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Essay: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 8 minutes
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  • Published: September 7, 2021*
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  • Words: 2,398 (approx)
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  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Fundamental to Nabokov’s Lolita is the persuasive and empathetic – yet undeniably shocking and monstrous – narration of Humbert Humbert. As an autodiegetic narrator, Humbert’s narration presents himself as the heroic protagonist who takes ownership of Lolita’s tragic story, and in using him as a character focaliser, Nabokov prevents the reader from perceiving any other account of the narrative, encouraging them to accept the monstrosity of Humbert’s recitation. The satirical tragic romance takes advantage of the prominence of themes of sexuality and psychology during the early 20th Century as a consequence of the influence of Freudianism on literature, as seen Joyce’s similarly scandalous Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nabokov’s ultimate unreliable narrator entices the reader through enhancing the façade of romance and mysticism surrounding his paedophilia, encouraging sympathy and a common identity among the readership, and deluding Humbert’s depiction of himself within his narrative. However, central to the plot is the repulsive sexual relationship between Humbert and teenager Lolita, and the reader is unable to avoid recognising the unreliability and contradiction within the narrative and cannot disguise the inevitable shame and sympathy felt towards Lolita’s pain and loss of childhood. Therefore, while it is indisputable that Nabokov encourages the reader to accept his monstrous narrator, this is only to emphasise the tragic ending and evoke a sense of self-hatred and humiliation.

It could be argued that the reader is encouraged to accept Nabokov’s monstrous male narrator through his use of elaborate language to enhance the veneer of romance and mysticism surrounding his paedophilia which prevents the reader from truly acknowledging the violent and manipulative nature of the relationship. The purity of his love is enhanced through his narrative, with the discussion of ‘nymphets’ at the beginning of the novel immediately romanticising his attraction to justify the relationship, which is furthered by Nabokov’s listing of adjectives, ‘the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm’, which have clear otherworldly and mystical connotations. Additionally, the adjective ‘shifty’ subtly implies the dishonest and deceitful nature of the narrator. The alliterative phrase ‘intangible island of entranced time’ highlights this magical and elusive nature of the monstrous male hero and positions the narrative in a place of ethereal and indefinable romanticism. The monstrous male protagonist also describes himself as the ‘Enchanted Hunter’ and ‘nympholept’ to attribute magical characteristics to himself which compliments the mysterious concept of the ‘nymphet’ and creates a justification for his actions, enabling the reader to accept Humbert as an otherworldly, unrelatable narrator. Surprisingly, the unreliable narrator himself admits to the ability to distract the reader with his language, ‘you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, suggesting that the intention in using such elaborate and eloquent language is, indeed, to engage the reader in the romance and mystery of the narrative. This suggestion is enhanced by Nabokov’s use of the French language throughout the novel, which both relates to the autobiographical elements of the novel as both Nabokov and his monstrous narrator were highly educated and academic Europeans and creates a romantically academic façade of Humbert’s character. Such references, ‘comme, vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille’, are commonly concerning Lolita, and the inability of the common reader to understand his foreign narration furthers the seductive and private nature of the relationship while also heightening the romanticism and idealisation of their love. As a consequence, it is evident that the Nabokov’s use of elaborate and academically advanced language encourages the reader to accept the unreliable narrator.

