Lolita: The Etymology of a Nymphet
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The novel Lolita concerns a relationship characterized by obsession by a middle aged man, Humbert, for a prepubescent girl, Lolita. This fictional relationship has been a source of many questions as to what the writer, Vladimir Nabokov, had in mind when he wrote the novel. Thus, the novel has been looked at from different aspects in attempting to come up with what it portrays.
Humbert, in his flowery description of Lolita, uses the word "nymphet" to refer not only to her but also to other girls of her age and characteristics. Little girls that came his way before Lolita, he describes as nymphets too. The purpose of this analysis will be to discover what exactly Humbert refers to as a nymphet in the novel Lolita in relation to the type of image today's society sees as a nymphet with the goal of establishing whether or not the novel portrays the influence of a nymphet. It will attempt to find the similarities and differences between the image of a nymphet that Lolita portrays and the real life image of today.
The history of the word "nymphet" in English does not go beyond 1955 when the novel Lolita was published because its first use is in the novel. It was introduced into English by Mr. Humbert Humbert himself. Through his unique sexual perception, Humbert describes the behavior or the sexually luring ability of little girls as unnatural or nymphic:
"Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of
nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers,
twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not
human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as "nymphets (16)"
Nymphic is adjectival for the noun 'nymph' and the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia defines nymphs to be, in "Greek and Roman mythology, lesser divinities or spirits of nature, dwelling in groves and fountains, forests, meadows, streams, and the sea, represented as mortal and beautiful creatures that were sometimes love objects to olympian maidens, fond of music and dancing." They could also be "vengeful and destructive", a character that will be shown to work against Humbert, not physically, but emotionally.
Humbert's image of a nymphet is enhanced by the thoughts and memories of Annabel that he harbors. He sees Lolita as a reincarnation of Annabel: "It was the same child - the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair" (39).
Here we can see that Humbert uses a term that refers to a spiritual being on Lolita for he thinks Annabel now exists in her and can only exist as a spirit - a nymph. A thought that has been haunting him for years and led him through many acts of perversion finally materializes and now Annabel's spirit dwells in Lolita and because of his disbelief about the event, he calls the reincarnation, a nymphet.
In Lolita, the power of a nymphet to have the ability to be a love object, be "vengeful" as well as "destructive" is the center of focus and activity. From the outset, Humbert is partly drawn to move in with the Haze family by the thought of there being a nymphet in the house with whom he would associate with as her tutor. When he moves in, the power of the nymphet becomes a barrier against Charlotte who wants to win Humbert's love so that her relationship with her own daughter, Lolita, goes down in the wake of jealousy.
Jeffrey Alan Triggs, a book analyst writes: "From the moment of seeing Lolita, his narration and perceptions are focused on the nymphet" and he shows in his article that Humbert longs for an "ideal solipsized Lolita." Here we will see how Humbert actually perceives a young nymph and not Lolita. The Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and systems describes the word 'solipsism' of which 'solipsize' is the verb as "a theory that locates reality entirely in the mind of the beholder. It specifically denies the existence of involuntary experiences with an outside world be it through direct perception of something or through vicarious experiences created through the process of communication." When Humbert looks at Lolita, he sees more than she is:
"What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another fanciful Lolita - perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, incasing her; floating between me and her and having no will, no consciousness - indeed, no life of her own" (62).
It is not voluntary on the part of Lolita to have such an effect on Humbert at least initially but it is something that comes out of her normal behavior, her expressions, body morphology, hair texture and the way she talks - the nymph - that sends out the magic spell that deludes him.
The Oxford English dictionary describes a nymphet as "a little or young nymph." Thus, Humbert directly transfers the term that refers to young nymphs to young girls. If this transfer is in order then it should even be reasonable to call adult women 'nymphs' when they bear such characters. This could as well be the reason why the term 'nymphet' is not usually bounded to the ages nine to fourteen in real life. In the movie and fashion industry, for example, actresses and models referred to as nymphets are usually older than fourteen. An Internet article describes Alicia Silverstone as a "killer nymphet in the 1993 thriller The Crush" when she was nineteen years old. We can also relate these age differences to the fact that the nymphet in Lolita can unconsciously influence best men much older than she is while the real life nymphet can consciously influence an adult man of any age. Somehow, the public has come to exaggerate or twist the characteristics of a nymphet to fit it into reality. People usually harbor strong opinions of fictional characters with unique traits and try to imitate them. This is one way we can look at how Nabokov could have used Lolita to transform the minds of the young girl generation into those of sexual curiosity.
