The Power Struggle in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

The Power Struggle in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

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The Power Struggle in Lolita

       According to literary theories and the theories of Fredrich Nietzsche, human beings have an unquenchable urge for power and will use "ethics," and everything else, in order to increase their authority. In Nabokov's Lolita, we see how Humbert controls Lolita in the beginning stages of their relationship but eventually finds himself going mad because of her deceitful ways and the control she has over his sexual desires.


     The novel introduces HumbertHumbert, a man with charm and the dignity of being a teacher in Paris. Yet, we instantly find he is a sexually disturbed man, lusting for young, prepubescent girls. His perversions are obvious--we can tell from his journal--and the ideas are highly obsessive with the topic of young girls. His mind is always on his first true love, his young Annabel, who died a short time after his first sexual encounter with her. Humbert says, "I see Annabel in such general terms as: 'honey-colored skin,' 'thin arms,' 'brown bobbed hair,' 'long lashes,' 'big bright mouth' (11). This, in fact, becomes his outline for a nymphet, or a girl between the ages of 9 and 14. One who meets his strict criteria is to become a gem in his eyes, yet treated with the same objectivity as a whore. He considers them all sexual objects for his enjoyment because he is a man who wishes to dominate these girls at such a young age.


     Using Nietzsche's theories on power and dominance over others, we can see that Humbert is a man who meets his criterion of someone driven on obtaining the control and respect of those who can be easily manipulated. In a theory entitled "The Superman," he writes:


     The strong man must rid himself of all idea that it is disgraceful to yield to his acute and ever-present yearning for still more strength. There must be an abandonment of the old slave-morality and a transvaluation of moral values. The will to power must be emancipated from the bonds of that system of ethics which brands it with infamy.

(Mencken 105)


     Nietzsche sees someone with total power as one with no regard for anyone other than himself.

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This person's only goal is to get more power by taking it from those who are unable to hold it. In Humbert's case, he knows it is wrong to have sexual desires for young girls, yet the theory holds true in that he wishes to ignore what society would brand as sick and repulsive. In order for him to acquire total power over his nymphets, he must first have total disregard for moral standards set by the culture in which he lives. Yet, Humbert does wish to be known for his beliefs, for he often tries to conceal and even hide his urges. Even so, he is a clever pedophile, one who will try in any way possible to get his desires pacified, whether it is in his imagination or by paying for sexual deeds.


     Humbert becomes, in some degree, sympathetic to those who are not as well endowed in beauty as his Lolita. Humbertfinds companionship in a woman named Rita and he even finds himself lowering his standards because he, in fact, feels sorry for her. He describes her, saying, "She was twice Lolita's age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult... with charming asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile" (258). This female is not supposed to fit Humbert's "type" of sexual stimulation. But somehow, he finds that he is attracted to her in some ways. He finds that he is able to connect with her in a primitive, childish sort of intellect. By doing this, he is able to easily have power in intelligence while not overexerting his mind. Rita is the total opposite of Lolita in physical terms and yet he is able to set aside his sexual drive for the moment and accept her for what she is.


     Humbert's relation with Rita baffles theorists and likely would Nietzsche simply because they would contend that all humans act selfishly and do things in order to receive more power. What they cannot grasp is a part of the human spirit, which unselfishly acts in order to better someone else's life. Theorists will also advocate that there is no such thing as a human spirit at all. Nevertheless, whether or not Rita benefits from Humbert's company is not the real issue in this case. What is evident is that Humbert acts with no regard for his personal image or will to power. Nietzsche theories on that subject say, "If [power] increases, it must destroy its obstacle. If it exceeds its agent, it will destroy the agent, that is, the agent will no longer be able to bear it. This consideration is the result of the same remark: power does not lie in self-preservation" (Klossowski 105). Humbert is trying to preserve the power that he has for the moment by putting it aside. The theory states that what he is actually doing is losing power by not conquering something or someone. Yet, Humbert inexplicably finds redemption and companionship in a woman with whom he normally would not socialize because he is able forget about increasing his power and act unselfishly towards Rita.


     By lowing himself to young prostitutes in order to fulfill his sexual urges, Humbert is able to obtain dominance over those with no power at all. In Paris, he finds delight in a whore, saying:


     She came hardly up to my chest hair and had the kind of dimpled round little face French girls so often have, and I liked her long lashes and tight-fitting tailored dress sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained--and that was the nymphic echo, the chill of delight, the leap in my loins. ( 21)


     The whores are merely considered sex toys for his dying need to quench his lusts for young girls. Although they are not true nymphets, he tries to imagine what they were like before they got older, and his desire to overpower them is sustained even more quickly, for they will do anything for him in order to get paid. Humbert has no concern for the girls he has sex with, just as long as their appearance carries the slight reflection of a nymphet.


