- Cherchez la femme: Who Really Was Annabel Leigh?
Annabel Leigh was Humbert Humbert’s innocent childhood love which he tried to recapture with the help of Dolores Haze/Lolita. At least that is what the narrator of Lolita, 1 Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, seems to tell us.
On the other hand, if we read the novel critically, we might say that the narrator does not exactly want us to be interested in narrative (and moral) problems. He wants us to accept his interpretation of his own life. Or we might say that Nabokov, who most probably did not identify with his narrator, hopes that his readers will not take what H.H. says at face value. 2 In fact, once we start giving the situation a modicum of thought, questions start pouring in: why should that first love bear virtually the same name as Poe’s Annabel Lee? Remembering that the narrator admits that Humbert Humbert is not his real name, shouldn’t we infer that Annabel Leigh is not that young woman’s real name? We certainly know that “Lolita” does not exist; there is only a thirteen year-old called Dolores Haze (“Dolly at school”—p. 9), whom the narrator insists on calling Lolita (or even “Lo-lee-ta”—p. 9). We could easily imagine that there is something beyond these assumed names. The name Lolita hides a bruised body and a despised intellect who cries at night; Humbert Humbert projects his lust and his cruelty into his narcissistic, mirror-like name. And so we may wonder if there is anything beyond the four syllables “Annabel Leigh.”
Lolita is a novel of seduction. Humbert the character seduces Dolly. Humbert the narrator seduces us, so much so that we usually call his victim by the name he has chosen for her and imposed on her. (Admittedly, she does not really have anything to say in the book, apart from a very few passages in direct speech, including one when she cries out “Oh no, not again” (p. 192). We are exposed throughout to the narrator’s point of view or rather to his rhetoric, as he hides his real thoughts quite well. He resorts mainly to flattery and wit, both of which [End Page 166] qualities he combines, for example, in making fun of the “frigid gentlewomen of the jury” (p. 132). We, readers, are invited to feel superior, share the joke with Humbert and become his accomplice in his hunt and possession of the nymphet. (“Reader, Bruder,” (p. 262) H.H. would say, identifying with Baudelaire).
It is possible to discover a contradiction between John Ray, Jr., and “Vladimir Nabokov.” The former, with his mirror-name, pompously tells us in his preface that, while H.H. “is not a gentleman,” we should nonetheless recognize “how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita” (p. 5). That is the traditional reading of the book with Humbert as subject and Lolita as object. “Vladimir Nabokov” is the name of the person who signs the afterword and declares that art is connected to states of being that include “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy” (p. 315). If we set apart that last notion (perhaps not easily accounted for in Lolita), we have to recognize that H.H. certainly does not know what tenderness and kindness are. As for curiosity, he is very good at spying on Dolores, but there is no denying that he does not want to learn anything about her personality. He does not seem to be particularly curious about himself either—which fact does not mean that he does not, indirectly, reveal much about his true self. As we all know, Vladimir Nabokov (the author) is adept at using unreliable narrators who betray themselves if we care to look behind the lines or look behind the names.
Annabel Leigh is part of the rhetorical devices used by the narrator to exculpate himself. In a way, she functions pretty much as do Laura and Beatrice, mentioned (p. 19) as examples of desirable teenagers loved by poets (and H.H. is sure he is an artist like them). The only problem is...