AuthorFrohock, Christina M.


"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta..." (1)

The opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel Lolita are famous, or more accurately one should say infamous. (2) They are, after all, the words of an admitted pedophile, rapist, and murderer. (3) Those words begin chapter one, where the novel proper expresses the voice of the first-person narrator, Humbert Humbert. (4) Nabokov begins the book a few pages earlier, with a foreword that speaks directly to the reader to introduce that narrator. (5) The foreword lifts the fictional scenario to a meta level, providing critical and disturbing information about the imminent voice readers will hear narrating the story. (6) We learn from a cousin of the narrator's lawyer that "Humbert Humbert" is a pseudonym for a man who died of coronary thrombosis "in legal captivity... a few days before his trial was scheduled to start." (7) The upcoming "strange pages" are Humbert Humbert's memoir penned in prison, revealing the "cause and purpose" of his crimes. (8) Humbert Humbert attempts to persuade the reader that his affection for the title character drove his actions, and indeed Lolita has been lauded as "the only convincing love story of our century." (9) But Lolita is not a love story. It is not a romance, beautiful or tragic or otherwise. It is a confession of a pretrial detainee seeking leniency in public opinion and in the criminal justice system. It is, in the true sense of both words, a legal fiction.

The idea of a legal narrative often focuses on identifying a narrative within the law. Scholars have described the persuasive power of storytelling techniques in legal advocacy, for example, within the facts section of a trial court motion or an appellate brief. (10) The story emerges from the law. This Article proposes inverting that focus so that we identify the law within a narrative. Using the example of Lolita, the Article explains how we can read Nabokov's novel as a prolonged sentencing memorandum. That memorandum casts the narrator as the defendant writing pro se. In Lolita, the law emerges from the story, showing that an entire legal document may be redrawn as a narrative. The legal filing and literary fiction are one, with a distinct point of view in favor of the criminal defendant. This unity between law and narrative illuminates a deep, essential goal shared by both genres: garnering sympathy. The notion of law without sympathy thus rings hollow. Finally, this essential link between law and sympathy shines a new light on the law's role in promoting justice. Justice must be measured at least partly as an expression of sympathy rather than solely as a cold calculation of costs and benefits.

  1. For the Defendant, the Prison Memoir

    Nabokov first published Lolita in Paris in 1955. (11) Major publishers in the United States, including Viking Press, Simon and Schuster, and Doubleday, had all rejected the manuscript. (12) So the "unorthodox" Olympia Press in France took it up. (13) The French government banned the novel one year after publication, a ban later ruled illegal by the French High Court. (14) The French government then took a different censorship tack, banning the book from bookstore displays and from sales to anyone under eighteen years old. (15) Britain and Argentina also imposed bans. (16) Nabokov himself recognized the risk in publishing, at one point considering anonymity for the book jacket or an assumed name such as the anagrammatic "Vivian Darkbloom." (17) In 1958, Nabokov finally saw his novel published in the United States, to reviews ranging from "enthusiastic" to "puzzled" to "outraged." (18) The topic was scandalous, to say the least: a man's sexual obsession with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. (19) Yet, the writing is masterful, and Nabokov depicts the entire sordid affair without one word of profanity. (20)

    The story is an invention on two levels, from outside by author Nabokov and from inside by narrator Humbert Humbert. A brief summary from the insider's perspective is in order. Writing his memoir while awaiting trial, Humbert Humbert first recounts a postcard-perfect childhood on the French Riviera. (21) One summer at age thirteen, he fell "madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love" with "a certain initial girl-child" named Annabel. (22) With their passion expressed only in "incomplete contacts," Annabel soon died of typhus. (23) Nearly twenty-five years later, a frustrated Humbert Humbert reincarnated Annabel in Lolita. (24) He designated both girls as instances of a maiden visible only to much older men, an otherworldly type between nine and fourteen years old whose "true nature... is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac)." (25) He named these demons "nymphets." (26)

    As an adult, Humbert Humbert had entered a brief, unhappy marriage to a woman based on "the imitation she gave of a little girl." (27) A stint in a psychiatric ward is mentioned in passing, with self-compliments for "trifling with psychiatrists," before the memoir introduces its title character and the story takes flight. (28) Discharged from the sanatorium, Humbert Humbert moves to a small town in New England with aspirations to write a book. (29) There he becomes a tenant in the home of a widow, Charlotte Haze, a lodging decision made immediately upon spotting Charlotte's twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores, sunbathing in the backyard garden. (30)

