Nabokov’s iconic opening line in the novel instantly

Nabokov’s
Lolita (published 1955)1 is
a novel that does not comply with one generic category, fitting under multiple
genres including: tragedy, realism, romance, and detective fiction set in the
late 1940s to early 50s in North America. It is narrated by the fictional
author Humbert Humbert in first person from his jail cell 5 years after the
incidents involved within his writing. Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons
Dangereuses (published 23 March 1782 by Durand Neveu) is an epistolary novel in
four volumes set during the late 1700s in Paris, France narrated through
corresponding letters sent between each of the characters. Both novels surround
themes of the deliberate destruction of a young girl’s innocence by a single
male figure and subsequently propose the question is innocence actually obtainable
to the predators that seek it?

 Nabokov’s iconic opening line in the novel
instantly establishes Humbert’s lust for the young girl Dolores who goes by
many titles; “Lo,” “Lola,” “Dolly,” yet he asserts
that in his “arms, she was always Lolita”. This is evident through the sensual
use of alliteration to engage the reader “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my
loins”. The repeated use of the pronoun ‘my’ suggests that Humbert has a
possessive nature, claiming Dolores as his property. Her nickname has led to
the origination of the definition of ‘Lolita’ as “a sexually precocious young
girl”2.
The noun “fire” has connotations of illumination and warmth which, when
juxtaposed with the noun “light” presents Dolores as a sensual figure that
brings him to life. However, this is juxtaposed as the fire foreshadows the
tragic ending of the novel through its connotation of pain and death. Furthermore,
this also suggests that Humbert acknowledges that he is ‘playing with fire’ and
is going to get burnt in his quest to possess her. The novel references Edgar
Allan Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’ through Nabokov’s character Annabel Leigh. Humbert
is stricken with grief over the death of his original “nymphet” which
ultimately led to his manifestation of paedophilic tendencies towards
prepubescent girls. Historically Poe is known to have married Virginia Eliza
Clemm Poe when she was aged 13 suggesting that a relationship with a child and
a grown man has been legal in the past which Humbert presents along with his
past trauma as a justification of his hebephilia.

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 He refers to himself through the noun
‘murderer’ in the first chapter, presenting him as a dangerous man capable of
destroying a young girl’s innocence. In addressing his audience as ‘Ladies and
Gentlemen of the jury’, he constructs the illusion of a court room, serving as
a reminder of his current place in jail, suggesting that the narrative of the
novel is an attempt to justify his actions to the world. Furthermore, this
foreshadows his murder of another paedophilic figure at the end of the novel:
Quilty. Some critics have suggested that the presence and murder of Quilty was
a figment of Humbert’s imagination due to his increased sense of paranoia3. Quilty
represents an exaggerated characterization of the narrator at the beginning of
the novel in which Humbert purely attempted to court Lolita for his own sexual gratification.
His courtly love for Dolores is juxtaposed by that of Quilty whom Nabokov represents
as the antagonist of Humbert’s narrative, “Where the devil did you get her?” (pg.
109) presents Quilty’s intent of commodifying the child.4
Arguably, this suggests that Humbert chased the girl because of his love of art
and “nymphets”, he was never after her with an intent on deliberately abusing
and destructing her innocence, unlike Quilty who had illicit intentions of
featuring Dolores in a child pornography orgy.

Lolita is a
classic example of a postmodern text as Humbert is an unreliable narrator. Only
his personal feelings and emotions are presented throughout the novel, there is
no first-hand account from Dolores. His use of rhetorical devices silences
Dolores point of view, manipulating audiences to feel empathetic towards him
through his writing. Her absent speech is typically forgotten as he writes of
his courtship of Lolita during his time in the Haze household; “her hand
slipped into mine and without our chaperon’s seeing” presents Humbert as a
child-like figure that needs to be supervised in order to keep him in line. Additionally
the use of the poetic technique iambic pentameter in “squeezed that hot paw, all the way to the store” emphasises that Dolores
is the one prompting the intimacy between them, which he tries to legitimize.
Lustful imagery is presented through “hot paw” suggesting that he is passionate
and hot-blooded about Dolores, which is juxtaposed by the animalistic imagery
of her hand described as a paw which could suggest that she is easy to
manipulate.

