can art say the unsayable

Can Art Say The Unsayable? An Exploration of Lolita & Humbert Humbert

The controversial and well-known Lolita by Nabokov forces us to address taboo topics and confusing realities in a way that only art can do. How do relationships often represent unrealistic ideals? Despite the novel’s taboo subject matter, can it teach us something about the dynamics of normal relationships? How do different art forms allow us to address immoral behaviors, social faux-pas, or the negative features of our human condition productively?

Lolita tackles perhaps the most uncomfortable taboo of human existence. The questionable Mr. Humbert Humbert is characterised by Nabokov as the true definition of an anti-hero and it could be argued that he is troubled to the point to which his sense of self as redeemable can be questioned. When exploring Lolita, it is important to question who the story and plot-line is truly about: often the character who is placed at the forefront or who narrates the story is seen as the one whom the plot-line follows. In essence, the main character is the focus of the story on a first reading of a text due to the nature of storytelling and especially with first person texts. However, this essay refocuses the text as more than Humbert’s story and, instead, looks at the whole relationship. As such, the question of Lolita as a literary piece of art is indeed an interesting idea, as it asks questions about the text and Lolita herself as a character and a representation of ideals.

The text is art, but Lolita herself is also art in the eyes of Humbert. Representing such a skewed and dangerous love story as art creates a strange world where taboos of nature can be partially excused, at least for the purpose of a novel.

Another novel, Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion, which is a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, sheds light on questions about taboo and illicit love relationships through closely reading and analysing the themes of love that are raised. The themes uncovered include the idea of everlasting love that transcends the realm of normality and attraction beyond societal norms. These subjects relate strongly to Lolita, which allows for a direct comparison of the themes. Therefore, these intricacies were integrated into this essay in that both texts challenge ideologies about sexuality and morality.


Pedophilia and Hebephilia

Lolita encapsulates many themes, such as pedophilia, forbidden love, references to mythology, and childhood. To begin, defining exactly who and what Humbert is would benefit a discussion on how the two intertwine and the purposes behind these interactions. The term “pedophile” would be a slightly outdated description for Humbert, defined clearly as “one affected with pedophilia,” which perhaps raises more questions than it answers. Therefore, to proceed to a definition of pedophilia would be the next logical step.

Pedophilia is defined as “a psychiatric disorder in which an adult has sexual fantasies about or engages in sexual acts with a prepubescent child,” which encompasses many aspects of Humbert. His fantasies are the obsession towards young girls, with his acts causing criminal and morally negative consequences.

Humbert’s fascination with young, prepubescent girls reaches a point of obsession and compulsion.

Another term, “hebephile,” has arisen perhaps quite recently. This is harder to define and seems to be a modern phrase which underpins a more specific time of attraction to children. A hebephile is: a newly proposed diagnostic classification in which people display a sexual preference for children at the cusp of puberty, between the ages of, roughly, 11 to 14 years of age. Pedophiles, in contrast, show a sexual preference for clearly prepubescent children.

This definition is comparative to the term pedophile, as essentially hebephile specifies an age group but could still be categorised and viewed in a very similar way to the traditional opinions about adults who are attracted to children. This does categorise Humbert perhaps more appropriately as a hebephiliac, as Lolita fits within this age group of 11-14, and is indeed on the cusp of puberty for much of the novel.

To characterise Humbert as simply a pedophile does not necessarily encompass his true definitive feelings, as the term refers directly to prepubescent girls. Humbert does indeed represent these characteristics, however, with his repulsion for Charlotte Haze particularly representing his distaste for older women. This distaste also encompasses any female who is beyond puberty. Humbert’s fantasies are so specific that there is perhaps not a definition that would truly represent his elaborate desires accurately or concisely. To define Humbert as a hebephile would fit his character with less inconsistencies, and the specificity of the definition fits his own personal, incredibly specific inclinations. Nabokov describes Humbert’s desires intimately:

 A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins.

you have to be an artist and a madman

The Story as Art

For Humbert, females reside within a very specific era of perfection, when they are on the edge of puberty, the edge of being a child or teenager. This phase of being a nymphet is an idealised state that Humbert lusts after to no end, with Nabokov creating a specific definition of Humbert’s sexual desires. Lolita’s age places her within an ambiguous stage of life, not a child but most certainly not an adult either.

