Psychological Need To Win, To Possess, And To Control Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
In Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, the central narration belongs to that of a character named ‘Humbert Humbert’, the lone purpose of his narrative is to present and prove himself as superior to others. The narration is that of a man whose wicked actions are not a result of his “physical desires” but instead his “psychological need to win, to possess, and to control” (Gans 2011). Time and time again, his narration fools the reader into falling into a trap of disregarding his actions and lack of remorse due to his characterisation as a white, middle-aged and educated individual. Many texts, including ‘Lolita’, frequently “assume that their readers are male” (AQA Critical Anthology), therefore increasing the probability of the text containing ‘misogynistic’ material to give a sense of comic relief for the presumably male reader. A feminist critic would challenge the representation of Lolita as a sexually deviant and instead blame the unreliable narration of Humbert, who misinterprets Lolita’s ‘innocent’ behaviour as being ‘seductive’. Humbert asserts himself as being of dominant nature due to simply being born a male. His belief of being sexually superior due to his ‘exotic’ sexuality is what later leads to his doom, tainting Lolita’s childhood on his way. Through misinterpreting Lolita, the reader is compelled to view Lolita as a seductress rather than a victim of Humbert.
The name Dolores has Latin origins – “dolor” – translating to pain and suffering therefore already cementing the fate of Dolores Haze as a victim. Not only is Dolores a victim of the narration of Humbert (as she is never given a voice of her own), but she is also a victim of sexual exploitation, which may have stunted her emotional development as a child. Although Lolita is seemingly presented as “an archetypal temptress, a modern-day femme fatale” (Goldman 2004), the readers usually neglect the fact that Humbert is the narrator and Dolores is merely a tool to present females in a seductive fashion. In one extract of the novel, “Lolita would be haphazardly preparing her homework, sucking a pencil, lolling sideways in an easy chair with both legs over its arm”. A casual reader would view the actions of Dolores and innocent and childlike, however this is far from reality for Humbert who views her actions through a sexual lens. Humbert prepares to approach her by “crawl[ing] on [his] knees to[wards] [her] chair” to which Dolores gives “a gray furry question mark of a look: ‘Oh no, not again’ ” (p192). In this scene, there is a power struggle taking place between Humbert and Lolita. Dolores is presented to seemingly have this sexual power (aura) about her, seducing Humbert. Humbert, as a prideful man, is willing to lose the power balance between them in this scene in order to gain what he desires. However, in this scene, Dolores is unaware of this so-called “sexual power” she has over Humbert, making her yet again a victim of his narration throughout this scene. Humbert constantly mythologizes the sexuality of Dolores in the novel, ultimately making Dolores seem like the instigator. The simple male reader would presumably agree with Humbert in that Lolita is the person who initiates any sexual tention between the two, highlighting the misogynistic undertones behind Humbert’s narration for not letting Dolores have a voice (and if she does, it is through a filter of Humbert’s choice). In a survey that many critics took shortly after the publication of Lolita in 1955, Todd Bayma and Gary Fine found that many critics shared the same misogynistic ideology as Humbert Humbert about Lolita. They note that ‘By arguments similar to those used by convicted rapists in order to view themselves as non-rapists, reviewers depicted Dolores Haze as both morally unworthy and at least partly responsible for her own victimization’ (Todd Bayma and Gary Fine, in Goldman 2004). The critics who should have condemned Humbert instead adopted his views about Lolita, highlighting how the anti-feminist viewpoint had been present in the mid to late 50’s.
Throughout the novel, Humbert keeps track of his pride and masculinity by constantly being in control of something or someone. So when he faces the loss of Lolita to Clare Quilty, he decides to murder Quilty for stripping him of his pride and power. Quilty, Humbert’s mirror image when it came to their “exotic” sexuality, proves himself to be slightly better than Humbert continuously. When face to face with the reality of losing Dolores to Quilty, Humbert “To [himself] whispered that [he] still had [his] gun, and was still a free man—free to trace the fugitive, free to destroy [his] brother”. Humbert recognises the similarity between himself and Quilty but is unable to come to term with the shame of losing to him. The loss to Quilty had more of an impact to him compared to the loss of Lolita, showing how his pride and sense of power was more important to him than someone he loves. Ironically, it is almost as though Humbert had killed himself. Humbert lost his identity as a man and “Quilty’s existence is evidence of Humbert’s failure as a lover, father, captor, and competitor” (Gans 2011). As a man who believed that he “could attain any adult female [he] chose”, though only attracted to “nymphets”, He had ironically lost to himself, both in the characterisation of Quilty and his own lack of understanding and empathy for Lolita. After accepting his loss to Quilty, Humbert lost his sense of masculinity, his “means to control, and thus lost his will to live” (Gans 2011). Humbert conflates gender and power, inflating his ego and leading to the hyper fixation on his magnified sense of power.