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How Unreliable Is Humbert in Lolita ?

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 25, Number 1, Fall 2001
pp. 71-80 | 10.1353/jml.2001.0019

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Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001) 71-80

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How unreliable is Humbert in Lolita?

Anthony R. Moore
Boston University

It is notoriously difficult to make sense of Humbert's claim in the novel's final three paragraphs that he "started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion." 1 He asserts impressive productivity during his confinement. Motivated by his original intention to "use these notes in toto" at his trial (p. 308), we gather that he leaves his fictional editor, Dr. John Ray, Jr., well over three hundred pages of manuscript which Ray publishes "intact" after a few minor corrections (p. 3). But the question remains whether Humbert spends the entire last eight weeks of his imaginary life writing. He is in failing health and faces an imminent trial date, so every day must count. Yet a close examination of the pointedly detailed chronology of his last nine chapters throws his writing time awry by three days. Ray says on the novel's first page that the protagonist "died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952" (p. 3). If we assume that Humbert's first and last use of the title minutes before his heart failure decisively marks its hurried completion, he should have begun his manuscript on 22 September. 2 But it is not easy to square this assumption with the book, which leaves him free on that day to collect and read Dolores' letter. Furthermore, he remains at liberty to pursue his insomniac three-day hunt through Coalmont, Ramsdale, and Parkinton to Pavor Manor (pp. 266-93), where he seems to take an hour to kill Clare Quilty on the morning of 25 September (pp. 293-308). Critics have attributed this important factual contradiction to two possible principals. We can convict an artfully unreliable narrator (Humbert Humbert) whose ego still throbs with the certainty that he manipulates time along with the sympathies of his readers as he works against the clock to tie up his narrative threads: thus, he neatly, but implausibly, settles the destinies of the three main characters with a reconciliatory visit to Dolores and revenge on Quilty. [End Page 71] Or we can convict an author (Vladimir Nabokov) who is defiantly unwilling to be enslaved to dates (like the early Dickens), or prone to errors with them. 3

The conundrum has provoked thirty years of controversy over larger aspects of the novel, since what Lolita is doing goes beyond its internal calendar. In 1968, Carl Proffer could not verify the passage of fifty-six days and attributed this—along with other local chronological discrepancies that he found—to Humbert's "bad memory" and "messy time keeping." 4 In 1979, Christina Tekiner contested Proffer's complaint, corrected his miscalculations, and (developing Elizabeth Bruss's hypothesis) speculated on an alternative reality, more complicated than it looks, that might be attached to the divergent dates: "If the chronology is correct, [the events] prior to September 22 have some basis in the 'reality' of his life," but the events "after September 22 are his fabrication." 5 Although she reads most of the book as a realistic novel, she views the last nine chapters at an angle to reality that is "entirely the product of [Humbert's] imagination." Tekiner's key insight of a significant exception to the chronological line is more discussed than substantiated and, aside from the dates, she gives no clear textual warrant for her intuition. Some critics have followed her in declaring the inconsistency centrally relevant to the perplexing narrative; Leona Toker, for instance, believes that the "crafty handling of dates . . . untells Humbert's tale . . . by exposing [his] cognitive unreliability." 6 Today, few commentators can make the dates add up, and there is no consensus on the relevance of the discrepancy. The relationship between the chronology of Lolita and Quilty's murder is similarly scrutinized by the lively forum in Nabokov Studies which finds more pieces to put into the puzzle. The carefully laid argument of the scholar...