The following is adapted from an oral presentation
“I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger... cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle... or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words... only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question: "Why?" I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams - this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”
Miguel de Cervantes
Picaresque novels are “a form of prose fiction, originally developed in Spain, in which the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero are describe in a series of usually humorous or satiric episodes that often depict, in realistic detail, the everyday life of the common people. (Webster
s Unabridged, definition 1). Classic picaresque novels include Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In these novels, the reader rides along and listens in as the picaro (narrator) describes the absurdities of people and society. The narrators of picaresque novels are often both irreverently astute (as they are not properly indoctrinated into the rules of society) and also completely innocent, wise like Shakespearean fools. Don Quixote, for instance, in his famous hallucination, jousts at windmills for the purpose of saving that which, in the end, becomes unsaveable: idealistic notions of chivalry. Huck Finn, meanwhile, floats down the river, but eventually lands back home as curious and mischievous as ever, none the worse for wear, and rid of his alcoholic father.
LOLITA AS PICARESQUE
Clearly, Nabokov spent time considering the picaresque, as he alludes to it when Humbert is searching out clues for Lolita and Clare’s whereabouts by reviewing Clare’s hotel registrations. One registration is under the name “Donald Quix” (251). In many ways, Lolita fits the standard picaresque form. Humbert, a witty and engaging narrator, recounts episodes of his life across a society he clearly distains, while he awaits trial for murder. Nabokov’s Lolita has the captivating narrator and episodes of journey. What is perhaps more under debate, however, is the idealism and innocence of the narrator. Both Huck Finn and Don Quixote believe, during their journeys, in their view of their world; they are innocents that the world attempts to corrupt. Humbert’s situation is more complex.
LANGUAGE – “Tell the Truth but Tell It Slant” Emily Dickinson - SPIN
Only someone with Nabokov’s gift for language could manage to create a character like Humbert Humbert, one that inspires a strange combination of amusement, pity and revulsion. Humbert is smart and funny, inside and out, and very, very creepy on the inside, and he knows that the reader will view him that way. His attention to assumed audience opinions is acute. From the outset, he knows that his desire for nymphets (young girls) is considered horribly wrong by societal mores, but he persists in putting his belief in the strength of his desire, despite popular opinion. Nabakov writes, when Humbert first meets Lolita: “I have no illusions, however. My judges will regard all this as a piece of mummery on the part of a madman with a gross liking for the fruit vert. …All I know is that while the Haze woman and I went down the steps into the breathless garden, my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like sand“ (40). The reader connects to the presentation of his overwhelming emotion rather than the accuracy of fact. As Humbert says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” ( 9). Humbert tells us what he already knows we will believe, making us believe in his insight and intelligence, but then he discredits our (reader) opinion by way of dismissal – we, the reader, cannot understand his world, and we should know that, as it’s clear how smart he is –hasn’t he proven that already? This folding over of logic, attempting to prove one thing by way of another, runs throughout the novel. Unlike Don Quixote, Humbert does sometimes see the windmills as windmills, not giants, before he jousts. But he jousts anyway. (insert lance pun here).
Humbert is, factually speaking, a pedophile, so it is difficult to think of him as innocent in any way, shape or form. But in the first section, which includes his introduction to Lolita, marriage to Charlotte, and eventual success in possessing Lolita, he describes his obsession with Lolita in terms of a teenager’s crush, all rushing hormones and awkward playfulnessm stealing magazines and roughhousing, the equivalent of dipping ponytails in inkwells (54-55), and so puts himself on the same level as Lolita, rather than the more accurate role of manipulative adult. In this adolescent, obsessive way, he connects his pure distillation of lust with the innocence of childhood, both Lolita’s childhood and his own. When he first meets Lolita, he connects her with his own early sexual fumblings with Annabel when he was Lolita’s age.
I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition. In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stern dark spectacles – the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride [Annabel]…All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea” in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of groping and blunder, and false rudiments of joy. Everything they shared made one of them.” (40).
“Princedom by the sea” is a quote from Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.” An excerpt of that poem is: “She was a child and I was a child/ In this kingdom by the sea,/ But we loved with a love that was more than love—/ I and my Annabel Lee- / With a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven / Coveted her and me.” He combines Lolita and Annabel into a crystallization of young love, or lust at least, and arrests his own development, leaving him still a child, and so a more appropriate match for Lolita. This connection is made over and over again in the way in which young, nubile, bobby-soxed Lolita is sexualized, sexualizing childhood, and so making her seem more grown-up than she is, more an active participant than a victim. This allows Humbert’s actions to appear less predatory, both to him and the reader. He positions himself of a victim of his own lust, a babe in the woods, unable to help himself. He is in the thrall of his desire, and the purity of desire is paramount – in being obsessed with youth and the associated innocence, he must somehow be innocent himself.
