Not Guilty of Killing Quilty: Justifiable Homicide in Lolita

Tony Moore, Boston University

I was faced by the task of inventing America. The obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject a modicum of average "reality" (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes) into the brew of individual fancy.
--Vladimir Nabokov "On A Book Entitled Lolita" (L 312*)

Brian Boyd argued recently (Nabokov Studies II) that some scholars have wasted twenty years speculating whether Humbert's murder of Quilty was imagined by him, or a "real" event in the narrator's fictional world; he explained away the problems with the chronology of the 56 days that the character appears to take to write his memoir as an elementary Nabokov error. This paper rejects Boyd's wrong-headed intervention and finds new evidence in textual details of the English version, not discussed by others who favor the hypothesis, that the murder is certainly a psychological event.

The conspicuously bogus "Foreword" of the first book Nabokov wrote in America, composed by the ostentatiously fictional psychologist "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.", declares that "as a case history, "Lolita" will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles" (L 5). Humbert, the notorious paedophile and blatantly manipulative first-person narrator, makes up dreams for his psychiatrist that are "pure classics in style" (L 34). One "local ingredient" in Nabokov's invention of America is his version of popularized American Freudianism. Another is the detective story. The two combine in the classic medley of psychoanalytic symbol and murder mystery (apparently solved on the narrator's first page) that climaxes in Humbert's detailed account of the incompetently executed and grotesquely melodramatic murder of Quilty (L 293-304).

Attentive readers of Lolita have not found much to light their way through more than forty years of disunited critical analysis, except all commentators agree that Humbert is a polymath and a prankster. He is not just a liar, but a Cretan liar, who glories in the linguistic virtuosity that keeps readers guessing if he tells the truth about telling lies, or lies about telling the truth. He openly declares himself a suspect source and continually provides good reason to distrust his narration. Lolita is a baffling novel that flaunts deception; "reality" is advertised as an elaborate fiction and belief in "fact" is a hazardous business.

Consequently, readers should be disinclined to accept as authentic the novel's final crucial narrative incident. The veracity of the murder story has been plausibly challenged by some shrewd critics who hesitate to endorse Humbert's self-accusation that he did away with his diabolic double; but the majority of these disbelievers remain tentative in their conclusions (Bruss, Tekiner, Toker, Connolly), while Alexander Dolinen's impressively sustained argument finally throws its weight behind special emphases on critical dates only found in the Russian version. My paper takes its lead from the paradox of reading--the murder as it would have been enacted in a "real" American fictional murder mystery and the presentation of that murder in this novel's discourse--defined by Linda Hutcheon.

The reader of overtly self-conscious works learns that he is indeed in a paradoxical position: while the text demands that he acknowledge the fictive and the linguistic artifact that is its universe, it also teaches and indeed compels him to respond "vitally," to attribute human significance to the process of creating imaginary worlds in words (Narcissistic Narrative, 117).

This paper argues that a "not guilty" verdict to first degree murder is sound and highlights an accumulation of small "linguistic artifacts" in Humbert's memoir showing him innocent of the "real" act. Since the murder never happens in "reality" but in his imagination, he can be indicted only on the charge of justifiable homicide--justified by his writing an "intrinsically artistic" meeting point "between imagination and knowledge" (Speak Memory).

"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" (L 9). This is not merely absurd logic, it is absurd logic gone wild, an outrageous claim that throws doubt on his own textual authority and taunts readers' judgements. This single sentence in Humbert's famous first chapter of half a page might disclose that he is a special kind of killer and a special kind of writer, except readers are deflected from the obvious by his sustained bravura performance in fusing verbal and sexual delight. But that is an abuse of his artistic potential the author cannot allow to last; the murder in the mind is the process of transcendence through which Humbert refashions himself into a Nabokovian artist; and the point at which the narrative changes from an entirely solipsistic to a more inclusive focalization. The homicide is justified by the capacity Humbert finds in his concluding pages to see Dolores as she really is, and by the jolt it gives readers to understand Humbert for what he has been until that point. The murder shows us the text has to be read again before it can be read properly the first time.

Nabokov likes to suggest that aesthetic creation borders on madness when it bears no relation to reality; his fictions value only those imaginations that are materially rooted, and cease to attribute value to imaginations that depart from reality. There is nothing that exists exclusively by reason of the imagination, or that does not exist in some phenomenal form. Killing Quilty is the novel's realization of an "intrinsically artistic" meeting place, a notion Nabokov sponsors often in his discursive writings. Art can be valid only if founded on precise knowledge; the blending of knowledge and imagination is achieved as a function of specific circumstances. "Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order," explains Humbert, . . . "I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us" (L 299). We might recall the mischievous games with the word "real" in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and the discussion of "reality" in Ada. Lolita's dozen pages describing in gruesome closeup a murder that does not happen have their place in Nabokov's lexicon of metaphors for the deceptively complex, multi-layered dimensions in reading any narration of "reality".

*Lolita. New York: Vintage International, March 1989, used throughout.