincingly that readers were even made to question Nabokov’s own character. This prompted him into writing an afterword discussing various misconceptions and disassociating himself from the nature of his narrator.
The true nature of Humbert Humbert is shrouded by Nabokov’s extraordinary linguistic skills, and his ability to almost succeed in portraying himself as a sympathetic paedophile. The ironic, self-mocking tone formulated by Nabokov, along with his complicated word games, manages to subsequently divert readers’ attention from the horrors he describes. His skill with language establishes him as a persuasive (albeit unreliable) narrator, often able to convince readers to see his perspective.
However, Nabokov produces an arguably untrustworthy narrative, Humbert’s myopic nature and strong need for sympathy forge a strong suspicion in many of his statements. For example, he claims Lolita was in control of the relationship, as seen in ‘I am going to tell you something very strange, it was she who seduced me’. However, it is clear to readers that as the adult, Humbert clearly dominates Lolita, and she cannot possibly dictate the relationship. However, there may also be cause to say that Humbert is aware of his actions, and that he has taken advantage of Lolita, being a twelve year old girl. Arguably this can be seen as when Humbert refers to his readers as the ‘jury’, to judge just how heinous he truly is, ‘ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look at this tangle of thorns’. Within the novel, Nabokov has constructed the narrative voice as the most perplexing character to understand, therefore illuminating his unreliability further, as readers cannot always rely on Humbert’s account of events. Furthermore, readers often find themselves unable to comprehend Humbert, along with his actions. At certain points in the novel, the reader may find themselves disgusted by the character, and an example may be as when Humbert drugs Lolita and plans to rape her whilst at the hotel, ‘So this was le grand moment’. However, at other points, may find themselves compassionate. This can be displayed towards the end of the novel, when Humbert gives Lolita ‘four thousand bucks’. In this sense, the unreliable narrative manages to captivate, as at differing points within the novel, Nabokov’s narrator is able to, through use of language and imagery, draw out conflicting emotions from the reader, simultaneously captivating them with the novel.
An element of Nabokov’s unreliable narrative is that it includes multiple perspectives, whilst expressing Humbert’s own individual world. Therefore,there are seemingly two realities within the novel, that of the narrative and the other in how Humbert inadvertently enables the reader to be aware what the other characters think and how they perceive things. An example of this is that Humbert recognises that other characters perceive Lolita as an ordinary teenager, however he views her as a nymphet. In addition, some may think that Humbert often ‘toys’ with readers, giving them a persuasive reason for their compassion, whilst not recognising is reprehensible actions. This supports the critical reception from Andrew Moore, which stated that Nabokov created Humbert as a deceiver, and cited Humbert’s ‘trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade’, which indicates he is no novice concerning the art of deception. On the other hand, some see the narrator as unflinchingly honest, a character who never denies his deplorable crimes. It is fair to say that Humbert is a deeply disturbed character, who may be held accountable for crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, as seen with the death of Quilty.
Humbert’s contradicting phrases on his ability to recall and explain memories illuminate his unreliability. Nabokov describes Humbert as ‘a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory’, whilst he is trying to remember the first time he noticed they (Humbert and Lolita) were being followed on their second trip through America. Nabokov’s creation of Humbert’s lack of memory can further be seen in his recounting of events throughout the novel, such as when he mixes up two separate visits to Briceland with Rita. Moreover, in his final contemplation on his recount of events, he illuminates the ambiguous nature of his narrative with the claim that he feels his ‘slippery self-eluding him, gliding into deeper and darker waters’. Nabokov’s choice of Humbert’s proclaimed ‘slipperiness’ can be understood as a decision by the author to present the facts of the story while edging around the ‘truth’. Therefore, we as readers can never be certain of what in the novel is true and what is not. This inability to accurately recall events makes Humbert an interesting narrative, as previously mentioned, readers cannot wholeheartedly have certainty in anything the narrative states, or in which the way he retells events.
