Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur 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.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

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