In
comparison, Choderlos’ novel gives the reader a first-hand account of the
female characters emotions through their own narration in letters which were an
eighteenth-century tradition. Unlike Dolores Haze, Cecile Volanges records her
experiences when confiding in a character that she has been manipulated to
trust: the Marquise de Merteuil. Brought up in a convent, she is a naïve
teenager and lacks any social etiquette which has left her vulnerable to being
manipulated with ease. She is described by Merteuil in a letter to Valmont as “only
fifteen years of age, a rose-bud”. The adverb “only” firstly establishes her
youth. It is emphasised by the imagery of a “rose-bud” which symbolises purity whilst
also representing girlhood to suggest that the rose is not ready to be plucked
and hence she is not yet mature enough to love, which is similarly used by
Nabokov, who uses of flowers in Lolita as a representation of Dolores’ youth. The
novel is set during the Age of Enlightenment which is reflected through the
male characters 18th century disrespectful attitudes towards women
due to men’s role of being the dominant sex. This for example, is evident
through Valmont’s response to the offer, which epitomises his character; “to
seduce a girl who’s seen nothing of life”, the noun “girl” demonstrates his
lack of respect for young women by infantilizing Cecile which is juxtaposed
with the idiom that she “would be handed to me on a plate”.  He suggests that there are “dozen men as
competent” to do that job as he is (pg14) and originally has no intent of
destroying her innocence. Instead, he decides upon the escapade of attempting
to seduce a virtuous, married woman: Madame de Tourvel.

In Lolita, Dolores
is continually sexually represented with the intention of changing the reader’s
initial view of her as an innocent child. For example, in chapter 31 Humbert
emphasises the fact that he was not Dolore’s first lover through lustful
imagery after he questions “Did I deprive her of her flower?”. The connotation
of flowers, which is a motif throughout the novel, represents Dolores Haze’s
chastity.  He presents this in defence of
his actions after suggesting that he was not her first lover, holding a firm
belief that it will sway the opinions of the “jury”. Even Dolore’s Mother,
Charlotte Haze, comments on her daughter’s desire for male attention, claiming
that she’ll be better off going to camp than moping about and “use(s) her
mamma’s lipstick, and pursue(s) shy studious gentlemen”.5 These
literary techniques suggest that Dolores’ innocence has not been destructed
evident through Humbert’s insistence that she was sexually promiscuous of her
own doing when away from him at camp. However, due to her lack of narration in
the novel, it is hard to make this a definite conclusion.

 Laclos in contrast to Lolita represents Madame
de Tourvel as an honest, chaste woman that Valmont takes pleasure in desiring
to deliberately destroy the woman’s innocence. This is explored as the misogynistic
Visconte alters his writing style to lure the Madame in through religious
language; “I got a letter from my pious angel” (pg86). To some modern audiences
the adjective “pious” has negative connotations which is ironic due to
Valmont’s sarcasm. His letters are full of male condescension which is evident
here to the Marquise in which he boasts of his newfound language, almost
mocking Tourvel for her religious beliefs which would have shocked 18th
century audiences due to their strong faith in the Catholic Church. The Valmonts
letters betray his personality as he is given to using military imagery to
describe his “tactics” in order to exceed in another “conquest” of making women
say what they would normally refuse to by overcoming normal social conventions.

 Cecile’s innocence was destructed due to her
naivety and trust in the Visconte who’s only goal was to deflower her to win
the praises of the Marquise de Meurteuille. Both Dolores and Cecile were
gradually manipulated and then forced into a sexual relationship with older
male figures. Due to Dolores’ lack of narration, audiences have no indication
that she found pleasure in any part of the relationship. In comparison however,
Cecile learns to embrace her sexuality after confiding in the Marquise whose
knowledge she desires. Furthermore, the older generations have control over the
young in both novels and dictate the children’s lives. Humbert manipulates
Lolita through threats of sending her away to an “orphanage” after her Mothers
accidental death if she even thought of reporting their “incestual”
relationship to the police. In comparison to Cecile, who has a female figure to
confide in, Dolores has no one.