Yet standing in contrast to this, Humbert refers to himself as a ‘very conscientious recorder’ after informing Lolita over the telephone, about his plan to marry Charlotte. This is contradictory to other statements made throughout the novel, such as when he refers to his incomplete memory. Likewise, he is able to recall certain events with overwhelming clarity. Chapter eleven is built up of diary writing which he manages to record ‘courtesy of a photographic memory’. Similarly, he claims to remember the confessional letter Charlotte wrote to him, however presenting only half of it to readers. Consequently, Humbert might be deemed unreliable on the grounds that he considers himself to have a duty to retell events with accuracy at the same time as admitting to having ‘incomplete and unorthodox memory’. Despite being able to recall diary writings and letters, he mixes up other events. Whilst is it never admitted by Humbert within the novel that he exists as an unreliable narrator, it is never certain as to what extent the narrator’s version of events are reliable, it therefore makes the novel absorbing and captivating to readers.
Furthermore, Nabokov excelled at creating phenomenal detail to mask the unnerving truth, concerning Humbert’s pedophilia. He was able to deceive through his creative style, and Humbert may be unreliable since he was able to fool his audience by drawing attention to his lyrical prose. This can be seen at the very beginning of the novel, ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta’. Due to the infamous nature of the very first line, seeing as it has served as inspiration for several modern day artists, it would be appropriate to say those who have read the book were captivated by this poetic introduction. Nabokov’s indisputably intricate style of writing serves as a distraction from the grotesque reality he is ultimately writing about, and arguably masks the true horrors of the novel. Therefore, Nabokov’s extraordinary linguistic talent is what enthralled those who read Lolita, subsequently meaning Humbert’s unreliability captivated through its inability to put forward the truth through its ‘mask’. On the contrary, there may be cause to say that the truth is never covered throughout the book, and Nabokov consistently makes the reader very aware of Humbert’s doings and actions. For example, Humbert often refers to himself as a ‘murderer’ throughout the novel, and Elizabeth Janeway (1958) from the New York Times stated that he is ‘grotesque, horrible and unbearably funny, and he knows it’. This therefore lends itself to the prospect that Humbert does not try to distance himself from his monstrosities and is fully aware of what he is doing, meaning Nabokov had at no point attempted to cover up his wrongdoings. In essence, this is a truly captivating example of an unreliable narrative, considering we, as readers, are consistently fooled by the narrative in some aspects, yet seemingly informed during other points. What is the truth and what is reconstruction from our narrator in Nabokov’s novel?
Fundamentally, what captivated and has continued to captivate readers since its publication, is the unreliability of the narrator and his exquisite way of capturing our attention, be it his infamous opening line, or his description of the murder of Quilty, ‘he was trudging from room to room, bleeding majestically…..trying to talk me out of murder’. Nabokov’s work has been acclaimed by critics since 1955, and will continue to be renowned for its unreliable narrative which has enthralled readers for decades.
Untrustworthy Narration Of Humbert in Lolita Novel
The controversial novel Lolita written by Vladimir Nabokov has had its fair share of questionable approaches due to the irrational and unreliable nature of the novels narrator, Humbert Humbert. Many have speculated different reasoning for Humbert’s illogical narration, from mental health issues that stimulates his pedophilic nature or purely the fact he is in fact a narcissistic villain with socially unacceptable passions. Within this essay the arguments of Humbert’s untrustworthy narration will be discussed, with added discussion into Nabokov’s personal life and input into the character.
To begin to understand Humbert Humbert we must first look at the author of the novel, Vladimir Nabokov. The vague nature of Humbert Humbert’s narration in Lolita has been debated to great extent by many critics ever since its controversial publication in 1955. The immanent profusion of extensive suggestive passages about the young girl provoked many to become curious about the inspiration of Humbert’s actions and whether Nabokov shared any of these tendencies. In order to counter such allegations Nabokov added an “Afterword” at the end of his novel, this was him attempting to clear up any confusion and misconceptions that the novel may have mislead the reader to believe. Nabokov states that he does not share the same morals with Humbert and rejects the lifestyle. However, not all critics take Nabokov’s words as a reliable source, Robert Davidson reacts: “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar.” Davidson’s emphasis on “cunning” and “weak” add to connotations of Humbert’s persona. Humbert could be argued as “cunning” to manipulate this child, but “weak” to give into temptation, both resulting in immoral outcomes. While stating that the theme of pedophilia would be a familiar notion to people such as “magistrates and psychiatrists” furthering the notions of indecent connotations, while providing questionable surrounds due to the involvement of “psychiatrists” – a medical practitioner specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Hence one would believe that to have such an in depth affinity with the character Humbert Humbert, Nabokov would relate from personal experience. Thus from this background knowledge we begin to gain insight into Nabokov’s way of thinking and writing, providing further guidance into the character of Humbert Humbert and his narration.
