Humbert’s Love



Humbert’s Love


Chapter 29 of Lolita contains two declarations of love: Humbert’s love for Lolita (Mrs. Richard F. Schiller) and Lolita’s love for Quilty. Neither declaration is predictable. I have discussed Lolita’s declaration elsewhere (“Lolita and Quilty”), noting its prima facie implausibility: Quilty is very far from meriting this love and has little to recommend him. But now I want to talk about Humbert’s love for Lolita; or perhaps we should drop that moniker, since she is no longer the nymphet known as “Lolita”, and refer to her instead as Dolores Haze, or use her married name Mrs. Schiller. The passage in which Humbert acknowledges his love is among the most sublime in the novel (p.277); I won’t quote it in full, but here is an extract: “You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, thisLolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine… No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.” That is to say, he still loves this girl (she is now seventeen) even though she is decisively no longer in the category of the nymphet. To the attentive reader this must seem surprising, given earlier statements Humbert has made. I refer you in particular to a passage in Chapter 3, Part Two: “I must confess that depending on the condition of my glands and ganglia, I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to another—from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated—to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force d’age; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a vieillard encore vert—or was it green rot?—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.” (p. 174)

I will skip the absolute moral horror this passage evokes (could anyone seriously defend Humbert at this point?) and merely observe that it is radically inconsistent with his attitude in chapter 29. Nor is the earlier passage at all anomalous: his entire attitude has been that only nymphets could attract his interest—never adult women (emphatically including college-aged women). Evidently there has been a drastic alteration in our hero’s psyche: there is no doubt that he loves Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, but there is also no doubt that he would have found her repulsive at an earlier time. Why the sudden change—indeed, why the change at all, sudden or slow? There is no evidence of any general alteration in his sexual predilections—it isn’t as if he now eschews nymphets in favor of adult females—but he loves this woman, this ex-nymphet, this pregnant grown-up. Why the change? Why the metamorphosis? (We can be sure that the lepidopterist in Nabokov would be well aware of the comparison.) What is it that explains Humbert’s transition from confirmed pedophile to lover of an adult woman? Nothing in the text offers us any clues—we are simply asked to take it on trust (much like Lolita’s love of Quilty). Nor, I think, do many readers question it, so powerful are the words put into Humbert’s mouth. So we are faced with a puzzle: how to account for Humbert’s imperishable love of Lolita/Mrs. Schiller.

Several options may be canvassed. Some may say that no love is ever rational, so we must just accept this as a brute fact, as we must accept Lolita’s love for Quilty. Others may suggest that Lolita is so exceptional a person that even Humbert comes to love her, despite his natural aversion to adult women. It might be conjectured that the trauma of losing Lolita to Quilty three years earlier jolted the Humbert psyche into a new configuration. Or is it that the early loss of his mother (picnic, lightning) has finally resolved itself? It might even be ventured that Humbert is really two people (as his double-barreled name suggests)–one of them a strict pedophile, the other what we think of as a normal man. It seems to me that none of these hypotheses has any plausibility; certainly there is no hint of any of them in the text. What I think is that this development in the novel represents an artistic aim that cares little for psychological plausibility (whether this is reasonable or not). For the change in Humbert’s psychology feels both morally and artistically right: morally, because it is the ultimate punishment for Humbert’s crimes against Lolita; and artistically, because it completes the arc of a tragedy. What else could happen? Not that he should grow indifferent to her, not that he be spared the pain of losing her, not that he lives happily ever after with a succession of replacement nymphets. By loving her he ensures his own punishment and ensuing death—why murder Quilty if he is glad he took her off his hands? That is why no reader pauses at this point and protests, “But I thought he was a nymphet-obsessed pervert!”

This is connected to the second point: Lolita is a work of art created by an author who constructs an imaginary world that obeys its own rules—he doesn’t have to worry too much about questions of psychological realism.  [1] Here we might think of Alice in Wonderland: this fictional world bears some relation to “real life” (Nabokov would insist on the scare quotes), but the rules of the world created diverge from the rules of what we are pleased to call reality. The fictional world must be self-consistent and display the qualities of art, but the novelist is not obliged to conform to ordinary-world psychology. In the world of Lolita these things happen–things we find bizarre, unrealistic, fairy tale-like (see Chapter 35 in which Quilty is murdered as if in a fairy-tale). We don’t notice the absence of a convincing psychological rationale for Humbert’s change of heart because we have been living in an alternate world for the last 270 pages. With that said I do think Nabokov makes an effort to depict Lolita in a positive light in chapter 29, almost a saintly light: he can’t just abandon all rules of psychological plausibility. Maybe there has never once been a pedophile that was cured of that tendency by the love of a particularly virtuous woman, but in this novel such things can occur, because of the fictional interplay of the characters created. The form of the novel supersedes questions of psychological realism. Still, the question of motivation can be asked and it must be admitted that Humbert’s motivation is unclear: he may be utterly convincing in his declaration of love but he offers us nothing to explain his volte-face. What if Lolita had retorted, “But I thought you only loved little girls!”? What could Humbert say in reply—“Yes, but you an exception”? Or would he tell her that they are both characters in a fairy-tale and strange things happen in fairy-tales? Frogs may turn into princes and nympholepts may turn into regular guys: all that matters is the art, the poetry and the potency. In Nabokov’s fictional universe Humbert’s metamorphosis is the most natural thing in the world.  [2]


