1. “Lolita” should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
This quotation, from the end of the fake foreword to Lolita by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., sounds like a serious pronouncement. However, by the time the reader has finished the novel, its assessment sounds patently ridiculous. As an editor of psychology books, Ray is understandably attached to the notions that psychology can shed an illuminating light on Lolita and that the novel might become a notable book in psychiatric circles. However, Nabokov, an outspoken critic of psychology, writes Lolita from a romantic point of view, portraying Humbert’s impulses as emotional and artistic, rather than psychological or scientific. Themes such as lust and love were, for Nabokov, greater than the sum of their scientific explanations. As a result, Ray’s attempt to assert that Lolita has some “social significance” is comical, an indication that Nabokov intends to derail a psychological explanation of his novel, in favor of a more magical or emotional one.
This quotation also seems heavy-handed in its assumption that the moral of Lolita will be clear to the reader. While Nabokov does not excuse Humbert’s pedophilia or his controlling nature, and while he clearly outlines Lolita’s loss of innocence and corruption, Lolita is not a morally didactic novel. Nabokov makes Humbert speak in romantic, persuasive tones that convince a reader to sympathize with Humbert’s pedophiliac impulses, even as the reader is repulsed by those impulses. Humbert is not portrayed wholly as a villain, and Lolita is no deflowered virgin: thelines between good and evil are not clearly drawn. Even Quilty, who lurks behind the scenes as a malevolent shadow, is more similar than dissimilar to Humbert. The so-called moral impulses scattered through the novel, such as Charlotte’s religious tendencies and Pratt’s psychological analysis, are portrayed comically. Such moralizing often leads to absurd conclusions and blinds the characters to the truth of what is happening around them. As a result, Ray’s assertion that Lolita must have a moral lesson seems like a foolish attempt to justify the beauty of a novel that deals with such sordid, immoral subject matter.
2. In a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove at the back of their villa we found a perch on the ruins of a low stone wall. Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards—presumably because a bridge game was keeping the enemy busy.
This quotation appears toward the end of Part One, Chapter 4, as Humbert describes his first unsuccessful tryst with Annabel Leigh. He portrays the location as a fairy-tale setting, a hidden grove of adolescent love forbidden to adults. Because of the deep personal significance the event holds for him, his assignation with Annabel grows to mythic proportions in Humbert’s memory. Memory, for Nabokov, is not a matter of remembered sentences and scenes, but a jumble of emotions and images that recreate particular feelings. Humbert’s association of the windows with the adults’ bridge game reinforces the urgency of the secret encounter, as well as the ever-present threat of society’s intrusion. From this point forward, part of Humbert’s attraction to nymphets will forever be tied to the illicit nature of his desire. Additionally, when Humbert first consummates his passion with Lolita in the Enchanted Hunters hotel, he daydreams about making the hotel into a more natural setting. Though this daydream isn’t explicitly connected to Humbert’s first encounter with Annabel, the sexual connotations are clear.
Readers have often accused the novel of being pornographic because it addresses pedophilia so directly, but portraying sex explicitly was not Nabokov’s intention. Humbert’s description of his encounter with Annabel is as sexual as the novel gets. He rarely describes his sexual relations with Lolita in any detail, preferring to describe the details before and the satisfaction afterwards. Though his encounter with Annabel has been romanticized in his head, his affair with Lolita is too close to his heart even to share with the reader. Nabokov, like Humbert himself, is less interested in sexuality or pedophilia than in the insurmountable nature of desire itself. Humbert describes Lolita’s shoes or skin with great detail but omits portraying the act of consummation. Desire makes him fixate upon the smallest detail of Lolita’s existence and does not limit itself to merely the sexual act. Lolita often misinterprets Humbert’s desire to be close to her as a desire for sex, which is not always the case.
3. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. 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 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.
This passage, the last paragraph in Part Two, Chapter 3, beautifully summarizes Humbert’s confused relations with his adopted country and his troubling relationship with Lolita. Humbert is overtly critical of the vulgarity and the transience of American popular culture. He despises Charlotte’s puritan values and constantly attempts to educate Lolita in the higher arts. However, despite his condemnation of American culture, Humbert, like many expatriates, is also enamored of America, of its size and youth and natural beauty. He finds himself contemptuous of America because of his intellectual superiority, yet drawn to the confidence of the American personality. Ultimately, Humbert’s desire for Lolita blinds him to everything else. The tour across the country was only a series of destinations to keep Lolita happy and compliant. With every marked stop, Humbert becomes more and more like the gum-chewing, superficial tourists he despises. The travels neither enrich nor enlighten Lolita and Humbert. They are merely wandering, and Humbert realizes what a wasted opportunity their trip was.
