Examination of the Narrative Form

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Some critics read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a story of Humbert's unrequited love for the title character; others consider it a record of the rantings of a mad pedophile, with, as Humbert himself admits, "a fancy prose style." Nabokov's innovative construction, in fact, highlights both of these aspects as it reinforces and helps develop the novel's main theme: the relationship between art and experience. By allowing Humbert to narrate the details of his life with Lolita, Nabokov illustrates the difficulties inherent in an attempt to order experience through art. As he tries to project an ideal vision of his relationship with Lolita, Humbert manipulates readers' responses to him in order to gain sympathy and to effect a suspension of judgment. Ultimately, though, tragic reality emerges within his art.

In 'Lolita' and the Dangers of Fiction Mathew Winston comments on Humbert's motive: "The artist wants to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets. The lover wants to write a history that will glorify his beloved for future generations ... In his final words, 'this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,' Humbert appears as Renaissance sonneteer, boasting that he will make his love immortal in his writing." Humbert does accomplish his goal in part: his manuscript contains beautiful and heartfelt descriptions of "the perilous magic of nymphets;" it also records, however, the devastating results of his illicit obsession for a young girl.

Humbert tries to manipulate his readers' response throughout his memoir by presenting a poetic portrait of Lolita and his life with her. He admits, "I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers." In an effort to provide himself with an excuse for his obsession with Lolita, he details his relationship with Annabel, Lolita's "precursor" at the beginning of the novel. Of his adolescent relationship with Annabel, he writes, "the spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today." He suggests that educated readers will thus comprehend the beauty of that relationship, as well as his with Lolita.

Before he begins the details of his life with Lolita, Humbert introduces the following idea: "Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets.'" This description suggests he was a "hunter," "enchanted" by the "nymphet" Lolita almost against his will. He asserts that "under no circumstances would [he] have interfered with the innocence of a child."

In another effort to suspend readers' judgment, Humbert frequently interrupts his memoir with descriptions of sexual customs in other countries and other time periods. He notes that society dictates sexual taboos and that they change from culture to culture and in different time periods. "Let me remind my reader" he begins, that in the past girls Lolita's age frequently married and that artists like Dante and Petrarch "fell madly in love" with young girls. Thus, he intimates, readers should not impose judgment on him based on twentieth-century moral standards.

Humbert provides eloquent descriptions of Lolita that reveal the "incomparable" and "poignant bliss he feels in her presence." In the following passage, he mythologizes her as he reveals his exquisite pleasure over watching her play tennis:

I remember at the very first game I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation. My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee...

(This entire section contains 1327 words.)

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at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clan resounding crack of her golden whip.

Humbert illustrates the depths of his feeling for her when he admits that in his assessment of their life together, everything "gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, Oh God, oh God. And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer's ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is Lolita."

The wit and humor Humbert invests in his artistic reconstruction of his past further gain readers' sympathy and restrict their efforts to judge him. New Yorker contributor Donald Malcolm observes, "an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity ... quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity." The memoir contains several examples of Humbert's verbal brilliance and quick wit, but the most inventive occurs at the end during his comic scene with Clare Quilty, presented as Humbert's evil twin. In their death struggle, which recalls another lesser art form, Humbert notes,

I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us. [Elderly readers, will surely recall at this point the obligatory scene in the Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed with dirty cotton and rags ... When at last I had possessed myself of my precious weapon, and the scenario writer had been reinstalled in his low chair, both of us were panting as the cowman and the sheepman never do after their battle.

Humbert, however, cannot hide the reality of Lolita's suffering in his idealized portrait of her. He often, almost uncontrollably, undercuts his romantic vision with disturbing details of his responsibility for her "broken" life. At one point he admits, "I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me ... living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil.... [O]h my poor, bruised child. I loved you.... I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything... and there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it." Another time he writes, "I recall certain moments ... when after having had my fill of her ... the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair." Ironically, though, Humbert's brutal honesty gains him a measure of respect from his readers.

