Lolita on a show in order to distract the
Lolita was written by Vladimir Nabokov originally published in 1955, and with its release much controversy surrounded it. Lolita serves as a fictional confession by the protagonist Humbert Humbert, a murderer and pedophile. Despite his monstrous actions he describes in the novel, it is extremely difficult for the audience to hate him due to his cunning nature and manipulation of the events and reader. Lolita successfully makes the reader feel sympathy for a man guilty of pedohpilia, murder, and rape. Through Lolita, Nabokov illustrate how an individual’s ability to manipulate others can mask deviant behavior and invoke sympathy for unlikely characters through the use of intricate diction, symbolism, and an unreliable narrator. From the first page of the novel we are bombarded by such intricate language and diction that is almost poetic to the reader. The very first sentence of the novel reads, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip three steps down the palate to tap, at three on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (Nabokov 9). From this use of alliteration and how Humbert is so moved by this girl’s existence as he appreciates every movement of his tongue required as he pronounces her name, we get a sense of how truly captivated Humbert is with Lolita. The repetition of the “t” sound helps the reader see just how much Humbert adores Lolita. Later on in the book, after we’ve learned of the age difference between Humbert and Lolita and how she is just a 12 year old child, Humbert continues to use this poetic language. “She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple.” (Nabokov 66). Nabokov again uses alliteration, “holding in her hollowed hands”, as well as imagery to paint a picture of the object of his worship. However, with this use of intricate language Humbert distracts the reader from the fact that his object of worship is, in fact, a child. He wishes for his audience to only see the beautiful picture he paints with imagery and not the ugly bits, that she is only 12 and he is well in his 30s. Humbert implements the use of these poetic lines to shift focus and manipulate the reader from the fact that his reaction to a young girl eating an apple is wildly inappropriate and morally wrong. As one literary criticism says, “His first-person point of view tends to win our sympathy, primarily during our early readings of the text, because its mouthpiece is savvy, cultivated, fairly well-off, wonderfully educated, and witty.” (Olsen). Humbert hides the disgusting truth behind his linguistic mastery and practically puts on a show in order to distract the audience from realizing this disgusting truth. He completely sugarcoats his story. Without this linguistic mask, we would be able to realize the horrifying truth behind his words, however Humbert never stumbles in his performance and continues to trick every one of his readers and invoke sympathy from them. In the opening of the novel Humbert even writes “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (Nabokov 9). He outwardly acknowledges the fact that he is manipulating his readers with his linguistic magic by charming them to cover up the disturbing truth of his relationship with Lolita. Anytime a morally wrong act of pedophilia is committed or Humbert’s obsession with Lolita is expanded upon, he utilizes this beautiful, almost poetic language in order to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes and allow them to only see the language’s poetic appeal. These beautiful lyrics of language manage to deceptively veil the fact that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile preying on a young girl. Another way Humbert Humbert disguises the moral wrongs and crimes he is committing is through symbolism. In chapter 5 Humbert introduces the concept of nymphets, which he explains as “Between the age limit of nine and fourteen there occurs 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'” (Nabokov 16). Humbert attempts to romanticize his attraction towards young girls by making them seem magical and otherworldly, as well as making them almost ephemeral with a time limit on how long they remain in their prime of being a “nymphet”, only from the ages of nine to fourteen do these nymphets exist. He does this in order to create some form of justification for his pedophilia and pervertedness. Without this excuse, the veil would be broken and the audience would be able to see Humbert for what he really is, and through this Humbert would lose the sympathy of his audience. In order to cling onto this sympathy he’s seeking, Humbert even places the blame on the young girls, calling them “demoniac” and expanding upon the idea saying that men risk falling under their spell. This is where a second symbol comes into play in the novel, the enchanted hunter. Humbert further justifies his actions and diverts attention from his actions by creating the idea of the enchanted hunter. An enchanted hunter is, in Humbert’s words, a man who is caught under the spell and allure of a nymphet. The name enchanted hunter is derived from two extremely important aspects of the novel. First, the motel where Humbert rapes Lolita for the first time is called The Enchanted Hunters. It is also