My Sin, My Soul: Making a Monster in Frankenstein and Lolita

Rebeca Helfer, Columbia University

In my paper, I would describe teaching Lolita with Frankenstein, which I usually pair in a first year literature and writing survey. I link Frankenstein’s creation of his monster with Humbert Humbert’s “creation” of Lolita, focusing on Nabokov’s imitation of Shelley (a link that critic Elena Pifer discusses) within the contexts of “monstrosity” and otherness, knowledge, imagination, and solipsism. In my paper, I would describe how the shift in power between Humbert Humbert and Lolita reflects and refracts that of Frankenstein and the monster, and how this reversal calls into questions the relation between “creator” and “created” in both works. The relation between Shelley’s and Nabokov’s works is exciting and illuminating for students; as I would suggest in my essay, by comparing Nabokov’s complex work to Shelley’s enduring cultural fiction I believe students gain a stronger appreciation for both works.

To give you one example of how I teach the similar reversal of power in Frankenstein and Lolita, I get students to observe (often through close reading and group work based on passages that I have extracted from both texts) how the chase-and-bait game that the monster plays with Frankenstein – leaving him messages that taunt him and that keep him in pursuit of revenge – mirror those messages that Quilty and Lolita leave for Humbert Humbert as he pursues them through the motels and motor homes of American West. The basis of this discussion is about the “game” being played and how it alters the power relationships established in the first halves of both novels. This leads into a discussion of the dialectic of revenge in both Shelley and Nabokov, as well as the relation of power to knowledge.