Lolita Written by Vladimir Nabokov: A Product of Modernism

Lolita Written by Vladimir Nabokov: A Product of Modernism

As a more logical, scientific mindset is being developed in North American culture, it has become increasingly common for individuals to look for the simplest, cause-and-effect version of reality. Modernism, however, as a literary movement, rejects this notion, believing rather that reality is “layered, allusive,” and much more complex than is often assumed (Lye). Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, provides this presentation of reality, along with many other qualities of a Modernist work of fiction, beautifully. This is why Lolita should be considered representative of Modernist literature, with the most prominent features that demonstrate this being the narration, a heavy focus on Impressionism, and its confrontational nature.

Despite the fact that Modernists reject a cause-and-effect version of reality, it is difficult to argue that certain actions will not lead to others. Because of this, to fully understand Modernist ideologies, or any topic for that matter, one must look into history and search for a cause. Modernism began as a reaction to its predecessor, Realism, which aimed to offer the cause-and-effect depiction of reality previously mentioned (Lye). In revolt of this idea, Modernists developed not only their own vision of reality, but also other ideologies and styles, many of which were not only utilized in, but also crucial to the creation of, Lolita.

Because Modernism rejects straight forward, simple answers to reality, it often questions society’s most basic assumptions and knowledge of reality. This “confrontation with the public” can be said to lie at the heart of Modernism, and exists not to replace old answers with new ones, but to leave a blank slate and evoke thought where it otherwise likely would never have existed (Drabble 682). By challenging society’s assumptions in such a way, Modernism challenges the assumptions of nearly everyone that exists within that society. Another over-arching trait possessed by Modernist literature is the presence of an “unreliable first-person narrator”, for the reason that it causes the audience to constantly question everything that they are reading (Drabble 682). Though this is an incredible concept, it is very difficult to effectively achieve – without the proper techniques. Modernism frequently employs Perspectivism and Impressionism in order to makes its narrators unreliable, complex, and interesting (Lye). Perspectivism focuses on drawing “meaning from the viewpoint of the individual”, and does this by using “narrators located within the action of the fiction” (Lye). The attachment the narrator has to the story, due to the fact that he himself is a part of the story, leaves a huge possibility for bias, making the narrator unreliable. Impressionism encompasses the idea that a story focus not on plot-based events, but rather on thought-based events, such as “consciousness, unconsciousness, memory, and perception” (Drabble 682; Lye). While this technique is mostly useful with a first-person narrator, (due to the fact that the entire story is a thought-based event for him when he is telling it,) it is also useful in the portrayal of other characters in the story. This technique makes characters extremely complex, while still allowing the reader to understand their thoughts, as it is through understanding a person’s thoughts that good and evil seem to dissolve into one another – which once more causes the reader to question their most basic assumptions of reality. Modernists adopted a psychological principle known as Stream of Consciousness to aid in demonstrating a person’s thoughts in a realistic, non-obvious manner. The use of Stream of Consciousness in literature involves utilizing “fragmentary forms of interior monologue” in order to reveal the narrator’s thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, to the attentive reader (Drabble 975; Head). This technique can be looked at like an advanced form of a soliloquy, revealing the speaker’s true feelings, but now in a more realistic, subtle way. Another notable feature of Modernism is its use of language, as Modernists view language “as a complex, nuanced site of our construction of the ‘real’”, as opposed to a system simply used to convey a message (Lye). This detailed use of language is absolutely critical to the Modernist work, as it allows for all of the techniques previously mentioned to flow with elegance, as they do in Lolita.

The style of narration utilized in Lolita is, to the core, Modernistic. The first factor of the narrative style that makes it Modernistic is the fact that the narrator is both first-person and unreliable. The story of Lolita is told as a kind of memoir, and is written from jail by Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who loves a girl named Dolores Haze (Lolita). This situation crafts an unreliable narrator through the use of Perspectivism and Impressionism. Perspectivism exists in the fact that the narrator is writing about his own history of pedophilia with a girl, making it impossible for the reader to ignore the fact that the story may be heavily biased. In addition to this, the fact that the story is a memoir is an Impressionistic experiment, causing the reader to also account for the fact that the narrator is describing events in the recent to very distant pass, leaving room for honest error. The narration in Lolita also actively uses Stream of Consciousness, another Modernistic technique. While Stream of Consciousness is used consistently throughout the novel, it is most clearly used in Humbert’s journal, which he kept during his time in Ramsdale. Here, Humbert records his thoughts and observations during the summer; because all of these thoughts were inner monologue when formed, and nearly all of them exist in fragmentary form, it becomes easy for the reader to learn many things about Humbert that he does not appear to even know about himself. A distinctly Modernistic use of language is also employed by the novel’s narrator, who describes himself as having “a fancy prose style” (Nabokov 9). The eloquent language used by Humbert, a professor in French and English literature, provides the view of an individual reality with ease. “[Humbert’s] singing violin” creates a version of reality where the reader becomes entranced by his story, and at many moments, forgets the evil within Humbert (Nabokov 5). This shows that the stylistic narrative choices presented are consistent with, and representative of, Modernism.

