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Discussion of Discourse in Nabokov’s Lolita

This essay explores the relationship between authorial strategy and the strategy and defence of the narrator within the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It also considers how the discourse between these two elements affects the reader’s perception of the narrator and our judgment of his crimes, coming to the conclusion that we must consider the bare facts presented by Nabokov and prevent ourselves from becoming swayed by Humbert’s rhetoric and powerful aesthetics. It considers this in light of the views of previous readers in order to understand how Humbert’s manipulation can at times be successful.The essay investigates in some depth the notion of Nabokov’s description of events and the subtle tools he uses that undermine the story we are told by Humbert Humbert. It considers the psychological tools Humbert uses to inspire pathos and understanding and the nuances to his character that make him considered ‘reputable’, such as his scholarship and seductive use of language, making reference to psychodynamics and aesthetic theory. In addition to considering the manner in which Humbert manipulates the reader, the essay also articulates, with reference to chess, his efforts to manipulate characters, the way in which they are perceived and the way in which his failed attempts at control affect his strategy and our understanding of him as a character. By exploring his relationship with other characters, we gain a better understanding of his manipulation techniques. The essay finally inspects Humbert’s relationship with Quilty and the purpose of attempting to minimise their parallels, while considering those drawn between the scene at the Enchanted Hunters and Pavor Manor.The discussion of these elements is focused on considering the discourse between these two very different strategies and the effect it and they have upon the reader’s interpretation of the text and characters it contains.In considering the context of this question, initially we must ask ourselves both what authorial strategy is and in turn who our author is. In all literary texts there is some notion of authorial strategy: beyond the setting of scene and the presentation of characters, it is this strategy that affects how we react to the text. What differentiates Nabokov here, however, is the distinct nature of his authorial strategy: for the purported ‘author’ of Lolita, as the phoney foreword by John Ray Jr. PhD suggests, is its disreputable yet erudite narrator, Humbert Humbert. In the background, Nabokov plays ‘McFate1’, a more distant authorial presence who governs the world that Humbert attempts to control. This presents a narrative dichotomy that vacillates between truth and fantasy. There are many levels of narrative control at play: while superficially Humbert manipulates the reader for his own ends, Nabokov pursues a more subtle authorial strategy that consists of allowing evidence to filter through that undermines Humbert’s poetry. Throughout this play-off between Humbert’s eloquence and Nabokov’s concrete evidence, our reactions to the text are conditioned.The notion of strategy is most important here: as a passionate chess-player and an wordsmith, Nabokov is a master of trickery. There is no better example of his almost imperceptible manipulation than in Lolita, where he is able to lead the reader into a Carrollian wonderland where nothing is quite as it appears. The greatest proof of his literary mastery is that we seldom comprehend the extent to which we are toyed with. It is for this reason that an investigation into Nabokov’s strategy is such an interesting topic: because it allows us to better understand how it is so successful. It is the nature of its narrator that is its greatest strategic tool and the most intrinsic to our manipulation.In this essay, I will investigate this strategy, most extensively in terms of the disreputable Humbert Humbert and his presentation of events and in terms of the effect that Nabokov attempts to create that in turn affects our understanding and perceptions. This essay explores the nature of the narrator, his tools and techniques – particularly in reference to his depiction of other characters and skills at chess – and the structure of the text. It also investigates Humbert’s failed attempts to manipulate other characters and the part they plan within his strategy.InvestigationNabokov’s strategy and the manner in which he is able to manipulate his readers can come through at times as another chess-game, where the reader unwittingly plays pawn. Perhaps the best example of this manipulation is the false sense of autonomy we maintains: presented with a variety of sources, be they poem, prose or diary, we feel empowered by our right to make up our own mind about Humbert Humbert. Indeed, Mathew Wintson wrote in 1975 that, ‘the ultimate judgement on Humbert is up to us.’2 This claim is disputable. Left at liberty to tell his own tale, Humbert can as manipulate timing, events and impressions, extracting a ‘not guilty’ from many readers taken in by his pathos and equally