Humbert Humbert and the Five D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating, Dating, and Democracy

David Clippinger, Pennsylvania State University

Lolita offers a startlingly fresh perspective of the dominant social forces operating in 1950s America, which is why the novel is granted a central position in my 1950s American Studies seminar. That is, as the European outsider, the narrative point of view of Humbert Humbert, whose marginal position in American culture is amplified by his pedophilia, yields biting observations of American culture. Most of the many topics that come under Humbert Humbert’s scrutiny fall within the “Four D’s”: Dramaticts, Dance, Debating, Dating, as articulated by the emphasis of Beardsley’s curriculum. These “Four Ds” provide a valuable way to illuminate significant elements of the 1950s for my students such as the “new look” fashion of Charlotte as well as the American obsession with image as implied in the abundance of advertisements and Lolita’s proclivity for clothes shopping; rigid gender roles as enforced by society and evident in Beardsley’s emphasis upon domestic life over academic subjects; and the clash between “high culture” (embodied by Humbert’s European ideals) and the dominant middle-brow culture that permeates the American landscape so deftly detailed by Humbert’s travel account. In all of these respects, Lolita is the site of both the appropriation of and the resistance to these various facets of social mores, and her relationship to Humbert Humbert offers insights into the social psyche of the time. While the sustained critique of American culture is secondary to the “love story,” the failure of that relationship is implicit in Lolita’s saturation (dare we say “defilement”) by American popular culture, which constitutes the crux of the second half of the book.

In a more critical manner, Lolita not only proffers a window to observe 1950s American ideals, the novel should be situated within a lineage of books on American by “outsiders” most significantly Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Baudrillard’s America. In this respect, Lolita provides the means to test the claims of both Tocqueville and Baudrillard as well as interrogate the socio-economic forces that shape identity in 1950s America.