Third Edition, November 2010
258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis
1st Place Winner
The Deceptive Veil of Language in Lolita
The language of literature can affect a reader in many different ways. An author can manipulate the language he or she uses to create a specific meaning. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, the narrator portrays language in a certain manner to stir feeling in the reader. Humbert Humbert’s changing voice is meant to emphasize the aesthetic nature of his appreciation for young nymphettes rather than expose him for a perverse pedophile, suggesting that even the most disturbing things can be momentarily masked by the beauty of art.
The very first time Humbert introduces the object of his affection, on the first page, he uses such stirring language that it is almost poetic to the reader. The very first sentence reads, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. 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” (Nabokov 1), reducing Lolita’s name to a rhythm of syllables. Calling her the light of his life almost makes the reader feel this intense emotion that Humbert feels for Lolita. The reader understands that he is deeply in love with this girl, and aesthetically moved by her existence. Even her name invokes such a passionate response in him that he appreciates the movement of his tongue as it moves to pronounce it. In this artistic introduction, in only the first paragraph of the novel, the reader gets a sense of how truly enthralled Humbert is with Lolita, regardless of their difference in age.
In the same opening, Humbert Humbert also says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (Nabokov 1), suggesting that the narrator himself is aware of his changing voice. He acknowledges the fact that he is presenting his reader with a piece of language that is “fancy” in a way that might appeal to his audience. In the story, Humbert is writing this memoir specifically for the jury of his trial. His fictional writing style is designed to charm their senses. His intention is to cover up the disturbing truth of his relationship with the adolescent, Dolores, or Lolita as he calls her, with the intricacy of his language. At every point in the novel involving pedophilia or Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, his voice changes from one reciting facts or events in his story to one that’s language is so elaborate and rich that the reader’s senses are almost heightened by its aesthetic appeal.
Anthony Moore, whose article “How unreliable is Humbert in Lolita?” appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, suggested that Humbert’s changing voice implied his unreliability as a narrator. He goes so far as to call Humbert a “deceiving individual” who’s alternate voice of linguistic artistry, is representative of his solipsistic world. Moore believes that through the partnering of Humbert’s two voices, the narrator achieves a sense of reality and maturity by the end of the novel. He explains the two structures of Humbert’s memoir, “one the sequential account of the life of a “nympholept”[…] the other is the portrait of the artist as a middle aged man which unfolds through his performance in the act of writing” (Moore), suggesting that Humbert’s first voice is more factual and realistic, whereas his second voice is less realistic and more of a fantastic performance devoted to the act of writing and creating language. This second voice, designed by the narrator to distract his audience from the morally unacceptable aspects of his writing, is merely a diversionary tactic that sugarcoats his story. Moore claims Humbert is “in character when his sense of entitlement presumes that he fools an intellectually enfeebled readership with burlesques of various forms of narrative”(Moore). Humbert’s alternate voice is an act, where he believes he can pull the wool over the eyes of his audience and hide the truth behind his linguistic tricks. He becomes a magician of words and puts on a show to distract his audience from the disgusting truth. Moore also references a quote from the book, where Humbert says, “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” (Nabokov 32), calling it a “truism seasoned with wistful lyricism.” The truth is that Humbert has nothing besides his skills as an artist of language, but he even disguises this with his emotional expression to his beloved Lolita. It is part of Humbert Humbert’s game to hide the truth by manipulating his language with poetic phrases that are aesthetically pleasing to his audience.
Andrew Moore also makes sure to point out that Humbert is a self-proclaimed trickster. He cites Humbert’s quote about “trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style” (Nabokov 34). Humbert is no novice at creating fantastic detail to mask an unnerving truth, whether it is a psychological delusion or pedophilia. His invention of these stylistically classic, elaborate dreams were a means of deluding his psychiatrists. Again, he is acquires his sense of entitlement through deceiving others with his creative style. Moore’s point is that Humbert is unreliable in the sense that he fools his audience by diverting their attention to his “fancy prose.” Humbert does seem to achieve a sort of distraction from his grotesque reality with the art he creates in his language, further suggesting that art or aesthetic beauty can serve as a mask to hide behind.
Consistently throughout the novel, Humbert’s stylistic mask shows up to cover the more unsettling aspects of his memoir. For example, the scene where Lolita lays her legs across his lap and he becomes aroused, Humbert engages the reader so deeply in his complex and artistically driven prose that they might read the scene in a less harsh tone. He even sets up the scene for his audience, as if set in a play, again suggesting that his words are all part of an act or performance. He describes Lolita’s appearance in detail:
She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pin, and to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. (Nabokov 57)
This paints a picture of his object of devotion, diverting the reader from the idea that he is in fact, devoted to a child. He wants his audience to see this beautiful image as he sees it, as a fantastic piece of art that shouldn’t be touched by moral values. His linguistic style only intensifies as the scene goes on. He describes Lolita biting into her apple and says his “heart was like snow under thin crimson skin” (58), employing the use of a poetic line to manipulate the image of his own improper reaction to a young girl eating an apple. It’s a beautiful lyric that manages to cover the truth behind it. The end of the scene is completely distorted by Humbert’s artistic style. He describes,
Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa- and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty. (59)
Again, this image becomes a portrait of Lolita that we can admire along with Humbert. His artistry is an attempt to invoke the same appreciation of beauty in his audience, while concealing the horrific reality behind it. Lolita “devouring” her fruit, and singing through its juice is a scene completely elaborated and enhanced by Humbert’s linguistic skill in order to appeal to the reader. He even refers to using Lolita for his own sexual pleasure, as a “system” of correspondence between the two of them. Again, Humbert is cloaking this inappropriate event with the beauty he’s created in the idea of a partnership between himself and Lolita. Without the artist’s mask, the true nature of the event can be exposed for what it is. However, Humbert never falters in his performance and consistently presents his reader with words laden with poetic expression.
Lolita is a testimony to art itself. Humbert’s narration exemplifies the idea of language as an art form as he uses intricate word play to appeal to an audience. His skill is ultimately a performance that attempts to disguise his unorthodox appreciation of young women, or Lolita in particular. The beauty in his words veils the harshness of pedophilia. Though his linguistic artistry serves as a mask, it only manages to momentarily distract the readers from the truth. In the end of the novel, even Humbert himself acknowledges reality as it is, and readers walk away from his memoir with the satisfaction that morality cannot just be compromised by aesthetic trickery.
Moore, Anthony R. "How unreliable is Humbert in Lolita?" Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001): 71+. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://find.galegroup.com/gtx/start.do?prodId=AONE&userGroupName=mlin_s_umass>.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1998.