     Opposing this is the occasion where Humbert goes to a very vile brothel to see if he approves of a certain prostitute. A grotesque scene of whorish orphans awaits him and he says, "With a surge of pity dramatizing my idiotic gesture, I thrust a banknote into her indifferent hand" (24). Not only is this almost totally out of character but also it is the first surfacing of Humbert's small amount of compassion for others. Although only a tiny "surge" it is, nonetheless, a sign that what he has seen has affected him in some way. For an instant, he forgets his sexual drive and reacts with total sympathy towards a poor girl, asking nothing in return from her.


     Like the whores, Humbert sees Lolita only as a sexual pleasure in the young child that she is. What he does love about Lolita, as with all of his nymphets, is her perfection in body that is so unattainable when they get older. He comments on Lolita taking down laundry in the back of the house saying:


     Marvelous skin--oh, marvelous: tender and tanned, not the least blemish. Sundaes cause acne. The excess of the oily substance called sebum which nourishes the hair follicles of the skin creates, when too profuse, an irritation that opens the way to infection. But nymphets do not have acne although they gorge themselves on rich food. (41)


     He analyzes her down to the science that goes on deep within her pores, only to break her down into smaller pieces for his viewing pleasure. This way of diminishing a person in such a scientific way is a mode in which Humbert is carefully skilled. Moreover, he enhances his status among his readers as a highly educated person by using such detailed explanation. In these lines we are even able to see how Nabokov chooses the words he does to be poetic and playful in a witty sort of way. Another example of this play upon words is found when Humbert is reading a class roll he obtained from Lolita's school. He chooses to categorize and label people in a cruel but humorous manner, saying, "Or is it around my dolorous and hazy darling: Grace and her ripe pimples; Ginny and her lagging leg; Gordon, the haggard masturbator; Duncan, the foul-smelling clown; nail-biting Agnes; ...And there she is there, lost in the middle, Lolita" (53).


     In these lines, we are able to pinpoint a few of Humbert's characteristics of degrading people. He enjoys using puns, such as "hazy" and "dolorous," to refer to Lolita and adds insult to the others, which making them seem less like people and more like words on paper. Then, he takes pride in adding grotesque and disgusting attributes to all of the names in order to make sure they are further lowered in the minds of the readers. Finally, his central goal is reached: to make his so-called love Lolita stuck in the middle of the foul and retched beings that surround her. Humbert wishes to exaggerate the not-so-elegant Lolita only to make himself look better because he loves her. On top of all that, he even adds the "my" in italics to remind the readers she is merely a possession for him to enjoy.


     Charlotte is one of Humbert's easiest victims; she classically falls for his looks and European ways without ever realizing she is merely a stepping-stone to Lolita. Upon their marriage, he makes a quick decision to put his foot down on all decision-making processes. He says this immediately after viciously retorting to Charlotte's idea of going to England, adding:


     This little incident filled me with considerable elation. I told her quietly that it was a matter not of asking forgiveness, but of changing one's ways; and I resolved to press my advantage and spend a good deal of time, aloof and moody, working at my book--or at least pretending to work. (91)


     Not only does he rudely shut her out when she wishes to try to plan a trip with him, but he does so in a manner as to let her know she will never have any control over him or the marriage. He is able to demoralize her and make her even want to apologize for nothing. By ridding himself of Charlotte's presence more often, Humbert has more time to delight in Lolita. Never once do her human feelings of love occur to him, reminding us of the controlling and ruthless nature he has.


     In this incident with Charlotte, we also see another of Nietzsche's theory in action. In order for one to have power, they often must overthrow someone or something that stands in their way to total rule. The theory found in the will to power comes into play, as Nietzsche's theories outline: "The will to power that does not seek to preserve its level but can only increase or decrease is the analogue of an energy that cannot tolerate the state of equilibrium. What is the goal and meaning of this will? To always remain the strongest" (Klossowski 105).