Moving on to the character Humbert Humbert and focusing upon his narration as an actual character, we soon realise Humbert is a completely unreliable narrator. Humbert’s bigoted self-delusion and vast need for compassion make many of his statements extremely suspect, due to their outlandish overlays. He claims Lolita seduced him and that she was in complete control of their relationship. The very notion of this statement dumbfounds the reader as Humbert, being an adult man, clearly has the upper hand. He controls each aspect of their relationship from the money to Lolita’s freedom. Lolita’s self control is handed to Humbert and he often repeats that Lolita has nowhere to go if she does leave him. Her physicality and mental state are all controlled by Humbert, he socializes her norm. However, when Lolita does occasionally recoil from Humbert’s touch, he plays off her reluctance, rather than seeing it as a child feeling uncomfortable while being advanced in a sexual nature by an adult, hence providing extreme ignorance to the situation. Humbert justifies his feelings for Lolita as love, and claims lust isn’t subject within the case. Humbert’s self-delusion prevents his argument from being convincing. His frame of mind deteriorates and his self-delusion reaches great heights becoming mindless and overbearing, Humbert has little control over himself, his feelings and impulses become overly erratic. His consideration for the morality of his actions is abolished, and he refuses to entertain the thought Lolita may not share the same feelings. This leads the relationship between Humbert and Lolita to also deteriorate and while his controlling nature over her becomes more possessive, his actions concerning himself become almost nonexistent. With Humbert’s concentration devoted to Lolita how can anyone possibly trust the plot of the novel he tells? His devotion to Lolita becomes so intense that he begins to turn on everyone, he begins to second guess Clare Quilty’s intentions and considers Quilty’s love for Lolita deviant and corrupted and murders her. Humbert proclaims it’s to avenge Lolita’s lost innocence; again his statement reduces in reliability as his claims become more unbelievable. Blaming Quilty furthers Humbert’s delusion and shows clearly he is in denial of his own responsibility. Only towards the end of the novel, when Humbert finally admits that he stole Lolita’s childhood, does he permit the truth to break through his solipsism. Eisinger (2000) points out, that “when reading Lolita, we are only able to come closer to the real subject, transcending the superficial, erotic content, by perceiving that Humbert’s passion, a orbid one, or his “sickness,” is his prison and his pain, as well as his ecstasy”. Hence one could argue Humbert’s search for compassion is achieved in some cases. However, the very notion is soon second-guessed when the reality of his actions is put into perspective. Therefore, Humbert’s narration becomes more unreliable due to his delusion and lies.
Moreover, Humbert’s delusion about Lolita’s loss of innocence can be argued as the most shocking factor of the novel. The protagonist’s sickness would firstly be identified as pedophilia, which belongs to the category of psychiatry. “Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that, in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, life is a joke) I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.” Although, Humbert remarks upon the tragedy of Lolita’s destroyed childhood. We as the reader never will be able to fully engage with her thoughts and feelings, everything is from the eyes of Humbert and though he has provided the reader with clues to Lolita’s mysterious personality, he himself see’s her actions as only things so please him, when clearly that would not be the truth. We can see that initially, Humbert did have some reservations about Lolita’s purity. However, he overcomes these qualms, as he does in all instances where ethics quarrel with his desires. Nonetheless, Humbert does not specify if the “maniac” in the quote is himself, signifying that he may withhold some self-doubt. Nonetheless he does often allude to the fact that he was an insufficient father, which in itself raises the shock value of the novel– how could someone with a child possibly find a child sexually desirable. The very notion adds to the controversy and definitely adds to the diagnostic of his sick pedophilic nature. Humbert nevertheless points to Quilty as the real destroyer of Lolita’s innocence. He does not take full responsibility for his actions. Hence his bias account of the tale is completely unreliable from the offset, the shocking recollections to the past add fuel to the fire and gives the reader further evidence that Humbert is a mentally ill. Therefore, thoughts of reliability to the novel are struck off the table, with no facts concluding as dependable.
