“She it was to whom ads were dedicated”: Materialism, Materiality and the Feminine in Nabokov’s Lolita.
Laura Rose Byrne
Trinity College Dublin
In a 1967 interview with his former student and future annotator, Alfred Appel, Vladimir Nabokov announced, “Philosophically, I am an indivisible monist” (Strong Opinions 73). The author was responding to a line of questions on the thematic prevalence of doppelgängers in his work, a topic he initially tried to dismiss by calling it “a frightful bore” (71). Appel persisted undeterred, prompting Nabokov to move to quash the subject with a deliberately abstruse response. Two years later, Time magazine pressed Nabokov to demystify his statement; he elaborated: “Monism, which implies a oneness of basic reality, is seen to be divisible when, say, ‘mind’ sneakily splits away from ‘matter’ in the reasoning of a muddled monist or half-hearted materialist” (106).
Nabokov’s sincerity in his professed monism is questionable, not least because he himself had always been an outspoken opponent of ‘isms’—maintaining his intellectual imperviousness to the influence of grand, universal ideas. Furthermore, this philosophy of oneness is not borne out in Nabokov’s fiction, where doubles, dualisms, mirrors, and discursive “splits” between mind and matter are in abundance. His best-known novel, Lolita, for instance, is replete with pairs. Its protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is doubly pseudonymous, and his narrative presents a number of clearcut dichotomies: that between middle-aged man and adolescent girl, between past and present, Old World and New World, and between reality and artifice.
The novel’s division into two parts facilitates this dualistic tendency, working to mirror Lolita’s “twofold nature”; that which our predatory narrator Humbert Humbert describes as her unique mix of “dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie, snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures” (Lolita 44). While Part One of the novel works to mythologise Lolita—framing the twelve-year-old girl as a wily seductress, possessing an otherworldly quality that marks her as a nymphet, Part Two comes crashing down to earth, replacing the magical with the mundane, and revealing our ethereal temptress to be what Humbert calls “a disgustingly conventional little girl” (148). This conventionality expresses itself in what European émigré Humbert Humbert views as a mindless consumerism, an insatiable desire for things and an unwavering faith in the ad man’s promise. Of his captive nymphet, Humbert says,
She believed with a kind of celestial trust, any advertisement or advice that appeared in Movie Love or Screen Land—Starasil Starves Pimples, or “You better watch out if you’re wearing your shirttails outside your jeans, gals, because Jill says you shouldn’t.” If a roadside sign said: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy.
The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt. If some café sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster. (148)
Previously, this has been read as illustrating an ideological incompatibility between Humbert’s Old-World aestheticism and the gaudy American modernity that preteen Dolores Haze represents. As Rachel Bowlby has stated, “the novel apparently stages a manifest clash between the literary values of Humbert, and the vulgar, consumerly values of Lolita” (Shopping With Freud 161). Again, a dichotomy emerges, this time between high and low culture. What warrants further explication in this clash of cultural landscapes, however, is the implicit gendering that props up its allegorical framework. After all, gendered implications are somewhat inevitable when masculine and feminine are set in opposition as signifying conflicting ideals.
Lolita’s lowbrow conventionality upsets Humbert’s attempt to mythologise her, repositioning her as a material girl in a material world—a brash, jeans-wearing, comic-book-reading American adolescent. It signifies her ordinariness. On a more insidious level however, the girl’s rampant materialism harkens to her discursive ties with matter, the very Aristotelean notion that she is matter to man’s form. He is Idea, essence, the active principle, art, culture, progress. She is passive, inert, formless, “of the earth”. To quote that formidable forefather of Western thought, “The female always provides the material, the male provides that which fashions the material into shape” (Generation of Animals II.iv).
The same principle resonates from Ancient Greece to twentieth-century America. There is, however, a distinct shift in tone. While the association of the feminine with the material had always worked to signify her inherent inferiority, consumer culture extolled materialism as the new ideal. As Mary Ellmann wrote in Thinking About Women, “Competitive mass production exalts materiality as a feminine virtue, the means of most fully realising either 1) the beauty of young girls […] or 2) the domestic assiduity of wives and mothers” (134). Woman’s primary societal role was thus reconfigured for this new era of mass production. While her natural usefulness as a breeder could be taken for granted, her role as a consumer was consistently encouraged by messages that reinforced the idea that her success as a wife and mother could be judged by the products she kept in her cupboards.