his bathos. This leaves some readers feeling, like Robertson Davies, that the story is ‘is not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.’3 By instilling us with the power of judge and jury, Humbert places his faith in the reader and thereby appears more appealing to us, thereby manipulating us in his favour.Even before we consider either Humbert’s defence techniques or his story, we should consider his character as a whole and the tools that Nabokov gives him. He is an outsider; a romantic poet lost in a world of banality and incomprehension. This gives him an air of romance that in turn is able to elevate both the deviant and disgusting, in terms of his paedophilia, to beauty. His scholarship adds to his overall notion of reputability: he knows so very much that we expect him, as an expert, to give us only objective truth. This truth, in terms of his defence, is especially pert in his reference to child-brides of other eras. ‘Lepcha, men of eighty copulate with girls of eight and nobody minds.4’ As we come to trust his authority, we similarly find ourselves agreeing with his views. His scholarship becomes part of Humbert’s defence: by making obscure literary references, we are given the impression that poetry so consumes him that he is unable to see beyond a ‘veil of literature’5and considers things only in terms of poetic justice and the literary parallels situations may present.’Lolita suggests to him Petrarch’s Laura […], Proust’s Albertine […] Merimee’s Carmen’6. The obscurity of these allusions endear him to the reader: once solved, one feels a sense of having shared something with our learned storyteller. It might even be viable to suggest that Nabokov’s targeted reading group could carry some of the same literary pretensions. The idea of a ‘harmless game of a literary mind’7 gives Humbert a degree of helplessness that allows the reader to pity him: his knowledge becomes a handicap as he appears not to understand particulars of life outside of academia. This too can be considered to be a defensive ploy, for his game is not so much a game as strategic warfare. Even as he ennobles Lolita with poetry, her treatment is nonetheless more barbaric than classical. This is testimony to Nabokov’s skill as he manipulates us even as he allows us to sense reality. We should consider also the vastly melodramatic poetic statements Humbert makes and how they become almost ludicrous. This, along with his ridiculous pseudonym, should also be considered as Nabokov’s authorial influence instructing us to pass off Humbert’s pretensions for exactly what they are.Nabokov grants Humbert two crucial psychological tools for a sex-offender: a motherless upbringing and an unconsummated childhood love. Life has been abusive and, while he calls himself a monster, these childhood experiences colour our sympathy for him, in a rather Freudian way. It is curious that Nabokov should highlight the importance of sexual childhood experience however, as he was critical of psychodynamics8, suggesting Humbert’s emphasis on them may give us cause to question the validity of our sympathies when we are invited to play Humbert’s psychoanalyst. While institutionalised, Humbert enjoys manipulating his psychoanalysts by creating primal experiences and obscure father figures that indicate a fa�ade of homosexuality.Similarly, Humbert uses his primal experiences as a tool to manipulate the reader: the lost Annabel Lee, the absent, ‘photogenic’ mother.9 His tales of prior manipulation are an early sign the author is calling us to question our fallible narrator. Though a self-proclaimed ‘monster’10, a ‘murderer’11 and a ‘rapist’,12 he equally presents himself as emotionally scarred. The presentation of these events is also very important: as part of his ‘defence’13, Humbert places these elements of his story right at the very beginning: they are the root cause, he insinuates, for all of my sins. By giving us Humbert’s story exclusively through his eyes and words, Nabokov allows the reader to recognise how Humbert believes that his powerfully emotive justifications can rationalise away his crimes.Humbert’s extensive vocabulary and lyrical turn of phrase adjusts our understanding of the situation even before we meet Lolita. His words draw in and ultimately seduce the reader, lost in revelry and poetry that draws a veil over the sordidness of the affair. By using the soubriquet ‘nymphet’, Humbert creates a new species, extracting the little girl from the sex object. He informs us that ‘to certain bewitched travellers, 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.”14 In the manner of any rapist, he implores us to believe that they desire it as much as he craves it, that these ‘nymphets’15 are somehow distinct from other children and that, in their feline curves, they somehow justify molestation. This epithet is a powerful tool as, though Humbert claims that he believes his impulses and urges to be wrong, they somehow justify the rape of a child. Most sickening of all is the ease at which we come to make the distinction between other children and this new breed, which in turn leads us to condemn Humbert less than we