Lolita is perhaps one of the most disturbing novels of the century: it tells the immoral story of a middle- aged man who falls in love with a twelve year- old girl (a nymphet, as he calls her) and has a sexual relationship with her for over two years, until she disappears with another more perverse middle- aged man. What makes this novel particularly disturbing is the fact that Humbert’s sexual perversion is disguised in highly poetic garb and that the only monitor of virtue is the gifted pervert who narrates the story. Never before has sex been evoked as poetically or as erotically as in Lolita.
The first erotic scene takes place between an adolescent Humbert Humbert and a girl of the same age, Annabel Leigh, who becomes the model for Lolita: She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in he solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face.
She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly at me and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. Annabel Leigh’s name is of course borrowed from Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee, a poem that is mentioned often throughout the novel.
The narrator is not so much trying to describe the erotic games of two children as to make us intimately feel their erotic excitement. Nabokov makes Annabel the focal point of the text, but not its reflector. The scene begins with an alliterative evocation of her legs (her legs, her lovely, live legs) through witch one can picture the young Humbert’s pleasure while he is caressing them and adult Humbert’s excitement in recalling the event. These legs are hospitable, but not wanton; Annabel’s modesty is necessary to contain young Humbert’s ardor and to allow the poetic unfolding of the scene.
The girl’s genitals are neither named nor described, but are simply designated deictically as the sublime goal of a conquest. Here, the anatomic word or metaphor would mar the poetic beauty of the passage and betray the inadequacy between words. The neutral phrase used by Nabokov prevents the intrusion of the Freudian tragic in unfolding of the scene and induces a great complicity between the author, the narrator, and the reader, who is invited to fuse his desires with those of Humbert.
Humbert, as the narrator, poetically evokes the effects of his caresses on Annabel, who seems to be teetering between pleasure and pain. The scene is all the more exciting as her gestures, which are described in voluptuous detail, reflect in rhythm and configuration the caresses lavished on her by the boy. The protagonist and the narrator share the same fascination in Annabel’s contortions, drawing in the excitement from the spectacle, that the final gesture is hardly indecent: it is the ultimate gift made by the young boy to the ecstatic virgin.
There is no trace of vulgarity in the phrase, which is both metaphor and metonymy, and constitutes a kind of poetic climax. After the evocation of the girl’s genitals, the narrator had no choice but to invent a beautiful poetic formula that would sound at the same time natural and relevant. In this passage from Lolita Nabokov casts aside the vulgar clichs used in literature to represent sex and to prepare us for the final metaphor, which bears little trace of trepidation. The most erotic passage in the novel is the description of the Sunday morning scene on the divan.
Here the narrator takes endless precautions, begging us to sympathize with him as a protagonist and to participate in the scene: I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste the whole wine- sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, ‘impartial sympathy. ‘ Humbert says that he is aware of the reader’s desire as a voyeur, and he thinks he can depend on it for freedom from prejudice.
Humbert the narrator is aware that the scene he is about to replay is going to hurt many readers’ feeling and offend their moral sense, so he dissociates himself as a somewhat grotesque theatrical character: Main character: Humbert the Hummer. Lolita, too is portrayed as vulgar; she wore a pretty pink dress that I had seen on her once before . . . and, to compliment the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden- red apple.
The three adjectives used by Humbert to describe the apple, which is objectively beautiful, artistically vulgar and superfluous in this context, but appropriate and functional in this scene. Lolita is no longer a vulgar little flirt, but the archetypal temptress and seductress. Humbert the protagonist, burlesqued by Humbert the narrator, is too excited sexually to be distracted by such clichs. The apple serves as a prop in a first erotic exchange: Lolita tosses it up as if she was juggling with it, he catches it, and she begs him to give it back: I produce Delicious.
She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under crimson skin. Delicious does not only refer to the apple, but, metaphorically, the penis, which in the present scene will be turned into a poetic object. The scene becomes more predictable as Humbert’s excitement increases: Sitting there on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. The poetic escalation accompanying Humbert’s increasing excitement continues in the following lines, and his masked lust becomes the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.
In this once metaphorical phrase, a word reappears that was used in the passage earlier, passion. The subtlety and the intensity of his excitement, added to the poetic prowess of his narrator double, have brought about this change. Step by step, Humbert the narrator redeems Humbert the protagonist and eventually becomes one with him at the end, so it becomes terribly difficult to distinguish each participant’s contribution in the construction of this scene.
At the moment of climax, the narrator vanishes behind his protagonist self who addresses the members of the jury as follows: and my moaning mouth . . . almost reached the back of her neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known. Later on, he will be very hard on himself; here, though, he neither accuses himself nor makes amends but glorifies his sexual experience which he claims had no precedent in nature and therefore cannot be judged in any human court of law.
The word monster probably does not imply that Humber the narrator is beginning to feel remorse but rather that Humbert the protagonist feels as if he has totally freed himself from the laws of men and has performed the ultimate erotic act. To be sure, Humbert tries to vindicate himself morally after that: I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. The author gets personally involved in the construction of this scene: his writing seeks to transmute Humbert’s erotic experience into a work of art, and to induce us to relive it intensely in our imaginations.
He does not want us to simply to identify with its protagonist as a crude pornographer would, but to adhere totally to this beautiful text in which the gradual eroticisation of the language eventually created a poerotic ecstasy. He complacently describes the subtlety of perversion, the seductions of forbidden love objects, and the rapture of uncensored eroticism. We are doomed to follow the perverse logic adopted by Humbert who, through his poetic language, tries to redeem the sins of his protagonist self.