More Memoirs from a Mousehole: Lolita and Notes from the Underground

Despite Nabokov’s legendary diatribes against Dostoevskij, many of Nabokov’s novels seem to be self-conscious responses to Dostoevskij’s works. Despair, as a parody of and reaction to such works as The Double and Crime and Punishment, may be the most explicit of these responses. However, Lolita reveals some striking similarities to Notes from the Underground which are worth exploring. In particular, the techniques and devices of narrative in the two novels indicate that Nabokov may well have intended Humbert Humbert as the literary heir of the underground man.

Both these narrators compose confessions which alternate between candor and obfuscation, between pronouncements of their guilt and self-justifying declarations of innocence. Their opinions of their own character traits and behavior swing from one extreme to another, from arrogance to self-loathing and back again. Both novels reveal a pronounced tension between the professed frankness of the narrators and their tendency to manipulate the telling of events in their own favor.

Both Humbert and the underground man are unreliable narrators, and their unreliability takes on precisely the same quality. They faithfully record the basic events of their respective stories; we have no reason to doubt the facts they describe. Rather than deceiving themselves about factual information (for instance, Humbert does not delude himself into imagining that Lolita is really older than twelve), they deceive themselves about the moral implications of their actions. This tension between the characters’ awareness and their self-deception complicates and enhances the two novels.

Nabokov and Dostoevskij both choose a first-person narrator; the underground man and Humbert seem to demand the narration of their own stories in order to exercise that complete control over the other characters on the page that they failed to achieve in life. In both cases, they experience feelings of triumph and success from their ability to manipulate Liza and Lolita into accepting the roles these narrators have assigned them. The underground man tries to impose his interpretation of her role on Liza: he sees her as merely a prostitute whom he alternately humiliates and imagines redeeming. Similarly, Humbert imposes on Lolita the role of “nymphet” and reincarnation of Annabel. Yet both female characters escape this confinement: Lolita runs away with Quilty and Liza leaves the underground man’s apartment without accepting the money he offers simply to degrade her. Having been outwitted by these young women, Humbert and the underground man each turn to the one thing that remains in his control: his story.

Perhaps the most significant “revision” of Notes from the Underground that is present in Lolita is Humbert’s relative success as an artist. The underground man refers to himself as an anti-hero; he may with equal justification be called an “anti-writer.” Though profoundly influenced by literature and harboring a certain hope of producing a work of enduring literature, the underground man nonetheless claims to reject all that literature stands for. This is demonstrated in his rejection of a conventional plot structure or narrative voice, and in his intentionally clumsy diction and syntax. He can no more resolve his conflicts as a writer than he can any other internal conflict; indeed, his writing is a vivid representation of these inner conflicts. In contrast, Humbert’s prose can be eloquent, lyrical, and resonant; the structure of his composition is exquisitely symmetrical. Though his writing is uneven, the process of creation itself paradoxically allows him to immortalize Lolita in a work of art and simultaneously recognize that she herself was not an artistic creation but a human child. While the underground man can only write in circles, Humbert resolves his own internal conflicts through genuine art.