Nabokov's Rhetorical Strategies in Lolita

Valerie Meessen

In this essay, which delves deep into the narration of Nabokov’s novel ‘Lolita’, Valerie Meessen makes the reader question just what it is we think of ‘Humble Humbert’ and why any sympathy is felt towards him. Meessen suggests this is a result of his clever story-telling and omission of other peoples’ feelings throughout the novel.



This essay explores rhetorical strategies in the narration of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955) with a view to the three key elements of rhetoric in the Aristotelian interpretation: logos, pathos and ethos.

Narration and Nabokov’s Enfant Terrible:  Rhetorical Strategies in Lolita

The word ‘rhetoric’ will probably lead many to think of the ancient Greeks and their studies on the practise of successful and persuasive oration. The two great philosophers of this time, Plato and Aristotle, famously wrote about rhetorical qualities in their respective works Gorgias and The Art of Rhetoric, and were among the first to emphasize the power of words. The gift of being a great orator can be potentially dangerous when it is employed for the wrong purposes, as the dialogue in Plato’s Gorgias shows. Rhetoricians might be ‘forgetting the public good in the thought of their own interest’[i] and use their persuasive skills to sway the audience into a morally wrong mind-set. Throughout history, this power of words to influence the masses has proved itself time and time again - especially during the rise of fascism in Germany - and has indicated how vulnerable we actually are if not aware of the rhetorical devices the silver-tongued employ to influence our beliefs and ideas.

It is not only real life orators who prove to be extremely powerful in their persuasion, but fictional ones as well. The Russian born American author Vladimir Nabokov presents us with an eloquent and compelling figure in his masterpiece Lolita (1955), namely the narrator of the story, the paedophilic protagonist Humbert Humbert. Nabokov’s novel has not only been controversial because of its alleged pornographic content involving a twelve-year old girl, but also because of its curious effect on the reader. Critics have argued that they could not help feeling forgiving towards the tragic, anti-heroic figure of Humbert at times, who commits a crime that would normally make them shout for maximum penalty.[ii] Shocked by this lenient attitude towards a rapist and child-molester, readers have felt uncomfortable and confused after finishing the novel Lolita, wondering how it is possible that, whilst reading, they almost forget how brutally Humbert exploits the orphaned Dolores Haze. Therefore, reading Lolita is essentially about forming judgment: What do we believe the main protagonist to be? Or to put in more Humbertian terminology: what is our verdict, ladies and gentlemen of the jury?

This essay will argue that the reader’s problematic interpretation of the character of H.H. is due to the way in which Nabokov skilfully alternates between representing Humbert as attractive or repulsive, and the mixed success of the rhetorical devices that H.H employs in his attempt to evoke sympathetic feelings for his figure in the reader. All these influences makes the reading of Lolita, according to Miller, similar to ‘an assault on the reader’[iii], as he has to try to form his individual judgment of Humbert Humbert without being swayed by the narrator’s rhetorical tricks or Nabokov’s continuous play of attract-and-repel in representing Humbert. The dilemma this sometimes creates for the reader is reflected in John Ray’s words, in the preface of the novel, who obviously struggles with his interpretation of H.H and his story:

I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy […] But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author![iv]

Delving deeper into the different rhetorical techniques that Humbert uses to make his case, and investigating the aspects in his narration that undermine his own attempts at persuasion can help us explain the curious effect that Lolita has on its readership.

In the opening-pages of the novel we learn that Lolita is written during Humbert’s incarceration. As can be expected from a criminal in the hot-seat, H.H. initially tries in several ways to defend his position, to sway the judges (or the readers) into sympathizing with him. One of the first ways in which Humbert tries to create goodwill is to claim that his account of the events in the book is truthful. He makes use of facts and figures, and refers to many different sources to back up his story, from journals to his own academic publications. This can be analysed with a view to classical rhetoric, more particularly Aristotle’s idea set out in his The Art of Rhetoric that a persuasive speech includes three different elements, which can be summarized as ethos, pathos and logos.[v] Humbert appeals with this strategy to the latter two elements, as he uses his general knowledge and logic (logos) and simultaneously creates credibility for himself (ethos) by claiming himself to be truthful. For instance, Humbert describes the weather during the first days of his stay at the Haze household as hot and summery, and writes to the reader that he/she might ‘check the weather data in the Ramsdale Journal for 1947’[vi] seeming to forget to add ‘if you don’t believe me’. When he describes his journey with Lo throughout America he also admits that this detailed and ‘truthful’ narration is a strategy in his defence: ‘my lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary we followed, and I suppose I have reached here a point where I cannot avoid that chore’.[vii]

