Sexual Vilification of Female Sexual Power: A Comparison of Lolita and Wilde Sargasso Sea

June 17, 2022 by Essay Writer

From the witch hunting hysteria of the 17th century, to the biblical belief that all objects touched by a menstruating woman became unclean, female sexuality has been regarded by men with fear and hostility for thousands of years. Accused by Tertulian of being “the gateway to the devil”, women have long been kept under strict regulation, their sexuality often suppressed by patriarchal societies for fear of what might happen should the “uncontrollable nature” of such “untamed creatures”[1] be given free reign. The woman as a result has been viewed, historically, to occupy a place of contradiction in literature, frequently dismissed by male writers as weak and invaluable to their stories, but simultaneously given power over men because of a societal obsession with their sensuality. Despite the vast differences in the setting of the two texts studied here, “Lolita” being a 1940s “road novel”, and “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is set in post-colonial Jamaica, women and girls are portrayed through the eyes of their male counterparts in each novel in strikingly similar ways. Contemporary writers Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov have captured the emotional conflict between desire and disgust felt by male protagonists towards the women they are attracted to, highlighting the way in which female characters and vilified for taking ownership of their sexuality.

To an extent, both male protagonists are portrayed as viewing the women they pursue as supernatural beings rather than humans, contributing to the women’s vilification. Humbert Humbert may be seen to blur the distinction between the persona of Lolita, the “nymphet” Nabokov creates, and the “North-American girl-child”, who, thanks to the vivid imagination Humbert has been written with, we often forget is named Dolores. The concept of the “nymphet”, Nabokov’s own neologism, comes from the mythological term nymph, meaning a spirit-like woman about whom “the term nûmphe refers to her status as a sexual being”. This is used in reference to a young girl Humbert feels attracted to, whose “true nature is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac)”. Nabokov uses the adjectives “nymphic” and “demoniac” as though they are interchangeable synonyms, suggesting that he intended to present Humbert as viewing sexual attractiveness in girls as akin to being demonic. This may demonstrate Nabokov’s intentions to portray Humbert as viewing Delores as some kind of malignant creature, consequently dehumanizing her on account of his lust for her, and contributing to the idea Humbert is shown to vilify her. During various accounts of Humbert’s encounters with those described as “demon children”, paradoxically meaning the “nymphets” he is “agonizingly in love” with, multilingual Nabokov describes one girl as an “enfant charmante et fourbe”, meaning a child who is lovely and deceitful. This may invite the reader to imagine such “nymphets” as temptresses, using their supernatural powers of deceit to seduce Humbert. This demonic portrayal, which is given to the reader early on in the story, may be the progenitor for Lolita, who is no exception to Nabokov’s extended metaphor.

Through Humbert’s eyes, Lolita is portrayed as “hopelessly depraved” indicating that she is sexually immoral, and he equates this to her being a “daemon child”. The emotive adverb “hopelessly” may suggest that Nabokov intended to portray Humbert perceiving Dolores as being beyond help, which may evoke in the reader the notion that it is for this reason that Humbert was able to rationalize his sexual relations with her. As a first person narrator, it is likely that Nabokov intended to portray Humbert as unreliable; the authenticity of Dolores’ alleged depravity may be questionable to many, considering she is a child of twelve. It can be gleaned that Humbert, by way of Nabokov’s near constant references to satanic imagery, is intended to be received as struggling with conflicting emotions, hence the “agonizing” love he is presented with, and may attempt to pin the blame onto Dolores and other “nymphets” for the lust they are shown to inspire in him. In doing this, Nabokov may be showing Humbert to vilify Dolores for the sexual power she holds over him, and presenting him attempting to justify the behavior that would today be recognized as pedophilia.