Humbert reveals his complex nature when he insists that to love a nymphet, "you have to be an artist and a madman." In the Foreword, the fictitious Freudian psychiatrist John Ray Jr. insists, "No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity.... [B]ut how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author." Donald E. Morton, in his Vladimir Nabokov, argues, "What makes Lolita something more than either a case study of sexual perversion or pornographic titillation is the truly shocking fact that Humbert Humbert is a genius who, through the power of his artistry, actually persuades the reader that his memoir is a love story. It is this accomplishment that makes the novel a surprising success from the perspective of Humbert Humbert's desires and intentions." Yet while readers recognize the poignant love story in Lolita, they also identify it as a tale of cruel victimization, and in its entirety as an illustration of the artist's difficult task in successfully ordering experience through art.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000. Perkins is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland.

Lolita: A Modern Classic in Spite of Its Readers

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Lolita stays like a deep tattoo. Critics tumble over one another racing to publish articles on its twists, myths and artifices. Paperback houses have reprinted it again and again. It is the second most-often-cited title in Book Week's Poll of Distinguished Fiction, 1945-65. It has been made into a movie, a successful one at that. Sales and critical attention have opened the way for the appearance of many of Nabokov's other novels, particularly his early or Russian novels. Without Lolita, Nabokov's rise to literary sainthood might have been delayed beyond his natural years. Indeed, it might never have occurred.

Nabokov's twelfth novel was brought out in 1955 by Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris when the author was fifty-six years old. It had been rejected by four American publishers on a variety of grounds, all, according to Andrew Field, stemming from "a compound of fright and incomprehension" (Nabokov, His Life in Art). Though Girodias had now and then published the works of distinguished writers such as [Lawrence] Durrell, [Samuel] Beckett and [Jean] Genet, he was known mainly for an output of "dirty books." He saw in Lolita, some of whose literary values he recognized, mainly a weapon in the fight against moral censorship. Nabokov was soon forced to insist that he would be hurt if his work became a succes de scandale. The author needn't have worried; during the year following its publication, Lolita was given not a single review and soon became just another book on the Olympia list, not even sufficiently pornographic to compete with some of Girodias' other titles, such as White Thighs and The Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe.

An early sign of the lastingness of Lolita seems to be the unanimity of contempt it aroused in snobs and slobs alike after it did find a public of sorts. Orville Prescott in the daily New York Times (August 18, 1958) declared:

Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worthy of any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.

Prescott shared contempt with "Stockade Clyde" Carr, a barracks-mate of Nabokov's former student and, later, editor, Alfred Appel, Jr. Appel found and purchased the Olympia edition in Paris in 1955 and brought it back to his Army post, where Clyde, recognizing the publisher said, "Hey, lemme read your dirty book, man!" Urged to read it aloud himself, Clyde stumbled through the opening paragraph: "Lo ... lita, light... of my life. Fire of my ... loins. My sin, my soul. Lo ... lee ... ta" then tossed down the book and complained, "It's goddam littachure!" ... Nabokov seems to have anticipated some of the fads, fashions and contempts of both schools. In the foreword to the novel, Nabokov's alter-ego, or mask, the scholar John Ray, Jr., says "... those very scenes one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale, tending unswervingly to nothing less than moral apotheosis." Nabokov's works are full of such clues and warnings, but only sensitive readers pick them up. In fact, Lolita remained an underground novel until 1956 when Graham Greene in The London Times placed it on his list of the ten best novels published during the previous year. As Field points out:

Greene's pronouncement aroused great controversy, but also stimulated the interest of many important and respected critics and writers, who, with few exceptions, were quick to recognize the enormous importance and non-pornographic nature of the novel.

By 1959 many literary people had taken and followed Greene's signal (I might say, "Not until 1959 ..."). V. S. Pritchett in The New Statesman appreciated the novel and addressed the problem of the so-called pornographic content, no doubt aware that the U.S. Customs Bureau had for a time confiscated copies of Lolita:

I can imagine no book less likely to incite the corruptible reader, the already corrupted would surely be devastated by the author's power of projecting himself into their fantasy-addled minds. As for minors, the nymphets and schoolboys, one hardly sees them toiling through a book written in a difficult style, filled on every page with literary allusions, linguistic experiment and fits of idiosyncrasy.

