a n   a p p r e c i a t i o n
Quotations are from Lolita and Lolita: A Screenplay in the Library of America edition of Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955-1962, edited by Brian Boyd (1996).
[ the morality thing ]
Lolita starts with the premise that because we are human, we have desires. Then adds that because we our human, our desires cannot be acted on impulsively; our desires have moral consequences.

Morality means others judge our needs, impose through opinion and law the oppressive duty to live as they think we should. But some of our desires are too strong for these weak restraints. They lead us to the wrong choices, even to habitual deception. If discovered we suffer shame, scorn or prosecution.

We stumble and fail in the tangle of what we want and what others think is right. Despite our suffering we never really pierce the mystery of ourselves and why our most basic desires collide with a world of right and wrong.

For all its sadness, Lolita portrays how miserably funny this is. We can salvage dignity through our capacity to laugh at our own torment and our capacity to pity and care for others.

Humbert Humbert, pervert murderer, has lusted and seduced in ways our society utterly rejects. As a child molester writing the summary of his life, he cannot laugh at himself, and he cannot pity others. He can ape, and clown, spin excuses and dramatic confessions, exult with triumph or rage with frustration. But he cannot pity his victim enough to spare her the torment of his desires.

It is for the reader to laugh and to pity him.

Morality is something that the reader brings to the book because the book does not offer a moral point of view: it is written by a criminal.

Humbert writes Lolita in a prison cell as evidence in his defense. He is on trial for the murder of Clare Quilty, famous dramatist. Humbert occasionally addresses the reader as "ladies and gentlemen of the jury" or some mordant equivalent, and this reminds us of the basic situation.

But his confession very quickly reveals a completely different and unexpected crime: that for many years he had manipulated and sexually abused a young girl, Dolores Haze, whom he calls "Lolita" with a lascivious tripping of the tongue. He says he murdered Clare Quilty in retribution for seducing his child lover away from him. As he finishes the manuscript, he decides to withhold it until both he and Lolita are dead, claiming to know that he may be convicted by this lack of evidence. But he dies of heart failure (one does not speak in Lolita of a broken heart) before the trial begins.

Now, Humbert sometimes refers to himself as a beast, he sometimes expresses sadness or humiliation at his own acts, he sometimes scorns his own stupidity, and he seems unflinchingly honest as he confesses his seductions, lies, schemes, plots and act of murder. But he doesn't much talk about the murder. He is consumed by his sexual attraction Lolita. Even more: he speaks of her as the great love of his life and the burning meaning of his whole existence. We do not judge a murder, but a love story.

So we are invited to read a document revealing the guilt of a sex pervert, offered as evidence to excuse a murderer, in a trial that will never happen because everyone — Humbert, Quilty, and even Lolita — is dead.

The reader's curiosity is invited in by the officious comments of John Ray Jr., Ph.D., editor of the manuscript, who helpfully suggests that "in this poignant study there lurks a general lesson." This seems to give the reader both a moral and esthetic justification for perusing the pervert's text. But it also certifies that it is "us" who look at him.

By mooting the murder trial through the death of the accused, Nabokov gives the reader complete moral freedom. Our judgment is a personal reaction, not a social duty. But what really is our judgment? Is it that Humbert is immoral? Humbert agrees. Is it that Humbert is degenerate, disgusting? He agrees. That he must renounce his passion for Lolita? Here he is silent. He asks Lolita to forgive him for loving her. But he cannot give up his longing for her.

Lolita tests our moral sense through a pariah. Humbert is a man who cannot relinquish his desires in order to join our moral world. Yet those desires seem fit to earn him our harshest condemnation.

Ironically, we can judge Humbert only if we believe what he tells us is true. But the truth of his testimony is hard to establish.

There seems good reason to reject his testimony out of hand. He is awaiting trial — why shouldn't he lie? He describes in detail his ability to deceive others and disguise his crimes. He knows the jurors can convict him, why shouldn't he play on their pity? He brags about his ability to manipulate the feelings of his former physicians, psychiatrists, wives.

Humbert's seduction expands. Not only does he by his own admission seduce various women and young girls (using these admissions to comment on his physical attractiveness), he is perhaps trying to seduce us as well — to credulity, to compassion, to consent to the longing that consumes him.

He pits his words against the reader's conscience. And what amazing, powerful, hypnotizing words they are. The detail and precision of his descriptions challenge our skepticism through the intense reality they invoke. The humor and irony and horror and misery of the novel erode our detachment until we feel an empathy for Humbert's suffering.

He wants to turn the empathy in this single direction: that we let him have his longing, his love. And in a sense, this means letting him have Lolita.

But false notes crop up in the many justifications that Humbert scatters throughout his seductive story. Among them, his claim that Lolita was instigator of their overt sexual relations ("it was she who seduced me"), that anyway Lolita had already been seduced by a playmate ("I was not even her first lover"); that besides Humbert intended many precautions to preserve her innocence (soporifics, fondling without intercourse); that many cultures accept love between adults and children; that nymphets are not really children but demonic spirits, as any knowing observer will tell you; and Humbert did "try hard to be good. Really and truly he did..."

But is there really any merit to these claims? Of course not. Sexual intercourse with preadolescent girls is a perversion. A flirtatious child should be admonished, not fondled. Sex between a child and her playmate doesn't excuse sex between the child and her parent. What other cultures accept has little relevance to what our morality requires. The idea that children might be demonic is no pretext to exploit them. "Trying hard to be good" must include cooperating honestly with one's therapists and wife; and so on. We can add that lying and deceiving others are wrong; and murder for revenge is wrong.

In our culture, in this time, you either understand these things or you don't. Humbert's excuses show that he doesn't understand them. The reader does. Nabokov even has wooden Dr. Ray shuffle out to make the moral matters perfectly clear.

