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American Imago 59.1 (2002) 27-52

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Primal Scene and Misreading in Nabokov's Lolita

John M. Ingham

In one of the most mischievous novels in the English language, Vladimir Nabokov weaves an enigmatic tale about a precocious early adolescent and a middle-aged pedophile with "a fancy prose style." Humbert loves Lolita, or at least his artful image of her. Meanwhile, the mysterious Quilty, playwright and pornographer, shadows the mismatched couple and reads Humbert's mind. Humbert loses Lolita to Quilty. Eventually, Humbert catches up with Quilty and murders him, or so it seems. Finally, Humbert recounts the whole affair in his fancy prose and dies of a broken heart.

Lolita parodies classic romantic stories about ill-fated passion and struggles with Doppelgänger; it turns in on itself in self-parody of the artist manqué; and it parodies psychoanalysis, especially oedipal theory. While these elements are apparent, just what Nabokov was trying to accomplish with them, if anything, is far from clear. Nearly fifty years since the publication of Lolita (1955), and despite much scholarly exegesis, the novel remains a perplexing read. One possibility is that the parody, literary allusions, and wordplay represent nothing more than an especially strong form of literary aestheticism. It seems more likely, however, that the novel conceals an inner design or thesis. Nabokov himself likens Lolita to a "riddle" with an "elegant" solution (1990, 16), and he warns his readers to expect not only wordplay and artifice, but also deceit bordering on "diabolism" (1967, 289). In this paper, I try to work through the deception to an idea about the Lolita riddle. [End Page 27]

The riddle probably concerns artistic originality: how can artists escape the influence of their precursors? And how can they assert originality when their imaginations have been predicted in advance by the psychoanalyst? Frosch (1982) observes that Nabokov's protagonists are often failed artists who are haunted by mirrors, alter egos, and antiworlds. Nabokov may be trying to succeed where his protagonists fail when he parodies the literary tradition and psychoanalysis. According to Frosch, Nabokov parodies romanticism "first, to be a romantic and still be original, and, second, to get away with being a romantic" (184). Berman (1985, 211) notices that psychotherapists persecute Nabokov's lead characters with ideas about primal scenes and Oedipus complexes, and he adds that "at times it seems that Freud, not Quilty, is the secret antagonist in Lolita" (222). Here again, parody probably combines affirmation and denial, closeness and distance. While admitting the truth or appeal of psychoanalysis for character construction, Nabokov may parody psychoanalysis to counter the threat it poses to the autonomy of the artist and the magic of art (see Berman 1985, 229).

More than thirty years ago, the anthropologist L. R. Hiatt (1967) showed in this journal that Nabokov gives Humbert an Oedipus complex and, more precisely, that Nabokov has him trying to recover the "pristine" relationship with the mother through pedophilia (364). He also noted how strange this is given Nabokov's oft-stated hostility toward psychoanalysis. More recently, Berman (1985, 231-33) suggests that Lolita follows Freud's paper on the rescue fantasy. Freud (1910) traces two reactions to the primal scene. If a boy has difficulty accepting sexual intimacy between the parents, as adolescent and adult he may sexualize his image of the mother and fantasize displacing the father in the primal scene. He may then seek out prostitutes or sexualized women as maternal surrogates; simultaneously, he may try to protect them from the sexual advances of other men. The strategy of erasing the primal scene may also take the form of repaying the child's debt to the parents. That is, the son may fantasize trying to erase parental intimacy by having a child by his mother, a child like himself. The child becomes a gift to his parents that eliminates the debt [End Page 28] and, by implication, the parental act of procreation. In conformity with this scheme, Humbert tries to protect Lolita from Quilty, and he fathers a "child" with Lolita in the form of...


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