Furthermore, one might suggest that the reader is encouraged to sympathise and identify with Nabokov’s monstrous male hero in Lolita as a result of the consistent involvement and flattering language directed towards the reader, which enables them to identify and form a relationship with Humbert and provoke positive reinforcement towards such acceptance. Clearly, the reader is encouraged to become involved with Humbert’s narrative, with references to the ‘learned reader’ and ‘astute reader’ which show the enthusiasm of Nabokov to encourage the reader to identify with his narrator. The protagonist is evidently conscious of his readership, reflecting his confident and assured nature as he refers to the reader is part of an intellectual group, calling them ‘unbiased’ to imply that they are open-minded and accepting – and aiding the forming of a relationship between the narratee and narrator to show their likeminded nature and justify Humbert’s actions. Additionally, the possessive pronoun in the phrase ‘my patient reader’ by the end of part one of the text highlights the reader’s acceptance of the narrator, while the continuing complimentary language reflects Humbert’s persuasive and manipulative manner which is concealed beneath the reader’s reaction of flattery and fondness. Within the novel, the reader is encouraged to take an active part in the discourse, undermining the character of Lolita as disabling her ability to gain empathy. Nabokov creates distance between the reader and Lolita, ‘whose meek temper Lo ought to have copied’ which is suggestive of the similarity and compatibility the narrator intends to evoke between Humbert and the narratee, while they are disassociated with Lolita’s suffering. Similarly, frequent addresses to the jury throughout the text imply the central issue of Humbert’s guilt, seen through the phrases ‘winged gentlemen of the jury’ and ‘ladies and gentlemen of the jury’, which put the narrator in a position to be judged and allow him to familiarise himself with the reader in order to seek sympathy. Therefore, it is evident that direct addresses to his readership enable Nabokov to encourage them to accept and sympathise with his monstrous male hero.

In addition to this, it may be argued that the reader is encouraged to accept Nabokov’s monstrous narrator due to Humbert’s mystified and deluded depiction of himself, which prevents the reader from being able to acknowledge his true character and is instead only able to accept the fraudulent identities he creates for himself. Throughout Lolita, the autodiegetic narrator elevates his own status in order to defend his unusual attraction, referring to himself as a ‘comic, clumsy, wavering Prince Charming’ to further the illusion of the paedophilic narrator as the hero of the text, while the reference to ‘Prince Charming’ romanticises and idealises his character. Further, Nabokov’s use of the alliterative adjectives ‘comic’, ‘clumsy’ juxtapose the perfection of the ‘prince’, enhancing the deluded and contrasting portrayal of Humbert. The frequent references to the ‘Enchanted Hunter’ imply a mystical and ethereal nature to the narrator, suggesting his illusive character, while ‘hunter’ reflects a power and possession equal to that of the ‘prince’, showing the contrasting nature of his depiction. As well as this, transitions between English and French when describing the narrator are used by Nabokov to create a sense of confusion, with the line ‘I was and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male’ a clear attempt by Humbert to disguise his flaws with his shift in language, ending ultimately in a contradictory depiction of a flawed yet perfect being, which clearly implies his juxtaposing character. Such a view is furthered by the six variants of the narrator’s name during his encounter with Miss Cormorant, ‘Mr. Humbird’, ‘Dr. Humburg’, ‘Mr Humberson’, suggesting the elusive nature of Humbert and his lack of a consistent identity. In addressing him with several differing names, Nabokov clearly implies the mystical nature of his narrator, supporting the view that he encourages the reader to accept his monstrous male hero through the inconsistent portrayal of his character.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Nabokov does not encourage the reader to accept his unreliable narrator in Lolita, as there are consistent reminders of his changeableness and contradictory nature. Throughout the text, there are contradictory comments on Humbert’s ability to recall his memories, ranging from explicit references to his precise retelling, ‘I remember verbatim’, implying absolute accuracy, and direct verbal presentation indicating the exact nature of his narration, to the sibilant phrase ‘I feel my slippery self eluding me’ reflecting the escaping of his memory, and diegetic speech suggesting unreliability, implying that the memoir is written for entertainment rather than accuracy. The subjective narration used by Nabokov is an evident reflection of the postmodernism era of the early 20th Century, viewing literature as fluid rather than fixed, which is reflected in Humbert’s contradictory narration. Moreover, the reader is also continuously reminded of the narrator’s poor mental health, with frequent glimpses into his present situation in a mental asylum, ‘the opaque air of this tombal jail’. This clearly evidences Humbert’s inappropriate attachment, and the reader can see nothing more than his obsessive and paedophilic character, supporting the idea that they cannot accept him. Perhaps the most explicit evidence of his insanity is shown through the character of Quincy who symbolises Humbert’s inability to focus on the reality, and whose elusive and secret nature reveals the narrator’s paranoia and clear inability to reliably narrate. As a reader, we are unable to ascertain whether Nabokov intended Quincy to be a real character in the text or rather a ‘hallucination’ of Humbert’s, suggesting the loss of plot and pacing which makes both his character and narrative difficult to grasp. However, it could be said that Nabokov’s use of elaborate language conceals this insanity and distracts from Humbert’s crimes. The alliterative phrase ‘light of my life, fire of my loins’ is a clear example of the intense sexual imagery used to distract from the subject of paedophilia, focusing on the romanticised and slow rhythm of speech. In a similar way, focus on eloquent language is also shown in the line ‘the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth’, with the emphasis on linguistic speech distracting from the sensual imagery. Consequently, it is evident that, while it could be said that Nabokov’s constant reminders of his narrator’s unreliability warn his readership against accepting him, ultimately his focus on language distracts from his true crimes and encourages approval.