In similarity to the presentation of Dolores through Humbert’s narrative in “Lolita”, it can be interpreted that Rhys has tried to make relations between the presentation of Antoinette as an attractive, sexually free woman, and the presentation of her as a supernatural villain. When describing his wife, Rochester is shown to be in “discomfort” by commenting on her “alien eyes”, which, while likening her to a feared supernatural being, an alien, may also symbolize an inability to relate to her seemingly alien culture. Continual supernatural imagery is used in reference to Antoinette, including the simile Rhys uses, that Antoinette has “eyes like a zombie”. This simile may have been intended to be in reference to her eyes appearing dead, or lifeless, like the zombies of Caribbean folklore. It can be interpreted that Rochester, who easily believes Cosway’s sensationalist stories, is portrayed to associate sexual promiscuity with supernatural evil, especially when in many cases of recorded “zombification” in history, “those who were made into zombis were probably already alienated from their communities”[2]. As Antoinette, who was arguably portrayed as a miscreant due to the sexual affairs she is accused of by Cosway, is compared to a zombie, it can therefore be said that she is vilified for this, to the point of being feared and demonized, as the alleged zombies were.

It can also be argued that Antoinette’s demonization stems from the portrayal that Rochester hates the culture of the Caribbean. Jamaica is presented through the frame of Rochester’s narrative as a hostile place, about which, Rochester remarks, “I hated its beauty and its magic”. The “magic” possibly refers the prevalence of superstition and black magic of Jamaica a religion regarded by many colonizers as being sexually depraved, and the “beauty”, to the sensual landscape Antoinette is a personification of. In using the parallel between the strangeness of Jamaican Obeah to the western reader, and the strangeness of Antoinette’s Creole culture to British Victorian Rochester, Rhys may invite the reader to view Antoinette as a sexual villain through the framing of Rochester’s narrative. Portrayed to associate Antoinette with the “wild place” she is a personification of, Rochester resents Antoinette, “for she belonged to the magic.” Ultimately, Antoinette is “bought for profit, regarded as exotic, hysteric and incomprehensible to her buyer”[3], and Rochester as a result can be seen vilify her for her perceived sensuality as a Caribbean woman.

Nabokov similarly uses setting to show the vilification of female protagonists, using Dolores to personify various stereotyped aspects of 1950s American culture. Through the first person narrative of Humbert, a foreigner like his creator, Nabokov, the reader is given “the view of America that could only have come from an outsider”[4], including aspects concerning, as critic Mary Elizabeth Williams phrases it, “maximum lust, hypocrisy and obsession”[5]. Dolores may be intended to symbolise these aspects. Humbert is portrayed with a dislike for them, and can be seen to vilify Dolores because of them. Nabokov describes Dolores as “the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster”. The adjective “foul” serves to make the reader aware of Humbert’s hate for the posters, often containing sexual undertones, possibly because of the manner in which they assert control over his naive love, the “object” of their advertising. Nabokov portrays this control through the metaphor of the advertising “entrancing her”, insinuating that she was under some kind of spell. Humbert is portrayed to hate this fact, possibly because of the over-sexualised manner that Hollywood advertising bombarded consumers with, particularly impressionable youth, at the time. It may be interpreted that is because Nabokov intended to show Humbert with a desire to retain all control over Dolores’ sexual desires.

In noting that Dolores is presented with a love for Hollywood magazines, one of which Nabokov calls a “lurid movie magazine”, it can be seen that she may be exploring her sexuality through the means of Hollywood, something which Humbert may be shown to resent due to Nabokov’s use of the adjective “lurid”, a word which may be interpreted as over sexualised and vulgar. In fact, in a paragraph Nabokov includes about her avid consumerism, and Dolores uses the slang word “swank”, made popular by Hollywood films, and Humbert refers to Dolores as his “vulgar darling”. The juxtaposition of these two opposing words suggest an internal struggle on Humbert’s part, indicating that Nabokov may have intended to present him with a hate of the vulgar and sexualised language she uses, and the way she is presented to feel sexually attracted towards Hollywood actors, due to the negative sexually negative language he uses. This may show Nabokov’s intentions to present Humbert to vilify any aspects of Dolores’ developing sexuality that do not concern him. On a deeper level, Nabokov may also use Humbert’s feelings to show his vilification of sexualised America, as “If Lolita represents America, it is physically attractive, shallow and deeply corrupt”[6]. It is safe to say that lurid Hollywood did, and still does, hold a form of sexual power over many, which is comparable to the way in which Dolores holds sexual power over Humbert. Humbert’s evoked image of Dolores as a “nymphet” may cause him to be presented as viewing her with more of a sexual conscience than she does in reality. After disclosing to him the details of her sexual encounters at summer camp, Humbert is shown to be disappointed that he was “not the first” to “debauch” her.

