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Literature is not solely a method of entertainment. It is also used to expand a readers mind by allowing them to enter a different world. To do so, a reader will often have to suspend their disbelief. It is very rare that one must question what he/she is reading. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is the confession of an erudite European intellectual with an obsessive desire for “nymphets”-girls between the ages of nine and fourteen who are, as he judges them, sexually aware. In Humbert Humbert’s confession, he admits to the years of molestation of a young girl referred to as Lolita (Dolores Haze). This confession is written by him while awaiting trial for a seemingly unrelated murder. At the end of the novel, Humbert states that the murder he committed was an act of love and he rationalizes not only his violence but his pedophilia. Although the confession seems free-flowing and a spur of the moment decision on the part of the narrator, how does Nabokov indicate that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator through the use of literary devices and linguistic patterns in Lolita? Despite Humbert Humbert’s horrid crimes, his language and wordplay make for a more pleasant reading experience than one would expect. Through the use of characterization, diction, and comparison and contrast, Nabokov suggests that Humbert is unreliable and knowingly writes a tale that paints himself as a victim of circumstances.
As Humbert Humbert is the narrator of the novel, he characterizes the individuals in the story. No second opinions are presented; therefore the reader is given a one-dimensional interpretation of each character. There are clues in the novel that suggest Humbert’s descriptions are biased in his favour, including the rapid changes in the characters’ personalities and the tone in which they are described.
Humbert’s descriptions of Charlotte Haze, in particular, change significantly as the story progresses. Charlotte, Lolita’s mother and Humbert’s eventual wife in the novel, is a middle-class American housewife who aspires to be sophisticated and cultured. Her relationship with her daughter is strained as she focuses all her attention on accommodating her lodger Humbert Humbert, who finds her intolerable and simply wants access to Lolita (Dolores Haze). During the beginning of the novel and the beginning of their relationship, Humbert refers to Charlotte simply as “the Haze woman”. His disgust and aggravation is apparent even at the mention of her presence. When first describing Charlotte to the reader, Humbert states: “I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. She was, obviously, one of those woman whose polished words may reflect a book club…but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humour” (Nabokov 37). His dislike for Charlotte is made clear from the moment she is introduced to the reader; however Humbert continues to point out her vulgarity and lack of sophistication. One night, while secretly fondling Lolita on the front porch, Humbert writes: “[Lo] fidgeted a good deal so that finally her mother told her sharply to quit it and sent [her] doll flying into the dark” (Nabokov 46). Charlotte’s behaviour seems over-the-top and disdainful. However, it is interesting that whenever Humbert has any inappropriate contact with Lolita, he follows quickly by writing of Charlotte’s contempt towards her daughter. After his contact with Lolita on the front porch, he quite sarcastically writes the following excerpt:
“[Lolita] had been spiteful, if you please, at the age of one, when she used to throw her toys out of her crib, so that her poor mother should keep picking them up, the villainous infant. Now, at twelve, she was a regular pest, said Haze. Her grades were poor. Of course, moodiness is a common concomitant of growing up, but Lolita exagerrate[d]. Sullen and evasive. Rude and defiant” (Nabokov 46).
Although expressing Charlotte’s frustration with her daughter, the speech is not a direct quote from Charlotte indicating that Humbert is paraphrasing what she has told him. This harsh-toned speech seems to be a convenient ploy on the part of the narrator to distract from the fact that he took advantage of a young girl’s trust for his own physical gratification. In fact, throughout the novel, Humbert’s abuse of Lolita is followed by negative dialogues from the other characters. Nabokov seems to suggest that Humbert’s confession is well thought-out and biased in his favour. It seems the narrator wants to justify his actions. After Lolita tags along to a shopping trip with him and Charlotte, Humbert quotes her mother as saying: “It is intolerable that a child should be so ill-mannered…when she knows she is unwanted” (Nabokov 51). While they are driving, Humbert takes advantage of Lolita’s proximity to “hold, stroke, and squeeze [her] little paw all the way to the store” (Nabokov 51). Humbert uses Charlotte’s contempt towards Lolita to justify his “affection” towards her. Although this physical contact is outwardly innocent, Humbert’s intentions are clearly pedophilic. It is by characterizing Charlotte as unmotherly and unkind that Humbert tries to gain the reader’s sympathy. He portrays himself as a father figure providing a mistreated girl with love.
