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The Unreliable Narrator In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

2571 words - 10 pages

"Distracted by his charm, his wit, his intelligence, and - yes - his murderer's fancy prose style, we may momentarily forget that he is indeed the monster he says he is" (Rivers and Nicol 153).

     In his "On a Book Entitled Lolita", Vladimir Nabokov recalls that he felt the "first little throb of Lolita" run through him as he read a newspaper article about an ape who, "after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." The image of a confinement so complete that it dominates and shapes artistic expression (however limited that expression may be) is a moving and powerful one, and it does, indeed, reflect in the text of Lolita. Humbert Humbert, the novel's eloquent poet-narrator, observes the world through the bars of his obsession, his "nympholepsy", and this confinement deeply affects the quality of his narration. In particular, his powerful sexual desires prevent him from understanding Lolita in any significant way, so that throughout the text what he describes is not the real Lolita, but an abstract creature, without depth or substance beyond the complex set of symbols and allusions that he associates with her. When in his rare moments of exhaustion Humbert seems to lift this literary veil, he reveals for a moment the violent contrast between his intricately manipulated narration and the stark ugliness of a very different truth.


In one of the most elaborately vivid scenes in the novel, Humbert excites himself to a sexual climax while Lolita sits, unaware, on his lap. Rejoicing in the unexpected and unnoticed fulfillment, he asserts that, "Lolita ha[s] been safely solipsized" (60). Solipsism‹the epistemological theory that the self is the only knowable thing and that reality consists solely of its perceptions and active modifications‹very closely reflects Humbert's relationship with Lolita. Through his language, he creates a distance between Dolores and Lolita, between the child and the "solipsized" creature upon whom he can "safely" impose his sexual desire. Humbert's version is a blend of several tightly connected, often conflicting personal images. Some are the products of his own imagination, while others stem from classic works of literature or popular songs. He makes no effort to separate these images, but shifts rapidly from one to another as the narrative demands. They come together to form a new Lolita, one who is only Humbert's projection of the original, one who possesses only those qualities that he imposes upon her, and who shows no evolution beyond that which he allows her.


Lolita's primary frame, and the most persistently reductive, is that of the nymphet. Humbert claims that this category is not his own creation but a specific natural quality to which he has assigned a clever name. It is well defined, if difficult to accurately describe, and it pre-exists...

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