Lolita as Juxtoposition

Lolita is a terrible, wonderful book. Apt, I suppose. It’s a book filled with side-by-side complimentary contradictions, living together strangely and naturally, united in both the most subtle and the most outrageous ways.

What jumps out as the most obvious juxtaposition is the jaw-droppingly gorgeous prose of Mr. Humbert with, well, what he’s saying. He is so well-mannered, so eloquent, just a marvelous wordsmith with such delicate turns of phrase. I could sit at the feet of Humbert and listen to him talk all day…or rather, for maybe five or ten minutes. At that point, I assume I would need to leave the room in a fit of disgust.  Because these elegant sentences are conveying the most nauseating sentiments and actions.  I’m not just saying this as a product of a culture that sees pedophilia as taboo, either–more on that later.  I mean, using the most beautiful language you can imagine, he tells you that he is planning to drug a prepubescent girl and her mother so he can have his way with the girl without really stealing her innocence because, you see, she isn’t conscious so it doesn’t count. You’re pretty sure it’s a joke when he says it. Except then he plans it for months, continually goes to the doctor to refine the dose, drugs the mother to observe the potency, and eventually sneaks it to the little girl without having any idea how she will handle the pills. His language and what he is using the language to describe was the first thing that struck me about the book.

Humbert also takes full blame while at the same time justifying his actions and absolving himself of wrongdoing.  He self-flagellates,  calling himself terrible things, feeling ashamed, confronting thoughts that make him hate himself. But then talks about other societies that have accepted adult/child “love” and throws in many references to how he is helpless in the grip of these seductresses (also more on that later).  He believes his attractions are a result of his thwarted childhood romance. (And by thwarted, I mean that he blames it on the fact that, when he was in his mid teens, he didn’t get to seal the deal once when he really wanted to.  It was a real tragedy, I understand. Where’s the sarcastic font on the WordPress character dropdown?) He believes he is a child himself trapped in a man’s body, so in his mind he really isn’t doing anything wrong by engaging a twelve-year old.  It’s really a romance of two equals.  Yet, his power over the child’s situation–one that only an adult can have–is one of the things he seems to enjoy most about the relationship.  He acknowledges this in many ways and feels a superficial amount of shame, but never enough to cause him to offer up anything more than platitudes–admissions of self-hatred that seem more like tokens to pay a debt to a society that rejects him.

Another juxtaposition is the way Humbert sees little girls, specifically the ones he is drawn to (“nymphets,” as he calls them.) They are the purest angels and at the same time scarlet demons.  They are coy seductresses, even witches, in his mind.  As they toss a ball back and forth on a playground, Humbert seems convinced they are showing off for him.

But it is their innocence, the very absence of the seduction he attributes to them, that is so magnetic.  He knows the childish demeanor proves they know nothing of adult sexuality.  He doesn’t quite ever get there in his narration, but I think that it’s obvious he feels this way–he always seems most attracted to little girls when they are distracted by childish endeavors or thinking about something else. Watching children play games with one another or read books arouses him.  Dolores’ tennis playing inflames him. Humbert’s OK Cupid profile would list  “girls who aren’t thinking about sex” as his turn ons.  Yet he does everything in his power to convince the reader, and himself, that these fourth graders know just what they are doing.

It took until maybe halfway through the book that I fully turned my back on Humbert, but once I did, I realized he is a DESPICABLE, DISGUSTING human being.  At first, I felt pretty sorry for him, actually.  I could see that he was making excuses.  I found his attraction to little girls as inherently problematic, but it wasn’t his fault he was attracted to who he was attracted to.  We don’t have a lot of control over that. But then he took action on his desires and demanded years of, ug, carnal servicing from a child who was totally confused and unable to escape him.  We had to watch a little girl actually become a virtual sex slave.  The descriptions of Dolores having to trade her body for permission to be in a school play or for allowance…it curdles the stomach. Humbert made her struggle for coins during the act, thinking it was an adorable, titillating game (and then later hinting that he thought she was saving so she could run away from him). Then he acts the father, shaking his head at the moral depravity of this young girl insisting on getting paid for sex. Oh, it’s just heartbreaking and sickening.

But, oh, I loved this book. Psychological portraits are my favorites, and this was beautifully done.  I know a lot has been said about the unreliable narrator in Lolita, but let me just second it–Nabakov did the unreliable narrator in a way that puts The Great Gatsby to shame. It takes skill and delicacy to write something from the point of view of someone so skewed and twisted and still allow the reader to see exactly what’s going on.  And the language was just show stopping.  Every sentence was like a work of art.  Things got a little weird and surreal at the end, and it didn’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the novel, but that’s really my only complaint.  I think this will be one of the books I will return to over the years, like Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, and Clive Barker’s (marvelously imaginative, if at times awkwardly gross) Books of the Art.

Can I read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies now? Please? I’ve been waiting forever for life to give me the time…

5 responses to “Lolita as Juxtoposition

  1. This review really made me think, as all your reviews do. You talk about an initial position of sympathy for the protagonist, but frankly, there are so many reasons to loathe him. I wonder whether it is possible to separate our reactions to his attraction to little girls, from our reactions to his unimaginable cruelty. For example, would the book be in any way different if Dolores were a grown woman, and would we hate the protagonist less or more in that case? The cause for your initial sympathy for him would be absent, but somehow the crime might not seem quite so bad.

    I don’t know the answer to these questions, but you have certainly made me think. Keep up the good work. And yes, you may certainly read Mythologies now, provided you promise us a review as thought-provoking as this one.

    • As always, I’m grateful for the comments and the surely undeserved compliments on my adjective soup post. And I certainly appreciate a response which makes me think!

      After reading your comment, I was startled to discover how difficult it is for me to identify an aspect of Humbert’s personality I can consider in a vaccum. I wonder if that is my fault as a reader or if it is the result of Nabakov’s storytelling style. Humbert’s obsessions, manipulative personality, love of games, self-sentencing and simultaneous exoneration–it all seems tied to his desire to enjoy and control children. I keep trying to imagine a situation where the person on the receiving end of his affections had some form of real agency, and it was a mental blank.

      Certainly, Humbert’s personality traits might also show up in someone who is abusive and seeks out weaker partners to prey on. Graham Green’s Pinky of Brighton Rock comes to mind as a comparison–he’s similar in a lot of ways to Humbert, though I think Humb could give Pinky a few lessons in rhetoric. But Humbert’s immense insecurity (the part of me still mentally in school wants to put so many citations go here) makes the idea that he would be attracted to anyone who could exert any real self assertion seem impossible.

      But how interesting to think about how I would feel about him if there wasn’t that first feeling of “you poor sap” at the beginning, doomed to live in a society that rejected him. I’d probably have less emotion frankly–an abusive, sadistic main character really isn’t all that interesting. The ol’ good v. evil story makes me yawn. A story like this, where my are sympathies established and then betrayed…well, that’s interesting!

      • interesting, yes. You almost make me want to reread the book! I agree Nabokov isn’t clear about good v evil, and perhaps that would be duller to read.. but then he would at least be saying something conclusive… I was and am fond of him for his prose, but I think there is something seriously lacking. For all the playfulness, he doesn’t really get us anywhere. A long narrative ought to bring one to something, but this is almost sustained play — undoubtedly great fun and skillful, but so what?

        Prof Morson put me onto this, actually. Nabokov doesn’t conclude or draw lessons or draw anything, really, out of his stories. Which perhaps is po-mo and all, but leaves a certain absence that is I think a defect. Hence the diffuse ending, and hence the unsatisfied or “betrayed” reader, in another sense. I’d say.

        On another note, I love your reviews. They are fantastic. Please go on. If you want mythologies, I can help 🙂

      • Girl, I love you. I think you point out exactly what the book is missing. I hate rules, formulas, tradition and all that, but often those things are in place for a reason. People want you to resolve your story because it makes them feel cheated if you don’t. You spent all this time investing yourself in the story, and you want something to show for it. But if there was a clean-shaven, “moral-to-the-story”-type ending, that wouldn’t be satisfying either. It has to be something complex, open-ended enough for discussion but closed off enough for resolution. To tell you the truth, I feel pretty guilty criticizing authors for things like this because I know the level of delicacy their dance requires. I couldn’t do it if my life depended on it.

        Now, DREISER (I know, I’m a broken record), that’s a guy who can do it right. Total moral ambiguity. Very little conventional plot arching. Sometimes he just ends in what seems like a random point in the character’s life. And yet, the book feels finished when it’s finished. There are questions left, but you don’t feel cheated. (BTW, I have a copy of An American Tragedy with your name on it.)

        Nabokov has such beautiful language, it’s true, and if Lolita was just a bound, paper foil for Nabo’s language and it were clear that that’s the only reason the book existing–linguistic aesthetics–then, all right. I had a teacher once that said that Finnegans Wake is kind of like this, in that the best way to take it in is to read parts of it aloud and just enjoy the music of the sounds and syllables. But Lolita just has way too many other components to it to be boiled down to being a book about language.

        Thanks for being so nice to me. And how did you know I would need help with Mythologies? I was trucking right along until I got to the part about women and novels, and I have had a hard time getting past my angst since. I pick it up, look at it, think about reading it, and then throw it across the room instead.

        Miss talking about books with you. Let’s go to school together again. I know a girl in Northwestern’s Slavic Studies program–maybe she can get me in.

        Just kidding. I have an awesome, fast car to pay off now.

  2. and and you’re funny and insightful and I like the juxtaposition, it feels a really appropriate and illuminating way to present this! The psychological portrait and the unreliable narrator probably are the meat of “interesting” here, so yes, thanks for a very cool read.

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