Wednesday, April 1, 2009


          One of my favorite passages in Lolita was luckily also one of the stylistically richest, so I’m jumping on it before someone else steals it away. I chose a rather early passage: part two, chapter two, p. 155 “We inspected…” to pg. 158 “…personal belongings.” Humbert manages to sum up the duo’s first helter skelter trip across America in just two paragraphs, which are filled to the brim with his characteristic wordplay. 

“…on her brown shoulder, a raised purple-pink swelling (the work of some gnat) which I eased of its beautiful transparent poison between my long thumbnails and then sucked till I was gorged on her spicy blood.” 

This line was funny, but also rather disturbing. Humbert is troubled by the imperfection the gnat has left on Lolita, and attempts to correct it, but he only unthinkingly mimics the gnat, gorging himself on her blood. While this produces situational irony, it also leaves us with a strange image – it suggests that like the gnat, Humbert is just a parasite feeding off Lolita’s life force. It also suggests that, as is the case here, every time Humbert tries to fix a problem he sees in Lolita’s life, he only blindly repeats the damage that was done before. In this way, his repetition of the gnat’s parasitic feeding is akin to his repetition of Charlie’s defloration of Lolita; in both cases he sees himself as a different, positive force in her life, when he is really only echoing the damage on a larger scale.
             Multiple times in the passage, Humbert shows his possessiveness of Lolita, emphasizing any interaction with other men, such as the way he notes her palms sweating in the presence of the “repulsively handsome White Russian”, the boy who ogles her, and even the “bronzed owner of an expensive car” that she dares to squint at instead of showing interest in the postcard of his father’s hotel. This illustrates the obsession, insecurity, and paranoia that characterize Humbert’s relationship with Lolita, and foreshadows its unavoidable failure. Humbert recognizes and admits that he is imprisoning Lolita, playing on words as he recalls tourist attraction entry fees: “…children under 12 free, Lo a young captive.”
              There are a variety of distinctly American things that both amuse and bemuse Humbert: Bourbon Street “(what fun)”, “Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial.”, “…a church built in the shape of a wine barrel”, “ART: American Refrigerator Transit Company”. These not so subtle jabs at American culture are part of a recurring motif in the novel, the conflict of Humbert’s old-world European sensibilities with commercialized American society. Although Humbert is critical of the material society, he is also obsessed with Lolita, who is ultimately a product of that society, in fact, he earlier refers to her as the person “to whom which ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer”. He struggles to reconcile his conflicting thoughts on American society as the novel continues, and this struggle makes for some very interesting social commentary, especially considering that Nabokov was also an immigrant.

“Somber Yellowstone Park and its colored hot springs, baby geysers, rainbows of bubbling mud – symbols of my passion.” 

            This imagery really shows Humbert’s recognition of the foulness of his deeds, but also his attempts to justify them. Like the bubbling mud, his abuse of Lolita is the foulest and dirtiest of deeds, but the juxtaposition of this image of seething filth against ‘rainbows’ is similar to the logic he uses to justify his actions. Although he knows raping Lolita is wrong, he feels that his passion for her is so strong and beautiful that in a way, it transforms the normally filthy action into something beautiful.
            The structure of this passage is very interesting as well. Humbert ranges from short, fragmented sentences “Distant mountains. Near mountains.” or “Fish Hatcheries. Cliff Dwellings.” to long lists spanning multiple topics (see the fourteen line sentence that concludes the paragraph ending on p. 156), and everything in between. He uses parenthetical comments liberally, and often utilizes on repetition and hyperbole to emphasize the repetitive nature of the trip (“Hundreds of scenic drives, thousands of bear creeks” “Our twentieth Hell’s Canyon.” “Always the same three old men…”). These paragraphs straddle the line between stream of consciousness and a traveler’s scribbled notes, and give this passage a much different feel from the rest of the novel. The more fragmented, eclectic structure is purposeful, it highlights the nature of Humbert’s journey and his mental state during this time, showing the unreflective, impulsive way he leads Lolita across the US, focusing on minute details and day to day tourist distractions instead of facing the looming problems the pair must soon face.

Other things I observed but couldn’t attach significance to (but I’d like to hear yours):

§  “(by now we are in Poplar Cove N.C., reached by what my kind, tolerant, usually so restrained tour book angrily calls ‘a very narrow road, poorly maintained,’ to which, though no Kilmerite, I subscribe).” – Personification plus Allusion to Joyce Kilmer, the author of the poem “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree”) that the town’s memorial is dedicated to. For the record, I dislike that poem too.

§  “…interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen; pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, ‘too prehistoric for words’…” – Alliteration of P, pharaonic (meaning of a Pharaoh) falls in nicely with “heavy Egyptian limbs” later in the sentence, and "mummy of a child" on the next page, but I'm not sure what Egypt has to do with anything.

On a related note, check this out:

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