     This statement relates exactly to Humbert and Charlotte's odd relation to one another. Charlotte tends to see herself as an equal partner to her husband in their marriage. But, to Humbert, she is merely a pawn in his quest to take his queen, which in this case is Lolita. Therefore, the "level" or measure of power Humbert has will never be in a state of equilibrium with Charlotte under the theory of Nietzsche. As long as Humbert is fighting and winning his little battles with Charlotte then he is able to have more power in his relationship with her. By winning all the time he is able to shut her out, thus giving him more ability to focus on his ultimate goal: Lolita.


     But, Humbert has not always had the upper hand in all of his marriages. He describes his anger when his first wife, Valeria, tells him there is another man in her life. He says, "A mounting fury was suffocating me--not because I had any particular fondness for that figure of fun, but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was... preparing to dispose of me in her own way of comfort and fate" (28). First, his father ignores him for all of the women in his life and then his wife, whom he thought he controlled, does the same thing concerning his pride. Even before getting dumped by Lolita, he is dumped by Valeria, but only because she took action in her ability to be happy. Humbert's rage is "strangling," almost making him gasp for air for he knows that in this situation he is the one on the losing end of the balance of power. But notice how Humbert wants the reader to know his anger is not from a broken heart but the nonsense of dealing with "legal and illegal" matters. Humbert takes careful steps to cloak his broken heart in order to save face in front of the readers. Humbert is so insecure about this situation he must prove his feelings to us and not have them implied.


     Once Charlotte conveniently dies, Humbert is free to pursue Lolita and to make plans for their first night together. But just as she dies he finds that he begins to have strange dreams and is unable to sleep well. He says, "I was aroused by gratuitous and horribly exhausting congress with a small hairy hermaphrodite, a total stranger" (109). In this case, the dream is the only way he is able to examine who he really is as a sex offender. Humbert is certainly not the type of person that would openly tell the readers he knows who the hermaphrodite really is; instead, he uses self-flattery to hide the truth. Using such words as "gratuitous" and "exhausting" he is able to imply that the thing in his dream was just passé and boring.


     The hermaphrodite in his dream is Humbert's sexuality, perverse and disfigured. But naturally he is unable to recognize who the thing is simply because he is unable to detect his disgusting lusts. He also finds that his mean and selfish ways are tiresome. He remarks, "Oh, let me be mawkish for the nonce! I am so tired of being cynical" (109). He just wants to be tender and caring for a few moments, yet he cannot because of his relentless pursuit of power, which requires him to degrade others. A tiny part of Humbert wishes to change his perverse and numb ways, yet the voice is stomped out by sexual thoughts of having Lolita alone with him in bed.


     Once Lolita and Humbert check into the Enchanted Hunter, Lolita begins to show the side of her that is dominating and quite witty. The readers tend to assume that Humbert is a vicious pervert because his language tends to lead us to believe he is. Yet, Humbert can be cunning at times, especially when it comes to his sexual encounters with Lolita. On the first occasion he gives her sleeping pills in the hopes that she will fall into a deep sleep, therefore allowing him to fondle her as he pleases. But, this, sadly, does not go as planned. Here we see how Humbert thinks he has a delicate situation under control. Humbert describes his plans, saying, "In a few minutes--say, twenty, say half-an-hour... I would let myself into that "342" and find my nymphet, my beauty and bride, imprisoned in her crystal sleep" (123). He sinisterly describes her like a prisoner about to be raped, in some aspects, and thinks all shall go to plan. Yet, Humbert never is able to plan well for any delicate event he tries set up, especially when it comes to sex. Not only do the pills not work, they don't even keep her asleep long enough for him to get a hand on her.


     Surprisingly, Lolita is the one in this part of the novel who startles both Humbert and the readers. She awakens in the morning, kisses Humbert, and begins telling him of a sexual game she learned while at camp:


"You mean," she persisted, now kneeling above me, "you never did it when you were a kid?"

"Never," I answered quite truthfully.

"Okay, " said Lolita, "here is where we start." (133)


     The game is obviously a sexual one. Humbert needs not to tie her down or tantalize her with money as he did with his whores in the past. Lolita is the clever instigator here and one who is skillfully trained in not only the act of sex but also in the art of seducing Humbert.


     Yet, the readers soon find that Lolita is quite like some of Humbert's past acquaintances. He even says, after the event at the Enchanted Hunter, that, "My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me" (133-34). In this chilling comment, he refers to Lolita almost like an animal or baby playing with a newfound toy. Humbert naively does not even see that she has learned to sexually please men and found it to be somewhat gratifying in some degree. As his daughter, she wishes to please her stepfather in any sort of way possible. By doing this, she thinks she will receive the love and attention any daughter should get from a father. Yet, what Lolita does not recognize is that Humbert will not give what she seeks in return for her sexual favors and therefore she will never feel loved or satisfied.


