Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Romantic Parody and the Ironic Muse in 'Lolita.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Romantic Parody and the Ironic Muse in 'Lolita.'

Article excerpt

Departing with his step-daughter from the Enchanted Hunters Hotel near the end of the first part of Lolita, Humbert Humbert wonders about the extent of the crime he has just committed:

More and more uncomfortable did Humbert feel. It was something quite

special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were

sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed. (140)

By finally acting out his fantasies with his romantic ideal, Humbert has--in effect--murdered her as well. At the same time as Humbert begins to realize these consequences, Lolita first experiences menstruation pains, signaling her transition from childhood to maturity.(1) This development suggests that the romantic ideal cannot survive literal physical maturation, that in becoming adult (physically at least), Lolita also becomes mortal.

By conflating Lolita's maturation with Humbert's "murder" of her as a romantic ideal, Nabokov offers an important clue to his project in the novel. As Lolita the character embodies Humbert's romantic ideal, so does Lolita the novel represent Nabokov's personal embodiment of an old romantic theme, specifically the poet's attempt to "embrace the irrational" as manifested in "the myth of the destruction of the poet as he tries to possess a beautiful, amoral woman" (Josipovici 46). Lionel Trilling's influential 1958 review of the novel, "The Last Lover," offered the first extended exploration of Lolita's inheritance from the romance, arguing that the novel attractively updates the genre's timeworn theme of illicit love:

[T]he breaking of the taboo about the sexual unavailability of very young

girls has for us something of the force that a wife's infidelity had for

Shakespeare. H. H.'s relation with Lolita defies society as scandalously as

did Tristan's relation with Iseult, or Vronsky's with Anna. It puts the

lovers, as lovers in literature must be put, beyond the pale of

society. (338)

But further, Humbert's uneasy premonition that he has somehow killed his step-daughter by possessing her sexually--a theme throughout the novel--suggests that Nabokov intends to locate the romantic novel itself beyond the pale of society. Lolita dies by maturing; by implication, Lolita represents the concurrent maturation and demise of the romantic tradition it is itself child to. In fact, the novel's foreword announces Lolita's death even before Humbert's voice takes over. John Ray, the foreword's fictional author, mentions that "Mrs. `Richard F. Schiller' died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl" (4), an appropriate cause of death. This stillbirth serves as an emblem for a work that announces, by its publication, an end to the romantic tradition it inherits.

Crucial to this reading of Lolita is its second and longer part, which represents the theme's forced maturation. The novel's critics have frequently noted the difference between the first part's function as a romantic quest, and the second part's depiction of the successful quest's consequences, as Nabokov forces Humbert and his step-daughter to live together in a "parody of incest" (287). After the night at the Enchanted Hunters, Lolita becomes more and more simple American teenager Dolly Haze, uncooperative and increasingly cold toward Humbert, who as the handsome, exotic lodger in the Haze home had excited a crush in her, but whom she grows to hate as he struggles to play the incompatible roles of lover and parent to her. That she chooses to run away with the exploitive pornographer Quilty rather than remain with her step-father emphasizes the great disparity between Lolita's increasingly jaundiced conception of Humbert and his idealized conception of her. This particular romantic muse grows up and escapes her poet, leaving him to set down his memories of their doomed relationship from a prison cell.

The problem Nabokov has set himself in Lolita then, is to wring an original fiction from the old romantic theme, to re-capture a muse already escaped just as condemned Humbert must in writing of his absent step-daughter. …

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