11 Oct 2009

Sample Essay: Lolita,Humbert's Obsession

Love is an abstraction that can be described about as easily as telling someone where the sky begins. It is a concept that can only be based off the person thinking it. So to be in love can mean something completely different to two separate people. In the story of Lolita, many people claim that Humbert Humbert was just obsessed with Lolita. But what is obsession? Why can’t obsession be love? I believe that Humbert, or in the non-fictional case, Nabokov, can only decide that. And because of this I believe we have to trust Humbert in his feelings toward Lolita that they are not totally out of love and not purely of obsession, but a combination of both.

What is the difference between obsession and love? If you were to ask someone whether or not it was love or obsession that caused a man, a husband, if you will, to remain faithful to his wife, I’d be willing to bet their answer would be love. The ideas of love and obsession and very small. I don’t see much of a difference at all. Or rather, I see a form of unity. The only difference, maybe, would be the reciprocating party. For if the other does not love on an equal plane, then perhaps the allusion of obsession can drift in. But again, in the eyes of the beholder, what may be obsession to others, is true love to them.

The book itself has been a controversy for years. It was unable to find a publisher for quite some time (Edmunds). And as Stephen Metcalf, accurately sums it up, “Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert…[yet] you must look past its beauty to recognize how shocking it is,” (Metcalf). So we come back to the dichotomy of love v. obsession. The word obsession always seems to have a bit of distaste to it. But how can something that needs to have its beauty overlooked to see how shocking it is, be considered distasteful. I understand the man, Humbert Humbert is quite vile in thought, but because he is writing this down for us in the form of a journal written in prison, then doesn’t his eloquent words overrule obsession and therefore enter the vein of love?

It is clear from the beginning that Humbert clearly has strong feelings for this woman. Starting from the first chapter, from the first two lines, we feel this power. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” (Nabokov 1). This is not to say that his love for her is not an obsession, because one cannot have one without the other. This is a totally logical statement. If a mother was not obsessed with her child, could she provide for it in the manner a mother must? If Beethoven wasn’t obsessed with music, could he have been able to write his ninth? Yet, this argument, I understand is not the same as Humbert’s love/obsession for Lolita, but the point I’m trying to get at is, aren’t some forms of love encouraged by obsession and some forms of obsession encouraged by love? Please, though, do not misunderstand me, for as I write this, I am horrified that there could be an acceptable rational which could condone a pedophile to love a child in the same way two people of the same age could. No situation should be acceptable. But to belabor the point, we are only reading one person’s version. It is only his world we see, and therefore we have to be more objective.

To grasp the full concept of Humbert’s words, the reader not only has to look back in time, but look forward as well (McLaughlin). Written in “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Robert McLaughlin states that, “Lolita is often two things at once…By generating this disturbingly both/and perspective, it calls for a strategy of double-reading on our part.” (McLaughlin). I couldn’t agree more. What McLaughlin is saying is that even what we are reading, the literal word itself, has two meanings. This explanation is quite relevant in the discussion of whether or not Humbert was in love or obsessed. Because if we only see Humbert’s view as obsessive then we miss half of the idea, which is enough to skew the entire meaning. Hearing only Humbert’s words as obsessive or as love would be to throw down judgment upon the narrator and condemn the book and the Nabokov. We would be undermining the very thing that complex literature does, which is to explain the world.

Going back to one of Humbert’s relationships, one could say that Annabel was Humbert’s first real “love”, since he met her when they were young and had never actually consummated their love. But placing Lolita against that kind of feeling, driving Humbert out of the mental prison of the twenty-four year love/obsession with Annabel, shows that his feelings leaned toward love.

I think the notion of obsession derives from his insatiable allure to “nymphets”. It is wrong to overlook that he, in fact, has a problem with sexually lusting after young children. This, especially in today’s world, is hard to stomach. Watching the protagonist fanaticize over girls while they play on the playground is unnerving, to say the least. But when he is describing the kind of person it takes to find “nymphets” attractive, Humbert paints a very despicable person who is also self-aware of such flaws, one who is, “…a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy,” (Nabokov 18). There is no mention of love in that description. When realizing what kind of man lusts after a “nymphet” only a twisted need appears, only a sick obsession.

As time in the novel progresses, we begin to see even more of Humbert’s bizarre qualities. After Valeria leaves him for the taxi driver, Humbert goes to New York and has several breakdowns. This again leads me to believe that Humbert had some serious issues in relation to his mental health, which plays in greatly to his obsession with young girls. But the question of love vs. obsession comes in, after Humbert meets Lolita for the first time. The incident I am thinking about is in chapters thirteen and fourteen.

Though it is extremely disturbing, we have to look through Humbert’s eyes on morality, play the clichéd “devils advocate”. In chapter thirteen Humbert describes a sexual episode with the unknowing Lolita where he clearly violates her. But the strange thing, the thing that might point to a feeling of love within Humbert is in chapter fourteen when he is pleased with himself that he has managed to pleasure himself, yet while also keeping the purity of Lolita. He says, “I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor,” (Nabokov 65). Yet, within the next several sentences he claims that, “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita…” (Nabokov 65). It strikes me as odd, that these two ideas would be joined so paradoxically together in such quick succession; one with the keeping of moral purity and the other dealing with an invention. This is why, again, I feel that we cannot simply declare that Humbert was singularly obsessing or singularly in love; it is a combination of both.

Like I said earlier in the essay, for it to be love, there must some form of reciprocation. Even though Lolita is a child and more than likely implying a childlike crush on Humbert, she does respond positively to him. And because he is our narrator, we are only being told this story through his words. We have no choice but to believe what he is saying to be true. Again I am forced to believe this a combination of love and obsession due to Humbert’s desire to obtain sleeping pills so he can give them to Lolita and Charlotte, therefore being able to fondle Lolita. This is not reciprocated on the part of Lolita, which would fall toward the obsessive.

It is not until the end of the book, where it should be, I suppose, that the true metaphor of the love/obsession debacle is quasi-resolved. On page 327, Humbert tells us about writing about Lolita, he says, “I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul. In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita.” (Nabokov 327). I think that in the entire shameless obsession Humbert has acted in, we see here that he is sincere in his love for her and that he realizes he has done wrong.

It is quite reasonable to see Nabokov’s character, Humbert, as a pedophilic maniac, who stalks children and seduces them in subtle and disgusting ways, but it is impossible to justify the authenticity of his manifesto and whether or not he loves her. We have to place trust, however hard that may seem, into the narrator, and that he is telling the truth of his feelings.

1. A specific mention of time, is when Humbert says that it has been twenty four years since he has had any feelings toward a girl that were not related to Annabel. Humbert believes that this expansive amount of time is quite significant in relation to love.

2. The very fact that at the end of the novel he is in prison shows that he was ultimately not in control. Because if he was in control Lolita would have never run off and Humbert never would’ve killed Quilty.

3. b: I find the protective nature Humbert’s specter will show if any man decides to treat his wife badly, interesting. This change in attitude is quite drastic.

4. Yes, I think he has come to love, but since he has obsessed over her for such a long time, I also feel like he sees Lolita as strictly his. So again, it’s not as simple as plainly saying he has come to love her.

Works Cited.

Edmunds, Jeff. “‘Lolita’: Complex, often tricky and ‘a hard sell’.” CNN.com 9 Apr 1999
4 Oct 2008


McLaughlin, Robert. “Lolita: A Janus Text.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 1995.

Metcalf, Stephen. “The Disgusting Brilliance of Lolita.” Slate Magazine 19 Dec 2005 4

Oct 2008 < http://www.slate.com.id/2132708/>.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Fifth. NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1955.

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