An Oral Presentation

Cindy Fields

Major Twentieth Century Writers: Megalomania

Fall Semester 2000

"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."

Humbert Humbert







Voyeurism, impotence and incest–not your typical literary choices in the 1950’s. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was considered risqué at the time of its publication. While his other works, such as Bend Sinister and Laughter in the Dark were successful and made into films, American publishers would not go near Lolita, fearing the American public’s morality would be violated. Only France had enough courage to publish the novel in 1955. Lolita received both critical acclaim and harsh criticism over its depiction of an older European writer/teacher who becomes sexually and emotionally involved with his pre-teenage stepdaughter.

The topic of incest was, and still is, taboo. Just because incest was something that happened in many families did not mean that booklovers were ready to read about it in such detail. Many critics considered the novel to be pornographic. But, you must remember that not one sexual act was described in detail. It is only pornographic in the minds of the readers because Nabokov only gave the readers enough visual imagery to come up with their own conclusions.

Nabokov has a great flair for language (he grew up in Russia and was fluent in Russian, French and English; he was raised by aristocratic parents). I got a sense of what Humbert was going through as he struggled with his abnormal feelings for young girls. His words excite all of the five senses.

But that mimosa grove–the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another. (15)

Even though pedophilia is a serious offense. I found Humbert’s guidelines, if you will, amusing and revolting at the same time.

Furthermore, since the idea of time plays such a magic part in the matter, the student should not be surprised to learn that there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell. (17)

Humbert’s obsession with nymphets (a term rarely used before Lolita’s publication) started when he was very young and manifested into something he could no longer control as he got older. He did not want to know any personal information about his prey–he only wanted to possess their entire beings. Whenever Humbert would describe the nymphets he spied on in the park, he reminded me of Grenouille’s (The Perfume) obsession with young virgins.

I had possessed her–and she never knew it. (21)

I believe that Humbert’s infatuation with nymphets is a cause of his inability to maintain a strong and normal relationship with a woman of his own age. Humbert’s first true love died when he was thirteen, which is a strong indication to his inability to emotionally connect with women. He has the emotional maturity of a thirteen-year-old boy. His inadequacies are often compared to a gun. His inability to discharge the weapon reflects his failure to complete any sexual act with a woman.

Oh, I press the trigger all right, but one bullet after another feebly drops on the floor from the sheepish muzzle. In those dreams, my only thought is to conceal the fiasco from my foe, who is slowly growing annoyed. (47)

Humbert’s passion and intensity for Lolita is constantly described through intense visual images and emotions. I can almost get a sense of how intense his emotions are for Lolita after he "rescues" her from camp (after the death of her mother). He is supposed to be a bright and intelligent man–that is until Lolita makes her moves on him in the car.

Not daring, not daring let myself go–not even daring let myself realize that this (sweet wetness and trembling fire) was the beginning of the ineffable life which ably assisted by fate, I had finally willed into being–not daring really kiss her, I touched her hot, opening lips with the utmost piety, tiny sips, nothing salacious; but she, with an impatient wriggle, pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva. (113)

Many may think that Lolita is an innocent pawn in Humbert sick love game. But she is not so innocent–Humbert discovers that he is not her first lover. She knows that she is not pure and she is proud of it. Humbert tries to shift the blame for his behavior onto Lolita–he makes an attempt of clearing himself of all guilt. In turn, Lolita tries to make Humbert look like the guilty party. But in fact, these two souls are both to blame.

The Girl Scout’s motto…is also mine. My duty is–to be useful. I am a friend to male animals. I am thrifty and I am absolutely filthy in thought, word and deed. (114)

Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me. (132)

She groped for words. I supplied them mentally ("He broke my heart. You merely broke my life"). (279)

Humbert knows he has an uncontrollable weakness for nymphets. But, he tries to assure us that any future relationships with nymphets will be approached with extreme caution.

I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not change, no matter how my love for her did. On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet’s limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita’s handmaids and rosegirls. But one essential vision in me had withered: never did I dwell now on possibilities of bliss with a little maiden, specific or synthetic, in some out-of-the-way place; never did my fancy sink its fangs into Lolita’s sisters, far far away, in the coves of evoked islands. (257)

Vladimir Nabokov’s command of language and visual imagery takes a delicate topic and handles it with tact and humility. I did not need him to go into great detail over the sexual relationship between Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze–it was not necessary. It is not the sexual acts that are the substance of this novel. A seemingly innocent girl’s power over a seemingly intelligent man is what makes this novel one of the best of the twentieth century. It reminds us all that no one is perfect, regardless of outside appearances.