Nabokov's Anti-Freudian Views in Lolita

When a taboo work is published, one underlying question always remains: does it have literary merit? It is difficult to apply universal criteria to assess whether or not a literary work has value. Some of the authors under fire may defend their writings by emphasizing a certain truth they were trying to convey or attacking censorship as being immoral. Other authors protect their work by claiming it was written in the name of art. Vladimir Nabokov proclaims himself as an artist and a very proud one.

Like many artists, Nabokov was fascinated with the human condition and the complexity of human emotion.

Producing his art through language, the articulation of words in his novels was crucial in creating his masterpieces. Many may argue that one such masterpiece, Lolita, may be beautiful in language but not in content. The novel tackles an extremely uncomfortable subject and many find it difficult to justify it’s being published. To its creator, it is a beautiful work of art and a study of human emotion.

Nabokov, while being fascinated with the human psyche, was extremely anti-Freudian which was a somewhat unusual position to take in the context of the psychiatric world of the time. Freud’s theories dominated the psychiatric sphere and were the basis for psychology’s emphasis on behavior modification and obsession with the subconscious. Simple, universal answers and medication had now become the new solution to mental diseases. In some respects, Lolita can be considered an attack on the psychiatric field as a whole, but specifically on Freud. Nabokov rejected the notion of providing simple explanations for behavior. His desire was for the reader to understand human nature as something that is far more complicated than can be explained by science. In some ways, an exploration of the controversial protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is the perfect means to prove how complicated humanity is. Not every aspect of Nabokov’s novel Lolita either confirms or refutes Freudian concepts, but rather it is a mixture of both. Like many other novels written during this time, it is difficult to escape criticism through a Freudian lens. Though he adamantly proclaimed his animosity toward Freud’s theories, the content of Nabokov’s work and his writing style proves that Freud was at least worth engaging with.

The foreword is especially telling in Nabokov’s view of psychiatry as a field. The foreword is a work of fiction and Nabokov even seems to refer to “old-fashioned” readers sarcastically, stating through his fictional psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray, that he will give in to their desire to “follow the destinies of the real people beyond the true story” (Nabokov. 4). Here, Nabokov pokes fun at the idea that fiction and art have no merit. In a sense, he is attempting to debunk the notion that the value of literary work is limited to something true and moral.

This conflicts with science’s emphasis on what is real and tangible. Nabokov argues throughout his novel that “art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise” (5). In other words, there is nothing wrong with a piece of literature or a work of art being interpreted s offensive. It is a sign that the work in question is a success. Ironically, this is said through a psychiatrist who, according to Nabokov, is representative of narrow-minded and simple. Psychiatry is entirely science and does not have room for a more complicated explanation.

Nabokov disagrees with this restriction of the human condition. Humanity is far more complicated than psychiatry would like to express. Through Humbert, Nabokov argues that human emotion cannot be simplified to a mere explanation. He takes an extremely grotesque, taboo, and uncomfortable subject and uses the discomfort it creates to make a point about humanity. Though Humbert is despicable, he is not evil. To use psychiatry’s terms, he is not insane. The field of psychiatry at the time the novel was written would have resorted to behavioral modification and treatment to “fix” the patient of their condition. Humbert’s case is a bit more complicated in the sense that it can be seen as an issue of love rather than disease. He constantly argues and attempts to justify his position through the idea that his love for Lolita is more of a spell rather than science. Even Humbert is perplexed by himself. He reflects that “when I try to analyze my cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex project of my past” (13). In other words, his condition and his past are too complicated to analyze or at least apply a concrete explanation to.

Though Nabokov insists that his work is anti-Freudian in the sense that Humbert is more complicated than psychiatry would like to allow, he still uses Freudian ideas as background or explanation for his characters. It is revealed that Humbert had his first love when he was thirteen a twelve-year-old girl. She died a few months later and it is something that Humbert never seemed to fully recover from. This reference to his past suggests that this may be a possible or partial explanation for his current behavior. Freud was very interested in the influence of childhood experience on adult behavior. A traumatic experience and loss of love as a thirteen-year-old aligns with Freud’s theories about the influence of childhood. This explanation would make sense for Humbert’s obsession with “nymphets” though it by no means excuses him.

Another Freudian concept applied to Nabokov’s novel is the theory of repression and its effect on behavior. Humbert is repressing his sexual desires because they are not socially acceptable. Humbert describes his own experience as “one moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangled me” (18). He is attentive to the law, however, at the same time, he must restrict his sexual desires. He is not a completely lost cause since he still has some kind of moral compass that he operates by, though it is by no means perfect. This adds to the complexity of his character by making it clear that he is still at least somewhat aware of what is socially acceptable and the law. If he were to ignore these rules of society and act on every impulse, it would be easier to view him as an evil character, and the reader’s sympathy for him would diminish. Nabokov’s goal is to portray Humbert as a complicated character who is not restricted to the label of “insane” would fall apart. The idea that he is repressed in some way may provide a small explanation for his behavior. His repression causes extreme discomfort in his emotional state which leads to irrational and dangerous behavior which manifests in Humbert as pedophilia and murder. 

