Humbert Humbert, the fictional author of the fictitious book that is actually Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, narrates his life story in which he is involved in a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old girl. By any standard – moral, legal, social – this relationship is utterly forbidden and condemnable; yet, through artistic mastery, Nabokov manages to create identification, at least in parts, between Humbert and the reader.
Nabokov acknowledges this precarious link and attempts to both establish a separation between the immorality of Humbert and the creative genius of his art and a partition between Humbert as a made-up character and himself.
Already in the foreword, the fictive editor distinguishes the reprehensible characteristics of Humbert from his talent as a writer. On the one hand, the editor refers to Humbert as “horrible,” “abject” and “a shining example of moral leprosy”; on the other hand, he asserts that “[a]s a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects” (5). Another example of such division is generated by Humbert shortly thereafter when he tells the readers that they “can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (9). Nabokov thus handles his characters in such a way as to allow the readers a two-fold viewpoint: first, moral and legal judgment, and second, aesthetic judgment (Winston, 1975).
Nabokov also tries to distance himself personally from Humbert. Near the end of the novel, Humbert recognizes “the foul lust [he] had inflicted upon” Lolita and regards himself as “a maniac”; then, he concludes by quoting a couplet of “an old poet” (285):
The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.
This “old poet” is no one other than Nabokov, who essentially indicates that impulses need to be restrained by morality. Nabokov’s message in the couplet contradicts Humbert’s immoral salacious behavior, and hence, Nabokov suggests that personally, he censures Humbert’s conduct.
Nabokov is well aware of the immoral sensationalism of his work, and by literary means, he seeks to disconnect Humbert’s outrageous actions from the book as a work of art. Additionally, Nabokov disassociates himself from Humbert and conveys his condemnation of Humbert’s repugnant deeds.
Nabokov, Vladimir. 1955. Lolita. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Winston, Mathew. 1975. “Lolita and the Dangers of Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 21.4: 421-427.