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Unreliable Narrator: “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov Research Paper


All fictional narrations focus on influencing the perception of the readers. The main challenge that the author or the narrator faces is to convince the readers. This challenge becomes more difficult when the narrator is also a character, and the readers perceive a degree of unreliability due to inconsistencies in his/her statements (Olson 97). A narrator/character is often considered to have the scope to manipulate the text to express his/her point of view.

In the case of Nabokov’s Lolita, the problem intensifies as the narrator presents the novel in an autobiographical form (Moore 73). Thus, staging Humbert as the narrator, as well as the hero of the book, presents a unique problem of justification of the facts presented. Further, the authors put readers in a dilemma as they do not know if they should believe the narrator because he says that he has written the book in fifty-six days when confined in a psychiatric ward (Durantaye 43).

The question of the narrator’s reliability automatically invades the readers’ minds, and their unwitting identification with the pervert narrator enrages them (Tamir-Ghez 65). This intensifies the task of manipulation of the readers’ perception. In a way, Nabokov openly declares to the readers that the narrator is manipulating them, thus, making them more skeptical and doubtful of the reliability of the story (Zerweck 152).

In this paper, I argue that the narrator consciously creates unrealistic, inconsistent, and unreliable accounts to blur the line between fiction and reality, thus manipulating the perception of the reader to actively participate in the unraveling of the riddle presented in multi-textual narration within the novel. In this unparalleled meta-fictional novel, Nabokov removes himself completely from the text and presents textual authority to Humbert, the unreliable narrator/hero of the story, in order to defend his pedophiliac inclinations (Durantaye 33). Thus, this separation of the author from the text establishes a narrative level that lies between him and the text.

The separation of the author and the text and the presence of an unreliable narrator who is also the pedophiliac hero of the story put the readers in a dilemma, and they have to actively participate in the narrative to unravel the truth.

The creation of reality through fiction gives credibility to the narrator. The readers are convinced that the narrator is unreliable, but he has created a world of his own within the fictional boundaries of the novel. Humbert tells histories from his point of view. Thus, creating two realities – one that of the narrator and that of the hero (Durantaye 36). The contradiction that arises is because of a clash in the point of view of these two types of narrations.

He distorts reality because the external world has failed him, and so when he cannot achieve his desires in reality, he creates his own reality to achieve it. That is why Humbert, the narrator, has failed to capture his Lolita, and so he tries to immortalize her through his fiction. Thus, memory and imagination intertwine in Lolita when Humbert recounts his tale as an autobiographical memoir.

The fictional editor of Humbert’s book, John Ray Jr., frames the readers to perceive the author as unreliable and hence not to believe in what he suggests completely. However, the readers are aware of the fact that John Ray is a fictional character, just like Humbert himself, that Nabokov uses as a parody of the classic meta-fictional trope.

John at one point justifies the novel as a true account of Humbert while in the next moment derides Humbert’s abject pedophilia: “The cynic may say that commercial pornography makes the same claim; the learned may counter by asserting that ‘H.H.’s impassioned confession is a tempest in a test tube” (Nabokov 6). He further criticizes Humbert as “horrible,” “abject,” and a “shining example of moral leprosy” (7). Thus, the fictional editor of the novel criticizes the text within the text, thus putting the readers in the position of judges, ensuring that they critically analyze the text.

However, as the text progresses, the readers realize that John ray is just another figment of the author’s imagination and is unreal. This makes them realize that Nabokov was actually teasing them all through this ironic representation of John Ray. He is the editor that further blurs the line between reality and fiction creating an ironical truth. The readers are left confused as they cannot decide if John Ray is a reliable narrator or an unreliable witness.

Therefore, Nabokov brings the readers out of their comfort zone of passive reading wherein they assume that the narration is real. Nevertheless, Lolita poses the problem of infusion of fiction in real accounts thus making it exceedingly difficult for the readers to judge the validity of the text or the characters/narrators. This element of unreliability infused in the text by Nabokov ensures the readers that this account is actually a work of fiction and not a true autobiographical account as proclaimed by John Ray.

The pedophiliac nature of the narrator already makes him a social outcast and hence unacceptable narrator for the readers who believe that his main aim to garner sympathy from them for his afflictions. Humbert uses the form of a diary to attach accounts in his autobiography. Thus, Nabokov uses the tropes of a realistic novel wherein the narrator substantiates his claims from the entries in his dairy to increase authenticity.

Diary is usually used as notes for autobiographical memoir writings. Humbert uses the diary to narrate intimate secrets that he just told himself in his prior life is presented through the diary entries. However, the readers cannot be sure of the validity of the entries that Nabokov uses them to mock the readers. For example, Humbert recounts mundane daily events to show the daily life of Humbert: “Saturday. For some days already I had been leaving … Sunday. Changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful … Monday. Rainy morning” (Nabokov 48-49).

