Trusting the Narrator in ‘Lolita’

December 5, 2020 by Essay Writer

“At the time I felt I was losing contact with reality” – How far can we believe and trust the narrator in ‘Lolita’? The reality of ‘Lolita’ may differ from the narrative of Humbert Humbert, simply because there is no alternative or neutral version of events from which to disprove such a conclusion. Lolita has no voice in the novel so it is difficult to judge whether she is victim or lover. As narrator, Humbert has free reign to select as little or as much of the real information, perhaps depending on how agreeably it portrays him. Moreover, as murderer, paedophile and frequenter of asylums, there is arguably a basic human principle not to trust such a person. Especially as this is somebody who is not realistic, who longs for entry to his sexual fantasy world, and who becomes creative and intellectually alive when in jail, shut away from reality. Through Humbert’s prose comes an intellect, knowledge of literature, linguistic virtuosity and love for Lolita, that combine to characterise a most untypical villain. He is likeable and humorous to the extent that, at times, there can appear to be very little reason to disbelieve our narrator. Through the powerful and ornate text produced when awaiting trial, the possibility of the narrator being untrustworthy can seem either very unlikely, or just poorly disguised. It may also be that assessing our trust of the narrator translates as questioning our trust of Nabokov. Humbert’s language can be strange, ornate, virtuosic and even persuasive all at the same time. “Light of my life, fire of my loins” is perhaps the most quoted phrase from ‘Lolita’. Its poetic balance of four syllables each side of the comma, and ‘life’ being a Humbertian pseudonym for penis, mean that both quartets are the same, despite a superficial difference. This phrase encapsulates the constant tensions of perverse lust versus eloquence, reality versus appearance. Similarly, “The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” continues the coronal alliteration with ‘t’ instead of ‘l’ as well as ‘f’, drawing attention to an organ used to kiss (lust), as well as speak (eloquence). Humbert’s style possesses a seductive-yet-disturbing brilliance. As the narrator declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” In fact, literary prowess is probably not a common trait of murderers. Nabokov suggests, “Style, structure, imagery (sic) should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” Humbert is an obsessive paedophile with a flair for writing. But when a morally dubious topic such as paedophilia is mediated through dazzling verbal pyrotechnics , Humbert can come across as both trustworthy and believable. Humbert’s narrative continues to destabilise the reader. The explanation of Humbert’s love for young girls is that his childhood girlfriend died before they could have sexual intercourse. Intertextually alluding to Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’, it’s as if Humbert is only augmenting ideas already present in literature. Elsewhere, he refers to Danté’s nine-year old Beatrice, and Petrarch’s twelve-year old “nymphet” Laureen. By associating paedophilia with the underpinning writers of Western culture, perhaps doubts ought to be raised over our ‘humble’ ideas of morality and normality, as well as showing how ethical systems are merely context-dependent. There is further defamiliarisation as well as more poetic fanciness in describing his own thoughts: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art”. As with Poe or Danté, heaven, prophecy and art are not usually associated with paedophiles. The overall effect, however, is a series of rather anxious justifications by Humbert, trying in vain to romanticise and defamiliarise paedophilia. Humbert’s references to literature persist, with a special regard to French. “Nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian interpretation…Nous connûmes (this is royal fun).” There are refences to Flaubert and Proust throughout the novel, the latter famous for ‘A la récherche du temps perdu’, a story of love and art. It may be that by referring to Flaubert, Humbert is simply trying to further enhance a veneer of romance surrounding his paedophilia. Like his protagonist, Nabokov was a French literature expert, and an émigré writer living in America. Other works are autobiographical such as ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ (1974) and ‘Pnin’ (1957) which mirrors Navokov’s life in a similar way to ‘Lolita’. Significantly, Pnin is a gormless, ridiculous figure who fails to adapt to Western culture, not like the intellectual, seductively eloquent image of Vladimir Nabokov, delivered via Humbert Humbert. So not only do the citations of French writing create a romantically academic guise of Humbert, but give substance to an autobiographical reading where the author has created a veneer in order to mislead the reader. Whilst ‘Lolita’ can be interpreted autobiographically, Nabokov declares, “It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about…the author”. It can thus be disputed that autobiographical readings cannot be definite, or help us to determine the believability of Humbert. The narrator’s use of French language can also be deceptive. As well as the presence of much French phraseology used in English, such as “chéri”¸ Humbert includes many uncommon ones, “Eh bien, pas du tout!” and “quel mot!” among them. And whilst on the subject of love, his “romantic soul gets all clammy and shivery at the thought of running into some awful, indecent unpleasantness… ‘Mais allez-y, allez-y!’ ” Firstly, the unpleasantness is one of sexual etiquette and completely bypasses the much more important moral unpleasantness, evoking a disagreeable image of our narrator. Secondly, this is further evidence of Nabokov defamiliarising the paedophile, through abnormal associations: the clichéd connotations of romance through French are supposed to paint a passionate rather than perverted, image of Humbert, particularly as he slips instinctively into the language when in the process of describing his passionate struggle. In addition, Humbert is critical of Charlotte using “that awful French”; meanwhile Lolita requests, “Do you mind very much cutting out the French?” The irony here of Humbert’s hypocrisy presents someone unable to self-criticise and face reality, and who cannot therefore be totally trusted. Beneath veneers, there is arguably misogyny. Humbert sees women-girls-Lolita as objects of sexual desire, and thus he is not the paternal, benevolent kind of narrator he might seem on the surface. “Lo-lee-ta.” The breaking-up of the word here mimics the way Humbert has broken-up/destroyed his stepdaughter. Elsewhere he refers to her as “waif”, “slave-child”, and “wagging her tiny tail, her whole behind in fact as little bitches do”. Suggestions of a non-mutual, non-loving relationship form a structure that begins with ‘love’ – “light of my life” – and ends with realisation – “what have I done with your life?” The trust of the reader gradually decreases. Lolita’s prototype Annabel has “honey-coloured skin” because she is an object to Humbert, something sweet he can consume. Her, “ ‘thin arms’, ‘big bright mouth’, ‘long lashes’, ‘brown bobbed hair’,” show Humbert as a lover of the youthful female physique; a feminist critic would argue that he sees women, especially “nymphets” as nothing more than servants to his libido, and worse still, he blames his crimes on Annabel, and thus on women. Similarly, he describes Lolita “rising on the pedals to work them lustily” and “dipping her hand into the nether anatomy of a lamp table”. By characterising non-sexual activities in a sexual light, Humbert seems incapable of escaping the narrow mind of his paedophilic, often misogynistic obsessions. There is phallic imagery in addition: “…mountains; bluish beauties never attainable…sky piercing snow-veined grey colossi of stone”, and even in the murder scene, “I pulled out my automatic…” Furthermore, this plethora of sexual connotations that leaks sub-consciously through the language reveals Humbert’s true misogynistic intentions; the trust between reader and narrator is rapidly breaking down. Virginia Woolf once said, “The sound of his own voice was dearer to him than the voice of humanity in its anguish.” (Although a comment on Joseph Conrad, it is similarly applicable to Humbert, and arguably Nabokov.) Fancy prose and sexual innuendo are cherished more by Humbert than Lolita’s well-being. He is morally corrupt, and the poetic veneers applied to disguise this should not be believed by the reader. In complete contrast, Humbert can be seen as a pawn in the game of Lolita’s sexual desires, thus a victim of female manipulation; Lolita is empowered by her stepfather’s obsessions and desires. He admits, “(I) forget all my masculine pride – and literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita!” And so perhaps the paedophile is as innocent as he makes out; Lolita is mischievously playing mind games with an easy target, driving him crazy: “Don’t think I can go on…” Moreover, the narrative is void of forceful language that would suggest a rape has been committed, for example, “I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the sceptre of my passion.” Lolita should not be seen as entirely innocent, indeed she had a voluntary sexual experience at Camp Q; Freud argued that children are in fact “polymorphously perverse”. Therefore her “rising on the pedals to work them lustily” is not Humbert’s sexual narrow mindedness, but Lolita’s flirtatious provocation; she is his mistress. Thus Humbert’s account can be interpreted as realistic. Much less realistic is Humbert’s attempt to justify his paedophilia by some sort of artistic philosophy. He claims, “Passionately, I hoped to find preserved the portrait of the artist as a younger brute.” This allusion to James Joyce supports the idea that Humbert feels the need to turn his actions and life into a work of art. He is said to have found ‘Ulysses’ obscene, and for this reason he refrains from pornographic explicicity. Humbert tries to present himself as nothing more than an appreciator of the female form and juvenile beauty, that is simply an unconventional aesthetic. His intentions are not erotic or sexual, but aesthetic ones. Thus he is arguably a character we can trust, and only a mysoginistic child-abuser by circumstance. According to Humbert, “Sex is but the ancilla of art.” Bearing in mind these arguments, the narrative may not be a reliable reflection of reality, especially with no alternative account. Humbert can be seen as out of touch with reality, obsessive and lunatic. As the novel progresses, so it seems does Humbert’s breakdown, and the coherency of his narrative, which can only be realised by analysing a longer passage: “A hazy blue view beyond railings on a mountain pass, and the backs of a family enjoying it (with Lo in a hot, happy, wild, intense, hopeful, hopeless whisper – ‘Look, the McCrystals, please, let’s talk to them please?’ – let’s talk to them reader! – ‘please! I’ll do anything you want, oh, please…’). ” Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial. ART: American Refrigerator Transit Company. Obvious Arizona, pueblo dwellings, aboriginal pictographs, a dinosaur track in a desert canyon, printed there thirty-nine million years ago, when I was a child. A lanky, six-foot, pale boy with an active Adam’s apple, ogling Lo and her orange-brown bare midriff, which I kissed five minutes later, Jack.”Humbert’s usual eloquence has expired, with a sense of streaming consciousness and bewildering syntax; his ‘hazy view’ is shared by the reader. It is unlikely, but could be Nabokov parodying such psychological ideas of mental breakdown and consciousness, particularly with ‘ART’ nothing more than a refrigerator company. Indeed, there are other moments of wit such as when Miss Cormorant calls him six different names – variants of Humbert – in one encounter, and the school Lolita attends is humorously called St. Algebra. Moreover, the aforementioned ‘Pnin’ is a parody of a Russian academic’s struggle to adapt to American