In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov creates the character of a clear anti-hero in Humbert, a man who has is guilty of pedophilia, possibly rape and murder. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to Humbert's narration of his affair with his stepdaughter, a "nymphet" named Dolores Haze or, in Humbert's mind, Lolita. For Humbert, the various forms of love he feels for the young girl are inextricably linked with his lust and sexual desires.
This paper examines the running theme of Humbert's sexuality and lust in Nabokov's Lolita. For Humbert, love can only be seen in the context of his powerful desire to sexually possess the object of his attention. Thus, he is unable to express any love for the teenage Lolita -- filial or romantic -- without turning her into an object of his lust.
The first part of this paper looks at how Humbert treated the other women in his life, from Annabel Leigh, Valeria, Charlotte Haze and the insane Rita. This section discusses how, for Humbert, the level of sexual attraction determines whether or not a woman would be treated with love.
The next part of the paper then contrasts Humbert's relations with these other women with his defining relationship with the nymphet Lolita.
This paper evaluates arguments that Humbert's Humbert's attentions were akin to pedophilia or rape or that his lust was brought on by its forbidden nature, versus other theories that state how Humbert's sexual desire is also an expression of his love for the adolescent Lolita. This paper argues that Humbert's willingness to commit murder on her behalf is proof that he not only lusted but also loved the nymphet Lolita. However, due to his tendency to maintain control in his relationships, particularly with Dolores and Annabel Leigh, Humbert's first-person narrative accounts should also be read with skepticism as to his interpretations of the motives and decisions of the young girls.
Lolita is by no means the only girl or woman in Humbert's life. In the novel, he details at four other females, all of whom shed light on his fascination with Lolita.
His responses to Annabel Leigh, Valeria, Charlotte Haze and finally to Rita also shows how his responses to nymphets are also necessarily creative, psychologically unbalanced and very sensual.
Annabel Leigh harsh critic of psycholanalytic theory, Nabokov has always discounted theories that Humbert's lust for his Lolita was bought on in large part by his unrequited love for Annabel Leigh, the girl he has longed for since he was 13 years old. However, a closer reading of Humbert's narration and an examination of her very name would show otherwise.
Humbert describes Annabel as "a lovely child" (12), an outright admission that the preadolescent girl is not a woman. However, neither is Humbert a man during this time. Despite their efforts, however, their affair is never consummated, a reality which "drove our healthy bodies to such as state of exasperation that not even the cold blue water...could bring relief" (12).
Annabel dies only months later of typhus, the first of many sudden deaths in this novel, after the long-ago death of Humbert's mother. This loss of Annabel precludes any chance of Humbert ever "possessing (his) darling" (13).
This unrequited adolescent love affair essentially halts Humbert's sexual maturity, and could have laid the foundation for his lifelong obsession with the preadolescent girls whom he would later term as "nymphets."
Annabel represents Humbert's first love. If his confession is accurate, then Annabel would be the only other female that Humbert truly loved, aside from his Lolita. One reason for this inference is the way Humbert tries to "possess" Annabel, both on the deserted French beach and later, even after her death. Critic Stephen Jay Parker attributes Humbert's "rift" to his inability to satisfy his sexual desires with Annabel Leigh (Parker 72).
Instead of a simple psychological motivation, however, critic Daniel Thomieres observes that a careful reader could see how Humbert can easily interpret these events as he wishes, to make himself sympathetic before launching into the details of his adult relationship with Lolita. As proof, Thomieres rightly points out that Humbert could not even recall Annabel's physical traits. Humbert has lost her photograph and admits that the way he sees Annabel in his mind is also "the way I see Lolita" (11). Through the first person narration, Thomieres also discerns that Humbert does not let Annabel speak for herself. In a sense, Annabel provides "(her) bod (y) and den(ies) her mind so as to incarnate that fantasy for Humbert" (Thomieres 168). Humbert states that she wanted him as much as he desired her, but nowhere in the account does he give Annabel a voice.
Thomieres goes as far as to suggest that Annabel Leigh may not even have existed, and may just be Humbert's ploy to justify his "rape and violent imprisonment of Dolores" (167). As his relationship with Annabel indicates, Humbert demonstrates a desire for power and a need to control the images of the objects of his obsession. In the absence of actual sexual possession, Humbert now recreates Annabel in his mind, a recreation that conveniently matches the current physical state of his stepdaughter Dolores (Thomieres 171). After all, later in the novel, Humbert weaves tales of fictional lovers in his past, to appease the curiosity of his wife Charlotte. It is therefore reasonable to question whether Humbert is doing the same for his readers in his account of Annabel Leigh.
Nabokov's choice of name for this character is significant as well.
The young girl's name recalls Edgar Allan Poe's poem Annabel Lee. By extension, Humbert's own Annabel Leigh also evokes Virginia Clemm, Poe's child bride. Furthermore, critic L.L. Lee extends the reference of Annabel's mother Mrs. Leigh, who was "born Vanessa van Ness," to Jonathan Swift's Vanessa. These name references all allude to the stories of young girls who were involved in love affairs with older men (Lee 117).
Eventually, because of this novel, the significance of these names would pale in comparison to the cultural icon status of the name "Lolita."
In summary, the brief account of Annabel Leigh presents powerful insight into Humbert Humbert's character. If she did exist, Annabel offers an explanation for Humbert's obsession with Dolores. If she is a recreation or a ploy for sympathy, the account of Annabel still illustrates Humbert's ongoing need to control the objects of his affection. Through his first-person narration, choice of name and the blurring of his mental image of Annabel/Lolita, Humbert reveals a tendency to control and possess the bodies and images of those he swears to love.
Humbert is first attracted to Valeria because of "the imitation she gave of a little girl" (25). He soon realized, however, that her childlikeness was actually an image. Her hair was dyed and her unshaven legs began to feel prickly. Instead of a thin, smooth, young and hairless nymphet, Valeria was "large, puffy, short-legged and big breasted" (26). In Humbert's mind, the only trait that corresponded to being childlike was Valeria's "brainlessness."
Four years into their marriage, Valeria admits to an affair with another man, a Russian taxi driver. Humbert's account of his emotions during what should have been a devastating moment is quite telling. Instead of being hurt, Humbert explains how he felt suffocated by "a mounting fury -- not because I had any fondness for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert, but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me lone to decide" (28).
Humbert uses the excuse of "legal and illegal conjunctions" to justify his rage and anger, rather than the more common reason of a broken heart (Norton). In his reconstruction, Humbert takes pains to mask his lack of control over his wife and the subsequent loss of pride this entails. In a way, his inability to control or even punish Valeria mirrors Humbert's inability to control or consummate his possession of Annabel Leigh. For Humbert, the worst pain was caused not by the fact that Valeria -- who, in his mind, was ugly -- did not love him. Instead, Valeria chose to take action towards her own happiness. As an adult, she was free to take up with another man and to leave her husband. Though he wanted to punish her, there was ultimately nothing Humbert could do to stop her.
Valeria's actions shed further light on Humbert's choice of Lolita. Compared to his narration of Annabel Leigh, Valeria's story rings more true.
This is due in part to the fact that Valeria has an important - albeit short - voice: "There is another man in my life" (27). Unlike Annabel, Humbert's account allows Valeria to articulate her won desires. Furthermore, this account is replete with Humbert's failures, his losing place "on the losing end of the balance of power" (Norton).
For revenge, Humbert can only concoct the unlikely account of Valeria and her new husband's humiliating role in an anthropological experiment. As with Annabel before her and Charlotte and Dolores,…