  Both novels dealt with extreme controversy
upon release and were banned in multiple countries after their publish dates in
1955 (Lolita) and 1972 (Dangerous Liaisons) respectively. Lolita became the
focus of both literary and legal debate due to its controversy concerning its
insinuation of pornographic imagery of a twelve-year-old girl leading it to
only be sold in sex shops until a few years later. Some critics argued the
content was masked by the art of Humbert’s language use6 . Due
to his highly poetic descriptions, and persuasive writing style that circumvent
the reader from his actual intentions, the audience are given the impression
that Humbert sincerely atones for the crimes that he has committed to encourage
audiences to sympathise after committing crimes that would have been social and
sexual taboos in the 1950s and continue to be today. Les Liaisons Dangereuses
similarly would have been particularly shocking to 18th century
audiences as the Catholic church had a lot of power over the French population.

Humbert
Humbert shows little to no resent for his actions but rather places himself in
the position of the victim to manipulate audiences to believe that he is an
innocent man, suggesting that Dolores innocence was self-destructed.  This is evident as Humbert was left in
disbelief towards the end of the novel that his cherished Lolita would run away
from him despite his lies and deceits as he continually took advantage of her
age and interpreted her child tendencies as lack of common sense. His continual
manipulation of her thoughts is shown when Humbert insinuates that adults don’t
have sex, it is but a task limited to children. Dolores believes and sucks up
to this lie “betraying her profound innocence” suggesting that she has been
programmed into believing that her sexual promiscuity is normal (pg. 327). The effect
Humbert has had on Dolores’ mental state is particularly evident in part two chapter
11 as the headmistress of the Beardsley School for Girls, Mrs Pratt, presents
her psychological analysis of Dolores to Humbert. The all-girls school
primarily focuses on the teaching of dramatics, debating, dance and dating for
them to grow to be the perfect little house wives mirroring the societal standards
for women in post-war 1950s America. Pratt suggests that Dolores’ school mates
fine her “antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey”. The adjective “antagonistic”
ironically presents Lolita as the antagonist or villain of the novel which
arguably reinforces Humbert’s position of the victim. This however, is
juxtaposed by the following scene which represents another moment that Humbert’s
morals are… He positions his sexual desire above his paternal instincts and chooses
to pay her sixty 5 cents for his permission to have a role in the play an dput her
hand down his pants. Humbert is guilty of violating more than just Lolita, he ahs
brought their sexual relationship into a public space of a classroom… her
antisocial behaviour mirrors that of Humbert. He has manipulated Dolores into a
miniature version of himself by keeping her away from (pg. 196) She is anti-social and can’t get
along with kids her age. He has corrupted her and all she seems to think about
is sexual thoughts. Pratt ironically describes Humbert as having
“old-fashioned” values. This suggests that he has broken the girl and made her
a splitting image of himself…

In
conclusion, the exploitation of underage girls within both novels foreshadow
the tragic endings. There are no happy narrative resolutions, the gradual act
of destroying Dolores Haze and Cecile Dublanche foreshadows the self-destruction
of Humbert and the Visconte de Valmont. Both male characters come to the
realisation of the impact their actions have had on their victims too late and
wallow in deep regret; Humbert using the noun “maniac” to describe himself who
has deprived Lolita of her childhood, dies a lonely death alone in jail, the
same could be argued for Valmont whose tragic death came after his realisation that
he was in fact in love with Madame de Tourvel. Characters such as Madame
Meurteil and Cecile however are left mentally scarred from their experiences,
one flee’s after her exposed scandal, the other returns to the convent to
repent for her sins.….

1 Nabokov,
V. and Raine, C. (n.d.). Lolita. p.Front matter pg4.

2 Oxford
Dictionaries | English. (2017). Lolita | Definition of Lolita in
English by Oxford Dictionaries. online Available at:
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/lolita

3 Rutledge,
D. (2011). Nabokov’s permanent mystery. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland
& Co., pp.148-152.

4 Conroy,
M. (2004). Muse in the machine. Columbus (Ohio): The Ohio State
University Press, pp.110-111.

5 Arts.brighton.ac.uk.
(2017). Nabokov’s Rhetorical Strategies in Lolita – Arts and culture.
online Available at:
http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/re/literature/brightonline/issue-number-six/nabokovs-rhetorical-strategies-in-lolita
Accessed 17 Oct. 2017.

6 Pifer,
E. (2003). Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita “: a casebook.
Oxford u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press, p.3.

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