Although Nabokov does write this to prove that the notion of art can triumph over the shocking events of life, Humbert realises only art can ease his gloom by telling his side of the story. That way, Humbert believes he can defend himself as well as keep Lolita alive in his memory as he perceives the situation. He sees it as a form of art and it becomes almost healing for him, in a way that his trips to the sanitarium never managed to be. His narration acts as his therapy.
Throughout we have seen that Humbert Humbert’s unreliable narration is due to many factors, although a recurring theme leads back to his mental state each time. One cannot be sure if this is a factor is reflection upon the author Vladimir Nabokov himself. However as discussed Humbert’s sickness becomes the notion that drives the entire novel into the great piece of literature that it is. Nabokov appears to overlook the component of mental illness and simply writes the novel as he envisions: “Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book.” (p. 311) “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” (pp. 314-315) For Nabokov, therefore, perhaps mental illness in Lolita is a device with which he creates a kind of dark and twisted art as he defines it. Hence inferring the unreliable narration is a skillfully used technique that gets the novel Lolita its edge.
Vladimir Nabokov’s use of the Sins in the novel, Lolita and its effect.
The contentious novel, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov elicits a multitude of reactions and responses from everyone who endures it for its risque and boorish content. Some individuals bulk at the name itself for its meaning of child promiscuity not to mention the content and what all it comprises. Others marvel at the pure astuteness of Nabokov’s work and the underlying connotations, emblems and ambiguity. This dissertation will delve into a connotation that is more inconspicuous to the moderate reader. A closer look at the biblical sins and their involvement in “Lolita” will be done within this work. The rationale behind the analysis of sins in the novel is because of the lack of anything like it ever being done and the inquisitive and alluring notion that emanates from sins, seduction and manipulation, (all things the novel contains).
In the novel, “Lolita”, the apparent antagonist, Humbert Humbert was brought to life from the mind of the well extolled author, Vladimir Nabokov. The throng of this paper will primarily focus on the narrator, Humbert and his thoughts, emotions, actions and how Nabokov used these to enrich the novel both in aesthetics and actual meaning. This will be done by examining the text through the literary religious lens and more importantly, the sins and commandments that are described in the Bible.
It is known that Humbert is a promiscuous middle-aged man that only targets, devours and deflowers innocent nymphets habitually throughout the book but the author takes the pedophilia and disguises it with beautiful language and he also places specific elements in the novel to inform the reader of the horrendous and hanus act that is pedophilia. The ambiguity is mere poetry of itself. One of the elements that are used within the novel that is not well known is Nabokov’s use of the sins in the Bible. In the Bible, sins are described as an act of transgression against God and those who commit these deeds are unclean and will face damnation if forgiveness is not sought. The infamous biblical parable of Adam and Eve explains the destruction of sin the best. In the parable, Adam and Eve experience and fall victim to deceit, seduction and manipulation thus eradicating their as well as humanity’s chance at everlasting life. The archetypal element of sin dismantling immaculateness has since then been a crucial piece in global literature. It is used specifically with Humbert and the Nymphets, Lolita more importantly. Humbert pilfers every ounce of their youth and completely strips them of their innocence as children without a single piece of remorse. In literature, sins are used to symbolize filth and uncleanliness. Nabokov brilliantly uses the sins of the Bible to underline the defilement of Humbert’s actions and pedophilia without having to overtly say it.
The use of the transgressions improves the novel aesthetically because of the ambiguity. The atrocity in the novel is truly breathtaking because of how it effortlessly and nonchalantly just appears and is overlooked by both the reader and the other characters in the novel. To further the sublimity, Nabokov explains each act so vividly and so poetically that it forces everyone involved to ignore what is actually happening.
