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.
Young America and Old Europe in Nabokov’s 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.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Techiniques of Rhetoric in Lolita
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.
Headmistress Pratt: Guide to the Separate Worlds in Lolita
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.
Humbert Humbert and Cue
“… 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.
Solipsizing Lolita: The Unreliable Narrator in Nabokov’s Lolita
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.
Crime and Pun: Moral Evasion in Lolita
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.