otherwise might and greatly affects our perception of him.Our aesthetic judgement greatly affects our sense of morality when judging Humbert. By painting her with poetry (‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul’16), he elevates this average child, at times vulgar, at times unclean, ‘Although I do love that intoxicating brown fragrance of hers, I really think she should wash her hair once in a while’17 to a nymphet, beyond words. Humbert tells us that one must ‘be an artist and a madman’18 in order to understand the artistry and the beauty of loving a nymphet. But this too removes the stigma of the little girl from the imagined nymphet and forces us to split our judgement of him into two parts, as Mathew Winston suggests: ‘moral and legal judgement upon him as a man and aesthetic judgement upon him as an artist’19. Aesthetic theory certainly comes into play here; striking out against morality and purpose, it states that art should exist not to provide an ethical function but simply ‘to be’ and to be aesthetically pleasing. Nabokov presents us with what is almost a cautionary tale: Humbert’s story exemplifies what happens when morals fall to the floor and aesthetics take over.This is in many ways a strategic trap: once we reach a point at which we can even begin to absolve and justify the paedophilia, we have been affected by Nabokov’s strategy and Humbert’s ‘fancy prose style’20. Can we ever really separate the two? Humbert’s language and images are by nature beautiful and by confusing the notion of paedophilia with the aesthetics of Lolita, our clearest moral obligations become hazy. Though within this theory, beauty is designed only ‘to be’, Humbert uses it as a tool for disguising ugliness and anaesthetising reality for his own morally reprehensible ends. By presenting himself as the tortured artist, driven half-mad with desire that the ordinary cannot understand, we begin to sympathise with Humbert and, in turn, find ourselves emphasising with his seemingly unjustifiable actions. So effective is Nabokov’s strategy of presenting us with a split dichotomy that we can justify the molesting of a fourteen year old on the grounds of turn of phrase, for once we can accept his actions with our aesthetic judgement, our moral and legal judgement of him begins to waver.When imploring us to judge him in a legal and moral sense, Humbert’s defence is to appear not to be defending himself at all, as Brian Boyd suggests21. He is a ‘monster’22 and a ‘maniac’23, guilty of all his crimes – we are invited to condemn him and to hate him. Nonetheless, for all his self-flagellation, he notes to the reader that he had, at very least, attempted to control his shameful sexual nature: rather than taking Lolita as he wishes and is able to, he merely grinds himself against her, bringing himself to bliss that is ignorant at least on her part. Similarly, at the Enchanted Hunters, he considers subduing her prior to simply raping: though this could not be considered moral, he nonetheless externalises a desire for her to retain some innocence. This ultimately creates an oxymoron, for we see that Humbert objectifies her and uses her as a sexual tool, yet at the same time claims to desire that she be left unmarred: how can we resolve this fundamental contradiction in terms? Ultimately, we see that this is all part of his defence. Humbert is a calculating beast who performs often in a chillingly rational way, marrying Valeria in effort to restrain himself, marrying Charlotte to give him opportunity to no longer restrain himself: we can theorise that a wish to leave Lolita ignorant of his whims and desires and the role she plays within them is largely a calculated effort to escape detection and prosecution.Humbert, tortured genius, vile beast and frustrated deviant, presents himself in one last guise within his defence: the spurned lover. While it is Lolita who caresses him from the car, in front of ‘blue eyed brunettes in shorts’24, Humbert presents himself as the lover who, above all, wishes only to be cared for and adored in turn. He claims to indulge Lolita, feeding jukeboxes with nickels for her throughout the diners and gas stations of provincial America. He has only her best interests at heart: he only begins to make love to her after the cue of her own suggestion. And how does the ‘fire of his loins’25 repay him? Lolita is sulky, vulgar, reluctant to play. There is, after all, ‘nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.’26 She teases him and torments him, making fun of his aching desires and somewhat pompous turn of phrase while King Humbert staggers woundedly around, his pride throbbing almost as much as his ‘sceptre’27.Lolita rushes out of both his life and the life he creates for her, leaving him frustrated and alone in the cold. Poor Humbert! This is particularly relevant at Beardsley when Lolita’s moves become secretive and erratic: we know she is seeing other people, thinking of other things and slipping between the bars of Humbert’s cage. Humbert’s information on Lolita’s person becomes restricted, and, as we are restricted to seeing only his point of view, our information becomes