FURTHER MANIPULATING LOLITA AND THE READER
By positing himself as the youthful, star-crossed lover in the first section, the reader can, almost, be sympathetic to Humbert’s unreliable narration. Who hasn’t suffered adolescent, ill-advised crushes? However, once Humbert acquires power over the object of his desire, with Charlotte’s death and the beginning of his first road trip with Lolita, the rationale changes. He shifts from helpless, awkward lover to protective father. In a staggering bit of logical acrobatics, he recounts his explanation to Lolita on what they are doing running from one motel bed to another.
I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child. The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist – a matter of nice spacing in the way of distinction. I am your daddum, Lo. Look, I’ve a learned book here about young girls. Look, darling, what it says. I quote: the normal girl – normal, mark you – the normal girl is usually extremely anxious to please her father. She feels in him the forerunner of the desired elusive male…The wise mother (and your poor mother would have been wise, had she lived) will encourage a companionship between father and daughter, realizing – excuse the corny style—that the girl forms her ideals of romance and of men from her association with her father….You are not nine but almost thirteen, and I would not advise you to consider yourself my cross-country slave. I am your father, and I am speaking English, and I love you. (150).
He directly denies his deviance, instead saying he is motivated by love, suggests that her mother would approve, that she is practically, at 12, a grown woman anyway, and besides, like the TV show, Father Knows Best. He follows this up with the threat of what happens if she accuses him: reformatory life. He says, “You will dwell, my Lolita, will dwell (come here, my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no, allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. …Don’t you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?” (151). Clearly, Humbert Humbert has abandoned his pretence of innocence, has taken on the pun-filled role of “old man.” Now he is protector of her innocence against a corrupt and hideous world.
As the reader knows, this bizarre stance cannot hold, and narrator Humbert, looking back on this time, understands this. Humbert, writing while awaiting trial, describes the end of their first road trip:
And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night-every night, every night- the moment I feigned sleep.” (176)
Lolita is blossoming physically, and still Humbert can’t help commenting on that, but at the same time, he acknowledges the psychological impact of his actions. Humbert knows that, by then, he was consumed by his compulsion. He looks back though, not on Lolita, who he can never entirely see as a full person, but on the country that is defiled by both of them. Unlike a standard picaresque novel, where the society is seen as corrupt, the surrounding world here, while simple and stupid and bland and hypocritical and backward in Humbert’s narration, it still retains something blissful in its ignorance of his world. It doesn’t know what Lolita and Humbert know.
HOW PICARESQUES NOVELS END – The End
At the conclusion of a picaresque story, the picaro can, like Huck Finn, remain fundamentally unchanged, retaining his irreverent sense of adventure, untouched by the corrupting society. However, in the conclusion of Don Quixote, the picaro experiences the horror of relinquishing idealism and chivalry (however fictionally or hallucination-inspired), finally corrupted by this accurate view of the tainted world. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert, an obsessive kidnapping pedophile of ravenous desires, finally understands how he has corrupted. Against all his expectations, he professes his continued love for Lolita, despite her non-nymphet age and pregnant belly, and so finally begins to recognize the differences between love and lust. He says:
There she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen…and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else….I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita. (277-8).
He is now attached to a person, not an age group. His murderous vengeance proceeds as he hunts down Cue, but now it is tangled, as he sees Clare not just as his rival that took his lover away, but also one who spoiled his innocent girl. Despite the fact that his reaction to Lolita is still romantic (for lack of a better word), at her final rejection, he steps into the role of the protective father he once pretended to be. In killing Clare, another pedophile, he in some ways kills off his own horrible behavior. In this way, he reclaims his innocence. In the comical murder scene with Clare, he recites the poem that recaps his rationale. “Because you took advantage of my inner / Essential innocence/ Because you cheated me of my redemption…because of all you did/because of all I did not / you have to die.” (300). Humbert hoped somehow that if he could have had an adult love affair with Lolita, it might somehow have erased or made up for the destruction of her childhood and appropriation of family relationship. Clare provided Lolita with a means of escape, for which Humbert still holds him responsible.
Humbert is not unchanged by his travels; he is no longer innocent; he is not unaffected by his ‘adventures’ with Lolia. By the end of the novel, he finally agrees with society’s assessment as he now understands the cost of his actions. Finally, he sees that he has erred, that he has taken something away from Lolita, and in so doing, taken something away from himself. In the last pages of the novel, he says, “I stood listening to that musical vibration [the sounds of children at play] and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” (308). He robbed her of the remainder of her childhood and any semblance of family life. It is this crime (not murder) that he holds himself finally accountable. “Had I come before myself [as judge], I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.” (308).
Humbert ends with some fatherly advice and hopes for Lolita: “Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy.” (308). Then he continues in that mode as protective father: “That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve.” (308). Those demented giants could easily allude back to Don Quixote’s windmills, the windmills he mistook for giants. Humbert never quite settles between idealism and corruption, society’s or his own.
What he is true to is, in the end, Lolita. The final words of his story are to honor Lolita in art: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” (308). Like Annabel Lee in Poe’s poem, or any tragic love story, Humbert understands how he and Lolita are star-crossed, but he also understands that this is his failure, his corruption, not the fates.