In this section, the reader gets a glimpse of the new, monstrous Humbert, who is capable of great evil in his quest to possess Lolita. Humbert had already planned despicable acts, such as marrying Charlotte to be near Lolita and giving Lolita sleeping pills in order to fondle her, but he had always tried not to cross the line and rob Lolita of her childhood. Now even her sobs, which clearly hurt him, cannot turn him from his purpose of keeping Lolita to himself. He has her under his control and has no knowledge of who the real Lolita is—Humbert is ultimately blind to Lolita, and willfully so. Humbert does not become a villain because of his awareness that his desire controls him, the secret shame of his desires, and he knows, somehow, that Lolita will never understand or return his love. He fools himself into believing that he is “showing Lolita a good time,” even though he knows that his desire will destroy them both.
4. “Do you really want to know who it was? Well, it was—”
And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle that name that the astute reader had guessed long ago.
In this passage, located in the middle of Chapter 29 of Part Two, Lolita solves the novel’s mystery by revealing the identity of her kidnapper and Humbert’s pursuer. Yet Nabokov still plays games with the traditional mystery genre. Like a good mystery writer, he builds suspense with the large string of adjectives describing Lolita’s answer—all of which (mocking, fastidious, not untenderly) indicate her feelings for Quilty. Then, even at the end, Nabokov withholds the answer, giving not the name but the shape of Lolita’s lips making the name, something that the enamored Humbert would no doubt focus on. Nabokov does not reveal the name itself, and though Lolita will describe Quilty and their circumstances in more detail later, at this point the reader is supplied only with the word waterproof. Though seemingly out of context, waterproof refers to a comment made by Charlotte at Hourglass Lake about Humbert’s watch, just as Jean Farlow began a story about Ivor Quilty’s dangerous nephew Clare Quilty. The story was never finished, but it was the first time that Quilty was referred to in the novel.
The presence of the word waterproof, as a substitute for the easy answer of “Quilty,” indicates that Nabokov expects the reader to be an active participant throughout the novel. He includes dozens of references to Quilty before this point, and, as Humbert states, an astute reader who participates in the games in and patterns of the novel would have guessed this name long ago. Humbert himself was too blinded by desire and his own lack of self-awareness to see his double in Quilty. The use of waterproof as an answer also indicates Nabokov’s method of linking fact with memory, which comes not in clean lines, but in instinctive recollections and associations. The name Quilty brings Humbert back to the moment where he might first have realized the danger Quilty represented to him and to Lolita. Nabokov uses the word waterproof to evoke memory instead of explicitly alluding to the scene at Hourglass Lake. Memory and thought, for Nabokov, are less scientific and rather a matter of jumbled images and moments.
5. Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that, in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, life is a joke) I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
In this sentence, located at the end of Chapter 31, Part Two, Humbert clearly notes the tragedy of Lolita’s destroyed childhood. Until now, Humbert has been selfishly unconcerned with anything but keeping Lolita. He has also been blind to her as a person. Though he has provided the reader with many clues to her personality, he himself can see her as anything other than the object of his desire. Initially, he had some reservations about taking away Lolita’s “purity.” However, he overcomes these reservations, as he does in all instances where morality conflicts with his desires. However, Humbert does not clarify whether the “maniac” in the quote is himself or Quilty, suggesting the existence of a deeper layer of self-doubt and self-loathing. Though he does frequently allude to the fact that he was an inadequate and failed father, Humbert nonetheless points to Quilty as the real destroyer of Lolita’s innocence. Even in the face of self-awareness, Humbert does not take full responsibility for his actions.
Nabokov also uses this sentence to make his point that art can triumph over the petty and lurid events of life. Humbert realizes that only art can alleviate his misery, and he tries to assuage his pain by writing this very story. In this way, Humbert can tell his tale and defend himself, as well as immortalize his Lolita in a work of art. Art becomes therapeutic for Humbert in a way that his many trips to the sanitariums never managed to be. Humbert also alludes to his artistic intentions when he defends his murder of Quilty, asserting that one must choose Humbert over Quilty so that he can tell the story and capture Lolita forever as a nymphet. Ironically, even the casual reader knows that while Quilty is recognized in the novel as a playwright and even as a “genius,” he lacks the depth of feeling to truly create a work of art and love. Quilty’s feelings for Lolita are far more sexual than emotional, and Humbert makes sure to portray his own feelings as more emotional than sexual.
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