From this, it may be inferred that for Humbert, with being “first”, would come a sense of ownership, a sense of reassurance that she was, as Nabokov refers to it, “pure” when he first had sex with her. Nabokov’s use of the verb“debauch” indicates that he intended to show Humbert regarding her as corrupted and soiled because someone had had sex with her before. This contrast in emotions may show that Humbert is presented as paradoxically thinking it wrong that Dolores had sex with others, but acceptable for her to have sex with him. After Dolores tells him what happened, Humbert “had Lo […] take a much needed soap shower”, insinuating that as though by asking her to physically clean herself, she could also somehow clean herself of the metaphorical dirtiness that she is portrayed as having because of her sexual history. This may show that Nabokov intended to show Humbert vilifying Dolores because of the possibility of her sexual history.

Similarly, the theme of purity is one that also runs through the entirety of “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Rhys presents Rochester as a stereotypical Victorian Englishmen, feeling a sense of disgust towards Antoinette’s sexual impurity, and with the desire to attempt to vilify this aspect of her. Daniel Cosway says that Rochester isn’t “the first to kiss [Antoinette’s] pretty face”, a claim that can be interpreted as a taunt, insinuating that she may have had sexual encounters before marriage, a taboo at the time. In a similar way to Humbert in “Lolita”, it can be interpreted that for Rochester, being the “first” to touch his wife would give him a sense of power and ownership. This would be especially accurate of the culture of the time, when many Victorian Europeans still, to an extent, viewed women as property. One might even say that Rhys intended Rochester to rename his wife “Bertha”, out of a desire for her to be pure. By taking away her name, Antoinette, a typical French name, Rochester can be seen to take away her identity, both personal and racial. It can be interpreted that Rhys did this to strip Antoinette of her self-owned sexuality, which was tied up with her identity as a Creole woman. Rhys herself once observed, in relation to Dominican women, “Marriage didn’t seem a duty for them as it did for us”[7], and Victorian Creole women were certainly stereotyped at the time for being more sexually liberated than their counterparts living in Europe. By taking away her French Creole name, and replacing it with “Bertha”, an English name it may be seen that Rochester was trying to mould her into a sexually subservient wife, an ideal for English Victorians at the time.

In hindsight, it seems that both author’s intentions can be seen to be to present their female protagonists as being vilified, largely through the narrative framing of their male protagonists. Both Humbert and Rochester are portrayed with conflicting emotions surrounding Dolores and Antoinette, in a struggle between repulsion and sexual desire. While Humbert’s l desire for Dolores results in the portrayal of him simultaneously vilifying and glorifying her, it can be argued that Rhys portrays Rochester to solely vilify Antoinette. Although the villainous portrayal of both female protagonists are not incongruent with the presentation of other women in literature, they may still be met by the reader with an intense emotional response. However, it can be very much argued that the reasons for these portrayals merely lie within Rhys’ desire to create an accurate depiction of the culture of the time, and Humbert’s inherent affliction of being a pedophile.

[1] Cato The Elder, Speech in the Roman Senate, 195 BCE

[2] Judith L. Raiskin, Snow on the Cane Fields: Women’s Writing and Creole Subjectivity, 1995

[3] Helen Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, 1995

[4] Mary Elizabeth Williams, Personal Best Review, Salon Magazine, 1996

[5] Mary Elizabeth Williams, Personal Best Review, Salon Magazine, 1996

[6] Robert M. Crunden, A Brief History of American Culture, 1990

[7] Jean Rhys, “Smile Please”, 1987

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