Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, is best known for the controversy of its subject matter: a middle aged protagonist, under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, obsesses over and eventually kidnaps and sexually abuses a twelve year old girl named Dolores Haze. Nabokov’s novel is comprised of Humbert Humbert’s memoir writings that detail his obsession with the underage Lolita, which is his nickname for her, as he is waiting to be tried in prison. The narrative conflict that plagues Humbert's musings revolves around societal pressure, as he feels suffocated by societal taboos, primarily concerning paedophilia. However, Humbert’s narration of the story is written with bias and intent, as he attempts to lessen his culpability and gain the readers’ sympathy. This article examines the techniques Humbert employs in order to mask the real horror of his actions and manipulate the readers into sympathy.
Humbert is an unreliable narrator of his own story and the deception he interweaves into the novel serves the purpose of lessening his own guilt. He deceives both himself and the jury he directly addresses in an attempt to garner sympathy and ease his conscience. Before he divulges how he first rapes Lolita, Humbert makes an impassioned plea to the jury; “Gentlewomen of the jury! Bear with me!” (Nabokov, 2015, p.123). Even after the act Humbert cannot take responsibility; “I am not, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel.” (Nabokov, p.131).
Humbert attempts to rationalise his desire for children and blames it on Lolita’s precursor — Annabel Leigh — a young girl Humbert fell in love with whilst on holiday when he was younger himself. Humbert never managed to have a proper sexual encounter with Annabel Leigh, which he claims has thrown him into a state of arrested development and thus uses it to justify his obsession with Lolita. Humbert explicitly aligns Lolita with Annabel. When he first sees Lolita he refers to her as “my Riviera love” — a reference to the holiday destination where he met Annabel — and he then claims that Lolita “was to eclipse completely her prototype” (Nabokov, p.39-40). Humbert’s connection of Lolita to Annabel reduces Lolita to a privately held notion of his and denies her the opportunity to grow or create meaning in her life. It is also Humbert’s attempt to liken his inappropriate obsession with Lolita with the childhood innocence of his and Annabel’s holiday romance.
Humbert associates himself with celebrated literary lovers Dante and Petrarch, who fell in love when their female counterparts were young. What Humbert fails to point out however is that Dante and Petrarch fell in love with Beatrice and Laura whilst they were children themselves, not because Beatrice and Laura were children as Lolita is. Humbert tries to evade the branding of a paedophile through this association however, as Trevor McNeely explains in his paper ‘Lo’ and Behold: Solving the Lolita Riddle, the two aspects of Humbert’s personality live in cohesion; “The pervert and the poet are forever one in Humbert” (McNeely, 1989, p.193).
Humbert then changes approach and introduces his theory of nymphets — young girls who reveal to older men “their true nature which is not human, but nymphic” (Nabokov, p.16). Humbert attempts to present his obsession with young girls as a prevalent and normal sexual preference hampered only by social convention. Humbert’s justifications leave him passive before his actions — in his eyes he is either a prisoner of childhood experience or biological makeup.
Nabokov avoids readers outrightly condemning Humbert by instilling his narration with charm, wit, intelligence, and a sophisticated narrative style. Like this he is able to draw readers’ attention to his language rather than his actions — turn the jury’s attention into an aesthetic contemplation — and distance himself from his crimes. He dives into such a detailed account of his erotic pursuits that the reader tends to forget the inappropriateness of the object of desire. McNeely summarises this in ‘Lo’ and Behold;
“The contradiction here, of course, would be the obvious one the reader is made to feel immediately between the hero’s perversion […] and the gorgeous cover of romantic language in which he cloaks these desires, bilking the reader of his sympathy thereby, and undermining his awareness of the evil” (McNeely, 1989, p.186).
Another aspect of the conflict in the novel and a deflective narrating technique that Humbert uses to humanise himself is the presentation of Lolita’s character. Humbert oscillates between contradictory depictions of her; either as a nymphet culpable in the crime or else as a traumatised young girl with her childhood ruined, which he cites as “the two-fold nature of this nymphet” (Nabokov, p.44). Humbert from the outset reduces Lolita to anatomical features and repeatedly fixates over the details of her body, specifically markers of immaturity characteristic of girls her age. By objectifying her, Humbert robs her of any sense of self. Humbert’s erotic desire leads to him making a division between Lolita in her own right and the image of her as a nymphet he created, and he dismisses the former in favour of the latter claiming it to be “another fanciful Lolita- perhaps more real than Lolita” (Nabokov, p.62). Humbert then likens this vision of Lolita to photographic images- “an immobilised fraction of her, a cinematographic still”- she has no more individual agency than an image. (Nabokov, p.44). Lolita ceases to be an ethical subject and is reduced to an aesthetic object. As Amit Marcus writes in The Self-Deceptive and the Other-Deceptive Narrating Characters: The Case of Lolita;
“Humbert projects his hallucinations on the ‘nymph’ beside him, to such an extent that he is unable to see her as an autonomous subject to whom he is morally committed but only as a sort of divisible, intimate aesthetic object” (Marcus, 2005, 190).