Each act of transgression has its own effect on Humbert and the reader alike. To Humbert, each sin gives him immense pleasure in disparate ways. He uses each sin to compensate for every part of humanity that he lacks. To the reader, as each sin appears, it reminds them of the abhorrent feats that is being performed and cloaked with pulchritudinous diction.
The generations of sin and trauma in Humbert’s family destroyed his innocence as a child and any chance of him having humanity. Nabokov placed Humbert as the narrator of, “Lolita”. No secret at that but the answer as to why is more complicated. Nabokov wanted Humbert to tell his own story. He wanted Humbert to not only appeal to the audience with sensuality, making them sympathize with pedophilia and rape, but he wanted the reader to understand why he is the way he is and why it truly is important to hear it from his point of view rather than his victims because all of his victims, Dolores included, would have only told the negative parts concerning them and not the entire story and how it all began. His story truly began as a child. Humbert was raised in a middle-class, european household. According to the text, “I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins […] He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two granddaughters had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively.”Lolita.
The sins and trauma that had been passed down from each generation had destroyed everyone’s innocence in the family line including Humbert. A sin that will appear a plethora of times in this dissertation is Lust. The transgression, Lust is described as an insatiable hunger to act upon an animalistic craving for sex and power. Lust is the very first sin Humbert experiences with his family and it is probably the most important sin of his family because everything that they are revolves around it. They all become slaves to their constant search for sex, wealth and power and it continues to trickle down. As a child, Humbert did not know any better. He did what he was taught and that reception destroyed his youth and his innocence. Humbert is a literary Byronic Hero. Byronic Heroes share the characteristics of a high level of intelligence, cunning, educated and sophisticated, mysterious and charismatic, they have a power of seduction and manipulation, they struggle with integrity and they provide a sexual dominance. (Just to name a few). A very important reason why they are the way they are is because they have a troubled past and it has affected them in the worst way possible. Humbert experience an immense amount of pain and suffering as a child. According to the text, “ My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic lightning) when I was three, and save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of my memory, […]” Lolita. Experiencing a deep trauma as losing your mother at the age of three would destroy anyone. Humbert had to grieve as an infant and grow up without a mother. Most Byronic Heroes experience a death of a loved one, specifically mothers which is why they have this unexplainable sexual craving for women, (or in Humbert’s case, girls). It somehow fills a void that cannot be filled anyother way.
The trauma of his mother sparked the sin of lust but it was not until he grew up and witnessed his family act on their lustful desires that he puts a meaning to the word. The insatiable hunger for sex in Humbert’s family was crude and unjust but Nabokov placed that on purpose to show readers the horrid, vile and raw lifestyle from which he was raised and imposes on nymphets in the future. According to the text, “ My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared.” Lolita. The meaningless sexual liaisons that Humbert experienced first handedly corrupted him into that behavior, according to the text, “I was extremely fond of her[…] Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a better widower than my father.” Lolita. Discussing his own aunt in that excerpt, this new found sexual hunger had began to destroy Humbert at the age of sixteen. He began having desires for her for he described her as, “ Pink-rimmed azure eyes and a waxen complexion.”Lolita.
The Character’s Analysis: Humbert Humbert
The narrator and focal character of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, who has appointed upon himself the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, strikes the reader as one of the most despicable and unorthodox protagonists in classic literature. He embodies numerous flaws and traits that would be nearly intolerable within a human being, but which provide for a fascinating literary character. In Humbert’s narrative, his fundamental traits of self-delusion and inherent immorality are unavoidably exposed to the audience, his supposed jury, as they drive the story forward. However, in an attempt to salvage his reputation, Humbert subtly reveals another prominent trait of his: a general indecisiveness and tendency toward inaction. Nabokov establishes these chief characteristics through various literary tools, such as various forms of chance occurrence, the actions of other characters toward him, and, most importantly, Humbert’s own narrative and use of language.