In a similar way, he attempts to charm the reader by pompously emphasizing his brutal good looks that allowed him ‘to obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose’[viii] and intelligence, by flaunting his knowledge of the French language. Of course, not all these attempts at persuasion are equally successful; as for example Humbert’s self-proclaimed truthfulness actually raises more questions about his reliability and his repetitious focus on his attractiveness seems more exaggerated than realistic. In his well-known essay on Lolita, ‘The Last Lover’ (1958), Lionel Trilling also points out that H.H’s eloquent use of language does not always help in representing himself in the way he wants to: ‘the jocularity can sometimes rise to wit, sometimes to wildness, but it can also sink to facetiousness and reach the brink of silliness’.[ix] Though he tries to present himself in a positive and charming way towards the reader, he sometimes fails.

Both these strategies of ‘truthful’ narration and charming the reader are undermined by other aspects of Humbert’s character that surface throughout the novel. Gradually the reader realizes that H.H’s storytelling is characterized by exaggeration, selection and adaptation. In some parts of his writing he is too careless to go into detail about things (‘I am too tired to-day to analyse…’[x]) and there are countless occasions when Humbert is unable to remember what exactly happened. His love for tampering with the story especially leads the reader to question his reliability as a narrator. One of the best examples in which Humbert’s alterations to the story surface is when he ‘recites’ the love-letter from Charlotte Haze. His impatience with the poor lady surfaces in how he drastically shortens her heartfelt letter, leaving only half it, by omitting some lyrical passages and also changing her words. In his work The Magician’s Doubts (1994), Michael Wood comments on this apparent abridged version of Charlotte’s message: ‘[O]n inspection we begin to see shifts and interferences in the style, Humbert’s sardonic eloquence invading Charlotte’s raving and rambling. How could we have thought ‘vortex’ was Charlotte’s word? And doesn’t ‘been by now torn by you’ have a faintly Humbertian cadence?’[xi]. These questions of reliability lessen his appeal to the Aristotelian notions of ethos and logos, and weaken his persuasive powers.

Feelings of distrust only increase when we witness Humbert’s great skill in impersonation. Though he initially comes across as eloquent and witty, the reader learns quickly that this is a facade that Humbert puts on for many of the characters in Lolita. He boasts about the ways in which he misleads people, especially psychiatrists and doctors, who try to cure him from his occasional ‘bouts of insanity’.[xii] To Humbert this deceiving becomes a game, a ‘sport’[xiii] that he thoroughly enjoys and excels at. He proudly talks about his own successes, and his greatest stroke of genius is convincing the inquisitive Jean and John Farlow that he is actually the father of Dolores, so to secure his guardianship of Lo. Inventing a romantic love-affair in the past with Charlotte, Humbert succeeds in persuading the Farlows of his fatherly bond with Lo, excelling in his part as the grieving widower: ‘The dear people were afraid I might commit suicide if left alone […] So artistically did I impersonate the calm of ultimate despair […] that the Farlows removed me to their own house’.[xiv] This skill in persuasion and impersonation should alarm the reader, as it signals that Humbert might not only be fooling the characters in the story.

One of the ways in which Humbert tries to influence our understanding of his figure is by representing himself as a victim in the situation. In this way, he appeals to the third element in Aristotle’s study of rhetoric, namely pathos, the evocation of emotion in the audience or reader. This victimization starts in the beginning of the novel, when Humbert tells of his childhood love for Annabel. He heavily romanticizes this period in his life, as some sort of prelapsarian phase: ‘I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright world of illustrated books, clean sands, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces […] From the aproned pot-scrubber to the flannelled potentate, everybody liked me, everybody petted me’.[xv] He tells of his flaming passion for her, and how cruelly fate (Aubrey McFate?) did not allow him to possess Annabel, as their rendezvous were interrupted at the critical moment each time. The shock of Annabel’s sudden death is great, and signals Humbert’s fall. His frustration of being unable to possess his Annabel grows into a lustful obsession with other Annabels, little girls or ‘nymphets’[xvi], even when Humbert matures. Though he tries to conform to society, and even marries a woman closer to his age, he is unable to retain his dignity as ‘that little girl [Annabel] with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since’.[xvii] His argumentation shows that he considers himself a victim of circumstance, a pitiful, suffering object rather than an active agent.