One might also argue that the reader is not inclined to accept Nabokov’s monstrous male hero as they are aware of the damage to Lolita’s childhood, and instead feel a sense of shame and disgust towards his narrator as a result of their protective stances concerning the child. Throughout the text, Humbert refers to her through nicknames, such as ‘Lo’, ‘Lola’, ‘Dolly’, clearly showing the theft of her identity, and as a result the reader is never exposed to Lolita’s true character. This is aided by the objectification of the child to an aesthetic object, ‘a salutary storm of sobs’, which dehumanises Lolita and prohibits the narrator from becoming aware of the extent of the damage he has inflicted on her. The use of the sibilant phrase furthers the idea of Lolita as having an elusive nature, as her identity slips away from her as a consequence of her suffering. Additionally, the reader is exceedingly aware of Humbert’s manipulative and terrorising approach to the child, with Nabokov’s use of the controlling line ‘let us suppose they believe you’ taking a condescending tone to make clear to the reader Lolita’s entrapment within her situation. This is enhanced with the repeated rhetorical questions, ‘But what happens to you, my orphan?’ which reveal the manipulating and devious portrayal of the monstrous narrator. References to Lolita’s upset and horror also cause the reader to sympathise with her in place of accepting Humbert, and Nabokov cultivates a sense of hopelessness and desperation with the simple phrases, ‘again I hear you crying’, ‘in the middle of the night she came sobbing’. He uses the setting of darkness to indicate Lolita’s lack of comfort and danger, characterising her as innocent in her manipulation and creating the desire amongst the readers to protect and comfort the lonely child, implying that the Nabokov only intends for Lolita to be accepted. Alternatively, it could be said that Lolita is characterised as manipulative and deceitful, signifying that she is compliant in their sexual relationship. Within Humbert’s narrative, he characterises her as ‘cruel’, ‘crafty’ and ‘calculating’, using the alliterative adjectives to reflect the harsh and brutal nature of Lolita towards her protector. Nabokov also suggests that Lolita does gain some power through taking advantage of the narrator’s desire for her, implying that she is aware of and exploits her sexual appeal, shown through the addressing of Humbert as ‘dad’ throughout the text. Further, her confrontational and argumentative character is evidenced to reflect her strength, ‘I ought to call the police and tell them that you raped me’, however this phrase ultimately has a poignant effect on the reader, making it clear that she is aware of her suffering and hopelessness. As a result, while Nabokov suggests that Lolita attempts to take back some power against her abuser, the reader can fundamentally only sympathise with her pain, supporting the inability to accept the monstrous protagonist.

To conclude, it is evident that, though Nabokov does encourage the reader to accept his monstrous male hero, this is only to emphasise the tragic and catastrophic consequences of his text and warn against such manipulative behaviour. While Humbert’s use of elaborate language, addresses to the reader and elusive portrayal do indeed result in his readership accepting and identifying with the horrifically manipulative character, they are unable to ignore the contradiction within his narrative and ultimately sympathise with Lolita. Metcalf concludes that ‘We are clearly meant to regard Humbert as a moral abomination’ , acknowledging that the unimaginably monstrous actions of Nabokov’s narrator restrict the reader from viewing him as anything tenuously acceptable. However, it cannot be overlooked that the very naming of Lolita as this rather than Dolores clearly reflects the reader’s approval of Nabokov’s narrator and his manipulation of his readership to force them into a state of inadvertently accepting his paedophilic and murderous actions. Therefore, the narrative style of Lolita constrains the reader from condemning Humbert, regardless of how much of a ‘moral abomination’ they may regard him as.

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