  [1] This view of literature is defended by Nabokov in Lectures on Literature (1980), so it would not be surprising if he followed it in his own work. Lolita represents an imaginary world constructed with artistic aims in mind, only obliquely related to the world of fact. Humbert was never intended as a replica of an actual human being obeying human psychological laws: he is more like a mythical beast, though disturbingly similar to a real person. The narrator of Lolita is not really a human being.

  [2] We should recall that Lolita herself is a figment of Humbert’s imagination, a fictional character quite distinct from the real-life girl Dolores Haze (see my “The Non-Existence of Lolita”). Lolita accordingly obeys the rules of her mythical status. Humbert also partakes of this ambiguous being—part man, part mythical monster (a “pentapod monster”). So he is capable of transformations not possible for ordinary men.

5 replies
  1. Michael
    Michael says:

    ‘This is connected to the second point: Lolita is a work of art created by an author who constructs an imaginary world that obeys its own rules—he doesn’t have to worry too much about questions of psychological realism.’

    Humbert’s declaration of love, besides being beautiful, seems to me one of the most psychologically realistic moments in the novel. It shows his development as a human being. He is a ghastly human—“a monster of genius,” as Nabokov described him—but even Humbert is not without redeeming qualities. And one of those is revealed by Nabokov at the end: Humbert’s love for Lolita turns out to be genuine, not merely physical. At first his love had been a kind of demented, hypertrophied lust, based on her youthful body only. By the end, however, Humbert’s love has changed—yes, he’s still sexually attracted just to nymphets*—but his love for Lolita, being genuine, bursts through his psychology’s pedophilic strictures based on physical characteristics alone, and transcends time.

    And that is why his love is beautiful and feels totally genuine. Throughout most of the novel, he debases himself by acting on that love and thereby hurting Lolita, ultimately ruining her life: ‘ “He [Quilty] broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” ’

    And yet when the time comes that he can no longer debase her for the sake of that love of her body, he finds—to his shock, and to ours—that the love remains, would remain even if she were to age. And he realizes, with horror, what he has done:

    ‘What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic, one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon. . . . , and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.’

    Had Humbert only rejoiced in his love in itself and not ruined her life! Had he but controlled himself for her sake and for the sake of others! Humbert might have become a better person, a genuine hero.

    * ‘I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not change, no matter how my love for her did.’

    • Michael
      Michael says:

      My point, which I didn’t make clear, is that the answer to the question of what caused the change is simply . . . Humbert’s development as a human being. This might seem inadequate—merely pushing the question back to “Why did he develop as a human being?” But, in my opinion, once we’ve reached that question, there is no finding a cause. To search for and find a single cause there is to commit a kind of fallacy of the single cause. Maybe one day we’ll be able to understand why such complex changes happen in a human’s psychology, but right now we are nowhere close to being able to understand why; it is a supreme mystery, full of unimaginable complexities. Hell, we don’t even have a good scientific model for the relation of the mind to the brain, or even of the brain as a structure in itself. Nabokov’s supreme achievement is to make Humbert’s mysterious psychological change utterly believable. He does this by building a realistic dreamworld where something like a mysterious real-life psychological change can appear to take place, and this building requires the meticulous accumulation of tens of thousands of interlocking details, explicit and implied: the playing of God. He doesn’t plant a single explanation for the change in the text because, well, he understood that to plant a single answer would be unrealistic, the stuff of Manichaean cartoon comics, not of sublime art that feeds off the divine complexity of reality itself. Nabokov thought that a piece of literature at its best created its own unique world, sure, but he knew also that the separation is not absolute; it can’t be absolute. All art works are ultimately embedded in what he, a monist, took to be a mere footnote to an unfinished masterpiece.

      • Colin McGinn
        Colin McGinn says:

        Here I think you are sounding the right notes: the change is made believable within the fairy tale, which is why most readers don’t question its plausibility as a piece of human psychology.


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