Morality And Narration In Lolita
Since its publication in 1955 the ambiguous nature of Humbert’s narration in Lolita has been debated by many critics. But this is not the only aspect that has been debated by critics, but also the question of morality in Nabokov’s novel. This essay focuses on morality and narration in Lolita, concentrating on Humbert’s unreliability.
A narrator is unreliable when we notice a contradiction between his presentation and the rest of the narrative. We are reading the lines and think that the narrator might withhold the true version of the story or he lacks the ability to tell it. Humbert’s insanity is one of the things that make us question his narration. He describes himself as “a murderer with a sensational but incomplete unorthodox memory” (Nabokov 217) which is a contradicting comment on his ability to retell memories and this provides textual evidence on his unreliability. Moreover, there are many times when he mentions the fact that he has mental problems. There are many instances when the reader is told of illness, but few situations when he is shown proof. One situation can be found in chapter twenty-six:
“The daily headache in the opaque air of this tomb jail is disturbing, but I must preserve. Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15, 1947. Don’t think I can go. Heart, head- everything. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer. ( Nabokov 109)
Another thing that makes us question Humbert’s narration is the fact that he addresses to the reader many times and tries to win his sympathy and to manipulate him. One example that shows this strategy is in the next fragment:
“Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages! Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity; let’s even smile a little. After all, there is no harm in smiling. For instance (I almost wrote ‘frinstance’), I had no place to rest my head, and a fit of heartburn… was added to my discomfort.” (Nabokov 129)
Humbert ascribes different qualities to the reader throughout the novel. He is addressing the reader several times as “learned reader” which is, again, a strategy which he uses to manipulate the reader and to make him sympathize with him. Humbert acknowledges his ability of distracting the reader from the fact that he is a murderer with the power of language. In his memoir, he announces: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (Nabokov 9). In The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov Ellen Pifer notes:
“Readers inattentive to the dual, and duplicitous, nature of the narrator’s language in Nabokov’s fiction- not only Humbert’s language in Lolita but Hermann’s in Despair, Charles Kinbote’s in Pale Fire, and Van Veen’s in Ada- are bound to become mis-readers. Humbert gives them fair warning from the outset.” (187)
Another aspect debated by critics is the morality in Lolita. There are two distinct camps in the criticism of Nabokov’s novel: one who attack the novel for the lack of morals and one who defends the novel against these charges by overlooking the moral implications of the text. Critics addressing the problem of morality in Lolita often cite Nabokov’s disdain for didactic literature and his warning against reading the text as being moral. But, despite Nabokov’s denial of a moral or general message, some critics suggest otherwise, saying that Lolita is a deeply moral novel that examines the ethical issues of criminality, social taboo, child abuse, victimization. If we analyse the novel closely we will observe that Lolita is not an erotic novel, nor does it treat the issue of incest in an erotic manner. In fact, Lolita will disappoint those readers who are seeking the sexual between its cover. Only the first chapters of the novel when Lolita is stretching her legs across Humbert’s lap are the only chapters suggestive of the erotic. It’s very easy to think of Lolita as being an immoral novel if the focus is only on Humbert’s action, but the novel is more than that, it is a very complex work that confronts the reader at every turn, it makes the reader empathise with Humbert and then remind him that he has committed murder and rape. In his book, Living to Tell About it: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration, James Phelan explains:
“Because Nabokov has Humbert describe the actions largely from his perspective as character, Nabokov not only invites but virtually commands us to “participate in the scene.” This invitation/command means that we see the events through the filter of Humbert’s attitudes: his pride in his cleverness, his eager anticipation of success, and his ultimate satisfaction. In other words, simply to read the scene is to take Humbert’s perspective, and to take on his perspective means to see his perverse desire from the inside. Furthermore, because Humbert’s effort in narrating the scene is to sway us to adopt his attitudes, and because Nabokov gives Humbert formidable verbal skills and rhetorical power, the authorial audience can’t help but fell the force of Humbert’s appeal” (Phelan 105).
Therefore, what makes Nabokov’s novel disturbing for many readers is the fact that they see acts that they consider immoral from Humbert’s perspective, and sometimes they sympathize with him as a result of the power of Humbert’s narration.
To conclude, there are many strategies used in the novel that make Humbert’s narration an unreliable one and his questionable morality is one of them. Although Humbert is an immoral person(but he is constantly trying to prove otherwise), the novel has an ethical content as the reader understands better the relationship between Lolita and Humbert.