by Vladimir Nabokov
Analysis: Writing Style
Poetic and Pretentious ("Fancy")
For a book known for being very risqué, Lolita has no four-letter words or graphic sex; that's because of Humbert's style, which combines the lyrical and clinical, the poetic and the academic, evoking Edgar Allan Poe and then height-charts, road maps, post cards, "evidence" and exhibits. Our narrator, Humbert, riddles the narrative with wordplay and wry observations of American culture, while his black humor provides an effective counterpoint to the pathos of the tragic plot.
The novel's humorous and ornate style is the result of double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages. The style is also highly visual; Humbert often compels the reader to see what he describes. [What do you expect from someone who says in the opening chapter "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" (1.1.3)?] In this sense, the American love of cinema (and Humbert's feeling that he has screen-star virility) seeps into the style of the novel.
Like the novel's genre, style often changes to serve Humbert's purpose. Half-way through the novel, he reminds us:
My lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary [Lolita and I] followed, and I suppose I have reached here a point where I cannot avoid that chore. (2.1.17)
Despite claiming an inconvenience at having to relate the details, Humbert clearly relishes it. He is at his best when he lapses into the lyrical language of enchantment – that's when he gets really fancy. Speaking of a shopping trip for Lolita, Humbert muses:
Lifesize plastic figures of snug-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fishlike, in a glaucous aquarium. I sensed strange thoughts. (1.25.7)