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Pervert and pedophile? Yes. Rapist? Yes. Murderer? Sure. Predatory, compulsive egomaniac? You betcha. Humbert is also a fearful, tortured, guilt-ridden, hand-wringing (literally, as he admits) middle-aged man. And Humbert is, above all, good looking by his accounts – indeed, with the kind of masculine handsomeness of a movie star. In his words:
I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. (1.7.1)
In fact, Humbert loves his own looks almost as much as he loves Lolita's. One of his favorite characterizations is his uncanny resemblance to a Hollywood actor, with his "clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, [and] broad shoulder" (1.11.10). He is very pleased to announce that he looks like some actor or singer Lolita has a crush on. According to Humbert, he is downright irresistible, a positive hunk whose "gloomy good looks" always get him the girl, causing Lolita to swoon, Charlotte to love him passionately and possessively, and Jean Farlow to develop a teenage crush.
Humbert is not just about looks. He's also sophisticated, intellectual, and culturally superior. An educated man, a respected if obscure scholar, and a professor of literature – he has it all. In spite of his "manly" good looks and soaring brainpower, he is shy ("horribly timid"), he confesses, becoming nervous at the mere thought of "running into some awful indecent unpleasantness" (1.11.28).
For every expression of self-love, Humbert articulates an equal measure of self-loathing, comparing himself to "one of those inflated pale spiders" (1.11.24) who lies in wait in the middle of his sticky web. Humbert's nicknames for himself reveal the many facets of his self-image: "Humbert the Hoarse, "Humbert the Popular Butcher," "Humbert the Wounded Spider." There is, by his description, "a cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile" (1.11.12).
Humbert grew up in Europe, lost his mother at age three – ("picnic, lightening") (2.10) – and had a father who was "a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen of mixed French and Austrian descent" (1.2.1). Humbert is multilingual and highly literate – peppering his writing with French, German, and Latin phrases, legalese, and plain old sweet talk. Humbert is all about words.
So what about Humbert's dark side? Well, he may be a self-described hottie and have a Ph.D., but he's also a self-professed madman. His world is full of illusion and fantasy, violent and transgressive impulses. He suffers from insomnia and paranoia. Even he cannot deny his two selves:
No wonder, then, that my adult life during the European period of my existence proved monstrously twofold. Overtly, I had so-called normal relationships with a number of terrestrial women […] inly, I was consumed by hell-furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach. (1.5.8)
What makes him the pervert that he is? That's a tough one because Humbert denies us any clear response to that burning question and instead makes a mockery out of the assumption that a neat explanation is even possible. One of his biggest targets of derision is psychology and especially Freudian psychoanalysis, which assumes that one's problems as an adult could be explained by analyzing one's childhood – particularly one's childhood sexuality. Humbert both embraces and ridicules the notion that his pedophilia can be explained by the loss of his childhood love, Annabel Leigh. On the brink of making love, the two thirteen-year-olds are interrupted. Thus, according to psychoanalysis, he is always trying to relive that moment, always trying to follow through on the incomplete sexual act. (Nabokov himself professed a hatred of Freudianism).
Humbert has several stints in sanitariums (so much for healing and progress), but while there he really just enjoys messing with the doctors, who are clearly stuck on Freudian interpretations and are woefully inferior in intelligence – as is most everyone. Equipped with amateur scientific ambitions and an interest in pseudoscience, Humbert believes he has it all figured out.
