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Essay: To what extent is the narration in Lolita more concerned with the aesthetics of writing rather than plot?

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  • To what extent is the narration in Lolita more concerned with the aesthetics of writing rather than plot?
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The popular postmodernist novel Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, has been subject to much critical acclaim and controversy surrounding the depiction of the paedophilic relationship between Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze. The style of the novel, which utilises a first person confessional format, is the voice of an incarcerated Humbert, appealing to an unknown jury and reconciling himself with what he considers the true version of events.

This lack of reliability, therefore, in what the perpetrator of these crimes writes, means that there are internal discrepancies only emphasised by the focus in narrative on interesting word choices, the assertion of Humbert’s character over the implied reader and other aesthetics of the novel which are external to what the reader may consider the plot to be. In contrast with Nabokov’s first foray into the plot of an older man attracted to a much younger girl, Lolita cannot be separated from the experiences of this man: he tries to abscond himself brazenly through his own memoir. Does this result in a lack of thrust in plot? To some extent, yes: the narrator is untrustworthy; even the setting is eroticised. However, this adds to the impact of the transgression which occurs and strengthens the plot to the extent that only this epitomisation of postmodernist writing can do: the fact that the ruination of a young girl is aestheticised so much is gruesome and lends further insight to the mind of the protagonist.


The narrative voice in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita must be approached in two ways. First, as the narrative voice of Humbert Humbert, as he tells the story of his trysts with the young Dolores Haze. Secondly, the authorial voice of Nabokov himself, who inserts himself into the narrative and weaves aspects of his life into parts of the description such as the linguistics. The problem of distinction between the two has been attempted to be reconciled by splitting analysis of the text into that of both Nabokov and his protagonist, as they are treated as separate from each other in terms of narrative, in the hopes of achieving greater clarity. This is to be further fleshed out in discussing the postmodern plot and why uniquely this problem arises in analysing such texts: often narrators within the genre lack the omniscient foresight and moral compass of earlier texts, which is taken to its natural conclusion insofar as Nabokov selects the paedophile himself, Humbert, to narrate his own tale.

The second problem when approaching Lolita is another of semantics: where possible the character Dolores Haze will be called as such; when discussing aspects depicted by Humbert, she will take the titular name of ‘Lolita’. This follows the convention of critics such as Sweeney, who manages the struggle of whether Dolores exists as a character in her own right, as she never would have used ‘Lolita’ as a name for herself, or whether she is only a character as seen through the prism of Humbert’s writing, identifying that ‘“Lolita” comes to represent not the novel’s heroine, but rather her construction as a nymphet within Humbert’s imagination’. Again, this essay attempts to explore both of these possibilities, including the concept that Dolores cannot exist as a fully formed character due to this viewpoint, further supporting the idea that she is what Humbert paints her as, in his quest for a more artistic, than ‘factual’, memoir.

Third is the metric of what constitutes plot and what shall constitute aestheticism in literature. Plot, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, may be seen to be ‘the main events […], considered or presented as an interrelated sequence; a storyline’. In contrast, the aesthetics of writing is defined in two ways: more broadly ‘the pursuit of, or devotion to, what is beautiful or attractive to the senses, esp. as opposed to an ethically or rationally based outlook’. The definition also notes that this is specifically also in reference to the aesthetic movement, this being, as defined by Tate, ‘a late nineteenth century movement that championed pure beauty and ‘art for art’s sake’, emphasising the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral or narrative considerations’.


‘Big American Charlotte frightened me’ proclaims Humbert in Lolita and henceforth Charlotte and America are linked through the adjectives: both are ‘big’ and both are frightening. This ultimately distances him from both the country and the woman, as he is bound by fear of her learning of his desire for Dolores (‘I could not say anything to Charlotte about the child without giving myself away’)., Similarly, Ginsberg equivocates America with debasement and asks ‘America […] when will you take off your clothes?’ in the opening of Howl. Take off America’s clothes Humbert does, he loosens and disrobes the strict conservative attitudes of the country with the nature of his relationship; he asks when it will be open to his advances with a suggestion of sexuality and intimacy. This occurs not just in his challenging of every societal value through his so-called love of Dolores Haze, but also through the continual interchangeability of sexualised setting and sexualised adolescent.

