Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a myth in popular culture that uniquely shines through its approach of sensitive subjects such as paedophilia, and, maybe most importantly, through Humbert Humbert’s criticism and irony regarding post-war America and the illusory characteristics of commodities specific to the American consumer culture. Seemingly being a work of erotic and vulgar themes, the novel is much more than that: it is a deep insight into the American culture and consumer society.
Although Nabokov himself confessed that he didn’t knew any twelve year old girls and had little to no knowledge as of how America was (Nabokov, 1973:26), he invented an America that came quite close to what the country – and especially the American society – was after World War II. At that time, with a rapidly growing economy, the American society was developing into a wealthy and opulent one driven towards countless commodities and valuable goods that were mostly products of a large-scale industry. This consumer culture is depicted through the protagonist’s vision on “privacy in American motels… and the relationship between space and place in America as it relates to travel and automobiles” (Moyer, 2018:2) as well as through his relationship both with the nymphet and Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.
Starting with their first night spent together, after Charlotte Haze’s violent death, Dolores and Humbert spend the vast majority of their nights and days driving from one motel to another, constantly on a road trip. Humbert’s accounts of this lodgings revolve mostly around the ideas of security and privacy – as he is well aware of the gravity of his actions, he is looking for places he can have at least some sense of security. Protection is a troublesome word to characterize as for each character it can mean different things in various setting. However, when it comes to Nabokov’s protagonists one can certainly see that this complexity is what makes the idea of privacy in the American society so mesmerizing to Nabokov. The author doesn’t necessarily use his characters to criticize the American society and the manners in which privacy is functioning in it, but, as Moyer puts it, rather to analyse the ways in which these spheres – both the private and the public – function and inevitably overleap (2018:4). As Humbert Humbert has specific goals and “needs” he is decided to satisfy, privacy is one aspect he relies on both to ensure and protect his relationship with the nymphet and to keep it far away from the public eye.
Humbert argues that in order to protect his relationship he needs the privacy the American society cannot really offer him and that when this supposed privacy is violated one is exposed to the public sphere and thus held accountable. Always seeking private places where he can be alone with Lolita, the protagonist realises that these places are barely private, and they definitely do not live up to what he has imagined the ideology of privacy in the American society to be. Regardless of his complaints of lack of privacy he still engages in sexual acts with Lolita and he violates the “sanctity of private spheres” (Moyer, 2018:4) that the citizens of America have been trying to safeguard. It is certainly true that the protagonist decided upon changing names and places whenever it is possible as to protect Lolita, but despite his efforts his secrecy being threatened either by other guests staying at the same hotel or by the employees. By approaching such a delicate subject, Nabokov builds the reader a space from which they can contemplate how and to what degree these private spheres characterise the American society, offering them the possibility of exposure to the contemporary discourse regarding privacy. Another crucial aspect the author elaborates in Lolita is the distinction between the adult sphere and the children’s sphere which Humbert acknowledges and towards which he expresses a certain anxiety as these two seem to be less and less connected and more divided. According to Withing, the existing bond between the child world and the adult world has been severed in America by the newly imposed customs and laws (1998:124). The deterioration of this bond is acknowledged by the protagonist as well when he is trying to justify his wrongful and immoral relationship with Dolores, claiming that the judgment and hatred towards paedophilic relationships steams from laws and customs that have come to be between children and adults. Addressing the grand jury in front of which he tries to justify his actions, he sustains that this disconnection would only result in “pain and horror” (Nabokov, 2006:125). Establishing certain principles and having his own high expectations, Humbert develops an American identity that is shaped by values such as personal autonomy and individualism. Driven by his shaping identity and trying to justify his actions in such a manner that their consequences won’t be as disastrous as they should be, he recognizes the importance of innocence, and even more so the retention of the innocence in children. His victims, specifically the children, are considered by scholars such as Withing the embodiment of privacy and incarnations of the innocence (1998:384) that possesses no public existence in the American society. Humbert reiterates his views about children’s innocence in the description of his and Lolita’s first night spent at The Enchanted Hunters motel, which ultimately became a “safe space” for them, claiming that he still wishes to spare her purity, even if that purity had been “damaged through some juvenile erotic experience”(2006:124) – Lolita’s sexual experiences encountered in the summer camps. While arguing that there is indeed purity and innocence in children, he has no obligation to retain the nymphet’s innocence. Thus, the American value of privacy considerably shifts towards liber values that allows Americans to make their own conscious decisions. Although Nabokov uses this value and the general idea of privacy to persuade the jury into believing that both Humbert and Lolita consciously decided to engage in intercourse, he extends this freedom of choice to the capitalistic economy that supposedly allows consumers to decide how and on what they spend their money and leisure time.
