“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.