The Unreliable Narrator
The Unreliable Narrator The impact of the narrative point of view and subsequently, the narrator’s control over his story-telling cannot be ignored. Mastery in presenting the story gives the narrator control to direct his readers as he intends, and hence it is important to penetrate the facade of the writing to truly understand what is going on. In Lolita, this is especially crucial as Humbert paints a sympathetic and sorry picture of himself to gain empathy from the readers. Yet, at the same time it is through the way he wove his tale where the moral message against child exploitation emerges stronger than ever.
The deceitful nature of Humbert’s writing is evident through the involuted style he adopts. He claims that he has “only words to play with” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 32), and he manipulates them throughout the novel. Humbert retells a tale where names of places, things and people have been changed, and new creatures are invented. He creates a fantastical world, one where objects and characters are permutated into numerous forms that are in no way exhaustive, and in its excess we are drawn into his creation till it becomes difficult to unravel the truth and morality behind the events.
Humbert’s immortalization and dehumanization of Dolores is an attempt to lighten the immoral nature of his actions. His creation of a “nymphet” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 16) is almost an extension of ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Allen Poe, and sets the ground for the fantastical element in his autobiography. Parallels are drawn with Humbert’s first sexual experience and the poem: it occurred in a “princedom by the sea” with a girl named Annabel Leigh. He continues the whimsical fairytale by calling Dolores “my darling–my darling-my life and my bride” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 47), an exact line from the poem.
Such allusions serve to diminish his unnatural lust for a young child through setting the events against a background of fantasy. Humbert refers heavily to fairytales. Lolita was his “little princess” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 39) and he was “Humbert le Bel” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 41), colouring his story with romance and in turn, evoking pity when his offer to “live happily ever after” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 278) is rejected by Lolita. The fantasical element is also seen through his continual references to mythical creatures. His nymphets are found on “an enchanted island” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 6) and the “vast, misty sea” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 16) that surrounds it appears when a “blue sea-wave” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 39) swelled under his heart when he first meets Dolores. He calls Annabel Leigh an elf, and continues by mentioning Lolita’s home town was “Pisky” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 46), an allusion to pixie. Understandably, like “enchanted hunters” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 117) he could not help but prey on Dolores. Humbert has transformed the girls through his narrative control into imaginary, fairytale-like creatures that allow an amoral atmosphere to set in.
We lessen the impact of his abuse on the grounds that Dolores is no longer human; she is a nymphet that exists only in the literary realm, and had poor Humbert “in thrall” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 183). The brief lapses of his narration where we get a glimpse of the real Humbert voice are but essential in dissecting the truth of his story. We get a hint of his true nature when he expresses with much glee how he enjoyed trifling with psychiatrists, “cunningly leading them on” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 4) and “inventing for them elaborate dreams” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 34), an echo of how he too leads the readers on by dazzling them with his whimsical creations. At some point, he also admits that Lolita was “but my own creation” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 62) and had “no life of her own” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 62) outside the realm he created centred on her. “Humberland” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 166) holds no reality. Annabel Leigh and Lolita are not only Humbert’s own inventions, but exist solely in the literary realm, mere extensions of Poe’s poem.
It is through this where we understand how Humbert’s tale is a “moral apotheosis” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 5) as claimed by John Ray. Perhaps moral message of the novel comes from the realisation that we are cheated into adopting an amoral stance to Humbert’s actions by feeling compassionate towards a conniving insane pedophile. Through his deception of the readers, the moral contention against child exploitation affects on a personal level, drawing us into a world created by an unreliable narrator.
Additionally, Humbert’s writing also reveals a moral message on its own. The “bubble of hot poison in your loins” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 17) that causes him to fall for his nymphets manifests itself as the “big pink bubble” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 304) that ballooned out of dying Quilty’s lips to eventually break. This point out that one would have to pay his dues; child exploitation comes to no good end. Nabokov, V. V. (1955). Lolita (2th ed. ). New York: Random House Inc.