The relationship between Lolita and Humbert becomes as the narration progresses one of the consuming – that being, Humbert spends money to satisfy his bodily desires while Lolita spends money on movie tickets and food that feed her illusions. When it comes to privacy and travelling across the country in order to be safe from the eyes of the public, the notion of consumer society is hidden with the ideas of oppression and perversion: the family vacation which Humbert takes Lolita on, more specifically the family road trip, was one of the main cultural practices that characterized the American consumerism culture. Nabokov cleverly sugar-coats this side of consumerism with accounts of perverse road trips which force the reader to focus on the moral aspects of the narrative, somewhat masking his comments upon consumerism. The relationship between the protagonists reflect the relationship between the force inherent to consumerism’s political economy and the consumers themselves. As Kovacevic rightly claims, Humbert’s desire to have and hold an object in the context of his relationship with Lolita can be identified with the desire to hold and control an object instilled by consumerism (2016:288).
Lolita becomes throughout the novel a caricature through which Humbert Humbert criticizes the decadent country blinded by consumerism. In fact, if the novel is a criticism of the consumerism, Lolita is much more than the sexual object of Humbert, she may even be an epitome of consumerism as she the ideal consumer. Not only scholars have given her this “title”, but Humbert himself describes her as the “subject and object of every foul poster” (Nabokov, 2006:48). Lolita is not a free person, not sexually or mentally, but a product of advertisements and magazines, her mind being contaminated by the American consumerism because of which she lacks a will of her won and even the capacity to make her own choices. Her life being steered by rather manipulative advertisements, much like the American society she was living in and that was driven by cultural practices of consumption, she is alienated form the real world, with all her decision being taken for her by society (mainly by dominant white men as Clare Quilty) and Humbert as well. Thus, she desires and chooses what is she being told to and becomes an embodiment of the decadence and the American alienation of the society caused by advertisements and consumerism in general. However, Humbert is the victim of the same society he criticizes as sex becomes a commodity for which he is willing to give up everything. Ridiculously, his relationship with the nymphet becomes a “mere plain commodity transaction” (Nan 2014:182).
Humbert Humbert doesn’t criticize post-war America just through Lolita, but through her mother as well. While Lolita can be considered the representative of the young America, Charlotte is the mature America, whose entire being is reduced to what magazines and television programs tell her to do and think. As Humbert writes, she is one of the women whose “words may reflect a book club…but never her soul” (Nabokov, 2006:39). Hence, she is described from the very beginning as a plain woman who has little to no free will and control over her life, decisions, and desires. While Lolita is attracted to commodities such as movie tickets and magazines, Charlotte is more conventional and, once she marries Humbert, she proceeds to buying new furniture, exactly what a consumerist society urges its people to do. Thus, she is a puppet directed with the strings of a consumerism that came into existence in the post-war America and has given up on her true self to live a life based on the gathering of unnecessary and often useless but expensive material goods. While in Nabokov’s novel America is a country presented as free of dictatorship, people’s lives and minds have been penetrated by the ideals and ideas consumerism imposed, it being a dictatorship in disguise. While Brand observes that Charlotte is the most obvious examples of the author’s ironic approach to the American life (1987:15), not only Charlotte and Lolita are victims of this supposed dictatorship, but Humbert too as he falls in the same trap by seducing Lolita with material goods such as money, road trips and fancy clothes.
Regardless of how the reader chooses to approach Lolita, it seldom leaves them as they were when started reading it. Although it is a diary of a paedophile, the recollections and the legally framed memories of Humbert Humbert, it is also a critique of decadent America characterized by the increasing consumerism and the constantly growing appreciation of commodities over moral and personal values and views. From the protagonist’s point of view the country has lost its values of solidarity and faith, perversion, lack of privacy and, most importantly, consumerism becoming their new God. Although he does not change much as the novel progresses, he experiences an America society that, for him, is deprived of the ideas of individualism and privacy and is built upon a consumer culture. Nabokov’s novel of high literary merit is altogether an analysis of all these ideas through Humbert’s perspective and the process of building an identity on the specifics of the American society.
Brand, Dana. “The Interaction of Aestheticism and American Consumer Culture in Nabokov’s Lolita” in Modern Language Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 14-21. DOI: 10.2307/3194952
Kovacevic, Irina. “Popular Culture in its Postmodern Context: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita” in Belgrade English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 6, 2014, pp. 273-291. DOI: 10.18485/bells.2014.6.14
Moyer, Tully Patrick. “Lovely, Trustful, Dreamy, Enormous”: Vladimir Nabokov’s Representation of America in Lolita. 2018, Bowdoin College, Honours Paper for the Department of English.
Nan, Xi. “Relationship, Identity and Mass Media: the Consumer Culture in Nabokov’s Lolita” in International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 4, no. 12, October 2014.
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Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Pocket Penguin Classics, 2006.