These commentaries disassociate the narrator from the text. Humbert further creates distance between the reader and himself by stating that he is writing the novel while in jail and therefore, is under observation. This is another way of manipulating the reader’s perception and putting them in a dilemma. Should the readers believe this unreliable narrator, who is presumably under supervision while he writes this account and is on trial for pedophilia and murder? Should the readers believe a narrator who is a criminal, a murderer, and a reprobate or should they rely on their judgment about the validity of what the man speaks? Clearly, Nabokov leaves the decision to the readers who are to become the judge of Humbert’s character.

The narrator at times presents his thoughts and explanations for his behavior, using parenthesis within the text thus giving Lolita a feel of a realistic novel. He uses the format of a diary to make the readers feel that the novel is actually an account of his life. These entries are the ones he took while living with Charlotte Haze. Some of them are ”boring” entries. This was done to enhance the realism of the autobiography. Diaries and confessions deal with intimate subjects and Nabokov uses them to mock the form and thus, the readers, to dissociate them with the reality and the fiction.

Further, Humbert tells the readers that he was in jail: “I am writing under observation” (Nabokov 10). He further adds that he has to follow his lawyer’s instructions. This makes the readers believe that the narrator is not free to reveal whatever he wants to. Humbert writes: “My lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary we followed, and … I cannot avoid that chore” (151). This comment blurs the line between fiction and reality where Humber intentionally includes the lawyers as a part of the story as he does with the people of the jury (where they are the people who are reading his memoir).

There are contradictory narrations used in Lolita. For instance, the story is mostly written in first-person. The first-person pronoun used in the story refers to the narrator or Humbert. However, there are passages where the story is written in third-person, even when Humbert remains the narrator. Hence, there is a change in perspective of the narration. Thus, at one point Humbert uses internal focalization wherein he is aware of his thoughts and perceptions while in another passage he uses external focalization that helps him to explain what is happening to him (Phelan 233).

When Humbert writes, “You can count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” he mockingly draws the reader’s attention to the stylistic narration her has written in the beginning of the story when he first describes Dolores, with the aid of crafted alliterations: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul” (Nabokov 9). Phelan points out Nabokov’s use of tongue movement to show the robustness of the nymphet persona built by the narrator through the playful articulation of the name Lolita (233).

Therefore, the name is enunciated as: “Lo-lee-ta. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (9). The linguistic play with the name is continued in the second paragraph of the first chapter of the story where Humbert describes the different variations in the name of Lolita: Lo, Lola, Dolly, Dolores, and back once more to Lolita. “She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock.

She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita” (9). Thus, use of these fancy prose style mocks the reader with the narrator’s linguistic skills and presents a playful comparison between the narrator and the author of the story i.e. Humbert and Nabokov. Thus, the perception of unreliability of Humbert in the mind of the readers is etched from the very beginning.

Thus, an active reader would constantly be suspicious of the words he/she reads in the text. For instance, when Humbert describes the four foot ten Lolita in his arms, the readers are hesitant to accept this as the line between reality and fiction has been completely blurred.

In chapter five of the story, Humbert presents his explanation and difference between a girl and a nymphet. He describes them to be girls with a certain age group: “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens … I propose to designate as nymphets” (17). He also states they possess a certain demonic character: “who… reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is demoniac)” (17).

However, Humbert clearly states that not all girls within that age group are nymphets as they lack that “the fey grace, the elusive, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers” (17). This explanation is definitely unacceptable, as there is no literary basis to the definition of nymphet presented by Humbert and this is where Nabokov intrudes to show the reader that Humbert is an unrealizable literary narrator.

Humbert is an unreliable narrator. His situation (i.e. jailed in a psychiatric ward and impending trial) makes him more of an unreliable narrator as the social discourses have taught us not to believe a deviant. The readers are prepared from the very beginning to distrust Humbert and this accentuates as the story progresses. Nabokov constantly mocks the readers into believing that the narrator is unreliable and reading the story from an unreliable source makes the whole situation more ironic. The readers do not believe Humbert but are even drawn into the linguistic mastery that he shows, though they are aware that the accounts may be untruthful. Blurring the line between imagination and reality also creates a dilemma among the readers to differentiate between fantasy and realism.

Works Cited

Durantaye, Leland De la. Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. Print.

Moore, Anthony R. “How unreliable is Humbert in Lolita?” Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001): 71-80. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.

Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering unreliability: Fallible and untrustworthy narrators.” Narrative 11.1 (2003): 93-109. Print.

Phelan, James. “Estranging unreliability, bonding unreliability, and the ethics of Lolita.” Narrative 15.2 (2007): 222-238. Print.

Tamir-Ghez, Nomi. “The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov’s Lolita.” Poetics Today 1.1/2 (1979): 65-83. Print.

Zerweck, Bruno. “Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural discourse in narrative fiction.” Style 35.1 (2001): 151-176. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 22). Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/unreliable-narrator-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov/

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"Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov." IvyPanda, 22 Sept. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/unreliable-narrator-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov/.

1. IvyPanda. "Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov." September 22, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/unreliable-narrator-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov/.


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IvyPanda. "Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov." September 22, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/unreliable-narrator-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov." September 22, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/unreliable-narrator-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Unreliable Narrator: "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov'. 22 September.

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