Leaving Dorothy Schiller's House: Nabokov's Tragic Morality Play
Updated: Sep 13
In the afterward of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes that his book “has no moral in tow.” (Lolita, 315) He goes on to say that in lieu of a “moral,” he is in pursuit of “aesthetic bliss,” and then defines this bliss as “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.” (Lolita, 315)
Contrary to his proclamation, however, Nabokov discovers a sort of moral bliss in his controversial novel. This moral vision is a tragic one, steeped in a realism that binds aesthetic to ethic. In fact, for Nabokov, the tragic and the real are integrally linked, holding hands in the midst of misery and quagmire. Humbert Humbert, the narrator and chief perpetrator in Lolita, surrenders finally to circumstances that overcome his ability to think and feel, and is surrounded only by what is there before him: the actual world so terribly redacted of frills that he is able to position himself not as victim but as loser. The climax of Nabokov’s narrative is ensconced in literary subterfuge and opulent prose, and both substance and style work through each other, histrionics and reality finding a simultaneous, and very sad, release.
A strange tenderness emerges as the novel reaches its denouement. As Humbert copes with the fallout of all his actions, we as readers are allowed a way into empathy without decoration or apology. This sense of connection and complicity (between narrator and reader – Humbert constantly calls us out as “dear readers” throughout the text) haunts most of the novel, but mainly through verbose and ostentatious revery. In fact, a pedophile’s ugly almost Vaudevillian self-pity guides a lot of the insights and conceits. But a stab of unmitigated truth comes in the form of an epiphany once Humbert recognizes his final defeat and begins to understand that there is no one else to blame, no one else to explain away his longing to. Reality, both aesthetic and consequential, intervenes.
Nabokov is often characterized as a chess-playing literary provocateur, a stylist whose writings contain elaborate, brainy puzzles to solve. His stories and novels dwell in enigmatic realms, obsessive tunnels that connect to meaning while also obfuscating it. In Lolita, as in his other works, the prose is gorgeously singular: lyrical, hilarious, playfully ironic, almost dense in its dedication to technique. But also in Lolita, Nabokov allows that technique to break out of linguistic enigma and gloss; realism becomes a counterpoint to the Nabokovian labyrinth. As the style loses its glitter toward the end of the book, the narration itself becomes a commentary on the complicated, extravagant lies people tell themselves to acquire what they want without thinking about what it does to others – and what horrible traps it sets for their lives.
Close to the end, Humbert discovers where Lolita has landed two years after he lost her to Cue Quilty. Quilty is Humbert’s evil twin who haunts most of the book, a shadowy corrupt version of a pedophile that Humbert uses to feel morally superior. At times, the whole novel is a funhouse mirror of cat-and-mouse chases, tracing the American travels of a Eurotrash pervert and his prey, with Quilty menacingly off-camera, pursuing Lolita in a parallel universe outside of the one Humbert thinks he and Lolita occupy.
Humbert’s quest to reconnect with Lolita after she has finally escaped him is the novel’s final emotional flourish and sets the stage for Humbert’s final “romantic” gesture toward her: the killing of Quilty in a sort of riotous parody of a gentlemanly duel. Humbert brings along a pistol and overtly romantic notions of revenge when visiting Lolita, and yet the whole scene, when Humbert is reintroduced to her, is bitterly anticlimactic. He ends up saving the pistol-wielding for his later run-in with Quilty, not for Lolita’s sad-sack new groom.