Before her death in the novel, Charlotte is portrayed as a brutal, unloving mother. However, after she is accidently killed, Humbert is free to “parent” Lolita. After he collects Lolita from the summer camp she was forced to attend, one notices the change in the tone he uses to address Charlotte. Lolita, since returning from camp, has remained troublesome and moody. After Humbert has consummated his “relationship” with the young girl, they engage on a long road trip including many pit stops and shopping trips. The teenage girl is not particularly enjoying their voyage and is understandably vulgar and upset. Humbert is quoted many times as saying: “Charlotte, I begin to understand you!” (Nabokov 149). Humbert narrates and characterizes other individuals in a way that will arouse sympathy for himself. Previously, when Humbert would engage in inappropriate contact with Lolita, he would deliberately point out her mother’s unaffectionate nature to justify his touching her child. Now that Charlotte, the obstacle, has been overcome and Humbert regularly molests and abuses her daughter, he points out Lolita’s insufferable qualities. He now understands Charlotte and points out that she was not as negative a person as she seemed. Humbert does this in order to paint himself as a tired father putting up with his difficult daughter’s every whim.
Humbert’s descriptions of Lolita also change, removing the character’s likeability as the story progresses. At the beginning of the novel, Lolita is described as closely resembling Annabel, Humbert’s childhood love. Humbert explains that he is instantly captivated by her beauty: “When I passed her in my adult disguise, the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty” (Nabokov 39). Although Lolita is a mediocre American child, vulgar and even less polished than her mother, Humbert seems to view the girl through rose-coloured glasses. To him, she is not vulgar, but charming, not aggressive, but misunderstood by her wretched mother. Although Humbert does not appreciate Lolita’s idolization of American pop culture, nothing much else is said with regards to her intellect. Interesting to note is Lolita’s minimal dialogue in this part of the novel. She does not say much, except for her frequent arguments with Charlotte. In these arguments, Lolita is not portrayed as a delicate child, but rather a strong-willed, aggressive girl. “I think you stink” and “this is a free country” are some of the arguments made to her mother during their verbal fights (Nabokov 46). During one particular fight, Humbert writes: “Later, I heard a great banging of doors and other sounds coming from quaking caverns where the two rivals were having a ripping row” (Nabokov 48). Writing this, Humbert indicates that Lolita is able to hold her own against her mother. She is not the type to be trampled over or forced to do anything. By including dialogues and descriptions such as these, Humbert suggests that Lolita is a strong child who gets what she wants.
In addition to describing her bad-temper, the physical contact between Humbert and Lolita is always said to be instigated by the girl. Humbert narrates: “Presently an old gray tennis ball bounced over [Charlotte], and Lo’s voice came from the house haughtily: ‘Pardonnez, Mother. I was not aiming at you.’ Of course not, my hot downy darling” (Nabokov 55). What to an average person would seem like a playful act derived from boredom, Humbert tries to illustrate as an act of seduction. Humbert portrays Lolita as a willing participant in his games, as shown in the following excerpt: “Humbert Humbert intercepted [her] apple. In a sham effort to retrieve it, [Lo] was all over me. Every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty-between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock” (Nabokov 58-59). Although Humbert sits there almost inert during this encounter, and although Lolita comes to him, he instigates the situation by “innocently” taking her fruit from her.
After her stay at a summer camp, Lolita’s sexuality has changed drastically as the reader learns she has had her first sexual encounter. In this part of the novel, through direct quotes, Lolita is characterized differently. She is very teasing of Humbert: “I did not [miss you]. Fact I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you, but it does not matter one bit, because you’ve stopped caring for me anyway…you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?” (Nabokov 112). Humbert then narrates: “Lolita positively flowed into my arms” (Nabokov 113). This is the first serious encounter the two characters have: a kiss Humbert narrates as having been Lolita’s idea. Although Humbert describes the confidence with which Lolita engages in this behaviour, he also reveals that it was but an innocent game on her part, an imitation of fake romance.
