pervasive philosophies behind many postmodern forms of art and literature is the idea that human identities are defined more by their social circumstances than by any universal truths. The human is not a self-sufficient entity, but is built through social conventions. This notion reveals itself in the transitional postmodern works by Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov -- specifically, in Lolita and Waiting for Godot. Humbert is continually attempting to reconcile his life as a suave intellectual with his hidden life as a pedophilic rapist. One way in which he does this is to call himself a "therapist"; which is an acceptable label for one of his faces, but also identifies him more subtly as "the rapist." This duel nature reflects the social limitations imposed upon his freedom, and the consequences they have for both his identity and his actions. Vladimir and Estragon encounter a different aspect of this philosophy: they find that they are forced to define their existence only with reference to their actions, and these actions can only be adequately justified by social circumstances. The pair grapples with the meaninglessness of their lives, debates ending them, but continues because of an abstract social convention -- they are waiting for Godot. This is a powerful demonstration of the emptiness of human action; the most concrete aspect of our existence is the social constraints that define us. Both works exhibit bits of this postmodern philosophy, but refrain from offering any conclusive answers regarding what human life might fundamentally be.
Nabokov seems to take a more psychological approach to the topic of human identity than does Beckett. This is precisely why Humbert is both "the rapist" and the "therapist," and additionally, why the novel is divided into two sections. In this respect, the human being, to Nabokov, is a complex conglomeration between innate drives and intellectual morality. Innate drives created his idealized mental image of Lolita, but abstract morality meant that such an image was inaccurate and transitory. Recognizing this, we can see that Lolita is divided into two parts along similar lines; the lines of creation and destruction, but also along the lines of individual perspective and social perspective. The novel has two names as well: "Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male." (Nabokov, 3). "Lolita" is not the girl Dolores Haze, but the image of the girl that Humbert creates for himself -- it is a part of his internal identity. However, "the Confessions of a White Widowed Male" is clearly the title more socially accurate and appropriate for Humbert's incarceration. To the end, Humbert remains obsessed with Lolita even though his image of her no longer exists objectively -- she is no longer a child. Lolita is destroyed by external social circumstances. So, to understand Nabokov's treatment of society's construction of individuals requires us to recognize the disparity between individual perception and social identification.
The reader is not allowed with Vladimir or Estragon, on the other hand, a detailed glimpse into their mental states. Consequently, we are left to interpret from their actions and words how they perceive themselves. Whereas Humbert is able to hold onto his past conceptions of Lolita, Estragon possesses a far more limited perceptual link to his mental past. When Vladimir asks him about the previous day he responds, "Yes, now I remember, yesterday evening we spent blathering about nothing in particular. That's been going on now for half a century." (Beckett, 42). Importantly, Estragon remembers nothing in particular about the previous day, except that he was kicked (Beckett, 43). Estragon's understanding of himself is based very weakly upon his physical states, and memories are only tied to this construction of himself when associated with these physical states. So, it is reasonable to wonder: who does Estragon think he is? If he is almost utterly unable to understand himself with reference to either of the two most common ways -- physical or mental continuance -- it would be difficult to claim that he is the same person he was the day before.
This line of reasoning owes itself, historically, to John Locke's theories concerning human identity. Locke argued that one of the fundamental obstacles to defining personal identity is this: sameness with one's self at any given instant fails to necessarily imply sameness at another point and time. It may be possible to argue that man's body carries something singular with itself through time, but this may have no relation to mental identity. Locke's solution to this problem is to connect past and present actions, which are associated with past and present perceptions, with consciousness. Through consciousness it is possible for an individual to perceive what is around him and to perceive that he has already perceived. Consciousness links the human mind to physical actions that the human body has carried out. He explains, "But though the same immaterial substance of soul does not alone, whatever it be, and in whatsoever state, make the same man; yet it is plain, consciousness, as far as ever it can be extended -- should it be to ages past -- unites existences and actions very remote in time into the same person." (Locke, no. 16).
Understanding this traditional definition of human identity, it is possible to see Waiting for Godot as a postmodern objection to Locke's argument. Estragon's only defining characteristic is his relationship to Vladimir. Additionally, Estragon is not even conscious of how far back or forward this relationship stretches -- it is momentary and fragmented. Still, Estragon must be considered the same person he was in the Macon country; despite his objection, "No I was never in the Macon country! I've puked my puke of a life away here, I tell you!" (Beckett, 40). This statement is substantial because it is both false and true. Physically, Estragon was in the Macon country, but mentally he was always "here" -- in the present. Despite Estragon's inability to remember it, we must assume he is the same person he was in the Macon country because he is still following the same social convention: he is following Vladimir. In this way, social circumstances create who he is, regardless of his conscious link to any past perceptions.
Nabokov, however, attacks the traditional conception of human identity by revealing that there is a battle between identity assigned by the individual and that assigned by society. Yet this conflict is not as clear as it sounds; Humbert's perception of himself is not defined by what society actually thinks of him, but by what he believes they should think of him. Humbert professes, "We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill." (Nabokov, 88). Notably, Humbert clearly claims that he is not a sex fiend and that he is not a killer, towards the end of the book we come to realize that both statements may hold some truth depending upon the social context. More importantly, this passage can be seen as Humbert's internal and idealistic conception of himself. He believes that he is a poet, and that poets do not kill; this is in accordance with the creation motif of the first part of the book. Poets create, nymphets are created; but soldiers kill, and rapists destroy. Nabokov's objection to Locke's argument is not that consciousness is inconsistent, but that individual perception is inaccurate. In one form of existence Humbert is not a rapist or a murderer, but in another he is both.
Furthermore, Humbert is arrested and put on trial for the killing of Quilty; an act for which he…