So his justifications seem flimsy enough to be insincere. "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style," he comments. But if he only wants to seduce us, why would he point out to us the style he is using to do it?

The new possibility is that there is another victim in Humbert's seductive story: himself. This spins things in a new direction, from whether Humbert wants us to believe him, to whether he believes himself.

The roots of this theme appear in the first pages of his story, where Humbert loves and then loses to typhus his lovely twelve year old Annabel Leigh by the sea. Humbert claims that this experience scarred him and that the scar shaped his destiny. With an astounding consistency, he traces how all his acts, all his thoughts, flow as consequences of that wound and his struggle against its pain.

But is this remarkable clarity insight, or fiction? To that objection, Humbert offers as it were a torture test of his sincerity. Whatever a man believes will relieve his unbearable pain becomes through that pain a pure conviction. If Humbert's excuses were only directed at us they would be worthless, mere pandering to our sentimentality. But if they were the excuses and rationalizations Humbert rehearsed to himself, as attempts to cure his pain, they would be truthful. The irony of this argument is that the crazier his reasoning sounds, the more desperate would be the torment that formed it.

This torture test is the implicit reason why Humbert goes into such detail about the events or crimes in his life (the almost-drowning of Charlotte Haze, for example) that we would never know about otherwise. He is painting the full depths of his suffering. In the context of that suffering, he can introduce his illogical justifications without appearing to insult our intelligence.

Finally there is Humbert's obvious vanity, which emerges in his shallow demonstrations of intellectual superiority, his tailored clothing, the icy rage at his suspected rivals for Lolita's affections, his delight in manipulating other people, and his arty language. We might think that Humbert is writing at such length because it gratifies his vanity. But his writing only shows us that he has ruined his life for the embraces of an indifferent little brat.

When he describes his past, we see that the lies to others and the lies to himself get mixed up — for example, in his futilely optimistic marriage to Valeria, or his refusal to see Lolita's unfaithfulness. So the crux of the reader's problem is that we do not know when Humbert is lying and when he is telling us the truth.

This is the dark fascination of the book. Humbert feels pain, and so do we. Humbert didn't consciously choose his nature, and neither did we. Humbert wrestles with his pain, again just like us. As he struggles, he devises justifications for the things that bring him relief, just as we often do. Some of these justifications shield him from the judgment of others, and some shield him from his own despair and self loathing. Seen in this way, Humbert is no different from us.

But for this one detail: Humbert cannot escape his longing, no matter how much pain it causes him. His longing is not mere torment, but the very core of his existence. Without his longing his life would have no meaning. And without it, alone in jail, he dies.

All that is not along the lines suggested by Dr. Ray's excuses, but it is also a more complicated moral predicament than the sturdy psychologist seems capable of offering ... pervert there, "us" normal folks here.

Some critics have followed helpful Dr. Ray's esthetic appreciations and characterized the novel in purely artistic terms, as the allegory (the "tendresse") of old-world Nabokov's romance with the feisty youthful American language. This is a weirdly tepid explanation for a terribly sad and disturbing book.

If we want to search for a single thematic image — in itself not a very clever goal — then a good place to look is Speak, Memory (1951), the autobiography that occupied Nabokov for three years before work on Lolita began. And when we read the autobiography for hints of the fiction, we discover an episode that suggests Humbert's passion for nymphets took its moral reality from Nabokov's passion for ... butterflies.

Judge for yourself:

Few things indeed have I known in the way of emotion or appetite, ambition or achievement, that could surpass in richness and strength the excitement of entomological exploration. From the very first it had a great many intertwinkling facets. One of them was the acute desire to be alone, since any companion, no matter how quiet, intefered with the concentrated enjoyment of my mania. Its gratification admitted of no compromise or exception. Already when I was ten, tutors and governesses knew that the morning was mine and cautiously kept away.

In this connection, I remember the visit of a schoolmate, a boy of whom I was very fond and with whom I had excellent fun. He arrived one summer night — in 1913, I think — from a town some twenty-five miles away. His father had recently perished in an accident, the family was ruined and the stout-hearted lad, not being able to afford the price of a railway ticket, had bicycled all those miles to spend a few days with me.

On the morning following his arrival, I did everything I could to get out of the house for my morning hike without his knowing where I had gone. Breakfastless, with hysterical haste, I gathered my net, pill boxes, killing jar, and escaped through the window. Once in the forest, I was safe; but still I walked on, my calves quaking, my eyes full of scalding tears, the whole of me twitching with shame and self-disgust, as I visualized my poor friend, with his long pale face and black tie, moping in the hot garden — patting the panting dogs for want of something better to do, and trying hard to justify my absence to himself.

The scene is powerful in its moral clarity. How selfish did Nabokov have to be to sneak away from a bikesore, impoverished, lonely and grieving friend to stalk and capture a few insects? Clearly, selfish enough to sink beneath his own moral limits — not just to a pang of guilt but to burning tears of humiliation. Yet he followed his desire.

In Lolita Nabokov wrote concretely about the struggle of our desires against our better selves, and the corroding effects of that struggle on our sense of reality and truth, and the inextricable pain that our deepest loves create for us. There is no allegory. Nabokov created a pervert, but invested him with a moral selfishness that Nabokov recognized in himself.

The difference between Nabokov the child slighting a friend, and Humbert the adult abusing a child is, of course, the difference between reality and art. Where readers of this book share the predicament of Nabokov and Humbert is that we can be miserable about the moral consequences of our desires — but we follow them anyway, because without them, life would have no meaning.

  [ back to Lolita page ]

© 1999 Bruce MacEvoy