In keeping with this, Nabokov’s portrayal of his Lolita as the “subject and object of every foul poster” illustrates an important point about woman’s place in consumer culture. Given the gendered connotations that arise from a dichotomised concept of production and consumption, this portrait of a rampant, insatiable female desire for things seems to complicate the postulated binary opposition of a masculine, active production and a feminine consumption that is merely passive in nature. It reconfigures consumption as a pursuit, an activity, and an occupation in and of itself. After all, consumption drives production— inverting the causal hierarchy that the Marxist model of capitalism presupposes.
Similarly, the rise of consumerism, department stores, and the consequent emergence of shopping and even window shopping as a leisure activity, complicated the conventional notion of woman as the passive object of male desire. Rather, in the new consumerist society, woman, for the first time, became the bearer of the gaze, and was encouraged not only to look, but to want, to desire, and ultimately, to acquire. That is not to say that capitalism did anything to liberate woman from masculine scrutiny. It did however, afford her a new, if somewhat limited, sense of subjectivity. As Rita Felski observed, women “could only attain the status of an active subject in relation to other objects. The circuit of desire thus flowed from man to woman, from woman to commodity” (65). Consumerism, then, complicates but does not revolutionise traditional gender hierarchies. It does, however, facilitate a new discourse around the previously taboo subject of feminine desire; that is, a societally sanctioned feminine desire, one that keenly devotes itself to the proliferation of the capitalist machine.
The notion of the malleability of female desire was (and still is) essential to consumer culture’s business model. It was an extension of an age-old mythology, repackaged and solidified for the twentieth century by the popularisation of a psychoanalytic discourse that viewed female sexuality as something enigmatic and difficult—perhaps a phenomenon that even woman herself, in her perceived capriciousness, could not properly understand. Consumer culture thus provided an answer to the perennial question of “What Women Want” by manufacturing a desire for objects. The model of capitalism was then, a gendered one from the outset, and the language of advertising that Nabokov evokes in Lolita is one of seduction, of arousing a want or a need where none previously existed. The preferred object of such seductions is typically understood to be feminine. This commercial manipulation of feminine desire provides the subject matter for Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur Des Dames or The Ladies’ Paradise, which follows the exploits of Octave Mouret, the imperious owner of a Parisian department store in the 1860s. A particularly illustrative passage follows:
Of supreme importance […] was the exploitation of Woman. […] It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, then seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire. (76)
Here, the language is of conquest and domination: woman, in her “weak flesh”, stands to be taken, made to succumb. In Zola’s portrayal, she is not the consumer but the consumed—eaten alive by her own desire. As Felski has observed, for Zola, “‘capitalism triumphant’ […] is ultimately to be equated with patriarchy triumphant; the march of economic progress brings with it an increasing male sovereignty over female desire” (72). So although consumerism provided a new medium for the expression of a female desire that was previously suppressed or even denied, this did not equate to an unchecked liberation of women’s libidinal urges. The discourse of advertising rather projected an image of woman who was desirous to a fault, and easily tempted. She was Eve in Eden, all carnal appetite and no restraint—and the marketeers took full advantage of her susceptibility to corruption.
Woman’s new, enhanced subjectivity in the consumerist landscape is thus undermined by a model for selling that treats her as an unthinking bundle of fleeting desires, and ultimately, a receptor. Advertising orchestrates her needs, directing her towards an ever-increasing array of shiny trinkets; things to make her look nice, to make her smell nice, waist-cinching gussets and bust-lifting bras—ultimately, things to make her a more desirable object. Humbert remarks on this very point as he describes the department store where he goes shopping for clothes for Lo:
There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool. (108)
Girls, it seems, buy things with a very specific effect in mind. Dressing oneself becomes a form of visual merchandising, of marketing oneself. Consumer culture has made her an active participant in her own objectification. For the self-aware American girl for whom these stores were built, the changing-room mirror assumes the perspective of the penetrating male gaze. For the female consumer was not merely encouraged to look at things, but to look at herself, and at other women, as if they were things. They were, in the words of Luce Irigaray, “commodities among themselves” (192) and were as such invited to admire, critique, and compare themselves with the never-ending parade of female images that bombarded them from billboards, screens, and magazine pages. The female shopper was akin to the 1940s’ moviegoer described by Mary Ann Doane, who was, “invited to witness her own commodification and, furthermore, to buy an image of herself insofar as the female star is proposed as the ideal of feminine beauty” (24). As the trite old advertising adage goes, sex sells, and while hourglass silhouettes were used to sell everything from cars to cigarettes to stockings, they also worked to sell an ideal of femininity that was devised to seem remote yet attainable; that is, attainable through buying things. Essentially, it was not merely the stockings that were for sale, but female sexuality itself. For although women were happy to oblige in their role as consumers, it is important to remember that they themselves were commodified.