The most defining characteristic of the novel’s protagonist is his delusional passion for Lolita and overall detachment from reality, as it is this trait that facilitates Humbert’s immoral actions and tragic ending. One of the chief aspects of Humbert’s delusional nature is his love for the idea of Lolita rather than the girl herself. Nabokov keenly exposes this truth through the skillful use of language in Humbert’s narrative. For instance, the foreword tells the reader that Humbert had altered all of the names in his story except Lolita’s, because “her first name is too closely interwound with the inmost fiber of the book to allow one to alter it” (3). Humbert also begins his narrative by describing the pronunciation of his love’s name as “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” (9). This heavy emphasis on Lolita’s name presents Humbert’s infatuation as a rather superficial one, which is presumably focused more on an arbitrary notion of the girl rather than the girl’s actual identity and behavior. Humbert’s delusional fascination with Lolita is shown later in the narrative when he describes his attempt to recreate one of his childhood sexual experiences with “Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta” (177). Once again, this playful use of names suggests that Humbert is not really concerned with Lolita as a person, but rather with his ideal conception of a “nymphet,” which both Annabel Lee and Dolores Haze seem to fit.
Another aspect of Humbert’s lust-induced delusion is his inability to accept Lolita’s relative disdain toward her lover and the inevitability of her maturation out of adolescence, as exhibited primarily by Humbert’s aggressive and oppressive actions with Lolita in his custody. In the beginning of his relationship with the child, Humbert acknowledges that Lolita cannot remain a nymphet forever, and certainly does not expect her to ever reciprocate his lust for her. Instead, he searches for more innocent and one-sided outlets of his desire, and accordingly expresses his satisfaction at having “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor,” by relieving his physical urges against her body and against her knowledge (65). However, once Humbert sleeps with Lolita and breaks the physical barrier between himself and the nymphet, he simultaneously breaks the barrier between what is reasonable and what is unreasonable within his mind. It is at this point that he expects her to love him as much as he loves her and refuses to let her disregard his affections. He becomes paranoid and jealous, refusing to allow her to mingle with other males in their travels, and persuading her to show him affection and give him sexual favors in exchange for spending money, which draws a disturbing parallel to a traditional child’s monetary allowance. In a desperate attempt to preserve Lolita’s nymph-like qualities, Humbert threatens to take her away from the school and community that they had become a part of, refusing to believe that, in the course of two years, she could become comparable to “any vulgar untidy high-school girl who applies shared cosmetics” (216).
Although the audience immediately accuses Humbert Humbert of immorality with his confession of hebephilia, Nabokov frequently displays other, possibly darker, nuances of Humbert’s immorality that establish that his wickedness is of an innate nature rather than a result of circumstances, primarily through the use of death and Humbert’s own, creative self-directed insults. Lolita, in conformation to its overall tragic nature, is plagued with death, particularly pertaining to the women in Humbert’s life. He was raised motherless, his Annabel Lee was killed before he could consummate his love for her, both of his wives suffered untimely deaths, and his beloved Lolita died alongside her stillborn daughter.
However, consistent with the theme of Humbert’s lustful delusion, none of those deaths which do not directly interfere with his carnal desires prove to be of much moral consequence to him. On the contrary, Humbert refers to his first wife’s death in childbirth as “[his] little revenge,” (32), and values the death of Lolita’s mother as a highly fortunate guarantee of his complete possession of the child. Just as the taint of death permeates the narrative, so does Humbert’s apparent sense of self-loathing.
In comparison to Lolita’s fair and delicate features, for example, the narrator relates to himself as “lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile,” indicating the immoral desires that hide behind his seductive demeanor (46). Even if these terms of self-denunciation are designed to illicit sympathy from “the jury,” they nevertheless indicate an underlying sense of malice in Humbert’s nature.
Whatever crimes Humbert has committed, and the immoralities that he possesses, it is suggested that he is not entirely to blame for his actions. This is because he possesses the quality of inaction and indecisiveness; he hardly plans out his actions with full conviction, but must be nudged toward many courses of deed. Nabokov highlights this trait with frequent references to Humbert’s evil contemplations and subsequent refusals to carry these ideas out, and the recurring role of fate throughout the narrative. Many times throughout the narrative (barring the end, of course), Humbert contemplates murder so as to meet his desires or compulsions, but decides not to so. As it is difficult for the reader to readily conclude that this is a result of moral restrictions, this is evidence that Humbert has difficulty carrying out decisive actions, and prefers to back out of them, such as when, contemplating murdering Lolita’s mother in the lake so as to ensure his possession of the girl, he addresses the reader by concluding, “simple, was it not? But what d’ye know, folks – I just could not make myself do it,” indicating that it was not any practical matter but an inherent reluctance to take such a strong action that prevented him from doing so (92). Where Humbert’s own initiative fails, then, “McFate,” as labeled by the narrator, takes command. It is here, therefore that the blame of Humbert’s actions partially fall. Many of the story’s critical occurrences happen by chance, including the death of Lolita’s mother, the vacancy at the Haze’s residence which facilitated Humbert and Lolita’s meeting, and Lolita’s meeting with Quilty, who steals the child from Humbert. Therefore, Humbert is a largely inactive character and does not fully participate even in the most integral of the narrative’s actions.