    Perhaps reflecting her uncertain identity, which remains as hazy as her surname, Dolores answers to various nicknames: "Lo" to her mother, "Lola" and "Dolly" when wearing trousers and attending school, and "Lolita" to Humbert Humbert alone. (31) His obsession is so complete that he creates "this Lolita, my Lolita" in an instant, contemplating how "my judges" will regard his performance in this "curious tale." (32) Humbert Humbert settles into life in the Haze home, longing for the child and detesting the mother, until he is shocked to hear that Lolita will leave early for summer camp. (33) In the child's absence, he decides to marry the mother. (34) After all, proximity offers opportunity. One day he "might blackmail--no, that is too strong a word--mauvemail big Haze into letting me consort with little Haze." (35) Humbert Humbert even contemplates drowning Charlotte one afternoon while they swim together in a lake, but "I just couldn't!" (36) An admitted "sex offender," our narrator is no "sex fiend." (37) No, he is a poet at heart, and "[p]oets never kill." (38)

    Fate does the deed for him; Charlotte Haze dies by accident. (39) After discovering her husband's diary, an enraged Charlotte runs from their house and is fatally hit by a car. (40) Her newly minted widower "neither wept nor raved," but "impersonate[d] the calm of ultimate despair." (41) As expected of a gentleman, Humbert Humbert focused on urgent family matters, specifically the task to fetch his stepdaughter from camp and "give her a good time in totally different surroundings." (42) Off they drive, checking in at a swanky hotel where Humbert Humbert drugs Lolita with a sedative and leaves her to fall unconscious on the bed. (43) The pills prove too weak, however, and our narrator is forced to wait for another time and a stronger drug to achieve "nympholepsy." (44)

    Humbert Humbert succeeds, sexually assaulting Lolita the next morning. In the storyteller's words, they became "technically lovers," the stepfather and twelve-year-old girl, and he stresses that she made the first move. (45) Humbert Humbert calls it "making love"; Lolita calls it rape. (46) But the adult is in charge, of both the story and the journey. So onward they drive, traveling for a year as an illicit pair across "the crazy quilt" of the United States. (47) The rapes continue, with zigzagging "sidetrips and tourists traps" designed "to keep my companion in passable humor from kiss to kiss." (48) Reader, he tried with "everything in my power to give my Lolita a really good time." (49) Soon monetary bribes precede the sexual assaults, which Humbert Humbert frames as generosity: "attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette's body!" (50)

    They finally settle in a New England college town called Beardsley, and Humbert Humbert enrolls Lolita in a private school for girls. (51) In exchange for a sexual favor, he permits her to perform in the school play. (52) She never does so. After "a strident and hateful scene" of an argument one week before the performance, they leave Beardsley for another road trip. (53) Humbert Humbert grows jealous and convinced that a man in a red convertible is following them, an elusive man who appears often in their travels. (54) During a stop in a cabin, Lolita spikes a fever. (55) She checks into the local hospital, where Humbert Humbert visits with increasing panic that Lolita will "babble" to the staff. (56) He soon learns that Lolita's "uncle" checked her out of the hospital and paid her bill in cash. (57) She is gone.

    Although Humbert Humbert's so-called "very special memoir" is "about Lolita," he spends the next "three empty years" without her. (58) One day, he receives a letter signed "Dolly (Mrs. Richard F. Schiller)," explaining that she is married and pregnant and in desperate need of money. (59) Bringing a gun to confront Mr. Richard F. Schiller, Humbert Humbert finds a seventeen-year-old Lolita in her "clapboard shack" of a home. (60) There she reveals that the mystery man who checked her out of the hospital was Clare Quilty, the playwright of the play Lolita was rehearsing to perform in school and "practically an old friend" of her late mother. (61) When Lolita refuses to flee with Humbert Humbert, he hands her a wedding trousseau of four thousand dollars. (62) He then leaves, finds Quilty "in a fog" at home in his mansion, and fatally shoots him. (63)

    In a final scene, Humbert Humbert drives away from the mansion and, after disregarding traffic laws as he "disregarded all...

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