In both Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, and Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist is consumed by an obsession. These obsessions affect the characters’ behavior, actions, and interaction with the world. Most importantly, however, both authors reveal that obsession distorts a person’s perception of reality.
In Lolita, the protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert, has an obsessive lust for nymphets which warps his view of the world, ultimately driving him to paranoia. His sexual fixation for nymphets is projected on all that he sees.
It prevents him from seeing the world clearly, void of nymphet-sexual overtones. His interactions and perceptions of girls are consumed with sexual fantasy, which obstructs their true nature. He becomes delusional due to paranoia, causing his imagination to take hold of his notions of reality.
Humbert writes the following accounts from a prison cell, where he is able to use his retrospect to narrate the novel. He describes his obsession with nymphets at great lengths.
Whenever he comes into contact with them he is overcome with sexual lust and yearning. He tells the reader, “I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet” (18). His obsession is intensified by the agony and frustration he feels due to his inability to act on his desires. Humbert even convinces himself that there is nothing wrong with being infatuated with girl-children, justifying it as, “a question of attitude” (19). This rationale is further justified through his numerous references to man-nymphet sexual relationships throughout history.
He has done thorough research on the topic because of his utter fascination with girl-children. This fascination has also led him to pursue the detailed study of the pubescent stages of female development.
Humbert describes the feelings that his obsessive lust evokes. He says that his random infrequent interactions with girls on the metro or in the park created “a revelation of axillary russet…[that] remained in my blood for weeks” (20). Whenever nymphets are near him he feels euphoric and becomes enraptured in his fantasies. The world around him stops, and he dreams of being left “alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up” (20). He uses imagery of a mossy garden to emphasize his forbidden desire of young girls. Moss is green, which symbolizes youth or something that is unripe, while the garden refers to Eden, where Eve was forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge.
Nabokov similarly uses imagery to reveal Humbert’s misconceptions of reality. His obsessive lust for young girls is reflected in the world that he sees, which is expressed through images of a mirror. While he is with a nymphet prostitute he notices his reflection “that distorted my mouth” (22). This mirrors his distorted view of young girls that he projects throughout the novel. He cannot see himself clearly in the mirror, just as he cannot see young girls clearly. His inability to see outside of his world, which is consumed by thoughts and feelings of obsessive lust, is also seen through imagery of a window. The prostitute is wrapped in the gauze of the window curtain, which symbolizes that Humbert’s obstructed view of reality is just like the obstructed view that a curtain provides a window.
Similar imagery is seen during Humbert’s life with his first wife Valeria. Humbert and Valeria, who resembles a little girl, live in an apartment that has a “hazy view in one window, a brick wall in the other” (26). Humbert cannot see outside the box within he lives. He cannot see past his warped sense of women. His mind has slipped into a world confined by his sexual desire. While living in this apartment he is driven mad by the shadow of the grocer’s little daughter (26). This image reveals that his picture of girls is only a dark reflection of light, thus it lacks substance and clarity. Similar images persist when Humbert notices through the store window of an art dealer, “a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds” (26-27). This image of smoke, light, and clouds reflects Humbert’s obscured understanding of his world. Instead of seeing things clearly and illuminated, his “head is in the clouds.”
The novel’s theme of obsession leading to the distortion of reality is reiterated through the work that Humbert does when he goes to America. The intense research that is involved in his job of writing the history of French literature causes him to have a nervous breakdown and he is sent to a sanatorium twice. This reflects the larger theme of the novel that intensity, like compulsion or obsession, leads to mental disorder. While Humbert is on an expedition to arctic Canada, he feels “curiously aloof from [himself]…seated on a boulder under a completely translucent sky” (33). Nabokov uses imagery of clarity to make Humbert feel disconnected from himself. Under a clear sky he cannot see himself clearly.
Humbert’s arrival at the Haze household marks the beginning of his most powerful obsession: Lolita Haze. The name “Haze” is an intentional play-on-words that Nabokov uses to emphasize the obscured perception and confused state of mind that she causes Humbert. Humbert’s obsession with this twelve-year-old girl is chronicled in an entire diary’s worth of entries that mark every stage of his growing lust for her. It is filled with imagery and language that illustrate his lack of perspective. Mrs. Haze takes a picture of Humbert while he sits “blinking on the steps” (41). Humbert’s blindness from watching Lolita is accentuated by the fact that it is captured in a photograph.
In another instance, while Humbert daydreams of Lolita, Mrs. Haze interrupts by asking him for a cigarette light (43). This refers to Humbert’s obscured view of Lolita and is an example of the subtleties of language used by Nabokov to reveal a greater theme. The leitmotif of the mirror is again seen in these diary entries when Humbert observes one day that he and Lolita are “in the same warm, green bath of the mirror that reflected the top of a poplar with us in the sky” (43). Their position in the sky depicts that Humbert is not grounded, nor does he “have his feet on the ground,” because he is completely preoccupied with his lust for Lolita.
Humbert also reveals self-recognition of his biased perception of Lolita. He explains, “Never have I experienced such agony. I would describe her face, her ways – and I cannot because my own desire for her blinds me when she is near” (44). Humbert is both literally and figuratively blinded by Lolita. He is unable to notice anything but his lust for her. One day, as he lustfully watches her leaning through a window while talking to the newspaper boy, he confesses, “I seemed to see her through the wrong end of a telescope” (55). Again, Nabokov uses figurative language to depict Humbert’s inability to see Lolita clearly while she is leaning outside of a window. By looking through a telescope from the opposite end, her image appears much farther away, and thus obscured.
Humbert’s obsession with Lolita causes him to recreate reality. He figuratively takes on the role of an artist. He says, “you have to be an artist and a madman” (17) in order to lust after nymphets. This aspect of his character is emphasized when Lolita shows him a picture of a surrealist painting in a magazine (58). Nabokov uses this allusion to refer to the surreal nature of Humbert’s perception of Lolita. Humbert admits, “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation” (62). He has molded his own image of Lolita in his mind, which has objectified and glorified her. His obsession with this figment of his imagination has clouded reality.