Humbert Humbert of Vladmir’s Lolita is a despicable, yet altogether intriguing character of classic literature. The taboo of hebephilia is portrayed artistically in this character through the peculiar and well-developed traits of inherent morality, lust-inspired self-delusion, and a tendency toward inaction and indecisiveness.
The Similarities Between Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita And John’s Ford Tis Pity She’s A Whore
Both Ford and Nabokov’s main interests were in abnormal psychology and this is evident in their major themes of forbidden love through incest and paedophilia. However, both deal with these themes in a disturbing manner as Ford does not come out against incest but instead seems to present it as an unstoppable force of nature when in reality it is something that goes completely against human nature. The way in which incest is portrayed in the play is controversial because it is in some ways seen as something less than horrific, because when Giovanni confesses his feelings to Annabella she is not repelled at all but quickly admits that she feels the same way. This would have come has a shock for the Caroline audience as, incestuous relationships were forbidden by the religious hierarchy. Likewise, Nabokov makes Humbert describe his idea of love to entice to the romantic interests of his reader, thinking that it will make his deeds seem less revolting. He manipulates his language in such a way that it confuses the reader’s feelings. Humbert’s changing voice is used to highlight his appreciation for young “nymphets” rather than expose him for a corrupted paedophile, implying that even the most distressing things can be temporarily be concealed by the beauty of art. This came as a disturbing surprise to the audience (forgot the era). However, it was labelled revolutionary for its time.
The first and most obvious reason for Giovanni’s pursuit was due to his temptation for Annabella a he describes her lips by saying, “such lips would tempt a saint” this is a metaphor showing how Giovanni is inflamed with desire and will do anything to try to woo Annabella. This relationship is already a source of distress for the 17th-century audience but his way of describing his insatiable desire makes it even more revolting for the audience to witness. Likewise, Humbert describes his lust towards Lolita as all-consuming, “I shall probably have another breakdown if I stay any longer in this house, under the strain of this intolerable temptation” through his flashbacks of Anabel as he references Poe’s poem several times throughout the novel. Poe’s succession from “impulse” to “indulgence” outlines Humbert’s involvement with Lolita; it starts off as a harmless crush and slowly grows into a very unsettling liaison, resulting in a revoltingly complicated set of affairs that cause Humbert “deep regret and mortification”. Many would argue that the relationships in both texts will lead to disastrous consequences due to them being unacceptable within the society and the characters lack of conformity to the rules. Since forbidden love is a sin it makes it even more appealing to be pursued. Annabella’s tutor does not criticise her for loving Giovanni, as she depicts the war destructive influence of the church versus education. When Putana mentions “If a young wench feels the fit upon her, let her take anybody, father or brother, all is one”, although some might think that she was being satirical towards Annabella since she is unable to tell the difference between her kinship and romance. Yet, this is not the case as Putana is portrayed as vulgar and morally dubious tutoress. She believes in the philosophy of heart-wanting and following natures lead rather than the path of religious control of sin. Annabella’s selfless fidelity to love may come across as heroic to the spectator; nonetheless, it is neutralised by the fact that hers is a forbidden love, corrupted by incest and exasperated by adultery, the result of which not only affects the sinners, but also the tradition and values of a patriarchal family. Similarly, Humbert’s modifying voice is supposed to highlight the artistic nature of his admiration for “young nymphets” instead of exposing him for an immoral paedophile, conveying that even the most disgusting things can be temporarily concealed by the beauty of art. Condensing Lolita’s name to a set of rhythmic of syllables; and referring to her as “the light of my life” a metaphor that makes the reader feel this intense passion that Humbert has for Lolita. This artistic introduction shows the reader how intensely captivated he is by her beauty, regardless of the age difference. He also calls her “my sin” conveying to us that he is well aware of his action on a social as well as religious level and is not worried about the consequences due to his ability to manipulate and brainwash others.