Humbert's outlook is dark, coloring everything he sees. He is fundamentally cynical, assuming (or, perhaps, hoping) that others are as twisted as he is. Part of this impulse is, of course, to make his crimes seem more natural:
Ah! Gentle drivers gliding through summer's black nights, what frolics, what twists of lust, you might see from your impeccable highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and became as transparent as boxes of glass! (1.27.85)
Humbert supposes and wants the reader to be as perverse as he is, to become like him so that we will be complicit and sympathetic to his acts. It's not that he never considers the resounding ethical compromise he is making (as some critics have said). Indeed he confesses to being "obsessed by all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears" (1.25.1). It's just that these fears are never great enough to stem his desire; ultimately his lust is too great for him to care about the ethical repugnance of it all. But Humbert doesn't allow any simple, self-satisfied explanation. Humbert does express remorse, he does reflect on the crime and violation, and does (in the book's final pages) express something close to a moral epiphany:
Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter […] I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope […] and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord. (2.36.3)
Humbert dangerously and defensively mixes beauty and morals, seeking to defend his actions by describing them as an appreciation of beauty. English author Martin Amis called him, in a wonderful summary, "without question, an honest-to-God open-and-shut sexual deviant, displaying classic ruthlessness, guile and (above all) attention to detail" (source). He is utterly cruel and sadistic; these qualities are so prominent it is shocking that they are so easily forgotten. Amidst the poetic language and the "love story," we read past the scenes Humbert's physical violence (twisting his first wife's damaged wrist and backhanding Lolita).
Does he love her? Well, he thinks so and says so plenty, but it's tough to make an argument that he could love her and exploit her as he does. Most importantly, for purposes of the memoir, Humbert believes he loves Lolita and has loved her all along, as he explains in his final encounter with her:
[…] and I looked and I looked at her and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. (2.29.67)
How do we reconcile this expression of tenderness with his assertion that "the sensualist in me had no objection to some depravity in his prey" (1.28.2). Humbert makes it impossible.
To Humbert, Lolita is the reincarnation of Annabel Leigh, his childhood love and original nymphet. It is love (or lust) at first sight; by his account, Humbert is liberated from the past "at the moment Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta, had appeared to me, golden and brown, kneeling, looking up, on that shoddy veranda" (2.3.4).
At the beginning, Humbert praises his effort to maintain Lolita's purity – "Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did" (1.5.9), but eventually he gives in to unmitigated lust. As Humbert sees it, Lolita is aware of her sexuality, putting off erotic vibes wherever they go, "aware of that glow of hers" (2.2.7). Characterizing her in this way benefits him though, in the same way calling himself an "enchanted hunter" does – it makes her partially responsible for his sexual response. During their first trip across the United States, when he hears Lolita sob every night as they lay in bed, he remains incapable of allowing sympathy to prevail over his lust – so he pretends that he is asleep.
One of Humbert's ways of keeping Lolita in his clutches with what he calls "the reformatory threat," (2.1.10), in which he threatens to send her to orphanages, reform schools, or other harsh institutions if she doesn't behave and meet his sexual demands. At one point, he menacingly asks her, "Don't you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?" (2.1.13). He does not hesitate to remind us (and imply to her) that as a nymphet Lolita has an expiration date; he will use up her adolescence and then move on to the next fresh nymphet. Now, Lolita does not go along unquestioningly. But the fact that she doesn't run away sooner may be an indication that she believes Humbert's propaganda and threats – that he's the best (and only) thing she's got.
At one point during their first U.S. tour, Lolita asks, as Humbert reports, "how long did I think we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together and never behaving like ordinary people?" (2.2.5). Humbert's increasing jealousy also makes life difficult for Lolita. The more she attempts to have a normal life, the deeper he sinks his claws into her. Sick of it all, Lolita strikes back:
She said she loathed me. She made monstrous faces at me, inflating her cheeks and producing a diabolical plopping sound […] It was a strident and hateful scene. (2.14.10)
Her overt resistance to him does not last long, but she does get crafty.
Nabokov spent a lifetime in interviews defending his resemblance to Humbert. In all descriptions of the vile protagonist, Nabokov kept a safe distance, describing Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear touching" (source). Perhaps, the American literary critic Lionel Trilling says it best when he describes the reader's experience in the following way:
We find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting. (source)
In a sense, by continuing to read, we admit that Humbert's story deserves to be read, we admit that we want to know what happens, less out of a concern for Lolita than for a drive to know if he keeps her, if he gets away with it. Disgust is matched by fascination.
Critics are often divided into love-him or hate-him camps. On one side are those who admire Humbert's wit and intelligence, his passion and humor in spite of the moral abhorrence, and who focus on Lolita's immorality, her abject consumerism and rejection of all things literate and intelligent. On the other side we have those who give Humbert no break, taking unrelenting aim at the narcissism and tyranny of his ways and praising Lolita's bravery and resilience in the face of it.