     Upon further examination of their sexual encounter at the Enchanted Hunter, Humbert and Lolita now seem to be equals in their semi-marriage with one another. Humbert is an older man with goods looks, incredible wit, and, most importantly major amounts of money. With these attributes he is able to manipulate many people around him and get others do as he pleases. Lolita, on the other hand, has a strong hold upon Humbert's sex drive and is able to taunt him until he goes mad with love, eagerly awaiting her demands. With these two figures now in a brief equilibrium, only one can prevail to conquer the other, as we see later in the book.


     Upon ceasing their journeys through the United States, Humbert and Lolita must return to a "normal" life of schoolwork and daily chores. As time goes on, Lolita no longer wishes to obtain money or possessions for her sexual acts and Humbert's once ominous control over her begins to crumble. He says, "I would shed all my pedagogic restraint, dismiss all our quarrels, forget all my masculine pride--and literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita!" (Nabokov 192). Here we see how Humbert has reduced himself to a groveling fool all for the attention and sexual favors of a child. The once power-hungry man has been subdued into giving up even his manly pride in order for Lolita to grace him with her presence. Lolita now has the upper hand in their relationship and has to do nothing in order to get it. Lolita is now free to do as she wants, even leave him, for she knows there will be no consequences for her actions. She now has the liberty to manipulate him into giving her all that she desires, knowing he must in order to satisfy his cravings.


     Nietzsche's theories on why humans act in certain ways in order to receive power are not alone. Literary theoristsalso offer explanations as to why a character's motives should be equated with actions for achieving power. John Lye, a literary theorist, offers this example:


     There is the general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. This is the level at which we interpret motive, character and significance from descriptions of action, dress, attitude and so forth. "Jake put on his tuxedo and tennis shoes" will provide an interpretation of Jake or will look forward to an explanation of why he broke the cultural code, in this case a dress code. (1996)


     Lye gives us the example of a man who puts on sporting shoes with formal attire. What he contends is that the actions of the man in the example should reflect the way in which we perceive the man's attitudes and disposition. Some may say that the man is a comical person, seeking attention. Others may think the man does not understand proper dress attire or even that he has no money. Whatever the case may be, all of these things are pure assumptions based on the actions of the person.


     In some ways Humbert is a man who would fit the theory given by Lye and yet at times he does not fit the theory at all. Humbert, when seeking to obtain power, does many things that hurt and destroy other people's lives. Yet, as with Rita, in the final meeting with Lolita he does something totally out of character, which does not coincide with any literary theory. Humbert comes to see Lolita, who is now married and pregnant, thinking he can persuade her to come back with him. Upon offering the money with his offer of marriage he also says, "Anyway, if you refuse you will still get your... trousseau" (278). He is offering her money to her and her husband, whom he despises, in return for nothing, even if she refuses to come with him. Humbert suddenly realizes he has destroyed her childhood, and he knows that she has been through much pain. Theorists will never be able to understand Humbert's actions because they do not support the theory that people help others unselfishly because they wish to see them prosper. Tthey would see Humbert's actions as another example of how he loses his power to control Lolita.


     In truth, Humbert realizes his mistakes and knows that he will never be able to pay for what he has done to Lolita. He must only try to reconcile things with her by helping her accomplish her goals and be the stepfather he should have been. Lolita realizes his generosity as well, calling him "honey" for the first time in her life. This is her way of showing him her endearment for him and is the first step in their healing process. Thus, Humbert realizes that small amends have been made, and nothing will ever bring her back to him again. Humbert leaves sobbing like a lost child, just as he did when he lost his Annabel, knowing that he will never see Lolita again.


     Lolita confronts the dark life of a pedophile while exposing the attitudes of a young girl living during the 1950s. Observing the theories of Fredrich Nietzsche on the will to power and literary theories concerning character motives, we are better able to understand the reasoning behind Humbert's actions and his struggle to quench an endless need for power.


Works Cited

Klossowski, Pierre. Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle.Trans. Daniel W. Smith. London: Athlone Press, 1997.

Mencken, Henry. The Philosophy of Fredrich Nietzsche. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1967.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage Int., 1997.

Some Elements of Structuralism and its Application to Literary Theory.Ed. John Lye. 24 Nov. 1999. Brock U. 1996.

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