This way of persuading the reader also comes back when Humbert writes of his courtship of Lolita during the first days in the Haze household, making it seem as if Lo is the one seeking intimacy with him. In the car-scene, Humbert tries to legitimize his caresses in this way: ‘Suddenly her hand slipped into mine and without our chaperon’s seeing, I held, and stroked, and squeezed that hot paw, all the way to the store’.[xviii] The phrasing in the beginning of this passage is important, as it implies Lo to be the provoker or the agent, rather than Humbert, who is all too eager to follow her lead. This seductive representation of Lo is continued throughout the novel, and aims at changing the reader’s initial idea of Dolores Haze as an innocent little girl. Even her mother, Charlotte, comments on her daughter’s want for male attention, saying that she ‘mop[es] on a suburban lawn and us[es] her mamma’s lipstick, and pursue[s] shy studious gentlemen’.[xix] Of course we have to read this through a Humbertian filter, as we know that H.Hloves to play with people’s sayings, yet considering Charlotte’s apparent jealousy of Humbert’s affection for Dolores, it might be not such an unlikely thing for her to say.

Another way in which the reader is presented with a lustful image of Lo is by Humbert’s emphasis on the fact that he was not Lo’s first lover, as she had had a sexual relationship with Charlie Holmes, a boy from her summer camp, before him: ‘Did I deprive her of her flower? Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover’.[xx] The triumphant manner in which he exclaims this revelation to the reader, and his use of the phrase ‘not even’, indicates how he uses this as an argument to lessen the seriousness of his crime.

The victimization of himself as a romantic fool, suffering from his feelings, continues when Humbert tries to convince the reader that Lo knows she has power over him. If we are to believe Humbert’s narration, Lo enjoys Humbert’s agony. For this reason, Humbert repetitiously compares her to a demon, ‘an immortal daemon disguised as a female child’[xxi] , who watches his sufferings with a ‘diabolical glow’.[xxii] This representation heavily influences the reader’s ideas of Lolita, as we, most of the time, do not know about the child’s feelings or intentions. Though Nabokov occasionally allows the reader to see Lo’s pain and hatred for Humbert, the character of Dolores Haze in general is silenced.[xxiii] We get a one-sided, Humbertian representation of her, which is centred on her seductiveness. It is his vision of Lo, which is heavily coloured by his own feelings. Humbert nicknames her Lolita, and this re-naming already signals a gap between the person Dolores Haze, the orphan girl who is abused by her stepfather, and the ‘nymphet’ Lolita. Humbert is therefore right halfway through the book when he assures the reader that this book is about ‘Lolita’, about his own twisted vision of Dolores Haze, whom he at one points admits to be ‘[his] own creation, another fanciful Lolita […] – perhaps more real than Lolita’.[xxiv]

As shortly mentioned before, at some distinct moments Nabokov breaks with Humbert’s one-sided representation of Lo and allows the reader a glimpse of Dolores’ feelings. This prevents us from sympathizing too much with H.H, as it draws attention to his violent and egoistic nature. We learn of how Lo hopes to get a normal life, and how she despises the way that Humbert treats her: ‘she asked me […] how long did I think we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together and never behaving like ordinary people?’[xxv]. The reader cannot fail to be shocked by the things we learn about Lo, like the fact that she cries every night during their journey. Throughout the novel, Lo undergoes a transformation from the opinionated, healthy child to the wan figure whom we lastly see at the front porch of her house at Hunter Road. In his comments on these developments, it seems as if Humbert shows his true colours, which problematizes the reader’s interpretation of him. When speaking of Lo’s sobbing at night, he triumphantly adds that she would eventually crawl into his bed anyway, as: ‘You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go’.[xxvi] Some might argue that here we do not hear the witty, silver-tongued orator speak but the child-molesting predator. These occasional outbursts of Humbert in which his true colours surface, and these peeks into Lo’s feelings, remind us of H.H’s malicious nature, and seem to be placed carefully throughout the nove, to break down the reader’s sympathy for Humbert before it is fully established.