censored too. Sharing his feelings of ostracism, we inevitably sympathise with him: he is so very loving and tender and she so heartless, ‘crafty and cruel’28. For all that he searches for a loving embrace, she is in it solely for the cash (though it should be noted that he does steal this petty compensation back from her.)In addition to our restricted information on Lolita at Beardsley, Humbert also manages to paint a rather two-dimensional picture of her, allowing only snippets of her own true self to filter in. Lolita may well be crafty or vulgar, but her interests and foibles only typify a child of the time and, underneath the veneer we are presented, we can glimpse that there is a great deal more to the fire of Humbert’s loins than we might otherwise consider. This is a strategic Nabokovian point: we are invited to question whether there may be more to Humbert’s nymphet than originally understood. Although sometimes cutting, she pithily and wittily expresses what Humbert euphemises (‘The word is incest.’29) although these quips are largely presented as evidence that she abuses Humbert in turn. Nabokov’s treatment of her tennis skills is equally revealing; while elegant and graceful, she nonetheless shows no drive or motivation to win, infinitely puzzling our strategian but perhaps revealing to an observant reader, along with ‘her sobs in the night – every night, every night’30, the extent to which the handsome Humbert has broken her spirit.Hitherto we have seen the various manifestations of Humbert’s strategy and defence, as he shows us that he is vulnerable and poetic, flatters us, objectifies and anaesthetises Lolita to render her more abstract and finally presents himself as betrayed by his Dolores; in short, his strategic positioning of the reader. This discussion will now move to Nabokov’s depiction of Humbert’s attempts to position other characters while subtly highlighting the way in which his strategy fails.Humbert filters our information on Quilty, depicting him as his monstrous opposite – depraved, drug-taking and degenerate. Humbert might be a rapist and a beast but Quilty, we are told, is much worse. It is interesting to note how insubstantial the passage at Pavor Manor is. By exploring it in such limited detail, Humbert is able to deemphasise his own crimes against Quilty as well as the derisive tone with which Quilty treats me. In condemning Quilty, Humbert claims to love Lolita and supports these claims with insubstantial, albeit heartfelt, poetry: his love is exalted and passionate, knows no bounds and regrets every ill Lolita has ever been subjected too. Quilty’s fancy with her has no such links with agape and is firmly planted in eros: his pornographic exploitations of her, when expressed in Humbert’s emotive terms, make her previous attacks by Humbert seem all the more loving and tender. We should not, however, ignore the parallels that Nabokov indicates to us between Quilty and Humbert: while Humbert might attempt to feign innocence and accuse exploitation, the similarities between them disprove it. As they fight, a conversation breaks out:’Concentrate on the thought of Dolly Haze, whom you kidnapped -”I did not! […] I saved her from a beastly pervert!’31Either one of these could be the kidnapper or the beastly pervert, despite Humbert’s guise of spurned lover.Playing chess with the abjectly homosexual Gaston – perhaps a red herring thrown in for more zealous neo-Freudians to ponder – we see that Humbert’s skill in positioning his opponent where he wants them is highly sophisticated. This skill extends off the board but falters somewhat when pieces, as people, have the unwanted ability to move erratically and illegally. Chess is a game of skill rather than force: one cannot shunt an opponent’s piece into position, but more subtly coerce and entice them into what appears to be an appropriate spot. Humbert offers incentives that appear attractive on first glance but ultimately make those around him behave as he wants them to. He is seductive by nature, on the page and off the page, seducing Charlotte Haze, the lacklustre Jean Farlow, Lolita and even the reader. Humbert and Nabokov, as narrator and creator, play grandmaster with Lolita and the reader, pushing them pawn-like around the board. It is our responsibility to consider the attractiveness and seduction of Humbert’s words and look beyond the sob story that he provides us with. From beneath Humbert’s witticisms and wordcraft, Nabokov cautions us to question Humbert’s rationale; so easily are we manipulated and coerced many readers may react to the words rather than the evidence.Throughout the novel, Humbert, ever the game player, creates traps for people to fall into and roles for people to fill. ‘McFate’32 steps in and ruins these plans, or, more often, people make ‘illegal’ moves that are quite outside the game plans he constructs. When people evade these traps, they risk both enraging Humbert and deflating his puffed-up pride. His response is murderous: he wishes to kill the unfaithful Valeria, despite her being unloved and brainless; he contemplates drowning Charlotte when she distances him from Lolita