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.
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