Freud’s concept of “splitting of the ego” is also employed in Humbert as he can have pedophiliac desires while also recognizing that it is not socially acceptable. The splitting of the ego can be defined as an instance when “an individual may maintain two contradictory attitudes simultaneously” (Green. 370). To Freud, it is to “reject reality and in the same breath observe it sufficiently to recognize its danger” (370). This is one possible explanation as to why Humbert can remain a somewhat functioning member of society. Though Nabokov argues that Humbert is a complex individual that cannot be restrained by psychiatric concepts, he certainly seems to operate by them.

But Freud’s concepts do not necessarily apply exclusively to the content of Nabokov’s novels. The “splitting of the ego” theory can be seen in Nabokov’s writing style as well. It is said that “Vladimir Nabokov described himself as a ‘mild old gentleman’ who just happened to create ‘pretty beastly’ characters that were ‘beyond the limits of his own identity” (369). And so the author of the article asks the question, “how is it possible for the mild to coexist with the grotesque, for the moralist to create with diabolic deceit” (369)? Perhaps Nabokov was experiencing his version of “splitting of the ego”.

But Nabokov’s work also contradicts Freud’s theories. Nabokov takes great pride in his writing as an art form. For this reason, he is opposed to Freud’s idea of the subconscious as the ruling factor in a large portion of behavior and thought. He rejected the idea of generalization in both his art and in psychiatry’s attempts at diagnosing a person. He favored the smaller details and argued that they are equally as important in conveying a message in a story as overarching big ideas. Nabokov employs the concept of “fending off expectations of the outside world” in both his writing style and his content (371). He carefully chooses his words to portray a specific message and idea. His writing style is what elevates his work to an art form rather than reducing it to something vulgar. It s the small details that make his novels so beautiful and so popular. The idea that for a work to have literary significance, it must be socially and morally acceptable is also challenged. Nabokov chooses an extremely controversial and taboo character to make a point about humanity. In a way, Nabokov is resisting the world’s expectations to create a work of art within the boundaries of acceptable morality. This definition cannot be applied to all works of literature, since very many literary works are incredibly popular and significant to the literary world while at the same time being considered offensive or immoral. Like many of the previous authors of the course, Nabokov pushes the limits against the world’s expectations for good literature by creating a beautiful, scandalous piece of art. Freud’s ideas were extremely popular and dominated the psychiatric realm during the era in which Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye, and “Howl” were written. Though they may not have been woven into the stories on purpose, many of Freud’s concepts, especially concerning repression, find their way into both popular and controversial literary works of this time.

Repression was a particularly common theme. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, is a prime example of repression and its effect on behavior. He was considered a delinquent and severely emotionally troubled. He also exhibits properties of sexual repression, which according to Freud, maybe the cause of numerous behavioral issues. Though Holden is very open about his desire for sex, he doesn’t take the opportunity to engage in it. He attempts to justify his repression through moral means. In a way, this might account for some of his emotional discomfort and odd behavior.

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg may be a representative of Ginsberg’s homosexual repression. Ginsberg’s writing is chaotic and nonsensical at times, using wild and vivid imagery that is difficult to grasp. His work was considered obscene and vulgar, not contributing to society in any positive way. The repression of his sexual desires and needs may be a cause for his dynamic and shocking poetry. Though repression is not an explanation for his behavior, it is still interesting to observe how it may align with Freud. He also, like Nabokov, resisted the world’s expectations for acceptable and good literature. His work is original, and according to Nabokov’s definition of originality, it is only natural that it shocked the world.

Though Nabokov would have liked to ignore Freud’s concepts completely, he was unable to completely ignore his influence on his writing style and his characters. Some concepts are affirmed in Lolita such as repression and splitting of the ego, while other more general ideas are denied. Nabokov was especially careful to deny the simple explanations and restrictions on human behavior placed by psychiatry. His novels clearly express the complexity and beauty of humanity through the creation of seemingly diabolical characters that the reader can’t help but empathize with. Nabokov denies the expectations of the world. Through his identity as an artist and his careful articulation of language, Nabokov created a scandalous piece of art that is free of psychiatry’s restrictive explanations and definitions while still subtly supporting various Freudian theories.

Works Cited

  1. Green, Geoffrey. “Splitting of the Ego: Freudian Doubles, Nabokovian Doubles.” Russian Literature and Psychoanalysis (1989): 369-79. Print.
  2. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Lolita. New York: Knopf:, 1992. Print.

Cite this page

Nabokov's Anti-Freudian Views in Lolita. (2022, Jun 28). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7