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.
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