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Lolita and Transatlantic Family Structures

From: Nabokov Studies
Volume 12, 2009/2011
pp. 131-145 | 10.1353/nab.2009.0004

Abstract

Abstract:

This essay examines how contrasting family configurations play into the repression, development, and expression of Humbert Humbert's pedophiliac desires in Nabokov's Lolita. Drawing upon Alexis de Tocqueville's distinctions between the hierarchical families of France and the comparatively egalitarian families of the United States, the essay advances three interrelated claims: first, the traditional European family's rigid boundaries, supported by patriarchy and economic interest, keep nymphets inaccessible to Humbert as long as he lives in France; second, Humbert is able to carry out his desires for nymphets only in America, where the egalitarian family allows for the parent-child antagonism that isolates Lolita from her mother and makes her sexually available to her adult pursuer; third, to protect and prolong his relationship with Lolita, Humbert works to implement in America his own reconstruction of the traditional European family, an attempt finally doomed by the strength of his passion for the nymphet. These lines of argument together suggest that the development of plot and character in Nabokov's novel depends in large part on his representation of family structures on both sides of the Atlantic.