As a rather ambiguous person himself, with a strong sense of arrested development, Humbert finds these features most attractive, perhaps. Both Humbert and Lolita are caught between two places, childhood and adulthood. He vicariously relives his childhood through his sexual fantasies and Lolita does the same but by playing as an adult with an advanced sexual maturity. Humbert is able to persuade the reader and himself that it is he who is held captive and possessed by the nymphet.

One critic, Tamir-Ghez, states that ‘Humbert transforms the pervert into a “bewitched traveller” haunted by the deadly nymph to self-excuse his behaviour.

This analysis of Humbert is interesting since it reveals how the character is crafted to represent an individual who aches for love and sex so badly that he creates a persuasive narrative to convince the reader that he was seduced by Lolita, just as much as he seduced her.

Tamir-Ghez also comments, ‘Instead of passing moral judgement on this man who violated a deep-rooted sexual and social taboo, they caught themselves identifying with him.’ This refers to the readers developing opinion on Humbert and his actions. Because of Humbert’s use of mythical and magical language, he is able to languidly perform a tale of love, using archaic phrases and lexis to convince the reader he was placed under a spell. Humbert’s illegalities are crafted in such a way by Nabokov that the reader gets a sense that he truly does love Lolita and that she is the perfect embodiment of what he needs.

Nabokov creates a sense that we must realise Humbert can only love these nymphets and could never possess a functional relationship with any other female. The question, however, is whether or not Nabokov’s use of language can excuse a relationship so far from the conventions of a typical love story. One critic identifies the following:

We established that Humbert the narrator is artful and furtive in his ways of trying to attain the sympathies of his readers. However, he does use a more conspicuous approach throughout the book as well. The reader is directly addressed numerous times in the discourse.

Nabokov’s use of direct address creates a relationship with the reader, where they struggle to ascertain what breed of man Humbert is. Humbert, as mentioned previously, is rather ambiguous, as he is aware of his misdeeds yet prays that anyone who possesses his words would see that he is a troubled, heartbroken individual. However, it can be argued that this is not supposed to fully excuse Humbert from judgment. Rather than excusing Humbert’s behaviour, Nabokov crafts a character who can comment on this taboo relationship in a way that seduces the reader. Nabokov creates an identity that is so harrowed and tortured that an element of sympathetic empathy is created within his audience. Aesthetic Excuses and Moral Crimes corroborates this idea and encapsulates this argument concisely.

Although Humbert may be eloquent, cultured, and educated, Nabokov refuses to equate these qualities with goodness, morality, or truth. Nabokov’s character is indeed a morally ambiguous, puzzling individual, but both Humbert and Lolita possess these same traits and are bound together by them. Nabokov’s crafting of the relationship creates a dynamic of power between the two lovers, with the strength of the individual shifting repeatedly over the course of the novel. The morality of the novel is not equated to Humbert and it could be argued, therefore, that the choice lies with the reader and their personal criticisms. Nabovok’s words on Lolita reflects this:

I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle — its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look.

This line from an interview reveals his intentions with Lolita, to create a disjointed, strange feeling within the reader. The novel is indeed a puzzle, an artistic triumph of intricate vocabulary which holds the reader captive due to the taboo subject matter. Nabokov’s intention is not to fully confuse the reader, but to allow them free judgment over Humbert. The novel is very artistic in its format and structure and also comments on the strange elements of human love. Due to the novel’s structure, Humbert is presented in two separate spaces. Humbert is decidedly on trial in the novel, which is a similar space to an art gallery. Nabokov positions his tortured main character at the forefront of the novel for the reader to marvel and revel at the misdeeds he commits.