the name of the school play in which Lolita is the lead of. “I did not bother to read the complete text of The Enchanted Hunters, the playlet in which Dolores Haze was assigned the part of a farmer’s daughter who imagines herself to be a woodland witch, or Diana, or something, and who, having got hold of a book on hypnotism, plunges a number of lost hunters into various entertaining trances…” (Nabokov 200). The play mirrors the structure of the novel itself, in that Humbert’s Lolita that he describes is not the real Lolita, but rather a romanticized aesthetic of what he wishes for in her. Similarly, in the play, the poet avoids being hypnotized by thinking of the young farmer’s daughter as a figment of his imagination. Humbert does the same, crafting his own version of Lolita in his mind in order to freely abuse her and feel no guilt. In a literary criticism, Amit Marcus argues this very idea, that Humbert creates his own version of Lolita, diminishing her to nothing but a mere aesthetic object for his pleasure. This objectification allows him to freely take advantage of Lolita without feeling remorse, since in his mind she has become nothing but an object of his devotion. Along with this, Nomi Tamir-Ghez furthers this idea by writing, “Not only is Lolita’s voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader … since it is Humbert who tells the story … throughout most of the novel, the reader is absorbed in Humbert’s feelings.” (Tamir-Ghez). Throughout the novel, we have no idea who the real Lolita is due to Humbert’s manipulation of the reader. The symbol of the enchanted hunter and the symbol of the nymphet go hand in hand, Humbert uses both of these concepts in order to defend his attraction to young girls. He does this by placing otherworldly traits to both himself, the enchanted hunter, as well as to the young girls he preys on, the nymphets. The connection of these two concepts results in the idea that Humbert’s monstrous actions occur due to the nymphets, and that they are at fault and not him, thus clearing himself of any responsibility. He claims he is not in control of himself and his actions, as he lost all self-control in his obsession with Lolita. These ideas lead into the final strategy used, the use of an unreliable narrator. Wayne C. Booth coined the term unreliable narrator in 1961 in his novel The Rhetoric of Fiction. He defines it as “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work …, unreliable when he does not.” (Booth 154-155). Nabokov paints Humbert Humbert as an unreliable narrator by having Humbert point out his insanity multiple times to the reader. “A dreadful breakdown sent me to a sanitarium for more than a year; I went back to my work—only to be hospitalized again.” (Nabokov 33). Located at the beginning of the novel, this is one of the readers first hints that Humbert Humbert can not be trusted. This quote sets up the story for later on when we realize that Humbert has been imagining Lolita as something she is not and simply objectifying her the entire story. Humbert can not be a reliable narrator as he continuously twists the story in order to justify and glorify himself while dehumanizing Lolita. In chapter 26, we see a new side of Humbert we haven’t yet. “This daily headache in the opaque air of this tombal jail is disturbing, but I must persevere. Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15, 1947. Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head?everything. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.” (Nabokov 109). This is one of the rare instances in the novel where we enter the candid mind of Humbert Humbert, not the cunning charming persona he has put on the whole novel in order to invoke sympathy from the reader. The fact that he is mixing up dates further reinforces the fact that he is an unreliable narrator, and exists as a hint to the fact that his entire story is manipulated and untruthful. His repetition of the word “Lolita” is meant to signify a mental breakdown, like the ones he had mentioned he had in the past. These textual signals all point to the conclusion that Humbert is an unreliable narrator and we can’t take a single word of his story as truth without first doubting it. Boyd mentions in his literary criticism that, “By making it possible to see Humbert’s story so much from Humbert’s point of view, Nabokov warns us to recognize the power of the mind to rationalize away the harm it can cause: the more powerful the mind, the stronger our guard needs to be” (Boyd). The reader can’t take anything Humbert says as valid, as we only see the events unfold through his unstable mind and he has proven multiple times throughout the story, and even admitted it at the beginning, that he can and will manipulate the events using his mastery over language. Thus, Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator. Lolita is chock-full of vile and abominable subjects, including rape, murder, pedophilia, and incest. However, Humbert Humbert morphs this appalling tale and makes it enchanting and poetic through the use of intricate diction, symbolism, and an unreliable narrator. In a way, Humbert Humbert seduces and manipulates his reader just as much as he does Lolita throughout the novel in order to invoke the sympathy he’s so after.