‘To borrow and to borrow and to borrow’: Teaching Lolita Through Parody

Charles Fischer, University of Washington

Martin Amis has famously called Humbert Humbert “an honest-to-God, open and shut sexual deviant.” More than forty years after its US publication, Lolita retains the power to disturb American undergraduates. I have taught Lolita a half dozen times, and it never fails to elicit a strong response from students. They either love the novel or hate it, often for the same reasons. Indeed, there are times when the text reads like a sarcastically baroque translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. All of this is deeply troubling, especially to female students. But not always. Some women in my classrooms (and many men) argue that Humbert Humbert’s brutality — his cruel mistreatment of Charlotte, his abuse of Lolita, his murder of Quilty — are mitigated, if not altogether erased, by the novel’s anti-realism. And Lolita is the penultimate parodic text: full of stock phrases, literary imitations, fake architecture, and phony characters. With its pitch-perfect tone and playful allusiveness, Lolita exudes — indeed parodies — a putrid, fin de siècle decadence. But these literary gymnastics can be confusing to the first-time reader.  Many students find themselves caught between these two seemingly contradictory responses. 

How can an instructor/professor reconcile the paradox of style and subject matter in Lolita? My paper/presentation will explore how a number of critical approaches deal with the crime at the center of the text — and moreover, how to integrate these approaches into an effective teaching strategy. It strikes me as a truism that there are four general responses to the novel, each of which can be subdivided further into two categories: aesthetic and moral readings. 

  1. The early moralists or first readers, for reasons of decorum or fear of lawsuit, object to Lolita on pornographic grounds. 
  2. Modern critics, who conflate the narrator with the author, find the novel patriarchal, aristocratic, sexist, and deviant. 
  3. Liberal humanists celebrate Nabokov and his novel for his/its harsh condemnation of the narcissism and solipsism of the romantic subject. 
  4. Postmodern readers argue that Lolita is an anti-realist text about language rather than pedophilia. For such critics, the novel is a textual game, one that is continually asserting its verbal and written quality.

When teaching Lolita, I present each of these positions, either through handouts or lectures. I do this fairly early in our reading, so that the students may measure their reactions to the novel in light of these well-worn critical paths. The students are then encouraged to come up with their own readings that complement, complicate and modify their initial reaction to the novel. 

In addition to outside critics, I present my reading of the novel as a model for the students’ work. My approach focuses on Nabokov’s deployment of the parodic mode: how his burlesques allows for multiple readings, interpretations that include aesthetic delight and moral instruction. It is my claim that the number of authors and genres parodied — memoir, confession, detective story, psychiatric case study, diary, romance — creates a kind of double-consciousness in the reader, which enables her to perceive both the ethical and aesthetic positions in the text. This double-consciousness can be illustrated best in the character of Humbert Humbert himself. On the one hand, he is a pastiche figure, a parodic character out of the pages of Poe, Gautier and Dostoevsky, but on the only hand, he is a “real nut,” complete with all the requisite solipsism and murderous rages whenever his will is thwarted. 

A close examination of three important characters in the novel — Charlotte, Gaston Godin, Quilty — demonstrates that they are nothing more than narcissistic projections of Humbert’s. By that I do not mean they are not “real” characters. They are, but they are also doubles for H.H. Charlotte’s love letter, for example, provides a mock microcosm for the novel as a whole. Her declaration “This is a confession: I love you” mirrors the narrative trajectory of Humbert’s memoir. Her letter also contains many of the mannerisms and themes of Humbert’s confession: the bad French, the Petrarchan misery, the idealization, etc. Versions of this projection are also played out with Godin and Quilty. Two things are accomplished here. First, the student observes Nabokov at work in the parodic mode, adopting the convention of the doppelgänger for his own parodic ends, and second, the student experiences the author creating a credible portrait of a narcissist who sees the world only as a reflection of himself. Thus Nabokov’s parody pushes the text beyond parody.  His pastiche of a man, that shade of a ghost Humbert Humbert, becomes a realistic portrait of a narcissistic madman. 

And this is the irony of parody in Lolita. The text is both realistic and parodic at the same time, and this fact enables the first-time reader to consider both the aesthetic and the moral positions of the novel as existing in the text simultaneously and without contradiction. What are the pedagogic advantages of this reading? While alerting the student to the literary complexity of the text, the “doubleness” of the parody demonstrates that any one interpretation of the novel must consider the possibilities of its opposite — and moreover, reveals how to hold those opposites together in one reading.