The Captivating Language of Persuasion in Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov’s work Lolita is a reflection of his aesthetic literature. Nabokov is able to construct a character who can stimulate and appeal to his audience through his fluid and articulate use of language. A language that is able to mask the taboo relationship between a man and a young girl. For more than half a century Nabokov’s Lolita has been seen as the quintessential perverse love story romanticized into something beautiful through the careful use of poetic, deceptive, and contrasting language, illustrating the power words have to influence others.
Humbert Humbert begins his narration with his vivid description of Lolita, “light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta.” (Nabokov 1) In doing so the tone is already set. Humbert Humbert’s passion is already identified through his poetic description of his love. The initial introduction places the reader right into the mindset and understanding of H.H’s feelings toward his love. In doing so he is able to already make a connection with the reader. The feeling of love and immense passion or even lust is one that most everyone is familiar with. As Mulready points out, “in only the first paragraph of the novel, the reader gets a sense of how truly enthralled Humbert is with Lolita, regardless of their difference in age.” (Mulready 1)
Humbert’s idealistic and romantic imagining of Lolita furthers his use of poetic language. Humbert uses his immense passion for nymphets to turn a normally obscene obsession into an art with his prose. The excruciating detail that H.H goes into to describe an ordinary prepubescent female character serves as a distraction of the nature of his passion. He is able to effectively distract his audience by creating such an aesthetic description of how he views his love, to allow the reader to be able to relate with his passion. Humbert’s poetic description allows the reader to delve into the passionate desires of Humbert without question.
The use of the French language also adds an appealing sense to the novel. Humbert is able to articulate his English descriptions with parts of the French language. This in turn strengthens the general atmosphere of romance that surrounds the novel. The way Nabokov implements the use of French, however is more so meant to portray a sort of eloquent and delicate beauty to the female characters. For example in his encounter and description of an underage prostitute, he incorporates French adjectives. “I liked her long lashes and tight fitting tailored dress sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained…a childish something mingling with professional fretillement of her small agile rump (Nabokov 22).” He later continues onward through the chapter, constantly switching on and off between French and English, creating a romantic and delicateness to the storyline with this individual character alone.
Aside from the use of poetic language, aspects of deceptive language are readily identifiable. With the progression of the novel two types of language can be identified with Humbert. The most immediate one is Humbert’s idealistic voice. He uses this voice to captivate his audience with his language. As Mulready points out, “This …voice, designed by the narrator to distract his audience from the morally unacceptable aspects of his writing, is merely a diversionary tactic that sugarcoats his story” (2). Moore also refers to Humbert saying, “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” (Nabokov 32), and identifies his apparent admittance of ideal and “played” language a “truism seasoned with wistful lyricism” (Moore 74).
Interwoven with his idealistic language, comes shimmers of H.H’s real voice. With this, aspects of perhaps unintentional comedy slips into this language. This so called real voice of Humbert serves to remind the readers of Humbert’s true self; a middle aged man with a passion for nymphets. The indication of his real voice also serves to show the readers of Humbert’s artistry with language. It presents itself with a clear identification of Humbert’s intentions to deceive his audience with his aesthetic language. This deceptive veil of language used by Humbert leaves the reader wondering which style Humbert is presenting. Moore admits “It takes time to get adjusted to his stylistic double bluffs, and even readers who know the book well are kept guessing, as with the Cretan liar, whether he tells the truth about telling lies, or lies about telling the truth” (Moore 75).
The reasoning behind his constantly changing styles of language becomes apparent in the beginning, as H.H begins his address with, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury” (Nabokov 9). Humbert’s underlying objective is to persuade his audience. His intentions are facilitated with his artistic prose as he is able to effectively communicate his anecdotes by providing such fantastic detail which is meant to charm. His entire purpose is to connect to his audience through the use of rich and elaborate language which will ultimately heighten and stimulate the senses of his audience.
He captivates his audience with his initial description of a simple name that is near meaningless to his audience, but is the world to him. His fascination and breaking down of the name, Lolita, by saying “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. (Nabokov 9)”. Humbert entrances his audience as he guides them through his thought process and breaking down of the name Lolita. After his initial hook and stimulation, he further describes the meaning behind the name: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita” (Nabokov 9). This guidance of through his mind, in fantastic detail, captures his audience under his spell with words, and places them right where Humbert Humbert wants them to be; trapped in his web of deception, bound by his awe-some aesthetic language to deceive his audience, the jury, into falling in love with his ideal Lolita.
The last component used by Nabokov in Lolita is that of contrasting language. The cleverly instilled contrasts are done so with a purpose to break the illusion of Humbert’s spell. The way these key contrasts are presented add comedy to this taboo love story as well. Humbert Humbert’s eloquence and bluntness are directly identified when he shifts from a descriptive tone to a rather harsh and truthful tone when he describes a woman, “…Sleek, slender Monique, as she was for a minute or two; a delinquent nymphet shining through the matter-of-fact young whore” (24). This bluntness changes the tone completely and brings the reader back to reality. In another instance Humbert begins to describe several idealistic and fantastic accounts of his encounter with nymphets. He begins to recollect one account in particular of his lustful arousal when, “It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my loan gratification” (21). The direction of this memory then quickly contrasts when Humbert also remembers that, “abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window, in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night” (21). This change brought both the reader and Humbert back to the reality, and broke the illusion that Humbert himself was under.
After the memory, Humbert’s attitude changed and was highlighted in his internal monologue: “That old woman in black… asked if I had a stomachache, the insolent hag. Ah, leave me alone in my prepubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up” (21). Nabokov is able to effectively communicate Humbert’s sincerest internal thoughts, in doing so he continues to bring up the constantly changing tones and languages of Humbert. Nabokov thus shows Humbert’s awareness of his taboo obsession and his need to restrain it. Joseph Gold identifies this as a growing experience for both the reader and Humbert as “[b]oth the spectator and the patient suffer the agonies of growing self-revulsion, self-torment, and self-abnegation as the mind of Humbert is laid bare with a blinding honesty” (Gold 54). This is especially supported in the end of the novel when Humbert realizes his fall into temptation and his guiltiness of it. He is fully aware and in acceptance of the fact that he uses language to his advantage to cover the shrewd topic with his artistic and manipulative prose. The ultimate contrast in language is seen when comparing the romantic introduction to the dark and nasty presentation of Humbert’s story which “has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies” (Nabokov 326).
The careful and conscious articulation of several types of language in Nabokov’s Lolita is essential to build such a powerful novel. The power of the novel is not truly seen until the several different styles of language can be identified and appreciated. The power of language is represented as the poetry, the deception, and the contrasts are bound together to form the beautiful work of art that is Lolita. Each style is interwoven together to entrance the reader into the romantic and aesthetic mindset, as a means of temporary distraction from the reality of the blunt and unorthodox mind of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile.
Gold, Joseph. “The Morality of ‘Lolita’.” Bulletin British Association for American Studies 1.12 (1960): 50–54. Print.
Moore, Anthony. “How Unreliable Is Humbert in ‘Lolita’?”. Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001): 71-80. Print.
Mulready, Elizabeth. “The Deceptive Veil of Language in Lolita”. University of Massachusetts Dartmouth English Department E- Journal 3 (2010): 1-3. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Everyman’s Library, 1955. Print.
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Vladimir Nabokov’s work Lolita is a reflection of his aesthetic literature. Nabokov is able to construct a character who can stimulate and appeal to his audience through his fluid and […]