The narrator personifies America, and in almost exact parallel with Lolita, attempts to seduce her. The phrase ‘wiggles and whorls’ when describing their path across America parallels Humbert’s first sexual encounter with Lolita, where he achieves orgasm by rubbing against her. Humbert says that ‘she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back’ and the parallel between the two uses of ‘wiggle’ shows that it is clearly explicit for him. Subsequently, use of this verb to describe both his journey and his sexual intimacy with Lolita demonstrates how Humbert views his journey across America as a form of sexual access to the country. Jonathan Sawday, in fact, observes that erotic poems in 17th Century frequently compare a conquest of America to that of a woman’s body. Compare Humbert’s travels to Donne’s famous Elegy XIX, ‘To his mistress going to bed’, for example: it seems an intuitive link with Lolita’s description of the journey insofar as its lines

License my roving hands, and let them go | Before, behind, between, above, below. | O my America! my new-found-land, | My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,

parallel the paternalistic yet passive attitude that the conquester holds over the country. He subsequently and consistently parallels his conquest across America with his sexual conquest of Lolita herself; he mirrors Lolita in the settings around him, where ‘the […] mountains seemed to me to swarm with panting, scrambling, laughing, panting Lolitas who dissolved in their haze’. Note the irony of usage of the word ‘haze’: of course this also alludes to Lolita’s surname, of whom the various iterations of her entire name pervade the novel. More interestingly, however is the sexualisation of the setting; Humbert continuously conflates America the country and Lolita the individual. That Humbert sees his journey in terms of corruption and not conquest is evidenced when he says: ‘I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country’. Monica Manolescu-Oancea argues that ‘the “yearlong travels” of Humbert and Lolita across the United States function as a means of seduction, […] leading astray, which is precisely Humbert’s project’. To these ends, the plot becomes more confused insofar as the obsession over the portrayal of setting and Lolita as beautiful and analogous and aesthetically connected add description which weaves into the novel, yet undermine the believability of the narrator. For such a subjective viewpoint, however, there is a value in the painstaking way in which Lolita resonates through settings.

Symbolising Lolita’s femininity and sexuality, Humbert describes ‘Lolita, just before our departure from Beardsley, […] studying tour books and maps, and marking laps and stops with her lipstick!’. Lolita’s marking of the journey with a lipstick symbolises Humbert’s association with the journey being a progression towards possession over Lolita, sexually. The journey continues to parallel the defiling of the young Dolores: Humbert says that ‘the tour of your thigh, you know, should not exceed seventeen and a half inches. […] We are now setting out on a long happy journey’. The placement of the ‘tour’ of her body, in apposition with the ‘long happy journey’ that they will conduct, is the epitomisation of Humbert’s approach to the conquest of each: he sees Lolita and America as interchangeable.

The erotic cannot be separated from settings within Lolita, as they are framed by Humbert Humbert. Sexual imagery is prevalent in every description: it resonates even in his portrayal of America to his first wife as ‘the country of rosy children and great trees’, where ‘rosy children’ symbolises it as a country which may provide and sustain his sexual desire. Not only this, but the imagery of the ‘great trees’ is often associated with sex; for Humbert, this connection is more resonant, whose first sexualised interaction and defining point for his character happens ‘through the darkness and tender trees’. This is the fruitless tryst with Annabel Leigh, stunting his emotional growth to the extent that he seeks young women such as Lolita, in order to replicate the ‘tender’ bond he had with Annabel. Note that ‘tender’ itself may connote fragility and youth; thus the parallel becomes clearer and through this sensual imagery between the trees, Annabel, and Lolita, there is further insight gained as to Humbert’s character. The delicacy of the precise word choice in ‘tender’ is then made more obvious in the more visceral impact that the pastoral setting has on Humbert in the following lines:

As a lovely, lonely, supercilious grove (oaks, I thought; […]) started to echo greenly the rush of our car, a red and ferny road on our right turned its head before slanting into the woodland, and I suggested we might perhaps—
“Drive on,” my Lo cried shrilly.
“Righto. Take it easy.” (Down, poor beast, down.)

