Headmistress Pratt: Guide to the Separate Worlds in Lolita

July 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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