Humbert Humbert deceptively narrates a journey of self in Lolita (Nabokov 2006) attempting to justify actions that the reader may find morally problematic. He is both aware of the societally placed reader, whom he often refers to as judge or juror (eg. on the very first page) and he weaves a seductive lyrical web to entice them to his justifications. At rare times, though, Humbert seems to have sincere insight into his ability to harm Dolores, particularly at the end of the novel after the murder of his ‘double’ Quilty (Moore 2001).
The main justification Humbert uses is his explanation of ‘nymphets’ and of Dolores being the epitome of this classification – ‘…the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb…’ (Nabokov 2006, p. 16). The nymphet is an idealised and youthful female (between the ages of 9-14) who is recognisable to those who seek her and is apart from other girls her age due to a certain look and manner of comeliness. Humbert makes many elaborate references to Dolores’ youthfulness throughout the novel, but the best example of his obsession is the comparative explanations of non-youthful females – ‘… a large, puffy, short-legged, big breasted and practically brainless baba’ (p. 26). More disturbing is his incestuous imaginings of a ‘second Lolita’ (p. 197), the fruit of his and Delores’ loins, when she comes into that magic age of nymphetism.
The reason behind Humbert’s youthful obsessions can be attributed to the tale he tells about his first dramatic sexual encounters with Annabel (p. 10-14). The events are emphasised as being severely devastating to his young self, and thus may have contributed to his ‘fixation’ with pre-pubescent females. The sexual instinct has found its sexual object, as in Freud’s theories that explain neuroses and perversions (Horrocks 1997). But as Marcus (2005) notes, this may just be another aspect of either self-deception or other-deception by the narrator in order to create some empathy in the reader for his story and his plight. Moore (2001), however, believes that the very descriptiveness of the narrative actually acts to warn the reader of Humbert’s deceptive qualities. The more flourishing the narrative, the more it seems like an act, the more it seems intentioned. As he describes it:
‘While Humbert deludes himself that he assimilates us in his solipsism, our judgements are honed, not blunted, by his verbal pressure, and we bring sharper vigilance and creativity into play’ (p. 74).
This interactivity with the reader created by the metafictional format highlight why it is a joy to read (even with the moral challenges involved, or perhaps even because of them).
The last chapters of the novel, from when Humbert receives Dolores’ letter, show a humbler and more responsible-seeming narrator. Despite the fact that he hints at intending to murder either Dolores and/or her husband, there is the fact that he decides he loves her and wants to be with her, despite her departure from nyphethood (she is now 17). There are the first signs of his recognising her as a person and not an aesthetic object, such as his recollection of seeing her look of sadness in the mirror (Nabokov 2006, p. 323) and ignoring it at the time. While there are hints throughout the narrative that he is aware of his dominance and hurtfulness (eg. describing himself in a predatory fashion) he prefers to see himself as fatherly protector (p. 168) or victim of her seduction (p. 140), until these last chapters of the novel. But, as Moore (2001) notes, these may be merely last minute appeals to the reader to empathise with him as he closes his narrative.
Humbert’s attraction and idealisation of his Lolita may be caused by an unfulfilled sexual desire at a critical period, leading to fixation. But due to an unreliable narrator using seductive language the reader cannot pinpoint facts from imaginings in Humbert’s journey, and thus, is challenged in their moral interpretation of the novel.
Horrocks, R 1997, An introduction to the study of sexuality, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmills.
Marcus, A 2005, ‘The self-deceptive and the other-deceptive narrating character: the case of Lolita’, Style, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 187-208, (online ProQuest).
Moore, A R 2001, ‘How unreliable is Humbert in Lolita?’, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 71-82, (online ProQuest).
Nabokov, V 2006, Lolita, Penguin Red Classics, London.