Insight it may be, although only can be fleetingly cast as such insofar as the comic ‘down poor beast, down’ veils the tender description of the woods. There are more explicit references to the ‘beast’ of Humbert, referring to his [p*n*s], in lines such as ‘between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock’. Within the text, the fact that the vulnerability of the setting is concealed or dispersed by humour shows a self-awareness from Humbert in his defensiveness, which in turn creates a more ambiguous sense of whether Humbert is aware of his own transgressions.

Not that Humbert’s sexualisation of settings does not also extend to specific place names, most evidently seen in his first seduction of Dolores. This takes place in The Enchanted Hunters Lodge, where ‘Hunters’ may be seen as having links to the predatory way in which not only Humbert, but also society, views him. Not only this, but there is more nuanced foreshadowing within the name: Charlotte Haze herself describes the hotel as ‘quaint’. The common usage of this means ‘elegant; attractive’, but also has more archaic euphemistic connotations as a term for female genitalia, which stems from the Middle English ‘queynte’. In this way, Humbert’s first knowledge of the hotel places it under a sexual subtext which is affirmed and validated by the resultant actions which take place in that setting. What must be also acknowledged when discussing the more specific locales, and indeed all proper nouns in the novel, is that Humbert Humbert confesses to changing at least a number of them, for purposes of anonymity as well as perhaps the further the aestheticism which pervades his recollection of events. Another key example is ‘Briceland’, which is the town in which The Enchanted Hunters Lodge may be found. ‘Brice’, is homophonous with the male name ‘Bryce’ which has ranked in the top one thousand popular names of the U.S. since 1918, and reinforces the ‘all American’ mentality, adding a universality to the locale. Not only this, but it stems from an Old and Middle English noun that means ‘the breaking or violation of a commandment […] (often contextually with reference to loss of virginity or chastity)’. The name is proleptic as Humbert first transgresses the usual sexual bounds and [r*p*s] Lolita in Briceland, suggesting that, for him and his narration, place names influence the sexual acts that he conducts there. The Enchanted Hunters is therefore set in a nominatively sexualized town; Humbert focuses on getting there, despite his words: ‘all along our route, countless motor courts proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights’.

While plot is obviously deeply connected to the settings of the novel, this only becomes important within Lolita at the point at which the writer creates a situation in which the lack of spatial description gives insight to Humbert’s inner dialogue. For example, once Lolita has left Humbert “night had eliminated most of the landscape” and the landscape slips out of his sight. Manolescu-Oancea states, however, that ‘visions of the mountains that surround Humbert are conflated with delirious visions of multiple Lolitas – an effect which is typical of the pathetic fallacy’. This becomes the most important when aestheticism enriches the ‘hazy’ America and ‘it gradually dissolves, just like Humbert’s hallucinatory Lolitas (whose model will soon leave him)’: it shows Humbert to project his own feelings onto the setting in order to romanticise the depraved actions which he undertakes. This illustrates the power that sexualized place names have on Humbert, that they have such an impact on him; that he would choose one, Briceland, over others on the basis of its erotic setting. However, the impact of the narrative being told from his––unreliable–– perspective is that much of the eroticization is actually the product of his creativity.

This complicates any reading of Lolita insofar as Humbert’s admission that he has re-named everyone and every place in the novel in order to protect the identities of those involved, seen when he proclaims ‘I have camouflaged everything, my love’, creates ambiguity over the extent of the settings’ role. Under this metric, either Humbert is projecting sexual significance onto places during the subsequent writing of his memoir, or he names places sexually in order to reflect their role in the narrative. Brand is correct to assert that in ‘separating names from their referents, Humbert attaches his own imaginative referents to them’, but perhaps she underestimates the extent to which this should be regarded as a creative act. To these ends, Humbert Humbert’s sexualised puns on place names represents the imposition of sex onto setting; it is an aesthetic renaming, separate from the plot of the novel. Nabokov uses sexualised setting in order to further emphasise Humbert’s personal transgression; perhaps on a first reading it only seeps into the reader’s sub-conscious, creating an atmosphere of all consuming sexuality. On a closer analysis of almost every single place which is mentioned, it becomes more apparent the depraved lens with which Humbert views the world. Obviously the world is not as sexualised as Humbert views it, but by virtue of the fact that he acknowledges changing names and place settings in order to preserve anonymity, it conveys to the reader the inner machinations of his psyche. This emphasis on sexualised setting does not replace the plot but simply draws the focus of the reader to be more holistic in order to view the character of Humbert as not solely the product of his actions. Perhaps more importantly, his well chosen selection of nominative sexualisation is an art form within the novel; a creative process concerning the aesthetic, not the descriptive.