This directly leads to Humbert’s mistreatment of her as he fixates on the erotic construction of her and not on the actual girl he is hurting, so his feelings of guilt are softened as “the moral significance of the abuser’s deeds is blurred” (Marcus, 2005, p.191). At occasional moments Humbert views Lolita for the child she is, and finds her to be no more than a “disgustingly conventional little girl” (Nabokov, p.148).
Humbert attempts to cast Lolita as an equally guilty party, claiming that she seduced him and even making a point to mention that her first sexual encounter was not with him but Charlie Holmes at Camp Q. Even before the act Humbert tries to impart culpability onto her; “the nymphean evil breathing through each pore of the fey child” (Nabokov, p.125). When Lolita begins discussing her sexual encounter with Charlie, Humbert feigns innocence at the prospect of sex, making her think that it was an activity belonging to the world of children. So, she “seduce[s]” him with innocent intentions, not understanding the significance of sex (Nabokov, p.132). Interestingly, whilst Humbert provides a lyrical description of his and Annabel’s attempt at sex, Humbert does not describe the actual act of raping Lolita — he narrates it ambiguously. This is simply another strategy on Humbert's part to distance himself from his actions and keep the jury sympathetic to his cause.
After the rape, Humbert abandons all connections to morality. He is aware that he is destroying Lolita’s life, yet he casts aside her grief. “This was a lone child [...] with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling, adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning” (Nabokov, p.140). He hears her sobbing in the night and revels in the fact that she has nowhere else to go. This disregard for her fragile emotional state is maintained after their road trip and during their stay at Beardsley. Although the relationship between the two transforms into one of sexual favours as currency, the one constant from their first night together is Lolita’s grief; “her sobs in the night- every night” (Nabokov, p.176).
Another way that Humbert minimizes his culpability is by projecting his worst traits onto Quilty, his symbolic double, and condemning him for traits that he himself exhibits — “free to destroy my brother” (Nabokov, p.247). Appel’s Lolita: The Springboard of Parody postures that Humbert sustains his fluctuations between remorse and denial in Quilty who is both “a projection of Humbert’s guilt and a parody of the psychological double” (Appel, 1967, p.229). Humbert’s killing of Quilty is meant to be a symbolic triumph of good over evil, but the two men are too inexorably connected for them to be clearly distinguished. Humbert awareness of this is seen in his description of their fight: “I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us” (Nabokov, p.229).
Murdering Quilty to avenge Lolita’s lost innocence is a drastic denial of Humbert’s own complicity. Humbert tries to make Quilty totally responsible which Quilty rebuffs; “I’m not responsible for the rapes of others” (Nabokov, p.298). What the murder of Quilty achieves is that it leaves Humbert with nothing but remorse. He acknowledges that he “disregarded all laws of humanity” and even laments for Lolita’s lost childhood; “a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac” (Nabokov, p.306&283). The validity of his remorse is questionable because it is clear that Humbert was aware of the destructive nature of his actions whilst they were occurring, which he himself admits to; “There were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it” (Nabokov, p.284-285).
The internal conflict Humbert experiences makes him an unreliable narrator of his own story. He achieves this via the first-person narration to keep the readers’ sympathy and to lessen his own guilt. Throughout the entire novel he attempts to portray his desires as natural and only socially unacceptable, which is why his guilt towards the end of the novel seems to be ingenuine. Until the very end, his only interest is in manipulating the readers and gaining their sympathy.
Appel, A. (1967). 'Lolita: The Springboard of Parody'. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8(2), 204-241.
Marcus, A. (2005). 'The Self-Deceptive and the Other-Deceptive Narrating Character: The Case of Lolita’. Style, 39(2), 187-204.
McNeely, T. (1989). ‘Lo” and Behold: Solving the Lolita Riddle’. Studies in the Novel, 21(2), 182-199.
Nabokov, V. (2015). Lolita. London: Penguin Books.
Figure 1: Lolita in Lolita (1962) [Still]. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/review/lolita-obscenity-cancel-culture-emily-mortimer.html
Figure 2: Lolita (1962) [Film Poster]. Retrieved from: https://www.metacritic.com/movie/lolita-1969/details
Figure 3: Lolita and Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962) [Still]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20220617-the-troubling-legacy-of-the-lolita-story-60-years-on
Figure 4: Lolita in Lolita (1962) [Still]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20220617-the-troubling-legacy-of-the-lolita-story-60-years-on
Figure 5: Lolita and Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1997) [Still]. Retrieved from: https://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Lolita/pages/Lolita-1997-258.htm
Figure 6: Lolita and Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1997) [Still]. Retrieved from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/lolita-not-immoral-novel-blame-whove-sexed/