culture, making gaffes like, “When in glass houses, do not kill two birds with one stone”. But parody is probably the wrong interpretation, as Humbert goes on to admit, “I felt I was merely losing contact with reality.” And upon “psycho-analysing this poem, I notice it is really a maniac’s masterpiece,” he says of ‘Wanted, Wanted: Dolores Haze’. Moreover, three years pass in a couple of chapters, so the narrator is clearly out of touch with time. He also confesses, “Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head – everything. Lolita…” repeating her name eight times. Overall, there is a sense of Humbert being disconnected from the real world. Distrust of Humbert may simply come from the fact he is a criminal, and sometimes represents a sort of lunatic. It is hard to believe the innocence of a man who is a murderer, paedophile and frequenter of asylums, and writing the ‘Confession of a White Widowed Male’. The paranoia of losing Lolita plagues Humbert. “I know every name in your group…I have a complete student list with me…I have the Beardsley directory with me too.” There is an impression given of an obsessive-compulsive madman, yet perhaps this neuroticism is justified by the revelation that Quilty stalked and then took Lolita. Humbert’s guilt is made clear through the fact that he “died in legal captivity”, and uses courtroom language such as “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” and “exhibit number one…” However, this confessional style is completely overwhelmed by the fanciness of his prose. Intertextually reminiscent is the confessional style of Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, which is similarly overwhelmed by the language of Nadsat. In prison, Humbert is free; the constraints of realism, temptation and addiction have been removed. There are echoes here of Paul Pennyfeather escaping reality in ‘Decline and Fall’, and Maupassant’s Walter Schnaffs who yearns to be in prison to escape the realities of war. Humbert’s creativity flourishes whilst in prison because, shut-off from reality, he feels at home. As the narrator has been cut off from the real world, his narrative is probably just as unrealistic. But, arguably, Humbert’s inability to cope whilst he was in the real world encourages sympathy from the reader. Humbert seems to be a victim of the temptations of the real world. Through analysing his language, he is quite aware of the sins he commits. The ‘apple’ motif is prominent: “where lay the brown core of an apple”, “as she strained to chuck the abolished core of her apple into the fender,” “musical and apple-sweet”. Lolita’s apple might be a symbol of temptation, alluding to original sin: “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die”. Eden-like imagery persists with “all thighs and fig leaves”, which appropriately links nudity and sin, and when living a life of debauchery in Paris Humbert mentions “the mirror reflecting our small Eden.” Freudian psychoanalysis might argue that these biblical tones and imagery of temptation that subconsciously leak through the text reveal Humbert’s guilty conscience, and not the ‘innocence’ the reader is led to believe. An alternative, yet still ‘biblical’ image of Lolita is given: “She moved like a fair angel among three horrible Boschian apples.” This suggestion that Lolita is angelically sacred is probably an exaggeration of her innocence, but emphasises the need for the reader to see Humbert as guilty of falling into temptation. Despite such an unusual and morally dubious situation, it would be unreasonable not to read ‘Lolita’ as a love story, as that it is exactly what Humbert’s narrative is. It is interesting that the two major films of ‘Lolita’ have both presented the story precisely as Humbert tells it, whilst most literary criticism of the novel takes the opposite view that the reality deviates from the first-person narrative we are given. Evidence for Humbert being in love with Lolita, and not just a paedophile, is that he is utterly besotted with her even after she is no longer a young girl. He outpours, “there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined, hands and her goose-flesh white arms and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D. – and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.”Despite her ageing, looking worn and less pretty, Humbert still loves her. On the one hand, Humbert’s conception of love may not correspond to a conventional and acceptable one. On the other hand, he has disposed of paedophilic obsessions somewhat. Even after he has gone to jail and begun writing up his confessional, she is the “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” he says. Clearly, their relationship lacks the equality or mutuality that we associate with classic love stories of which ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the flagship example. At one point Lolita even accuses Humbert of raping her – whether this can be seen as a genuine accusation or a playful, childish retort is unclear. In fact it is the inequality that makes the love story; Lolita is suffering from an Electra complex of sorts: she had a volatile, competitive relationship with her mother, and is in love with her stepfather. Therefore it might not be totally unrealistic to accept that the love story Humbert is telling is true. The reader has much evidence with which to question Humbert’s storytelling – a one-sided first-person narrative, Humbert’s attempt to disguise his awfulness with fancy prose, self-delusion and unrealism, hidden implications of Lolita’s abuse, and suggestions of sexually obsessed misogynist. It is certainly hard to argue that the narrator should be totally trusted. Ian McEwan shows how there is deliberate uncertainty and a sense of ‘what actually happened to Lolita?’ through his own character Lola. As ‘the truth’ is searched, Nabokov considers more important the way to tell a beautiful story, and narrative manipulation. Purposely, Nabokov leaves the reality or truth of ‘Lolita’ completely open to interpretation, as if the principle of the thing is far more important.

Read more