Such praise seems mild, given what we now know of the general richness of the novel. To one degree or another, for example, critics have demonstrated that Lolita is a full-blown psychological novel with roots deep in nineteenth century models; a detective novel with conventions that date back to Poe, perhaps beyond; a confessional novel; a Doppelganger Tale; an extended allegory for the artistic process; a sexual myth more complicated and mysterious than comparable Freudian stereotypes; even a fable with correspondences to the Little Red Riding Hood story. And of course it to some degree parodies these types.

In his final confrontation with Quilty, "the kidnapper," Humbert, "the detective," comically plays his role to the extreme. Then, as if to remind us that popular genres often share both conventions and cliches, Nabokov mixes matters; that is, for moments at least, a scene from a detective novel becomes, as well, a scene from a Western, "detective" becoming "cowboy," etc. Quilty has just knocked Humbert's pistol ("Chum") under a chest of drawers:

Fussily, busibodily, cunningly, he had risen again while he talked. I groped under the chest trying at the same time to keep an eye on him. All of a sudden I noticed that he had noticed that I did not seem to have noticed Chum protruding from beneath the other corner of the chest. We fell to wrestling again. We rolled all over the floor, in each other's arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.

The final sentences signal exhaustion, not only in the narrator and his opponent but, as importantly, in the author who lurks behind them and the reader who waits ahead. Yet Nabokov still isn't satisfied, as parodist he has recognized and used the possibilities for exhaustion in the detective/Western, pushing the scene to its sterile limits; now he provides the rewarding twist, presented in Humbert's comment:

In its published form, this book is being read, I assume in the first years of 2000 A D. (1935 plus eighty or ninety, live long, my love), and elderly readers will surely recall at this point the obligatory scene in the Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture.... It was a silent, soft, formless tussle on the part of two literati, one of whom was utterly disorganized by a drug while the other was handicapped by a heart condition with too much gin. When at last I had possessed myself of my precious weapon, both of us were panting as the cowman and the sheepman never do after their battles.

Heretofore in the scene we've been presented with a mocking of roles and literary genres, but now we find connections between poor detective writing and poor Western film making, specifically in the fight-scene cliche. Not only do genres share cliches; so do modes (fiction and film).

Here, as in many of Nabokov's novels, parody is close to essence. Literature is not the only object of Nabokov's playful pen. Material as unrelated as the author himself (anagramatically called Vivian Darkbloom) and artifacts of the American culture, such as motels, come under the writer's amused eye. That Nabokov's work and its parts are at the same time themselves and imitations of themselves is no surprise to readers of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Laughter in the Dark, and other of the author's subversive fictions.

Characters imitate literary or historical figures outside the work (Humbert Humbert as Edgar Allan Poe), they imitate characters within the work (Humbert as Clare Quilty) and they imitate themselves (Humbert, the lecherous father and Humbert, the dutiful father). They constantly confront mirrors, adopt disguises or masks, and become, at least in terms of motif butterflies, hunters and chess pieces. Word-games abound, particularly those that involve repetitions (Humbert Humbert or John Ray, Jr JR JR) and connotative resonances (like the surname Haze). Punning and similar games which allow a kind of verbal playback appear frequently. Clues, false clues, symbols and allusions are bounced against each other like the white dot in an electronic tennis game, though the author's hand remains steadily, constantly on the controls. And beneath all the trickery and games, as if in concession to realists like [Gustave] Flaubert and Saul Bellow there lies a more or less traditional, a tragic, love story.

Humbert's comment on the fight, quoted above, also reveals a quality that readers attending Nabokov's parodic vision may easily overlook: a depth of characterization. There are dimensions to Lolita, Quilty, Charlotte and others in the novel Humbert is extraordinarily complicated: a lover, criminal, detective, cowboy, mocker, serious in each endeavor, even the most foolish. After noting "this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity," Humbert shares the depths of his feelings for her, saying:

all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, Oh God, oh God. And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer's ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is—Lolita.