Eve and the Serpent

The Relationship

Another important consideration in Humbert and Lolita’s relationship is their interactions to each other and how Nabokov creates a narrative to attempt to excuse Humbert of his affinity for young girls. To explore their relationship, starting with their first meeting would be a necessary preamble to a more detailed analysis of the relationship as a whole. Humbert’s self-identity is interesting because he is aware of his own misdeeds, viewing himself objectively as someone who is not normal. This is deeply evident when he first sees Lolita:

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 (…)

The use of lexis here is crafted intricately, to reflect Humbert’s passionate feelings, as he views Lolita as art and a force of nature. Lolita’s mere image causes a physical response within him, one which is perhaps predatory from the start. The use of the word slither quite apparently conjures up images of a snake. The most obvious interpretation of a female and a snake would be the biblical image of Eve and the Serpent.  

The above image shows Eve entwined with the Serpent, who seduces her through the mind and body. Eve is here portrayed as vulnerable with her gaze cast aside from the snake in avoidance. To construe Lolita and Humbert’s relationship as something similar to this poignant biblical story would perhaps be rather accurate. If we interpret Lolita as Eve and Humbert as the Serpent, we see Lolita as a victim of being overcome by a cunning, manipulative force. Lolita succumbs to the shrewd actions of Humbert, becoming possessed by sin and carnal desires. In The Creation of Lolita, Julian W. Connolly states that:

Lolita is narrated by the obsessed man himself, and this shift in point of view opened up for Nabokov the opportunity to attempt his daring artistic experiment: he allows his abhorrent criminal protagonist the chance to plead his own case and to cloak his beastly crimes in language and images that are as intriguing as they are disturbing.

It is this covering up of their indiscretions that is interesting, as it shows how both Humbert and Lolita possess deceptive qualities in order to present themselves as something else, either together or individually. This allows them to engage with each other sexually, through deception. Humbert unlocks Lolita’s sexuality, despite her not being a virgin as noted in the novel, as he takes sex to a new level of danger and power exchange. Using art, mythology, or biblical concepts to understand this forbidden relationship works well since Humbert uses language so extravagantly to describe Lolita. Making a comparison to artistic concepts is useful as it conceptualises their relationship.

In Lolita, when describing the object of his affection, Humbert states, “What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet — of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity.” As established previously, the text is not intended to fully excuse Humbert as he sees Lolita as possessing her own kind of vulgarity which shows how he creates a sense of dual blame for the incidents. Because Lolita has a bad side, she is willing to conform to Humbert’s manipulation and succumb to his nature. This concept of Eve and The Serpent reveals his nature as a demonic figure, with manipulative forces that drive his ideal female away, causing her to live in sin. The ending of the novel finalises this, with Humbert’s final resounding feelings of sadness:

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.

This never-ending love resides only in Humbert’s aching heart, which mourns for his mistakes and his triumphs. This feeling of ambiguous guilt haunts both Humbert and the reader. It is in Nabokov’s nature to end on such a fanfare, to remind his readers of all they have witnessed, and the emotions left behind.

Lolita encapsulates art in many forms. The novel itself is artistically created, full of life and energy. The relationship between Humbert and Lolita represents two individuals who are being viewed, judged, and examined as if they were on stage at an art gallery. They are open to interpretation and critique, creating a conversation that has lasted decades after the novel’s release. The two characters intertwine in a lurid and deceitful way, Humbert’s voyeurism leading Lolita into his trap, her nymphet behaviour allowing him to. The secret of their lust for each other is shrouded by the ability of the two to stay underhand, unnoticed, and secretive.

Their relationship is art, as it forces those who view it to comment, either positively or negatively. It does indeed say the unsayable.

Nabokov conjures up emotions in his readers by creating discomfort and fascination through the complicated lexis and taboo subject matter. The text ends in such a tragic way, because Nabokov crafts the text so that no matter the reader’s opinion, the final sentence still causes sadness. No matter who or what Lolita is compared to, it is clear the text is a complex and confusing piece of art.

can art say the unsayable

Madison Hawley is a graduate of English Literature and Drama studies from Winchester University, the United Kingdom. Her work has focused on romance, sexuality, and femininity. She also enjoys studies of morality and is interested in psychological non-fiction. She is currently working on her own crime novel. In her spare time, she enjoys art, photography and walks in nature. When not writing, she is usually watching the latest dramatic documentary on Netflix.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: