Humbert Humbert, Nabokov’s protagonist in his masterpiece Lolita, will rarely miss a chance to prove to the reader that he is as smart and well-read as they come. The references are vast, from Poe to Joyce to Freud… and one element that seems to plague the novel is the story of Adam and Eve. Humbert seems to be acutely aware of the fact that, yes, although Adam fell, it was all because of Eve, and so he constantly tries to push upon the reader the image of Lolita as a modernized version of Eve, and him as a modernized Adam.
His Edenic fantasies are not even subtle, for on the morning when Lolita sits on his lap and she “gives” him an orgasm, he describes her as holding in her hand “a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple” (57-58)—and there it is, the clear and direct reference. They stay together, he takes the apple, she takes it back, they flirt and play, and on the exact same moment when she finishes the apple, he climaxes, creating a correlation between Eve biting the apple, and him climaxing. However, the way he describes having “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor” (62), breaks the continuity with the biblical parable. Humbert believes that, although he has tasted sin, he has not been corrupted nor has corrupted Lolita. “Lolita was safe—and I was safe” (62) he proclaimed.
Here it is evidently seen how this character goes out of his way to prove to the reader that he is, after everything, innocent of perverting and sexualizing her. Even if he does confess of having killed Quilty, he is never able to bring himself to accept the fact that he has broken the child.
What he must do instead, to be able to cope with the guilt (or whatever feelings this evokes, for arguably, he is never able to fully repent or feel remorse), is what Eric Lemay explains on his essay Dolorous Laughter: “To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity” (par. 2). And how he manages to do it, how he accomplishes the task of ridding this girl of her humanity is one of the most genius and artful features of the novel, and it shows how deep and complex Nabokov’s understanding of his work and his character was.
Put simply, it can be delimited to one strategy that Humbert creates and uses constantly: the language, the vocabulary, the words. Through this strategy, he dehumanizes her and exempts himself from any moral blame.
One must only remember how he sees her, how he defines her. By this it is not meant the way her physicality is described, or the way his feelings are explained, or the way he loves her, but the names, the brands that he gives her.
The first, and the most popular name, must be the infamous nymphet, which he so gracefully defines:
Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, 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’ (7).
Here we see how, in a very literal way, he says she (or any other nymphet) is “not human”. Need anyone explain that nymphets don’t actually exist? This is a clear rationalization from Humbert’s part, similar to the one he faces after having his first orgasm by the child, which seems to absolve him (in his mind, at least) of any guilt of the truth, this being that he has raped a girl. This strategy he creates allows him to denude her of a self, to butcher her integrity and being, and absorb her, create her as his own.
Similarly, he calls her Carmen, a nickname based on a song which describes the toxic relationship between a man and a woman. Many see the woman in the song as an easy woman, some go as far as to say she is a stripper or a prostitute, especially because of the third line in the song: “And the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen” (61). Either way, the character of Carmen is far from the exemplary woman, and for Humbert to define the “love of his life” in that way is surely not romantic, much less something that shows his respect for her.
And thirdly, one usually forgets this distinction, he calls her Lolita, “my Lolita”, and not Dolores. He changes her name and rebrands her as he wills. He drowns who she is, and he makes her his; he not only abuses her physically but also breaks her person completely. When he renames her, he changes her, he destroys her.
Through these three simple labels, he decomposes her. He takes her away from the world, where she is real, and he encapsulates her in his words.
And this doesn’t only stop with the names he gives her, but with his whole lavish descriptions, his baroque vocabulary, his constant literary references and French phrases. “His artistry conceals her anguish. The magnificent veils of his masterful prose, wafting sentence after sentence over the readers’ eyes” (par. 4), makes one forget of what he is writing about. He hypnotizes the reader with his lyrical sentences, his silky rhythms, his mesmerizing, water-like prose.
One forgets that Dolores and Lolita are two different creations: one by Nabokov and one by Humbert. Lolita is there to be eaten, to be deconstructed, to be dissolved. He even does it for the reader: Lolita; Lo-lee-ta; Lo. Lee. Ta. Demonically, he tears her name, preparing it for anyone who wishes to accompany him on his feast, “to forget his canine gnaw on the remnants of Dolores” (par. 5).
Humbert’s wizardry in writing creates a toy out of her, and when she is finally destroyed, then he has no emotional or moral obligation over her. This distinction between the two must be made, or otherwise, one could get entangled in Humbert’s persuasive, baroque and sublime prose; from “Lolita” to “Lolita” one could lose sight of what’s imagination and what’s reality, what’s wrong and what’s right, what’s Lolita and what’s Dolores.
Then, who is Dolores? How can she be known?
In one of the most honest passages from Lolita, Humbert explains: “At the hotel, we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (142). She had absolutely nowhere else to go, one must repeat! For this heart-wrenching moment reveals something that, without it, the whole read of Lolita could change completely. One must have the realization, this above anything else, that Lolita is a lonely, lonely character.
I would dare say that this, and the ending sentence of chapter three (part two)—“…the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep” (176)—are two of the scarce passages where we actually get a glimpse at the character. And what’s interesting is that there is such indifference in how Humbert describes the moments, almost as if Lolita’s suffering were a burden or annoyance on him, and he describes them in such a passing and aloof manner, that one can almost prove how disinterested Humbert actually is in the real human he so proclaims to love.
So lonely is this character that, even being one of the most important and famous images of the twentieth century (either seen as a temptress, as a sex symbol or as a victim), she doesn’t even exist in her own book. Humbert’s Lolita and Dolores Haze are, for all intents and purposes, two different people, and there are so few real glimpses at the true Dolores that it is almost impossible to describe her; she is as elusive as Humbert is pretentious. To get to know why she does what she does, how her mind works, what her circumstances make her feel… it would be a treat. The only thing one can see in the character in a definite manner, especially after the ending of the first part (when she is told her mother is dead, and Humbert describes her as having no one), is that she is a terribly solitary character.
Even Humber himself accepts this distinction—“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” (9)—however, he adheres this changes to Lolita, without realizing that it was him that gave these distinctions, not her. She is a rather constant character (with only one big change, this being after she is told her mother is dead), it is he who sees her as someone different depending on where she is or who she’s with.
Most of the allure and attractiveness of the character is actually this exact indescribability, this multiplicity; who is Lolita? who is Dolores? What did she actually feel? what did she think? what is Humbert’s imagination? what is just an exaggeration?
In many ways, Dolores doesn’t exist. One could rarely find her without her sole defining attribute: her solitude. A solitude so profound, it transcends her ability or disability to elude the other characters in the novel, and is able to touch even the reader, and prevent him from grasping fully who she is. That is why, even if Humbert has fulfilled his dream by immortalizing Lolita, Dolores—the real Dolores—barely even existed.
- Goldman, Eric. “Knowing Lolita: Sexual Deviance and Normality in Nabokov’s Lolita.” Nabokov Studies. Vol. 8. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 87-104. Print.
- Lemay, Eric. “Dolorous Laughter.” Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
- Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Lolita. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.