In the novel, a big name or term of influence in many circumstances or the motivation behind a lot of bizarre behavior is not "Lolita" but "nymphet." In our society today people talk about the Lolita look when a girl shows the character of a nymphet because they think of Lolita as the prototype nymphet. The word 'nymphet' is thrown around incorrectly to mean any young attractive woman, ignoring an important distinction: nymphets are pre-nubile girls. According to the description, anybody that is a nymphet would be capable of bringing about confusion in people's behavior as Lolita does.
The Oxford English Dictionary also defines the nymphet simply as "nymph-like or sexually attractive girl." This definition must have come only after Humbert introduced the word into English and therefore, it is a good reflection of what society thinks of a nymphet. The public views the nymphet as she who strives to win men's attention by using unique fashion, gestures and body makeup. An article on a fashion home page associates nymphets with "dreams of limos and launches at high-priced society hangouts." The real life nymphet is not confined to one man nor to several but many in the long run. Her domain is mainly in clubs and pubs where she makes preferences among affected men. Nymphets are considered to have loose sexual morals: "Two nymphets visit together, he orders them both into his bed." (OED). Real life nymphets are relatively different in character from that portrayed by Lolita in that they are very aware of their abilities and they take control to effect their influence.
Humbert likens little prepubescent girls to nymphs and thereby implies that the little girls have a big part to play in his obsessions themselves; it is only because the young girls are too luring, not only to him, that he is sexually perverted and not because he is a pedophile. The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia defines pedophilia as "a psychosexual disorder in which the victim becomes obsessed with prepubescent girls regardless of how much older he is." However, a better term to describe Humbert is 'solipsistic' as discussed above. Like nymphs, little girls possess the power to control a man's perception and emotions positively as well as negatively and apparently this is what they did to Humbert; he calls it "bewitching."
According to Humbert, a nymphet possesses magic that best works on men "twice or many times older than themselves." He does not understand this magic. He writes, "A greater endeavor lures me on; to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets." In fact, he himself sees the destructiveness and vengefulness of the nymphet through his use of the word "perilous." The Marriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary explains the noun "peril" as "exposure to the risk of being injured, destroyed or lost." Thus the nymphet magic is exposing him to destruction, but it is not for sure that he will, for a nymph is not always destructive. As we try to show how the character of the nymphet is portrayed in the novel, it is worth noting how Vladimir Nabokov is closely related to Humbert. Nabokov was a writer and so was Humbert. We might also think of what Humbert means when he says that Lolita has "individualized the writer's ancient lust." Nabokov is probably using 'Humbert' as a pseudonym. A passage about him at the end of his novel says that "he lived in Paris from 1937 to 1940 where he began writing under the pseudonym 'Sirin'." Thus Nabokov is capable of improvising a name to talk through. It can be reasonably supposed that it is he himself expressing his views of nymphets and reflecting them to the outside world through the novel, thereby influencing the girl generation.
Looking closely at their home situation, Lolita is a barrier for Charlotte. Charlotte is an even bigger barrier for Humbert in his attempts to physically experience the magic of the nymphet. One thing that captures the readers' thought about the novel is that almost all the characters that are involved in a controversy or scandal regarding Lolita have died including Lolita herself. Marriam Sinclair as she talks about the Lolita syndrom in movies says that "there are no winners in Nabokov's original Lolita-Humbert duel since both of them die from having encountered each other." We have to take note here though that Humbert and Lolita die under different circumstances: Lolita dies of child birth while Humbert dies behind bars while awaiting his trial for the murder of Quilty. Why shouldn't we think that Lolita is the winner? Lolita does not die because she was involved with Humbert but the view of many readers will be that she dies as a consequence of her relationship with Humbert as well as her involvement with Quilty. Why Nabokov put in Lolita's death is not clear for his purpose could be supposed to show Lolita's involvement with Humbert and Quilty and how her magic leads both of them to their death. Similarly, he shows how Charlotte dies under circumstances related to Lolita.
The relationship between Humbert and Charlotte is heavily one sided. Humbert only takes her on in marriage to guarantee himself a good threat of desertion against her if she ever proves to be a barrier in his relations with his legal step daughter. Their relationship becomes an arena of sarcasm as she realizes that her love is unrequited . The climax of their marital uprising comes when she uncovers Humbert's real thoughts in his writing behind which the motivation is a nymphet.
"The Haze woman, the arrogant woman, the old cat, the obnoxious mamma, the-the old stupid Haze is no longer dupes," she reads to Humbert (95).
