It astounds me that people misread Lolita so badly.
It also astounds me that people so frequently mistake Humbert Humbert for an author’s proxy. Maybe these people all skipped the foreword, not understanding that it was a part of the novel. A very important part of the novel, in my estimation! You see, in that very foreword, Nabokov provides us with a better candidate for author’s proxy, and his instructions for reading the book—the former is decidedly not H. H., and the latter is not what H. H. asserts throughout the story.
Lolita's foreword is key when it comes to understanding the novel.
The foreword is signed, “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.” In the first paragraph, Dr. Ray explains that his cousin, Humbert Humbert’s lawyer, chose him to edit the manuscript that makes up the bulk of Lolita. We (the readers) can infer from the rest of the foreword that Dr. Ray is a psychologist or psychiatrist of some sort, or possibly a scholar of the liberal arts in a related field. He is an expert and an author.
In terms of topics, the foreword is laid out thus:
Paragraph #1: Explanation of how Dr. Ray came to be editing H. H.’s manuscript.
Paragraphs #2-3: Explanation of the character’s hidden “true” identities, and a rundown of where they are now. This paragraph concludes with a notable comment on those of the characters who have passed away: “The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no ghosts walk.”
Paragraphs #4-5: Defense of the publication of the manuscript, despite its arguably immoral nature. The fifth paragraph is perhaps the most important in this foreword, and thus I include it in full:
“This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that ‘offensive’ is frequently but a synonym for ‘unusual’; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as more or less of a shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!” [Bold added by me, for emphasis.]
Paragraph #6: Conclusion, including this urging: “[S]till more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac—these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. ‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” [Once again, bold added for emphasis.]
The author's proxy. . .
Before I briefly address the content of this foreword, I must explain why I think its ostensible author would be better regarded as Nabokov’s voice than would be Humbert Humbert. My rationale is simple: John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., speaks for and about H. H. in the way that H. H. speaks for and about the object of the book, Dolly Haze. Therefore, in terms of power, Dr. Ray supersedes Mr. Humbert. For another thing, Dr. Ray is more educated that H. H., who has no doctorate, and whose prized identity depends on his self-perception as an intellectual and a scholar. In other words, according to Humbert Humbert’s own rubric, John Ray wins. (H. H., if he were real and alive and somehow reading this, might scoff at that assertion, but on the inside he’d be quivering.) Perhaps most convincing is that in Nabokov’s own afterword for the book, he opens with this: “After doing my impersonation of suave John Ray, […] any comments coming straight from me may strike one—may strike me, in fact—as an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” You may interpret that as you will.
Humbert Humbert knows that he stinks--so should you!
But whether or not we accept that Dr. Ray represents Nabokov’s opinions, we must acknowledge that he is the closest thing to “the voice of reason” that can be found in the book. In his foreword, Dr. Ray tells us these important, basic things about the story: Humbert Humbert is a decidedly bad dude, and his view of things is unreliable. Lolita ought to be read with future improvement of the human race in mind as a goal. And yet, even with these messages laid out so plainly, people misread Lolita. Perhaps it is a testimony to the potency of Humbert Humbert’s lyrical magic. But even if I were to grant you that, H. H. himself admits, near the end of the book (and at various points throughout), that he is a scoundrel and a villain! This passage strikes me as utterly crucial:
“Reader! [I heard nothing 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, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, 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.” [Bold added for emphasis.]
Basically, even Humbert Humbert knows that he’s a disgusting child abuser who has ruined a young woman’s life! How is it that there are genuine, actual people who don’t realize this? It is terrifying to me, that there are people who read Lolita and take away from it, “Ah, what a romance!” or, “Man, that Dolly is a nasty child.”
And it is irritating to me that there are people who assume, without having actually read that book, “Oh, that Vladimir Nabokov sounds gross. Didn’t he write an elaborate fantasy about having a child bride?” No. He wrote about a fictional character’s equivalent fantasy, and he made it clear that said character is a vile person.
Some bonus filtered bows:
They're even more fun when they barely resemble the original, right?
Anyway, fun with images aside, let me know what you thought of my essay in the comments. Thanks for reading!