Glass in Lolita: A Struggle for Permanence
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.
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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 […]