and, most importantly, when he removes Lolita from Humbert’s chess board altogether, he comes at Quilty with Chum.In the closing passages of the text, Humbert says ‘I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges’33. The murder of Quilty is a crime of passion, he tells us, vengeance for Lolita’s kidnapping and pornographic exploitation. He does it out of love for her. We should question this statement, as we should do most other things that Humbert narrates. Killing Quilty does not benefit Lolita in any real way; she considers Humbert to have been her real tormentor and, other than a broken heart, does not appear to blame Quilty for anything: ‘He broke my heart. You merely broke my life’34. Humbert’s murder of Quilty stems from much less honourable causes: a loss of pride that leaves him writhing and furious.There is a certain tension between Humbert’s wish to hold the keys to other people’s fates and their own independent actions. Nabokov indicates many significant links between this final scene at Pavor Manor and the Enchanted Hunters, where Humbert first meets Quilty. There is of course the obvious quip about coming at Quilty as ‘an enchanted and very tight hunter’35. Humbert approaches the ‘hermetic seclusion’ of the Enchanted Hunters, as he does that of Pavor Manor, with the key to achieving his goal (the ‘purpills’36 and Chum) nestled safely in his pocket, noting on arrival at both places a convertible. The real similarities come through when Humbert has the material keys to doors in his pocket: with this, Humbert can defy time and control space, preventing ‘McFate […] pettily interfering with the boss’s generous magnificent plan’37. He locks Lolita in the room and Quilty out of his rooms and struts around these spacious houses of depravity (be they realised through classical frescos or their inhabitants), assured in the knowledge that he has his victims where he wants them. Much as Lo and Humbert stumbled into the original bathroom at the Hunters, falling into their story together, Quilty stumbles out of his bathroom into Humbert and, consequently, out of his own story. On both occasions, Cue denies that Humbert is Lolita’s father while reaching for a cigarette. Even when Humbert has all the doors locked and exclusive rights to the keys, the other characters’ autonomy prevents him from responding as he might desire; the sleeping pills have little effect over Lolita and it is she who instigates their first tryst. Even moments before his death, Quilty treats Humbert’s intentions with cheeky insolence and, in doing so, wrests the last bit of control of the situation. He escapes into the music room, which Humbert has forgotten to lock, and, even as he writhes and dies, ridicules Humbert’s grand plan and big words, leaving Humbert playing beta male to his victim’s alpha. ‘This, I said to myself, was the end of the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty. With a heavy heart I left the house.’38 Humbert has the reader locked in position: with exclusive story-telling rights, we hear only his side of the story through his own prevarication. By presenting Quilty and Lolita succeeding in escaping Humbert’s control, Nabokov turns to the reader and asks: ‘He’s positioned you as he likes, will you move as he wants you to?’We bid adieu to a remorseful, rhetorical Humbert, on a high slope in the mountains. This scene, poignant and pointed, becomes the closing note of the novel: Humbert listening to the cries of schoolchildren at play, knowing that ‘the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.’39 This moment of epiphany and moral inversion seems to indicate that, despite the moments of calculating cruelty and wanton exploitation, Humbert Humbert, fastidious, depraved scholar, has seen the error of his ways. This could almost convince us to be merciful in our judgement of Humbert. However, this last note is an intensely calculated one: designed to inspire pathos and respect, it leaves a final impression of Humbert’s concern and love for Lolita. Though the end of the text, this is not the end of the story but rather takes place two years prior to the murder of Quilty. Chronologically, Humbert leaves us in a manic and murderous mood, neither as poignant nor as regretful as he might appear from his closing words.ConclusionHumbert’s crime is not exclusively the rape of a little girl but the attempt to cruelly control those around him. His rhetorical strategy of appearing remorseful and philosophical may be convincing, but ultimately, Nabokov’s evidence filters through and, though our feelings may be manipulated and our perceptions altered, we see a truer clearer sense of judgement, inscribed between the narrator’s words, that comes through as the real strategy and plot against Humbert’s defence tactics. Humbert’s nature is barbaric and inexcusable, yet his many tools and techniques leave us questioning our own morals. By exploring his tools, techniques and own manipulation, we see that the discourse between Humbert’s strategy and Nabokov’s facts serve both to titillate, challenge and ultimately help us to find truth.

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