She shows realization of how Humbert's actions have been influenced by the gale of magic blown by the nymphet, Lolita, and she gives up all her belongings to him but Lolita.
"I am leaving tonight. This is all yours. Only you will never see that
miserable brat again." p 96
Lolita begins to show conscious use of nymphic abilities in the way she submits to engaging in sexual acts with Humbert in the hotel. She realizes that Humbert's actions are not commonplace for a man of his age. She realizes that his kisses, caresses and other romantic gestures are not out of ordinary love for a step daughter but that which has the backup of a hidden agenda.
"Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with
her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes - for all the world,
like the cheapest of the cheap cuties. For that is what nymphets imitate - while
moan and die."
As he takes a quiet time to maneuver or think through his plans, Humbert's blood runs cold as he senses his incognito, immature, wrongful plans being spied upon. Today we can relate this to a thief trying to steal out of store. A thief will be scared at seeing any suspicious person walk behind because he realizes that what he is up to is wrong but it is irresistible; he must steal it.
He goes through the night with her taking all the responsibilities involved and wakes in the morning with an overturned sense of reason. He sees himself as having been seduced.
"Frigid gentlemen of the jury! I had thought months, perhaps years, would
elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was
wide awake, and six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you
something very strange: it was she who seduced me."
It is here that the nymphic abilities are realized by Humbert himself. He is not the first to fall under the magic spell of a little girl.
"You mean," she persisted, now kneeling before me, "you never did it
when you were a kid?"
He wonders and it stretches him to the limit as he endeavors to understand the nature of the nymphet that renders him pedophilic. Here it will be worth making, once again, an important quotation that gives the sense of the enigma behind a nymphet's ways.
"I am not concerned with the so called "sex" at all. Anybody can imagine
those elements of animality. A greatest endeavor lures me on: to fix once
for all the perilous magic of nymphets."
Again, Jeffrey Triggs writes that "paradoxically, the seduction, the climatic height of Hubert's rise to bliss, represents also a fall." He seems to have realized how he has been controlled and cheated and feels ashamed of being in bed with a child. Now Mr. Hubert begins to understand the nature of a nymphet. Lolita here is shown to be the love object side of a nymph as Humbert begins to see signs of her destructive side. From this point, Humbert's attitude changes, trying hard to control the nymphet and not to be under her indirect control. He sees the nymphet's magic taking its bad side as she demands to call her mother but he must stand firm in his decisions while inside, he is still bewitched. Here it can be seen that Hubert is not a pedophile but has rather been made to act like one.
"I had been careless, stupid, and ignoble. And let me be quite frank: some
where at the bottom of that dark turmoil I felt the writhing of desire again, so
monstrous was my appetite for the miserable nymphet. Mingled with the pangs
of guilt was the agonizing thought that her mood might prevent me from
making love to her again as soon as I found a nice country road where to park
in peace." p 140
In Beardsley, he continues to emphasize his position as Lolita's father but his over- responsibility over her begins to raise questions as he strongly, motivated by suspicion, forbids Lolita from associating with other men of her age even in school plays. It reaches a point where investigations on the validity of his parenthood over Lolita become necessary. The school authorities have noticed the nymphet nature in Lolita and make connections as to how Mr. Humbert might be involved in her sphere of influence. Through out the novel, Nabokov shows Humbert to be usually scared and uncertain about the next event. Being conscious of wrongdoing and thus unsettled in every community is one way that the influence of a nymphet is effected.The influence at its worst gets Quilt killed and at the same time renders Humbert a murderer and lands him at his death in jail.
In conclusion, the meaning to Nabokovs novel, Lolita is not easy to deduce. Portraying the character of a nymphet is one possibility. It becomes valid when the novel is looked at from the point of view of how it has come to influence society. Many parties have debated the morality aspect of the novel and have rejected it. Such parties involve distributers for the new Lolita movie. While some people look at the novel as a joke on the American middle class, it is important to look at the population group that has mostly been affected by the novel and that is the relatively young female population. It is this fact that the fashion and modeling industries capitalize on for business. Thus, portraying the character of a nymphet is one aspect of the novel we can not ignore.
1 The Oxford English Dictionary
2 The Grolier Multimedia Ecyclopedia
3 The Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems
4 Mr Showbiz Vocabulary Builder
5 Marriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary
6 Jeffery Alan Triggs, "Humbert Rising: The Nature and Function of the Two Parts in
7 Vladimir Nabokov, "The Annotated Lolita" 1991 version.
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