The Impressionistic aspects of Lolita also demonstrate the novel’s deep roots in Modernism. A lack of focus on plot-based events is a major point in the technique of Impressionism, and is especially interesting when applied to major events in the book. For example, when speaking of his and Lolita’s first time engaging in sexual intercourse, Humbert simply states that he “shall not bore [his] learned readers with a detailed account” of the event (Nabokov 133). This lack of plot-based events, while interesting, is meaningless without its counterpart: the extreme focus on thought-based events expressed by Impressionism. The most obvious example of a major focus on thought-based events exists in Humbert’s detailed descriptions of Lolita, which can stretch many consecutive pages, while only describing something as simple as the way she looks in her tennis attire. When coupled, a lack of plot-based events and an abundance of thought-based events create a unique reading experience, while causing the reader to focus on Humbert’s impression of certain events. Thirdly, a focus on the perception of certain events within the novel is characteristic of Impressionism, as it allows for the reader to once again observe an event through a character’s perception of the event. An excellent example of this is when Humbert steps onto the porch of The Enchanted Hunters hotel, where he speaks to a shadowed man who seems to inquire about, and act suspicious of, Humbert’s relations with Lolita. When Humbert asks the man to repeat the phrases he says, however, the man acts as though he was simply commenting on the weather. It is never clearly explained whether the man was truly saying these things, if Humbert simply misheard him the first time, or if Humbert is paranoid, leaving the reader to question and decide this for themselves. This strong presence of Impressionism throughout the novel supports the Modernistic style of Lolita.

The third (and possibly most crucial) feature that defines Lolita as a Modernist novel is its extremely confrontational nature; specifically, the way that it confronts the topic of pedophilia head-on by making the protagonist of the story a pedophile. Nabokov forces the reader to question their basic assumptions about pedophiles by giving Humbert a deep and complex personality – one which lends itself to no easy evaluation. To begin, Humbert claims to have had a normal and happy childhood, and is apparently extremely handsome and intelligent. These are not traits that people normally attribute to pedophiles, preventing the public from categorizing Humbert. This confronts the reader with the issue of explaining why Humbert is the way he is: is it possible that he is a unique breed of pedophile, and should be treated as such, or is he simply an anomaly among abominations? The novel also confronts pedophilia by introducing a second pedophile by the name of Clare Quilty. Quilty is described as a sexual deviant – a beast who looks to use Lolita only to fulfill his sexual desires; Humbert, on the other hand, claims to truly love Lolita, and talks of her as though she were Aphrodite. Humbert’s true love for Lolita is confirmed when he finds her many years after she ran away from him. When he finds her, she is 17 years old, married, and pregnant. Despite her appearance being anything but childish at this point, Humbert realizes that he still loves her “more than anything [he] had ever seen or imagined” (Nabokov 277). This forces the reader to once again question the nature of Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, and his pedophilia as a whole. Thirdly, pedophilia is confronted in Lolita when Humbert begins to realize the evil of his ways. Near the end of the novel, Humbert truly despises the fact that he stole Lolita’s childhood from her, stating that he would have sentenced himself to “at least thirty-five years in jail for rape” (Nabokov 308). This regret that Humbert feels shows that he is not completely evil, and may have the potential for good, at one point claiming that he could never imagine himself pursuing a child again. This is a major confrontation with the reader as it once again shows that Humbert is no ordinary pedophile, and even hints that he is going to change his ways permanently. The confrontations detailed show that not only does the novel possess Modernistic qualities, but also that it represents Modernist literature as a whole.

In conclusion, through the use of narrative style, Impressionism, and confrontational tactics in Lolita, it is clear that the novel accurately represents Modernist literature. Modernism, as a literary movement, questions reality to its very core; some may find the ideas presented offensive, but it is through this questioning of reality that society is given the opportunity to reanalyze and improve itself. Many look to reanalyze and improve themselves on an individual level as well; it is possible, then, that these individuals may only find peace by first questioning their most basic assumptions about themselves – by becoming a true Modernist.

Works Cited
Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sixth Edition. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Head, Dominic. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Third Edition. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.
Lye, John. “Some Attributes of Modernist Literature.” Brock University. Brock University, 30
Apr. 2008. Web. 9 Jan. 2012.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Random House Inc., 1997. Print.