Having already lost her virginity to a young man at camp, Lolita initiates sexual intercourse with Humbert during their stay at a hotel. However, more than a romantic partner, Nabokov illustrates Lolita as a young girl in search of affection of any kind. Charlotte, not fitting the maternal archetype whatsoever, was jealous of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita. Having not yet learned that her mother is dead, and believing Humbert and Charlotte are still married, Lolita’s contact and conversation with Humbert resembles a bitter act of rebellion against her mother who forced her to attend camp (an experience she describes as “dirty” and “naughty” despite her cool demeanor). Having sex with Humbert seems like more of a game to Lolita as she does not understand the severity of her actions. However, it is a way of betraying her mother, just as Charlotte betrayed her by sending her to camp. When Humbert reveals in a most insensitive way that Charlotte is dead, Lolita is truly heartbroken. Humbert writes: “At the hotel, we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently” (Nabokov 142). The quotation suggests that the two engaged in sexual relations once again, and although Humbert does not specify why Lolita was crying, it was most certainly due to the death of her mother and not the mild argument she had with him. The statement illustrates a young girl with no one to turn to except for the adult who victimizes her. Having lost her mother, her only remaining parent, Lolita turns to Humbert-her technical father. He uses her need for affection to gain control of the situation for his own physical gratification.
Despite frequent dialogues and descriptions in which Lolita is shown to be unhappy and vulnerable, Humbert adds his own biased interpretations of Lolita’s behaviour. She is characterized as a manipulative, able girl. If she is not bought certain things, if she is not allowed to go to certain places, Lolita withholds sex from Humbert. This is an unfavourable depiction of the young girl as her body is the only power she possesses. She has no money, and without Humbert, she cannot survive. In order to put herself in a position of power and achieve some sort of reward for her suffering, Lolita uses her sexuality-something Humbert describes as cruel, manipulative promiscuity. Killing Clare Quilty, the man with whom Lolita runs away, Humbert describes as an act of love for having forced Lolita into poverty. His possessiveness in this part of the novel indicates that he is defending his honour rather than hers. Humbert writes his confession in order to convince the reader that though he is guilty, he was controlled by a force greater than himself. Through his dynamic characterization of the other characters, Humbert inadvertently reveals he is only interested in telling the story from a viewpoint that will allow the reader to sympathize with him.
In addition to character development in Lolita, diction is also suggestive of Humbert’s unreliable narration. Throughout the novel, the reader is entranced by Humbert’s fancy prose style. It is the language used that makes the grotesque themes in the novel bearable. However, many recurring words and linguistic patterns used by Humbert betray the persona he wants to create.
Although Humbert wants his confession to seem unbiased and unplanned, the first paragraphs of the novel indicate that his confession is directed to a particular audience-“[the] ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (Nabokov 9). He, himself, titles his work “Lolita”, as it is essentially the story of the young girl. However, the foreword written by the fictional Dr. John Ray titles it “The Confession of a White Widowed Male”. It is interesting that it is always during the most grotesque scenes in the novel that Humbert directly acknowledges the presence of the reader. When pondering whether or not to kill Charlotte, Humbert directly engages the reader(s): “And, folks, I just couldn’t! In silence I turned shoreward…and still I could not make myself drown the poor, slippery, big-bodied creature” (Nabokov 87). At times during the “confession”, Humbert’s writing becomes almost self-reflective-it seems he gets lost in his past experiences. Nonetheless, in the moments where his morals come into question and where his behaviour becomes criminal, he speaks directly to the reader. Humbert almost acts as his own lawyer, and in an eloquent persuasive tone, tries to sway the reader in his favour.
Humbert also uses wordplay to foreshadow Clare Quilty’s involvement and significance to the story. In the beginning of the novel, Humbert reads a review. Clare Quilty’s name appears, alongside others, and plays are listed including The Little Nymph and Fatherly Love. Humbert says that Lolita could have appeared in a play called The Murdered Playwright, alluding to playwright Clare Quilty’s murder. Quilty’s presence is always felt in Lolita even before his character is introduced. This leads the reader to believe that Humbert’s narrative is not free-flowing, but rather serves a direct purpose: to gain sympathy from the reader for the murder he committed.
