Among many things, Nabokov’s Lolita has been lauded for its “rich, elaborate verbal textures” (Appel, The Annotated Lolita, xi). His skill with language pervades each sentence of the novel: from punning to wordplay to poetry. The effect of this linguistic play, however, often goes beyond mere aesthetic pleasure. In several places, Nabokov touches on the idea of advertisement: language used to depict a product or service in an alluring way. This theme of advertisement-language creates an additional layer of meaning in Lolita. It suggests that language can be used to depict objects or realities in a way that adds artificial value. Indeed, on closer examination, it can be seen that Humbert Humbert uses this language not merely for his depictions of American culture but for Lolita herself. Understanding Humbert’s depictions of Lolita as moments of advertisement-language will helps us to understand the presentation of his relationship with her as something rendered more beautiful or valuable than it actually may be.
Rather than understanding advertisement conventionally – that is, as an overt sales pitch – understanding it as a subtle function of language can give us a deeper insight into Lolita’s literary technique. Take, for instance, Herbert Tucker’s definition of advertisement:
The strategy, for which another name of course is advertising, entails a re-description of the commodity in terms that boost its value by deepening its mystique, a property that is ordinarily associated with the exotic in space or time. In the mind of a customer who can be brought to fancy that a piece of fruit bears within it, somehow, the whole climate and landscape in which it grew, it becomes not fruit but produce. (Tucker 120)
While Tucker is a critic of the nineteenth-century and not the twentieth, his view of advertisement as an effect of “descriptive” language can apply well to both eras. At bottom, he defines advertisement language as that which artificially adds value to an otherwise non-valuable (or less-valuable) object. It takes this object and, by linguistic association with more desirable ideas and descriptors, reorients the audience’s desire the object in question. In the case of Lolita, the object of description – the fruit, so to speak – is not an item of produce but Lolita herself.
In Humbert’s road trip with Lolita through America, Nabokov highlights the central role of advertisement as a theme of the novel. Specifically, he emphasizes the way advertisement-language manipulates its audience into desiring an otherwise mundane object. See, for instance, the advertisements Humbert Humbert encounters on their trip:
The would-be enticements of their repetitious names – all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts [ . . . ] There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as “Children welcome, pets allowed.” (Nabokov146)
Humbert identifies the names of each lodging as what makes them “enticing” to the traveler. The “Sunset” Motel, for instance, uses the visual pleasure and relaxation of a sunset to impart the same ideas onto a residential motel. “Pine View Courts” uses the promise of pine-forest imagery in its name to make it a scenically appealing location. What’s more, the label of “courts” likens it to an aristocratic space – a place with luxury above that of a more common lodge. With the term “courts” in particular, the advertisement imparts characteristics onto the residence that are not objectively part of it. A motel, for instance, can very easily have pines or mountains in the surrounding area, but calling it a “court” takes a purely abstract qualifier and uses it to make the place more appealing. Language functions here, in other words, solely to add ephemeral value to the object. In an advertising capacity, then, language works with an eye to its audience. Rather than functioning as a sincere representation of its object, advertisement-language aims to construct an external aura around an object that will lure audiences to it. The same may be said, then about Humbert Humbert’s representation of Lolita.
Humbert Humbert describes Lolita in an alluring way that transforms her from a child into an object of erotic desire. Throughout his account, Humbert displays a keen awareness of audience – even going so far as to address the reader directly. He knows that this audience is likely to be unsympathetic to the idea of lusting after a twelve-year-old child. Accordingly, he depicts the child in a way that actively counteracts this audience’s disgust. Take, for instance, his alluring portrayal of Lolita early in the book:
As she bent her brown curls over the desk at which I was sitting, [ . . . ] her adorable profile, parted lips, warm hair were some three inches from my bared eyetooth; and I felt the heat of her limbs through her rough tomboy clothes. All at once I knew I could kiss her throat. (Nabokov 48)
The description of Lolita’s body and face here are notably sensuous. Humbert emphasizes her “parted lips,” as well as her “brown curls” and “warm hair.” Both are erotic images. A female’s hair in particular is often considered attribute of beauty, but curled and warm it also takes on more intimate connotations. Including a mention of warmth adds a synesthetic descriptor that prompts audiences into a more vividly pleasant experience of the Lolita Humbert sees. The same is replicated with the “heat” of her limbs. Breaking Lolita down into these sensuous body parts – parts that can be found in not just a child but a desirable adult woman – has the effect of distracting the audience from Lolita’s problematic youth. Lips, hair, and limbs all remain relatively constant objects of desire as a girl ages. Hence, Humbert uses these parts in a way that a standard adult audience can appreciate. Humbert’s portrayal of Lolita therefore plays specifically on the qualities and sensations that an audience can buy into. Like advertisement-language, his description imparts a universalized external value onto an object that, on its own, might not be naturally desirable. The reader – who plays the role of the consumer here – is persuaded to regard Lolita in this alluring linguistic light.
Embedded in Nabokov’s most famous ‘American’ novel, then, is a critique of America’s advertisement culture. When mass audiences can manipulated by language, a tale like Lolita can become not only palatable but attractive. Indeed, we see the victims of this manipulation in characters like Charlotte – the “artless” woman attracted by the fads of “soap operas, psychoanalysis, and cheap novelettes” (75). She, like the audience of Lolita, falls for the romance Humbert constructs for her consumption. Or even Lolita herself, the indiscriminate consumer who wants to buy everything she sees, simply because it appears in her magazines. Such people are very the targets of Humbert’s market language.
It makes sense that Humbert would harness the power of advertisement to portray Lolita in the light he does. After all, stripped of this allure, the facts of his story paint a criminal tale: a man lusts after and kidnaps a twelve-year-old child. His language and stylistic form work against this incrimination. They perform the same magic over Lolita as advertisement does over the novel’s cheap American attractions. In the end, there is perhaps little difference between the hyped-up “Sunset Motel” and Humbert’s dazzling prose about an illicit love affair. For it is only through a great mastery of linguistic style that a story about pedophilia can become not only palatable but, at times, intensely beautiful.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita, New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Tucker, Herbert F. “Rosesetti’s Goblin Marketing: Sweet to Tongue and Sound to Eye,” Representations Vol. 82, No. 1, Spring 2003, Web. 14 March 2013.