Humbert Humbert again alludes to the aesthetic nature of the novel when he acknowledges that he has ‘only words to play with’. This becomes dominant through Lolita: wordplay taunts the reader, the jury, even the degraded memory of the deceased Lolita. ‘Lolita’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary after the publication of the eponymous novel and has come to be synonymous with the type of ‘precocious schoolgirl’ of Nabokov’s creation. Were he a real figure, perhaps he would be gratified that not only the memory of Dolores Haze, but specifically his version of Dolly—Lolita—pervades the social consciousness, after his command to the printer to ‘fill the page’ with her name.

Humbert Humbert continually aims to gain intellectual dominance over the reader. This is achieved in multiple ways; firstly his dialogue with the supposed jury. There is a mocking of the confessional style which the novel is touted as: he maintains mock self-righteousness through his addressing the audience as ‘ladies and gentlemen of the jury’ and specifically the ‘gentlewomen’ whose temperaments may be offended by such salacious details as the ones told by Humbert., The impact is that the reader is unclear whether Humbert is addressing a jury solely, despite his clear desire for the novel’s publication, made through the pleas to the printer (which are subsequently not undertaken), a true memoir, or, as the tone creates itself, a glamorous oratory in which the reader cannot decide whether to loathe or pity the supplicating Humbert. His brazen descriptions create an intimate confessional, in which the recipient of this, the priest-like figure cannot instill a punishment alone; we, at most, feel unqualified to judge Humbert’s crimes. Perhaps this is Nabokov’s intent: Lolita as the bridge between the modernist and postmodernist novel forces us to reconsider morality and human community at the point at which this degrades in Nabokov’s experience of post-war America, and Humbert defiles his own America.

In Lolita, Humbert’s constant literary and historical allusions to Dante, for instance, allow him to seek justification for his actions through establishing parallels and a sense of connection between himself and another individual. Ultimately this is done with the intent of rationalising his experience. [xxxxxxx] Although Humbert gains some integration, even in his own psyche, the centrality he establishes at the beginning crumples as he grows more obsessive, thus falling into the trap of madness due to his existence in isolation –

I am ready to yank you out of Beardsley and lock you up you know where, but this must stop. I am ready to take you away the same time it takes to pack a suitcase.

Humbert’s forceful, almost violent language emphasises the power dynamic: there is, by very virtue of its nature, a lack of equality in the relationship. However, linguistically this is reinforced, meaning that it continuously pivots around Humbert’s needs, belying the presence of megalomania in his behaviour. Lolita’s escape therefore results in a scene, as can be gathered from her name being the title, to actively fantasise and abuse her distorts Humbert’s ability, thus effectively distorting his “Humberland” and forcing him into his “new solitude”.

Lolita leaves him on 4th of July Independence Day
Defiled lolita like defiling america
‘And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.’ (175-176)

‘The disappointment I must now register (as I gently grade my story into an expression of the continuous risk and dread that ran through my bliss) should in no wise reflect on the lyrical, epic, tragic but never Arcadian American wilds. they are beautiful, heartrendingly beautiful, those wilds, with a quality of wide-eyed, unsung, innocent surrender that my lacquered, toy-bright Swiss villages and exhaustively lauded Alps no longer possess.’ (168)

In contrast with a literary work which makes usage of some of the same comic tropes that appear in Lolita, such as Pope’s The [r*p*] of the Lock, the lack of an omniscient narrator enriches the


The postmodern plot is designed to make us reconsider what humanity looks like. It shifts traditional literary tropes in order to do this, something that Nabokov utilises when he defiles the archetypal American journey. To these ends, because the plot is so intuitive to the reader, it allows for an increased focus on the psyche of the characters.

Not so effectively would this be achieved if there was some narrative moral high ground undertaken by the author. It is due to the complex and flawed personality which breathes through the pages that one can understand, perhaps even sympathise with, Humbert Humbert. Note that without the

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