In addition to the change in audience, the connotation and tone of the words used change depending on the situation. Besides Humbert’s descriptions of nymphets, every other character and experience in his confession is described with cynicism and irritation. Nymphets are introduced as fantastical beings: “‘Nine’ and ‘fourteen’ [are] the boundaries-the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks-of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets…and surrounded by a vast, misty sea” (Nabokov 16). This description seems out-of-character for Humbert, who otherwise presents himself to be (within reason) rational. Humbert also states that not all girls in this age range are nymphets. It is “the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb [which identify] the little deadly demon of…fantastic power” (Nabokov 17). Humbert chooses to coin the term “nymphet” instead of using the accepted term of “underage girl”. By stating that he is not attracted to all young girls, Humbert tries to separate himself from “regular” pedophiles. The magical tone that surrounds these descriptions makes it seem as though Humbert is not in self-control and submits to the powers of these mystical demons who drive him to abnormality. It is interesting to note that Humbert is very scientific and technical in other parts of the book using jargon such as “pederosis” and “pseudolibidoes”. The two different methods of speaking represent Humbert’s ability to change according to circumstance.
While trying to explain his helplessness in the presence of Lolita (and other nymphets), Humbert betrays himself through his word choice. Although eloquent, his possessiveness jumps off the page. Whenever speaking of Lolita, seemingly arbitrary descriptions include possessive pronouns. This is demonstrated numerous times in the novel: “How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine” (Nabokov 161). Constantly referring to the girl as “my child”, “my Lo”, “my pet”, Nabokov italicizes the pronouns to place emphasis on Humbert’s possessiveness. Furthermore, it is interesting to look at the sentence structure. Whenever events take place involving other people, Humbert makes sure to unite Lolita and himself: “Last night, we sat on the piazza, the Haze woman, Lolita and I”. Even when writing, Humbert must remain close to Lolita, using punctuation to separate Charlotte from the two of them.
Humbert tries to label Lolita as the seducer and instigator of their physical relationship: “She played with and kept sticking to my lap” (Nabokov 45). Descriptions of such scenes are never explicit, but when movements are described, they are always those of Lolita. Humbert leads the reader to believe he is just a pawn in Lolita’s game. In another section of the story, he writes that “[Lolita] struck Humbert, quite painfully” (Nabokov 65). This is yet another example of Humbert purposefully showcasing Lolita’s strength and willpower. Surprisingly, he refers to himself in the third person-something he does often when he bribes/seduces Lolita. It is unavoidable for Humbert to implicate himself in the novel, but when he narrates the more disturbing things he does, he never personalizes it, using “Humbert” instead of “I” or “me”. By doing so, Humbert defeats the purpose of a confession, not really acknowledging it was him who did anything wrong.
Although Lolita is shown to sometimes be an hasty child, the words used to describe her when she’s around Humbert always paint her as bold and aggressive. She is said to make Humbert nervous. When Lolita reproaches him for his lack of kissing skill, Humbert tells her to “show [him] wight ray” (Nabokov 120). It seems out-of-character for the eloquent Humbert to be so inarticulate. However, through the use of diction and punctuation, Nabokov suggests that Humbert does not directly quote characters in the novel. In one part of the novel, Humbert writes: “‘Look, we need to go,’ said Lolita–or something along that line” (Nabokov 76). Even though Lolita is clearly quoted, Humbert cannot be sure. This allows the reader to create distrust in Humbert, as he clearly changes dialogue. Many of the letters and conversations Humbert includes in the confession, he admits are paraphrased. Therefore, it is quite difficult to completely trust Humbert’s story as some of his bias has inevitably seeped through.
Also interesting are the nicknames given by Humbert to other characters. Charlotte is also known as “the Haze woman”, “cold big Haze” and “Lady Hum”. Humbert reveals his own mercurial nature by changing the connotation of the nicknames depending on his mood. The fact that his opinions of other characters change so rapidly and so often indicate that Humbert is using them to better his image in the eyes of the reader.
There are instances where Humbert seems disgusted with himself, describing his attraction to nymphets as “a monstrous love”(Nabokov 83). Immediately after he reproaches himself, Humbert goes on to support pedophilia: “We are not sex fiends! We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen sufficiently well-integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years…of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we” (Nabokov 88). Humbert never apologizes for his behaviour, admitting it is only society that makes him feel deviant.