Another similarity arises in the two texts when comparisons between Humbert and Giovanni are made and their ways of rationalising their actions by victimising themselves. Humbert spends majority of the novel disregarding his accountability for the relationship between him and his stepdaughter. Ekberg recounts Humbert as caught up in an “obsession” that he is unable to forget. This pushes Humbert to come to terms with his culpability and resorts to psychological games with himself to relieve some of that guilt. He functions in a similar way to Giovanni’s character, but Giovanni seems to accept his grotesque relationship; to make matters worse he never indicates any sense of ownership for his sins. During the play, there were many points when Giovanni tries to escape elude the moral responsibility for his disgraceful deeds by representing himself as an “Emotional pioneer”. He tells Annabella, “Tis my destiny that you must either love or I must die”, just like Humbert, Giovanni switches the blame for his incestuous love that he has for Annabella to the fates or to unstoppable craving so that he could be presented as a victim within this situation. The readers from either era (Jacobean era and Georgian era) would be disgusted by the lack of ownership these characters have taken for their impermissible deeds and are still able to find ways to justify them. Their mentality to rationalise their wrongdoings and blaming it on others will result in tragic consequences.
Furthermore, jealousy has also intensified their desire for forbidden love regardless of the outcome. As Humbert’s jealousy has paranoid him to the point where when he sees a man glancing at Lolita, he appears as lustful “satyr” to him. These fictional beings from mythology are known for their prodigious sexual desire and are mostly coupled with nymphs. Yet again Humbert is unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Absurdly, the man he sees is most likely an actual nemesis, Clare Quilty. This is One of the main “jokes, ” of the novel that Humbert’s psychotic, nonsensical suspicions happens to be true. The reader is to think that Lolita and Clare might be poisoning him, another ironic twist of the situation in Part One, where Humbert tried to sedate Lolita and Charlotte. This has resulted in Lolita’s lost innocence as she has become a schemer and poisoner, just like Humbert himself; and she will be the cause of his downfall. Comparably, Giovanni peaked jealousy has angered him as he mentions “O torture. . . to see my love clipped by another. ” the abstract noun “torture” represents his mental instability when he sees Annabella with someone else. Some feminists might argue that this is not only jealousy but possessiveness of both the characters as they believe that these women are their properties. The mental build-up of both characters (Humbert and Giovanni) will result in physical trauma that the other characters, as well as themselves, will suffer from at the end.
At the end, most central characters were unable to keep their façade. Humbert is not able to keep up with his fake persona as an educated and mannerly stepfather. Ekberg finally exposes him to be a sly paedophile and later a monstrous alcoholic “bristly chin, my bum’s blood-shot eyes”. Lolita’s character resembles is Russian doll; when opened there’s many more different ones inside; all continuingly decreasing in size until you are only left with an empty wooden chamber. At the start she appears to be innocent and preadolescent but after her mother her mother’s death, Humbert later learned that this was one of many of her only intimate relationships, and was excited when she encourages his advances.
Overall, she was denied a normal upbringing and has to cling to life by has to survive by undertaking different roles; her failure to sustain the only role of happy-go-lucky young girl has led to her defeat. Giovanni is portrayed as a very well educated and a polite character; although the audience are aware of his incestuous lust but towards the end his real personality comes to light which reveals that he is a heartless murderer, as he kills his sister and “love”, due to his inability to marry her. This did not only shock the modern day but the Jacobean viewers as well. Ultimately, forbidden pleasures are not the best since they lead to several immoral deeds and disastrous consequences. As most of these characters were either poisoned, were murdered by the other “lover” or have committed suicide.
Two Worlds Colliding: America and Europe in Lolita
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.
Glass, Mirror and Reflection in Lolita
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.