Towards the end of Lolita, however, these outbursts seem to become less frequent, and seem to indicate a change in Humbert’s feelings. Outwitted and left by himself, he starts to think about his actions and shows a new, emotional side of his character in his self-castigation. Humbert realizes he has not only hurt and abused her physically, but also psychologically, and starts to repent. Though he realizes the monstrosity of his crime, he falls back into one of his usual defence strategies, by representing himself as a romantic fool:

I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one.[xxvii]

This passage from the last part of the novel shows clearly how Humbert tries to legitimize his actions. It also indicates how he tries to evoke the reader’s pity (pathos), in urging him to ‘discern the doe in [him]’.[xxviii] Yet, when looking closely at his argumentation, we see that,though he confesses his guilt, he focuses on his own sufferings rather than what Lo has endured. He admits his cruelty towards her, but counters this by blaming it on his obsessive love for her, that tortured him as if in hell. Humbert thus confesses and repents, but does not actually take full responsibility for his deeds. Though some readers might be swayed by this epic love-story, Humbert’s grand appeal to the Aristotelian notion of pathos, many critics have distrusted the self-castigation in the latter part of Lolita. Lionel Trilling famously expressed his doubts about the conventional moral insight that Humbert eventually gains. Trilling wonders in his critical essay whether Humbert’s final remorse is another one of Nabokov’s emotional traps, and if we are intended to ‘believe with entire seriousness that we are witnessing the culmination of H.H.’s moral evolution’.[xxix] We know Humbert’s history of lying and deceiving, and should therefore be on our guard when interpreting his remorse.

Because of Nabokov’s play of attract-and-repel in Lolita, a game that he seems to love as strongly as his chess, opinions of the character of Humbert Humbert have famously fluctuated. Nabokov, however, strongly voiced his judgment of his creation. In 1967, the interviewer Herbert Gold stated that he found H.H in a way ‘touching’, to which Nabokov reacted: ‘I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear touching. That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl’.[xxx] By using the word ‘appear’ Nabokov as well hints at Humbert’s skill of impersonation, and puts the focus rightly on the plights of Lo in the novel, rather than on Humbert’s. Yet still it remains clear that in Lolita, Nabokov aims to test our moral judgment, and shows us the power of words, as we are close to forgiving Humbert for a crime that, in other cases, would have repelled us. The jury that H.H. addresses multiple times in the novel appears on the surface to be the judges who will decide on his fate, as he writes Lolita in prison, awaiting his trial. Yet every single reader of Lolita belongs to this jury and assesses H.H.’s case. Analysis of his rhetorical devices enables us to form unclouded judgment of his character, and prevents us from being fully persuaded by his eloquence. This realization enables us to experience what Wayne Booth in his famous work The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) describes as ‘one of the major delights of this delightful, profound book […] [namely] that of watching Humbert almost make a case for himself’.[xxxi] Knowledge of H.H.’s rhetorical strategies shows us how he attempts to manipulate the reader, and almost succeeds at doing so. Almost.

[i] Plato, Gorgias and Timaeus, trans. by B. Jowett, (New York: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 85.

[ii] Nomi Tamir-Ghez, ‘The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov’s Lolita’ in Ellen Pifer, ed., Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 65.

[iii] Norman Miller, The Self-Conscious Narrator-Protagonist in American Fiction since World War II (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1972), p. 188.

[iv] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Penguin Books, 1955), p. 3.

[v] Eugene Garver, Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 109.

[vi] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 43.

[vii] Ibid., p. 173.

[viii] Ibid., p. 25.

[ix] Lionel Trilling, ‘The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita’, Encounter, 11 (1958), p. 11.

[x] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 253.

[xi] Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 104.

[xii] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 36.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 36.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 112-114

[xv] Ibid., pp. 8-9

[xvi] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 15.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 14.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 55.

[xix] Ibid., p. 70.

[xx] Ibid., p. 153

[xxi] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 157.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 243.

[xxiii] Tamir-Ghez, ‘The Art of Persuasion’, p. 72.

[xxiv] Nabokov, Lolita, p. 62.

[xxv] Ibid., pp. 178-179.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 160.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 324.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 146.

[xxix] Trilling, ‘The Last Lover’, p. 19.

[xxx] Wood, The Magician’s Doubts, p. 107.

[xxxi] Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 390.




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Valerie Meessen


brightONLINE student literary journal

26 Nov 2015