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Thread: Humbert Humbert's intentions in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. #1

    Humbert Humbert's intentions in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    So, I recentley finished a large thesis paper on Lolita, specifically focusing on the character of Humbert Humbert. As I finished the paper, I raised an interesting question for myself. I argued in my paper that Humbert was trying to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with him, but ultimately failed because he makes the act of manipulation too conspicuous to the reader.

    I realized, however, that because the reader realizes how much Humbert lies to them, it is impossible to judge him at all. The reader has no reliable information to go by. So do you think that might have been his true goal? To make it impossible for the reader to judge him at all? Or do you think it was something else entirely?

  2. #2
    What happened to my LIFE?! childeroland's Avatar
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    For what it's worth, Nabokov labeled Humbert Humbert Humbert "a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear 'touching.'" At the very end I think Humbert does come as clean to the reader as he can, but he cannot rid himself of his nympholepsy (realizing that his 'moral apotheosis' can't make up for destroying Lolita's life, even as he asks the 'aged' Dolores Haze to leave her husband and come away with him) and so his entire 'memoir' can't help but be a celebration of it.
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  3. #3
    Joker Groupie Celia Cyanide's Avatar
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    What a truly excellent topic.

    I do agree that Humbert is unreliable, and perhaps the best example of an unreliable narrator I can think of, with the possible of exception of the narrator in Poe's "A Telltale Heart." Humbert wants to convince us that there is nothing wrong with who he is, and keeps comparing himself to others whom he feels are morally worse than he is.

    However, I disagree that it is impossible to judge him. Even the unreliable narrator doesn't lie his way through the story. He misinterprets. We do know the nature of his relationship with Lolita, and no matter how he tries to justify it, we know he is wrong. And we can judge him for it.
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    ageing savage dolores haze's Avatar
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    And yet countless numbers of readers regard 'Lolita' as a love story. The sheer numbers of these convince me that HH did win the sympathy of many.

    It's not a love story, of course. I have no problem judging HH for the monster he is. Witty, erudite, intelligent, sometimes charming, but still a monster. Lo's "sobs in the night, every night, every night," make it all too clear what HH is.

  5. #5
    figuring it all out
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    I agree with Celia, this is a great topic!

    After I read Lolita I found it shocking that this was considered by many to be a love story. I thought it was more like a bizarre horror story--an in the mind of the monster sort of tale.

    IMO, HH was trying to justify his actions by presenting the truth as it seemed in his twisted mind. However, HH knew the "relationship" was unacceptable or he would not have gone to such extremes to hide it from others throughout the story. Yet, he attempts to present his point of view in a manner that he believes may garner sympathy, especially when he hints this is not what he is looking for at all. This is what made him unreliable to me.

    For me HH's lies are what made it possible for me to form a judgment about him. HH presented Lolita as a seductress but her interactions with him and what he observed told another story. Comparing what was there with how HH perceived it was what I found most revealing and sad. This is what caused me to view him more as a deluded master manipulator who was attempting to deceive the reader the same way he had fooled other characters in the novel. Initially he appeared to others in the book as a seemingly charming man but there was something...not quite right. The reader gets to see behind the curtain.

    I wish I had the story in front of me because there are places where I marked pages in the book about this. The details of what I read are foggy in my memory.

    Thanks for posting this topic, MonochromeSky!

  6. #6
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    I've only read this book once and I'm far from an expert, but for me Lolita changed from a love story to a...I hesitate to use the word 'horror'...something more sinister about halfway through.

    Some of the prose was so beautiful and precise I had to stop and catch my breath, but as the novel progressed, I got shivers more and more often. HH and Lolita's intercourse (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, as in, interactions) went from playful - at least that's how they were presented - to reluctant. HH began to report more and more often, Lolita saying things like "Oh no, not again," whenever he became aroused. Maybe she'd said things like that before but only now was he willing to relate such words. Perhaps a beginning of him taking her resistance and putting it down to "See? I told you nymphets eventually grow up and turn into spoiled brats." He could see it coming - he knew he'd eventually have to acknowledge her fighting him off, if only with words - but he justifies it not by saying it's rape, but "Lolita. Such a spoiled child."

    Anyhoo, them's the first impressions of a one-time reader. I'll definitely re-read at some point, though.

  7. #7
    you didn't come and help me kuwisdelu's Avatar
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    Why can't it be a love story from the perspective of a monster? I don't see anything mutually exclusive about the two. Love isn't always healthy. I do think Lo played a large part in their relationship, but I don't believe she ever loved HH. I certainly think HH had strong feelings for Lo, though. The way I read it, they both took advantage of each other, with devastating consequences for both. How much blame is to be distributed to each depends on how much faith we give to Humbert the Narrator's version of events. I don't disagree that he's unreliable, but I don't believe Lo is entirely innocent, either.
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  8. #8
    Makes useful distinctions Lady Ice's Avatar
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    I think the OP has a good point. Lolita is an elusive novel: just compare the two movies it spawned. Kubrick's movie is a black comedy; Lyne's movie is a tragedy. We can judge Humbert in the sense that he is a self-proclaimed paedophile and so is amoral, but it's never clear how much he regrets his actions. Lolita is not entirely literal.
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  9. #9
    Assume the best intentions. Jake.C's Avatar
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    One of my English teachers read this novel and ended up thinking H.H was the good guy and Lo the bad guy. I've never understood this reading; I just don't see how anyone could read the story and perceive Lo's actions (even reported unreliably as they are) as anything but innocent. Anybody who has seen a young female interact with an older male whom she has a little crush on knows that Lo did not act out of the ordinary--as a 'nymphet'. All the little gestures that H. tries to pass off as the exclusive motions of a temptress are normal flirtations that I've seen young girls experiment with before. (Males who had friends with younger sisters when they were teenagers might be more familiar).

    And anyone who tries to pass of her deception of H. as evidence of cruelty or deviousness are forgetting what she was going through in his care. I don't think she ever behaved out of turn.
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW Nostro's Avatar
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    I'm only about 50 pages into the book so I'm not entirely qualified to post. I'd agree with those who say Lo is blameless, she's a kid with a childish crush on an older man. A man who takes advantage of the father figure shaped hole in her life.

    The contrast between HH's beautiful writing and his despicable actions is breath taking. As to the original question in the op, I'd question why HH wanted his memoirs published posthumously. Imo he wants to clear his name, and believes his writing is seductive enough to do so. His continuous references to men who have taken child brides throughout history would support this. Also his manipulation of psychiatrists is a classic example of sociopathy (sociopaths appear to be immune to psychotherapy). Manipulation is second nature for sociopaths. I'd wonder if Nabokov knew of this and inserted it as a hint to HH's true nature.

    I'm not sure how anyone could read it as a love story, unless it was as a forbidden/taboo love story. Lionel Trilling seemed to see it that way (there's an interesting discussion of the book between the two on youtube). But still!

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