Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a novel that follows Humbert Humbert, a middle- aged literature professor as he comes to sexually abuse and manipulate a twelve-year-old girl- Dolores Haze. Humbert has a remarkable facility with language, however, he is also a heinous criminal and a paedophilic sex offender. The contrast between his verbal mastery and his cruel actions results in a cognitive dissonance with the reader. Humbert is constantly trying to force, predict, and resolve and his reader’s opinions and judgments. Humbert is not only trying to seduce Dolores but also seduce the reader. In many cases, the seduction has worked, with Lionel Trilling for example calling that Lolita the greatest love story of his time. His dazzling use of language has resulted in many readers and significantly many literary critics to overlook the seriousness of Humbert’s crime.
When reading Lolita, one must be aware that language can only portray a version of reality and with Humbert being the lone narrator, one must be aware that the reality he is portraying may not be the most accurate one. Indeed, in this novel, Humbert has used language to paint a picture of himself, and of Dolores which is not accurate. With Humbert refusing to use her real name, insisting to call her Lolita and not Dolores, one can already see how language is being used to create this incorrect portrayal. Humbert explains how the name he has given her is to be articulated “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.” Through describing her name in this evocative manner, Nabokov indicates the aesthetic and sensual manner Humbert perceives Lolita- whose real name “Dolores” actually meaning “sorrows or suffering.” By separating out her name as Lo. Lee. Ta, it appears that he is dissecting it and diminishing it into its constituent parts. This is significant as any sense that this name is ¬attached to a real human being is forgotten, the actual young girl is diminished. Humbert has, left the “real” world in pursuit of his art and his fantasy of Lolita- leaving behind Dolores, the “lady of sorrows.” This is an example of how in this novel, as in much of literature, art and beauty is emphasized over truth. The emphasis of Humberts narrative is not portraying an accurate and truthful account but rather an account driven by him as an artist, with beauty overriding fact-hence allowing him to create a reasonable defence to his unreasonable crime. The aspect of his language I will be focussing on in this essay is the technique of doubling, and how this technique has been used to mishandle the reader’s morality. Through using the technique of doubling, different layers or versions of the truth are revealed. It is the unsolvable opacity these doubles create which results in the instability of the novels plot and its narration. The technique of doubling develops a sense of moral ambiguity. They create levels of reality which become difficult to separate and therefore discern what is truth and what is fictional- created for Humbert’s defence. It is the layers the doubles create which renders the moral questions produced unsolvable. The doubling also depicts Nabokov’s view that morality is an ambiguous and arbitrary concept. Nabokov said that in his opinion “reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable” , and this conception of reality is portrayed in his novel. However, despite Humberts mastery of language and the doubles he evokes to mislead the readers, his cruelty and the harm he has inflicted on Dolores cannot be overshadowed. Enough details are given for the reader to infer that she has been thoroughly mistreated and Humbert must be held responsible.
Doubling between victim and aggressor
Humbert is consummately cunning. It is his carefully constructed narrative and unprecedented use of language which has resulted in the doubling Dolores’ character, viewing her not only as a victim but also as an offender. The entire narrative is composed of Humberts continuous discourse. Due to Humbert’s first-person narration, all events in the book are therefore at his mercy. Thus, he is able to use his narrative to portray a version of Dolores which he believes to be accurate- one he also wants his readers to believe. This double of Dolores Haze is an adulteress and the one who seduces Humbert who in this account is the victim- not Dolores. Critic- Leslie Fiedler described the theme of the novel as “the seduction of a middle-aged man by a twelve-year-old girl” – not the other way around. This quote expresses how powerful Humbert’s narration truly is, particularly with creating the presentation of Dolores as the temptress and exploiter rather than the victim. Through using dismissive descriptions and embedding all other speech events in his own dialogue, Humbert is able to sideline Lolita- the eponymous character out of her own story. We are not given direct access into Dolores’s inner thoughts and feelings with her direct quotations being conspicuously absent. The lack of both direct quotations and indirect presentations is especially concerning during the pivotal chapters between 1 and 29 in part two when concerning their cohabitation. During one of their many fiery disputes in this section of the novel, when Dolores appears to valiantly oppose Humbert, he neglects to recount her accusations with the excuse that “she said unprintable things.” With Humbert being the one to portray this story, it appears clear that he naturally focusses on his own emotions. However, rather than what appears to be a preoccupation with himself, is in fact a deliberate and malicious suppression of impe8urative information. Through suppressing this evidence, Humbert is able to obscure the real victimized Dolores from the readers view. On the uncommon occasion, when Humbert grants indirect speech to shed light on the true Dolores’s serious protests, he does so in such a manner that makes her appear immature and comical. He describes her as making “monstrous faces,” at him “inflating her cheeks and producing a diabolic plopping sound” as she admits boldly that she loathes him. These portrayals undermine Dolores and allows Humbert to trivialize the horrific experiences she undergoes. Nabokov does occasionally reveal to the reader the devastating sadness Dolores experiences as a result of her infatuation with Humbert despite his best efforts to conceal it. Humbert comments that he could hear “her sobs in the night-every night, every night” the moment he “feigned sleep .” Clearly Dolores was deeply sorrowful, emphasized by her only feeling safe to express her silenced sadness when she thinks Humbert is asleep. However, despite this small insight into the true and damaged Dolores, one should note that this comment is only an external observation. Yet again we are not given direct access to Dolores’s private internal feelings.
Humbert continues to create this double of Dolores as the aggressor, and himself as the victim by using her sexuality as an excuse for his behaviour. He argues that it was she who instigated their relationship and it was her who desired their emotional and sexual rapture. “It was she who seduced me” and he merely obliged. Humbert continues his attempt to convince the reader that Dolores is not the victim but an erotic and lewd character by portraying Dolores as a “femme fatale,” a woman known for her ability to seduce men with her alluring nature. In defining her as a femme fatale, Humbert is able to blame Dolores for his behaviour- arguing that there was nothing wrong with his abusive treatment of her. Using the image of the femme fatale to define Dolores, Humbert justifies his actions by claiming that the seduction of a temptress such as Lolita is impossible to prevent, and he cannot, therefore, be held accountable. This double of Dolores has worryingly been accepted and integrated into our modern society- with the Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defining “Lolita” as “a young girl who has a very sexual appearance or behaves in a very sexual way.” Here we can see how the doubling of Dolores as the sensual instigator of their relationship rather than the victim is so powerful that her nickname has been misdefined. This acceptance of Lolita as a representation for sexual young girls presents the misogyny associated with female sexuality. Our misogynistic society has sided with Humbert and his double of Lolita as a “sexually precocious girl” (the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition) rather than embracing the violated Dolores.
Humberts stylistic narrative is used to disguise his despicable treatment of Dolores, minimizing the evidence of him being the wicked aggressor, allowing him to create the double of Dolores. He uses long meandering descriptions which create distance between the reader and their morality. This is particularly evident in the notorious scene in which Humbert is aroused by Dolores as she sits on his lap. He describes her wearing “a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before … chequered with darker pink.” Through using artistic descriptions to vividly describe the aesthetic Dolores, the reader is invited to also appreciate her beauty. This intern seems to make his sexual interaction with her somewhat justified due to her aesthetic appeal which both the reader and Humbert appreciate. The motif of red is also used to describe Dolores due to its suggestive allure and its connotations with ‘Scarlet Woman,’ a notoriously promiscuous woman emphasizing her erotic appeal. Through using the motif of red interweaved with exquisite poetic elements, Humbert attempts to divert the reader’s attention from his abusive treatment of her and portray Dolores as the sensual temptress. However, despite Humbert’s carefully assembled narration, Nabokov is the ultimate constructor of the narrative and is able to allude to the reader the terrors Dolores undergoes as a result of Humberts abuse-reminding them that she is the innocent victim of a repulsive crime. Through creating this double of the novels central character, the power of language is explored as it has in many cases, resulted in a colossal misunderstanding of a twelve-year-old girl as the instigator of her own rape, in turn undermining one’s moral judgement.
Doubling between Annabel Leigh and Dolores
Humbert uses another double in his attempt to justify his treatment of Dolores, likening her to a young girl whom he had a relationship with when he was thirteen years old. It was this infatuation he claims, that ultimately led to his obsession with Dolores. He names the young girl “Annabel Leigh” and avers that “there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved one summer a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.” Humbert describes how himself and Annabel were “madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.” However, they were never able to consummate their relationship and since that fateful summer Humbert claims to have been “haunted’ by that “little girl.” That is “until at last, twenty- four years later, I broke the spell by incarnating her into another…” Dolores Haze. Humbert explains his obsession with Dolores in psychoanalytic terms, as an attempt to redeem his first cursed experience of romance. This trope is emphasized during Humberts first encounter with Dolores- “my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that ‘princedom by the sea’ in my tortured past” , “Everything they shared made one of them.” The name Annabel Leigh originates from the character Annabel in Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.” This poem focuses on the infantile yet passionate love between two children and the subsequent death of the narrator’s beloved. Creating a double between Annabel Leigh (based on the fictional character) and Dolores, Humbert ties his relationship with Dolores to a famous romantic trope and figure. Through drawing this link, Humbert attempts to convince his readers that his feelings for Dolores are virtuous and not corrupt with Poe’s poem focussing on the honourable beauty of youthful courtship. Humberts invocation of the double between his childhood sweetheart and Dolores however, does not make a particularly strong contribution to his defence. Humbert and Annabel were approximately the same age when they entered their relationship, she was “a few months Humbert’s junior.” However, twenty-four years later Humbert is an adult and Dolly is a child. Not only is this clearly paedophilia, but with the large age gap of twenty-five years, it’s clear that her ambitions, interests, and life experiences are far removed from his own. Therefore, his attraction must be purely based on her physical appearance infused with his imagination- for the fantasy of an idealized Lolita.
This notion of Humbert obsession focussing on an incorrect image which he creates using his artistic imagination rather than the true Dolores is commonly argued. With this double of Lolita clouding Humbert’s vision, he is unable, at least until the end of the novel to recognize her true feelings, thoughts or identity as an individual. As Linda Kauffman writes “from beginning to end, she remains an enigma to him… Lolita does not exist for Humbert precisely because he fails to imagine her except as a projection of his desires.” The immemorial memory of Annabel Leigh is arguably a critical obstruction for Humbert understanding of the genuine Dolores, as Kaufman goes on to address, “armed with the tattered totemic photograph of his childhood love, Annabel Leigh, he “reincarnates” her image and superimposes it on Lolita.” This concept can be read as the moral message in the novel. Instead of the moral foundation relating directly to paedophilia, as would be expected, it is arguably to condone one from being ignorant of other human beings and reducing them to an artistic version. Ellen Piffer’s reading of Lolita in the 1980’s is tempting to mark as a defining moment in the critical history of the novel. In this reading, Piffer claims the issue’s surrounding Nabokov’s writing is the need to decipher between “the cleverness of his charming villains” and the “reality of their deeds.” The defining factor of Piffer’s reading is this argument, that Humbert’s crime is the projection of his private fantasies onto Dolores, intern imposing on her private internal world.
Doubling between Quilty and Humbert
The relationship between Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert is another highly significant double. Humbert and Quilty abide with the well- defined nineteenth-century literary double. In this genre of the literary double, the double represents the evil that the host wants to repress- this often involves sexuality, as is the case in this double. Quilty is established as Humbert’s double gradually throughout the novel. Initially, Humbert comments that “the resemblance was slight” between himself and the “crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush-” (Quilty.) However, as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the resemblance between the two men is a lot more than “slight.” The similarities between the two characters are so numerous and present that it cannot be considered to be a consequence. The two men are similar in terms of appearance- Quilty is described having a “hirsute chest” and Humbert also describes himself as “wooly-chested.” They have similar tastes, both having a fondness for fine wine. Quilty boasts about his “Magnificat cellar” just as Humbert remarked on the Farlow’s “good cellar” and of course significantly, both men adore nymphets and share an obsession with Dolores. Both men are also extremely defensive over their treatment of Dolores, when Quilty says “I gave her a splendid vacation,” it recalls Humbert’s claim that he did everything in his power to give her “a really good time”. Quilty himself comments on these parallels, explaining to Humbert how they “are men of the world, in everything – sex, free verse, marksmanship.” The phrase “men of the world” implies that Quilty believes both men are excluded from the social etiquette which governs society- explaining how both men justify their treatment of Dolores. The innate connection between the two men is highlighted during their final fight scene when Humbert says how he “felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.” Humberts narrative has moved from denying his resemblance to Quilty, describing it as “slight”, to merging with him in such a manner that the two men are indistinguishable.
When Humbert finally becomes aware of this incriminating resemblance, he seeks expiation through the conventional method of the double tale- the annihilation of the evil double by the host. But before this takes place, Humbert reviews his treatment of Dolores and for the first time acknowledges the full extent of his crimes towards her. Humbert recognizes his failure as Dolores’s guardian and protector and identifies the consequences of his abhorrent treatment of her. The fact that it is just before he returns to Ramsdale to peruse Quilty that he reviews his treatment of Dolores suggests that his quest to kill Quilty is tainted with a recognition of his own culpability. Therefore, although his primary motive for destroying Quilty is to punish the man who took Dolores from him, he may also hope to expiate his misconduct by killing someone whom he sees to be harbouring similar and even greater sins. Richard Bollock interprets the Quilty- Humbert double in precisely this manner. Bullock names Quilty as “the repository and personification of Humbert’s evil” and goes on to identify him as “the objectification of the evil Humbert must kill in order to become a successful artist.” Humbert attempts to disguise his erotic passion for young girls, by portraying himself as the victim and explaining his relationship with Dolly as simply his quest to revive his deceased childhood sweetheart. Quilty however, in Humbert’s eyes, is an abhorrent pornographer, a mediocre playwright- a much more evil man. However, he actually embodies the paedophilic lust that Humbert tries to deny. Despite Humbert’s attempt to repress this fact, when Dolly reveals Quilty’s identify, he admits that “I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along.” This is a moment of recognition for Humbert as “quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment.” Humberts recognition of Quilty’s identity has resulted in Humberts recognition of himself, as a pornographic exploiter of Dolores and a delusional paedophile who superimposes art on reality.
Quilty’s murder scene is mysterious and fantastical, almost fairy-tale like, contrasting with the formerly realist novel. The murder of Quilty, in keeping with the double genre, remains abstruse. It is not only his death scene which appears to be illusive, Quilty’s physical appearances also seem to be infrequent in the novel, his presence is only revealed through numerous hidden clues. One such clue is the Aztec red convertible that begins to follow Humbert’s car like an “imperious Red Shadow.” This is the first time Humbert suspects he is being followed. Humbert becomes memorized by the precision of the distance kept between their cars and becomes so baffled by the pursuit of his unknown shadow that it takes on a hallucinatory quality in his mind. These clandestine clues with the illusory elements of his death scene reinforce the idea that Quilty is Humbert’s double, as he appears more as a shadow than a real person. But this ambiguity has resulted in a debate into the existence of Quilty. However, it is only Humbert- who significantly is the narrator, who presents him as a possible hallucination. Quilty’s existence is attested on several occasions- by Charlotte Haze and Jean Farlow who know him as Ivor Quilty’s nephew, by his portrait in the Dromes, the entry about him in Who’s who in the limelight and so on. The fact that it is only Humbert- the narrator of the entire novel, who presents Quilty in this ambiguous fashion is extremely problematic. It highlights how unreliable he is and the implications of this are grand- as a great many of the novel’s events are now likely to be untrue and the whole persona of the narrator is one we cannot take at face value. Due to this instability, a straight moral judgement cannot be the conclusion. This double not only mystifies the character Quilty, it also has the same effect on Humbert. Through introducing Quilty as Humberts doppelganger and through this highlighting Humbert as an unreliable narrator- Humbert and his account remain ambiguous. As a result, it becomes challenging to isolate him as the guilty subject, through all the doubles and therefore through the layers of reality. This intern makes charging Humbert with his despicable crimes a more difficult process than it should be.
Doubling within Humbert Humbert
As the name suggests, another example of doubling in Lolita is within the character Humbert Humbert. It is inevitable for there to be a duality within the protagonist, who is both the “experiencing I” of the past, and the “narrating I” of the present. This is the case with Humbert as he is both the protagonist of the tale and its narrator. However, there is further duality within Humbert as he also refers to himself in the third person. Through using the third person, Humbert is able to create multiple version of himself, for example: “Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert The Small whether Humbert Humbert should kill her.” This enables him to use synecdoche, in an attempt to free himself of blame. He utilizes this figure of speech to enable him to claim that it was not the real Humbert who abused Dolores, but “Humbert the Hoarse” who “put his arm around her-” it was the ‘other’ in him. Humberts duality indicates that his character has a split between mind and body. The body is portrayed as acting out of line with the inclinations of the soul, as he summarizes “while my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea.” Through creating different versions of Humbert, and indicating a split between mind and body, Humbert argues that he does have a sense of morality, that he is not a monster but rather a victim to his bestial tendencies- adding another line to his defence.
It is as a result of the doubles, that the narration and the novels plot remain ambiguous, hence rendering the moral questions unsolvable. Lolita challenges readers to be cognizant critics and requires them to remain objective, allowing them to see through Humberts unreliable narration, and the layers of reality to discover the truth Humbert attempts to hide beneath the doubles. In Lolita, the technique of doubling with Humberts poetic and eloquent language distracts the reader from understanding the suffering he is inflicting on Lolita, instead seducing them into a deep subjective reading of the text, undermining their morality. The use of doubles creates layers of textuality, which demands a close and scrutinizing reading in order for the reader to not wrongfully employ empathy for the wrong character. Nabokov questions the reader’s logical approach to reading by expressing how simple it is to manipulate the narrative through such layers. In order for a stable moral judgement, there must be a robust sense of two individuals, the victim and the perpetrator. As a result of all of the doubles I have discussed in this essay, this clear moral conclusion cannot be reached. The lines between these two entities are blurred and therefore a legal narrow judgement is not achievable. Due to this, the reader’s morality is arguably disconcerted as the use of doubling prevents them from making the immediate and seemingly obvious judgement to feel outrage and disgust towards Humbert. Language has the power to overturn morality. Hence one should not underestimate the significance and impact of Humberts claim that he “only have words to play with.” The human capacity for language is a miracle, but it can be manipulated and dangerous, to the extreme where even with only words to play with, Humbert is able to create confusion when discerning the guilty party between a paedophile and a twelve-year-old girl.