The subject here, however, is the novel and its readers, what happened and what might have happened. Consider. Because Lolita survived, as literature, as a popular novel, it prepared the way for subsequent Nabokov works, especially Pale Fire and Ada, which might otherwise have found no audience of notable size, might not even have been published by a commercial press. In sustaining a reasonably healthy life for itself, Lolita also made possible the translation and publication of Nabokov's important early novels, including Mary, King, Queen, Knave, The Defense and The Eye Further, it brought invitations for Nabokov's short stories from editors of good-paying magazines who previously had ignored his work. Finally, it provided for the author that glowing credential of a writer's popular success, a movie, which came about largely because of solid paperback sales. A work, then, which at the beginning was completely ignored, then existed as a controversial under-the-counter pornographic novel was finally published by a respectable house (The first Putnam edition appeared in August, 1958, and there were seventeen printings in the following thirteen months.) seemed to catapult its author into daylight. Yet this was decades after he had begun writing. How strange, especially when one recalls that Lolita was not discovered by an informed critic making a studied response or by an enterprising editor at a commercial publishing house but as the result of the bare mention of it made by another practitioner of Nabokov's lonely craft, a mention that itself might have gone unnoticed had the novel lacked the power to stir and sustain controversy. The oddness of it all might appeal to no one more than to Nabokov himself.

And so it did.

In "An Afterword to Lolita" he recalls his experiences with the four American publishers who'd rejected his novel before he sent it to Girodias: He found some of the reactions "very amusing." One reader thought the book would be all right if Lolita were turned into a twelve-year-boy and he was seduced by Humbert, "a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and and surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, 'realistic' sentences." Nabokov insists that everybody knows that he detests symbols and allegories,

... an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as "Old Europe debauching young America," while another flipper saw in it "Young American debauching old Europe." Publisher X, whose advisers got so bored with Humbert that they never got beyond page 188, had the naivete to write me that Part Two was too long. Publisher Y, on the other hand, regretted that there were no good people in the book. Publisher Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.

The author, after years of absurd neglect, had developed a shell of protection; any response now would amuse him. In jail or an asylum he would surely have laughed, perhaps scribbled out the folly of his fate on the walls of his cell.

I've intended my remarks to be informative and stimulating, not conclusive, and therefore I must warn myself away from the temptation to make something definite of all of this. The best closing is to be found in some of the words Nabokov himself wrote about Lolita. They seem to be a gentle phosphorescent light by which trailing fish—critics, teachers, writers, students, publishers and the like—might be guided. When he thinks of the novel, he says:

I seem always to pick out for special delectation such images as Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying "waterproof," or Lolita in slow motion advancing toward Humbert's gifts, or the pictures decorating the stylized garret of Gaston Godin, or the Kasbeam barber (who cost me a lot of work), or Lolita playing tennis, or the hospital at Elphmstone, or pale, pregnant, beloved, irretrievable Dolly Schiller dying in the Gray Star (the capital town of the book), or the tinkling sounds of the valley town coming up the mountain trail (on which I caught the first known female of Lycaeides sublivens Nabokov).

These parts he calls "the nerves of the novel." They are the "secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted."

And surely, I dare add, some of the reasons the novel has survived even its own audiences.

Source: Phillip F. O'Connor, "Lolita: A Modern Classic in Spite of Its Readers," in A Question of Quality: Seasoned "Authors" for a New Season, Vol. 2, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980, pp. 139-43.

Lolita. Overview

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The apparent subject of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is the titillating perversion of a madman who virtually kills his wife in order to make captive and lasciviously possess her 12-year-old daughter; and when the child, who has in fact seduced him, escapes him, running off with another man, he apparently kills that man. This lurid tale would seem to invite either a sensational or a moral response. The problem Nabokov deliberately sets for himself, however, is to persuade the reader to transcend the erotic content and eschew moral judgment in order to perceive his novel as an artistic creation and not as a reflection or interpretation of reality. Lolita is not immoral or didactic, he has said; it has no moral. It is a work of art. The apparent subject of the novel is Humbert Humbert's perverted passion for a nymphet. But we come closer to the real subject if we perceive that his passion is his prison and his pain, his ecstasy and his madness. His release from the prison of his passion and the justification of his perversion is in art, and that is the real subject of the novel: the pain of remembering, organizing, and telling his story is a surrogate for the pain of his life and a means of transcending and triumphing over it; art, as it transmutes the erotic experience, becomes the ultimate experience in passion and madness.