Humbert finds Lolita (now under the name of Dorothy Schiller) living in a backwoods shack with that hard-of-hearing husband. Nabokov describes the scenery in this passage in brutally banal terms: “Hunter Road was miles away, in an even more dismal district, all dump and ditch, and wormy vegetable gardens, and shack, and gray drizzle, and red mud, and several smoking stacks in the distance.” (Lolita, 269)
As he seeks the reconnection, Dorothy only returns a blank gaze: “In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party.” (Lolita, 272)
There, in that region of gray drizzle and blank gazes, Humbert’s blood-hot nostalgia turns cold, as what he feels and what he sees merge into a disappointment that cannot be alleviated with rhetorical excuses or lyrical bromides. Humbert can no longer escape the implications of who he is and what he has done. The situation is relayed simply, for what it actually is. The first-person prose that was once a chandelier now gets clarified into a naked light bulb. “The dull party” has allowed Humbert this perception of his current world:
Somewhere beyond Bill’s shack an afterwork radio had begun singing of folly and fate, and there she was with her ruffled looks, and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt arm-pits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen… And I looked and looked at her and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. (Lolita, 277)
Humbert’s hyperbole collapses into the mundane, altogether heartbreaking vision of his one and only love as she exists now: a worn-out pregnant teenager. Throughout most of the novel, Humbert defines “his” Lolita in otherworldly and/or hyper-erotic terms; in this passage, his relationship with her is delivered without shimmer and without lust. In response to this revelation, Humbert offers to take her away from her “cardboard shack,” but she refuses. He wants to be her hero after he has ruined every aspect of her life. He gives her money anyway. Finally he asks: “’You sure you are not coming with me?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘No, honey, no.’” (Lolita, 279)
After all is said and done, Humbert narrates leaving Dorothy Schiller’s house: “And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears.” (Lolita, 280)
These are not crocodile tears, though, not an outlandish attempt for sympathy or understanding. We now know Humbert knows who he actually is, and that despair and self-knowledge register as a deliberate elimination of whatever hope he had before returning to her. This hope was toxic of course, an invention of language, lying and longing, Humbert’s ongoing venal wish to control and enslave Lolita. Now he can no longer lie to himself, and to us, his “dear readers,” as he drives into a future he knows is worthless and that may be the death of him.
Nabokov jettisons the wordplay and literary gamesmanship in order to depict a moral code that rises above, or at least parallel to, the sordid situation: a blank recording and reckoning of all of Humbert’s sins. But the novel has had a strategy all along: show Humbert through his own words and deeds, and then reveal him to himself. In other words, Nabokov allows Humbert just enough rhetorical rope to hang himself. He winds up a loser, in love and in life, and while we always knew he was a loser, a perv on the make, making excuses for his behavior, now, in this epiphany of dullness and blankness we can feel Humbert’s moral mistake as something closer to our own: what he wanted ruined people’s lives, including his, and yet here he is still wanting it, no matter what. Humbert’s sin is the sin all of us share. We see ourselves as we want to be seen, but there are moments when ego and desire have to be shocked out of their complacency.
Humbert’s next destination is Cue Quilty’s house. He confronts his doppelganger. His fury at Quilty is also a fury he can’t announce, can only hold viscerally within his head and body; the pistol will now be used, but only in a sort of cartoonishly violent, and poignantly silly, gesture:
I may have lost contact with reality for a second or two – oh, nothing of the I-just-blacked-out sort that your common criminal enacts; on the contrary, I want to stress the fact that I was responsible for every shed drop of his bubbleblood; but a kind of momentary shift occurred as if I were in the connubial bedroom…. Quilty was a very sick man. I held one of his slippers instead of the pistol—I was sitting on the pistol… The whole sad business had taken more than an hour. He was quiet at last. Far from feeling any relief, a burden even weightier than the one I had hoped to get rid of was with me, upon me, over me. I could not bring myself to touch him in order to make sure he was really dead. He looked it: a quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck. (Lolita, 304)
You could argue that Humbert, in killing Quilty, kills himself, or that part of himself he cannot bare to see without the window-dressing supplied by fancy words and even fancier delusions. But what happens when Humbert murders Quilty is more of a realization than just a wannabe suicide; the process that started with his conversation in the cardboard shack with the pregnant and less-than-beautiful Lolita moves into a new and more climactic territory. He realizes all that he has been doing is worthless in a “momentary shift,” sitting next to Quilty’s corpse. He has not killed himself by killing Quilty. He has stumbled upon moral responsibility, and what is in front of him, that disfigured face, is what truth can do: the tragic consequence of understanding exactly who you are, and that what you’ve done to the world and to yourself is ineffably linked to exile, and eventual confession.
Without knowing what he wanted, without seeing and feeling his perversion and all the activity and lying he used to obfuscate and decorate it, we would only see Humbert as a degenerate stranger. And of course, he is. But Nabokov has developed a morality within the narrative structure that connects judgment to art, or what he labels in his afterward to Lolita, as “aesthetic bliss.” The “bliss” in Lolita is a heartbreaking rendition of a failed quest, a tragedy and ecstasy that teeters toward absurdity, toward mirroring the sad little desires we all harbor and try to explain away.
Somehow Nabokov is able to find and relay the tragic soul of a child-molester/murderer and we’re not just along for the ride; we enter a zone of connection as Humbert drives back to his sad little life after that last Lolita encounter. He is a mystified, broken-hearted everyman, unable to escape sorrow and the doom caused by his own warped impulses, and still trying to survive in whatever way he can.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.