Sympathy for the Devil

“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…”*

Thus begins one of my favorite classic rock songs and it should be no surprise that it was running through my head for most of the second half of Lolita. There are so many reasons for the reader not only to sympathize with Humbert Humbert, but to be pulling for him.  His tragic first love explains (while not justifying) his predilection for little girls.  He’s charming, dazzling most everyone he meets, including the reader.  Lolita often comes across as a manipulative, whiny brat. And, perhaps most importantly, H.H. seems so sincere.

After losing Lolita and furtively searching for her to no avail, he tells us “with the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love.”  He continues:

“Unless it can be proven to me – to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrification – that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.”

How can the reader not feel sympathy for this poor man?  I talked in an earlier post of Humbert’s manipulation of language to charm the reader.  That wily charm seems to be lacking here.  There are no puns, no fancy alliterations, no obscure or playful allusions.  Just an honest admission of guilt.

Or, so it would seem.  It’s easy for the reader (myself included) to forget that this story is Humbert Humbert’s story, told through his words.  This is not the work of some objective, omniscient narrator dutifully recording the facts as they occur.  This is H.H.’s world, meticulously constructed to manipulate the readers’ emotions and judgements.

A careful reading penetrates Humbert’s intricate web, revealing his true intentions and motives.   A “girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac” is spoken in the third person passive form, distancing the narrator from these despicable actions.  As we later find out, H.H. further evades responsibility for Lolita’s corruption (and rape) by transferring that burden to a doppelgänger.

At the end of his admission of guilt, Humbert claims that he can only resort to the “local palliative of articulate art” to alleviate his misery.  In H.H.’s mind, his writing, his art, is a penance of sorts.  A way to absolve himself of his responsibility.  The last line of the novel confirms this view:

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.  And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

While he may, in his own twisted way, be concerned about Lolita, his primary concern is, and always has been, himself. H.H. wants to preserve his own immortality, along with that of Lolita, through his words.  And, as those words tell only his story, his immortality is created to his own liking.

We readers buy into this.  We judge Humbert Humbert on his own terms.  We justify, rationalize, sympathize, and sometimes even forgive.

“So if you see me, have some courtesy, have some sympathy and some taste…”* Readers have all this and more for Humbert Humbert, despite our better instincts.

*Sympathy for the Devil lyrics by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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7 comments

  1. This:

    “We readers buy into this. We judge Humbert Humbert on his own terms. We justify, rationalize, sympathize, and sometimes even forgive.”

    This really sums up how I feel about the book, and about H.H.

    Great blog! I read Lolita several years ago, but this has made me REALLY want to pick it up again!

  2. Excellent review…I really appreciated how you went deeper than the surface and were able to illuminate HH in both ways, his own version of himself and the reality.

    Really insightful.

    Amy
    The Black Sheep Dances

  3. It’s always wonderful when a book is so well written, so interesting, so well crafted, that you find yourself relating to a character or person who you would have never thought you could relate to: “We justify, rationalize, sympathize, and sometimes even forgive” describes it perfectly.

  4. Thanks for the comments. This was a fascinating character study and really a subversive book. Getting millions of people to relate to a disingenuous pedophile is no easy feat, nor one that would be undertaken by many people.

  5. I like the way you use the Stone’s track as a way in to describe H.H , or our relationship with him. All though I personally feel that the character in the song is far more urbane ,cultured &
    knowing than Humbert.In fact i believe the character has no real problems with who he is
    & its us who need the introduction,to remind us that in fact we’ve allready sided with him,have been all along.Where as H.H for all his naivete or because of it comes across as a
    desperate salesman bargaining for our understanding,affection.None of this detracts from what a beautiful book this is, whose language is sublime .Brilliant review love the angle,
    check out REM’s the sad professor on the UP albun as a good
    H.H track or Cold war kids track robbers of the Robbers & Cowards album which I all so think
    frames Humberts mindset.

    1. You’re right about the title character in the Stones song being more urbane and comfortable in his own skin. However, I see a lot of H.H.’s self-pitying as a manipulative tool to win the readers sympathy. People will argue with me about Humbert’s sincerity, but I get the feeling that his “oh, woe is me!” routine is as calculated as it is genuine. It’s a ploy, crocodile tears for the jury of readers (a metaphor which figures prominently in the book). I haven’t heard those other songs, but I’ll look them up. Thanks for the comment!

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