Untrustworthy Narration Of Humbert in Lolita Novel
The controversial novel Lolita written by Vladimir Nabokov has had its fair share of questionable approaches due to the irrational and unreliable nature of the novels narrator, Humbert Humbert. Many have speculated different reasoning for Humbert’s illogical narration, from mental health issues that stimulates his pedophilic nature or purely the fact he is in fact a narcissistic villain with socially unacceptable passions. Within this essay the arguments of Humbert’s untrustworthy narration will be discussed, with added discussion into Nabokov’s personal life and input into the character.
To begin to understand Humbert Humbert we must first look at the author of the novel, Vladimir Nabokov. The vague nature of Humbert Humbert’s narration in Lolita has been debated to great extent by many critics ever since its controversial publication in 1955. The immanent profusion of extensive suggestive passages about the young girl provoked many to become curious about the inspiration of Humbert’s actions and whether Nabokov shared any of these tendencies. In order to counter such allegations Nabokov added an “Afterword” at the end of his novel, this was him attempting to clear up any confusion and misconceptions that the novel may have mislead the reader to believe. Nabokov states that he does not share the same morals with Humbert and rejects the lifestyle. However, not all critics take Nabokov’s words as a reliable source, Robert Davidson reacts: “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar.” Davidson’s emphasis on “cunning” and “weak” add to connotations of Humbert’s persona. Humbert could be argued as “cunning” to manipulate this child, but “weak” to give into temptation, both resulting in immoral outcomes. While stating that the theme of pedophilia would be a familiar notion to people such as “magistrates and psychiatrists” furthering the notions of indecent connotations, while providing questionable surrounds due to the involvement of “psychiatrists” – a medical practitioner specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Hence one would believe that to have such an in depth affinity with the character Humbert Humbert, Nabokov would relate from personal experience. Thus from this background knowledge we begin to gain insight into Nabokov’s way of thinking and writing, providing further guidance into the character of Humbert Humbert and his narration.
Moving on to the character Humbert Humbert and focusing upon his narration as an actual character, we soon realise Humbert is a completely unreliable narrator. Humbert’s bigoted self-delusion and vast need for compassion make many of his statements extremely suspect, due to their outlandish overlays. He claims Lolita seduced him and that she was in complete control of their relationship. The very notion of this statement dumbfounds the reader as Humbert, being an adult man, clearly has the upper hand. He controls each aspect of their relationship from the money to Lolita’s freedom. Lolita’s self control is handed to Humbert and he often repeats that Lolita has nowhere to go if she does leave him. Her physicality and mental state are all controlled by Humbert, he socializes her norm. However, when Lolita does occasionally recoil from Humbert’s touch, he plays off her reluctance, rather than seeing it as a child feeling uncomfortable while being advanced in a sexual nature by an adult, hence providing extreme ignorance to the situation. Humbert justifies his feelings for Lolita as love, and claims lust isn’t subject within the case. Humbert’s self-delusion prevents his argument from being convincing. His frame of mind deteriorates and his self-delusion reaches great heights becoming mindless and overbearing, Humbert has little control over himself, his feelings and impulses become overly erratic. His consideration for the morality of his actions is abolished, and he refuses to entertain the thought Lolita may not share the same feelings. This leads the relationship between Humbert and Lolita to also deteriorate and while his controlling nature over her becomes more possessive, his actions concerning himself become almost nonexistent. With Humbert’s concentration devoted to Lolita how can anyone possibly trust the plot of the novel he tells? His devotion to Lolita becomes so intense that he begins to turn on everyone, he begins to second guess Clare Quilty’s intentions and considers Quilty’s love for Lolita deviant and corrupted and murders her. Humbert proclaims it’s to avenge Lolita’s lost innocence; again his statement reduces in reliability as his claims become more unbelievable. Blaming Quilty furthers Humbert’s delusion and shows clearly he is in denial of his own responsibility. Only towards the end of the novel, when Humbert finally admits that he stole Lolita’s childhood, does he permit the truth to break through his solipsism. Eisinger (2000) points out, that “when reading Lolita, we are only able to come closer to the real subject, transcending the superficial, erotic content, by perceiving that Humbert’s passion, a orbid one, or his “sickness,” is his prison and his pain, as well as his ecstasy”. Hence one could argue Humbert’s search for compassion is achieved in some cases. However, the very notion is soon second-guessed when the reality of his actions is put into perspective. Therefore, Humbert’s narration becomes more unreliable due to his delusion and lies.
Moreover, Humbert’s delusion about Lolita’s loss of innocence can be argued as the most shocking factor of the novel. The protagonist’s sickness would firstly be identified as pedophilia, which belongs to the category of psychiatry. “Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that, in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, life is a joke) I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.” Although, Humbert remarks upon the tragedy of Lolita’s destroyed childhood. We as the reader never will be able to fully engage with her thoughts and feelings, everything is from the eyes of Humbert and though he has provided the reader with clues to Lolita’s mysterious personality, he himself see’s her actions as only things so please him, when clearly that would not be the truth. We can see that initially, Humbert did have some reservations about Lolita’s purity. However, he overcomes these qualms, as he does in all instances where ethics quarrel with his desires. Nonetheless, Humbert does not specify if the “maniac” in the quote is himself, signifying that he may withhold some self-doubt. Nonetheless he does often allude to the fact that he was an insufficient father, which in itself raises the shock value of the novel– how could someone with a child possibly find a child sexually desirable. The very notion adds to the controversy and definitely adds to the diagnostic of his sick pedophilic nature. Humbert nevertheless points to Quilty as the real destroyer of Lolita’s innocence. He does not take full responsibility for his actions. Hence his bias account of the tale is completely unreliable from the offset, the shocking recollections to the past add fuel to the fire and gives the reader further evidence that Humbert is a mentally ill. Therefore, thoughts of reliability to the novel are struck off the table, with no facts concluding as dependable.
Although Nabokov does write this to prove that the notion of art can triumph over the shocking events of life, Humbert realises only art can ease his gloom by telling his side of the story. That way, Humbert believes he can defend himself as well as keep Lolita alive in his memory as he perceives the situation. He sees it as a form of art and it becomes almost healing for him, in a way that his trips to the sanitarium never managed to be. His narration acts as his therapy.
Throughout we have seen that Humbert Humbert’s unreliable narration is due to many factors, although a recurring theme leads back to his mental state each time. One cannot be sure if this is a factor is reflection upon the author Vladimir Nabokov himself. However as discussed Humbert’s sickness becomes the notion that drives the entire novel into the great piece of literature that it is. Nabokov appears to overlook the component of mental illness and simply writes the novel as he envisions: “Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book.” (p. 311) “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” (pp. 314-315) For Nabokov, therefore, perhaps mental illness in Lolita is a device with which he creates a kind of dark and twisted art as he defines it. Hence inferring the unreliable narration is a skillfully used technique that gets the novel Lolita its edge.
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