Late in the book Humbert says that unless it can be proved to him that it does not matter that Lolita had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, then he sees nothing for the treatment of his misery but the palliative of articulate art. At the end of the novel, addressing Lolita, he says, "I am thinking of angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art." Here is the only immortality he and Lolita may share. Here is the only balm that will soothe. Here, in art, are the forms that will control the passionate furies while the music of the words cloaks it all in saving beauty.

Not that "reality" doesn't intrude. Nabokov sought and captured the way schoolgirls talk; he conveys the feel and the smell of American motel rooms in all their philistine vulgarity. But a major thrust of the novel is toward undermining and mocking the concepts of fact, reality, and truth in fiction, toward destroying, in short, the very bases of literary realism. Nabokov undercuts a firm conception of reality by involving Nabokov the "author," Humbert the "narrator," and John Ray the supposititious editor in the making of the book, creating an ambiguity and uncertainty about authorship, reliability, and authority which attack the validity of fact, reality, and truth: can we trust the criminally insane Humbert as the primary source of our knowledge of events and people, especially since "Humbert Humbert" is Humbert's own invention? And more especially since his diary, presumably the original source of the narrative, has been destroyed? Or the pompous Ray, who speaks of newspapers which carry the story of Humbert "For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the 'real' people beyond the 'true' story ..." a man who asserts that the tale tends toward a moral apotheosis? The factitious factual character of the story that Ray emphasizes is only a device for encouraging our conventional expectations as readers of traditionally realistic fictions which make traditional moral judgments. Nabokov will disappoint these expectations just as he has deliberately confused the point of view and the identity and relationship of the characters. The techniques of the novel are forms of play for him, as art itself is play.

Writing his memoirs in prison, Humbert says, "Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with." It is the case that word play and pure sound are one source of the wit and joy of the novel, as Humbert imagines the nymphet he would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish. Nabokov uses language so that it draws attention to itself. It is frequently more important than the action of the novel. It is thus possible to argue that if Humbert had only words to play with, he never had a flesh and blood 12-year-old girl at all. She is a fantasy, imagined by a madman imprisoned as much in his cell as he is in his lust. Indeed the entire book may be a fantasy. When Humbert kills Clare Quilty, the playwright who abducted Lolita, the characters move as though they were underwater or with that heavily retarded motion common to nightmare. Quilty may be as unreal as Lolita, Humbert's alter ego haunting him for his guilt in relation to the child. Lolita is thus an occasion for Humbert's fantasy of sex and Quilty for his fantasy of violence and revenge. It is as necessary to transmute the pain of one's fantasy life into art as it is the pain of one's conscious and quotidian life. Whether Lolita and Quilty are "real" or not, language will serve as a means of dealing with them.

It is not only through language that Lolita is removed from the "real" world. As a nymphet, she is nymphic, that is, daemonic. A nympholept like Humbert instantly recognizes and always burns for such a creature. When he gets her into bed, in an inn called appropriately enough for a magical, mythical experience The Enchanted Hunters, he thinks of her as an immortal daemon disguised as a female child. Thus it is possible to read Lolita as a daemonic spirit residing in the human id, that is, as an irrational, self-destructive force related to the primitive in man that will overwhelm his rationality with the frenzy of its appetite. The price of this ecstasy is its inevitable pain. And so we return to language, because only it, only art, will bring these demonic energies under control. And that is the essence of the entire novel: its primary if not its sole reality is language.

Source: Chester E. Eisinger, "Lolita. Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature 3rd ed., edited fay Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.


Critical Overview