Nabokov uses contrast and comparison in Lolita to indicate Humbert Humbert’s biased narration. Humbert often defends his pedophilia-reprimanding society’s hypocrisy. He compares his relationship with Lolita to many historical couples: American president Abraham Lincoln and his younger wife, Italian scholar Petrarch and 12 year-old Laureen, and poet Dante Alighieri and his 9 year-old companion. Humbert mentions these relationships as if to validate his relationship with Lolita. These men, whose women were often their muse, served great purpose to society. Humbert questions the confines the law puts on his people (pedophiles), as these men of great status improved the world while sharing his love of nymphets. It is important to note Humbert does not dwell on the age of these men or the time period they lived in (hundreds of years ago).
In addition to this, Humbert makes a direct comparison between Annabel, his childhood love, and Lolita. Dolores Haze takes on multiple names: Lo, Lola, Dolly, Hot Little Haze, and Lolita. Humbert states that: “in [his] arms, she was always Lolita” (Nabokov 9). Later on in the novel, one discovers that “Lolita” is derived from combining Annabel’s name with the name “Dolores”. “Annabel Lee” and “Dolores” produce “Lo-lee-ta”. Although Humbert ridicules psychiatrists, he drops many clues (including this wordplay) that suggest that Annabel’s early death is the reason for his attraction to underage girls. A love taken from him during a fragile age leading to sickness-this image, he hopes, will arouse the reader’s sympathy. In the novel, Humbert’s love scenes with Annabel are somewhat explicit; they use many metaphors and symbols: “I was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion” (Nabokov 15). As he and Annabel are of the same age, Humbert can be more direct with the reader in these scenes. Conversely, Lolita’s sexual scenes with Humbert are quick and do not describe any physical interaction. One assumes that Humbert does this to avoid arousing disgust in the reader. This indicates that Humbert formulates his story in a way that keeps the reader on his side.
Throughout Lolita, comparisons are made between older women and girls Humbert deems to be nymphets. Older women, no matter their role in Humbert’s life, are always unattractive, cruel and unintelligent. Valeria, Humbert’s first wife, is described as fat, dumb and completely inept. Charlotte Haze is also fat, disgusting and irritating. Young girls are always painted as desirable. The most beautiful language is used to convince the reader of the power of these nymphets. They are “seductive”, “physically-tone”, and “delicate” (Nabokov 17). Humbert tries to illustrate older women as revolting, so the reader will be able to empathize with his lifestyle. Younger boys, however, are never described in the same light as young girls. They are dirty, repulsive, and dangerous. Any boy Lolita speaks to, any waiter who comes into contact with her is described negatively. Humbert portrays himself as Lolita’s protector, unwilling to let her be tarnished by these lowly creatures.
This is how he sees Clare Quilty. He is the man who kidnaps his “daughter” and then abandons her. Before Humbert discovers that Quilty is the man Lolita runs away with, Humbert sets out on a mission “to trace the fugitiveâ€¦to destroy [his] brother” (Nabokov 247). In the final scenes where Humbert and Quilty are fighting, Humbert narrates: “I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us” (Nabokov 299). This is the only time in the novel when Humbert (indirectly) acknowledges his mistakes. Referring to Quilty as “his brother”, Humbert illustrates that they are one in the same. They both helped in destroying a young girl. This is the only moment of remorse shown in the novel, as Humbert quickly reverts back to condemning Quilty.
Although readers often expect the narrator of a novel to be completely truthful, it is important to question the reliability of the narrator. In Lolita, Nabokov indicates that narrator Humbert Humbert has his own personal agenda and tells the story in a very biased way through the use of characterization, diction, and comparison and contrast. Why then is this novel so compelling to read? Why does the reader insist on being lectured by the corrupt Humbert and feeding into his lies? Although the narrator is biased in his assertions, Nabokov makes sure to include several clues to help the reader discover Humbert’s deception. Lolita is not simply escape literature, as it requires the reader to actively think about the story being told. By placing trust in the reader and stimulating their intelligence, Nabokov has created one of the literary masterpieces of all time.
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