Ultimately, this union of capitalism and feminine sexuality is made manifest in the figure of the prostitute. Men are after all, consumers too, and sometimes, in the Nabokovian model at least, they buy women. Many of Nabokov’s protagonists solicit prostitutes, and such transactions are treated with a detached sense of mundanity. In Ada, prostitutes are described in perfunctory and rather dehumanising terms as “the live mechanisms tense males could rent for a few minutes” (173). From the dead wife substitute in the short story “The Return of Chorb”, to Van Veen’s “hundreds of whores and scores of cuties” (Ada 331), and the Parisian streetwalker Monique whose “compact, neat, curiously immature body” (22) serves to alleviate Humbert’s wanton lust—these women are little more than faceless footnotes to male desire. In this, their very utilitarian function, they adhere to Fredric Jameson’s definition of the commodity as an entity that “no longer has any qualitative value in itself, but only insofar as it can be ‘used’” (131).
Then of course, there is Lolita herself, who, orphaned and alone save for her step-father/captor, establishes “the system of monetary bribes” (148) that affords her the meagre promotion from unpaid sex slave to enslaved sex worker. This shift is described by Humbert as signifying “a definite drop in Lolita’s morals” (183). At its core, Humbert’s disappointment lies in the girl’s unwillingness to participate in his fantasy of nymphet-love, her betrayal of his attempts to portray her as an aesthetic emanation of his own desire. The disparity between Humbert’s delusions of romance and the grim reality of his relationship with Lolita is subtly and succinctly conveyed in one momentary exchange between the two: “‘A penny for your thoughts,’ I said and she stretched out her palm at once” (208). Here, Humbert’s attempt at something resembling familial rapport is spurned by the girl. Lolita’s devastatingly cynical gesture exposes the fallacy of intimacy that Humbert’s narrative charade works to promote. It serves to remind him (and us) that she is not his lover, not a cohort or companion, and certainly not a daughter, in this “parody of incest” (Lolita 287).
Of course, master manipulator Humbert only mentions this brief interaction to elicit reader sympathy for his own plight. Here, we are to believe, is a portrayal of the poetic anguish of unrequited love, of one man’s torment in the face of his beloved’s frigid contempt. Lolita, Humbert complains, makes for a far more enthusiastic consumer than commodity. While she is eager to be paid her allowance, she shows little zeal for her rather macabre household chores. “Only very listlessly”, we are told, “did she earn her three pennies—or three nickels—per day; and she proved to be a cruel negotiator” (184). Lo’s apparent cruelty is remarked upon frequently in Humbert’s narrative. What’s more, it seems to originate in the same vapid thoughtlessness that underpins her crude materialism. This cohesion of ideas is epitomised in a scene during Humbert and Lo’s long car journey, when, having passed by a “blood-spattered car with a young woman’s shoe in a ditch,” Lo announces, “That was the exact type of moccasin I was trying to describe to that jerk in the store” (174). Morbid insensitivity then, goes hand in hand with the girl’s unyielding material lust. She is as oblivious to the scattered remains of a car-crash victim as she is to Humbert’s fragile emotions. This mawkish connection is precisely what the narrator hopes to achieve here; the central point being that sensitive Humbert had suffered a far greater indignity through his financial exploitation by the girl, than shallow Lo had even the capacity to feel.
This all works to echo a longstanding concern about the nature of femininity: that all women are essentially whores—emotionally shallow, morally bereft, and driven by materialistic greed. Indeed, the emergence of consumer culture impelled such suspicions. Consumer excess and erotic excess were understood to be two sides of the same silver dollar coin. Shopping for pleasure was regarded as a channel for sublimated sexual urges, the irony here being that the language of the marketplace was certainly not one of libidinal restraint, but rather one that encouraged the consumer’s acquiescence to their every whim.
The seeming contradiction here speaks further to the disruptive effect of consumerist modernity on the binary concepts that underpin Western thought, where simple notions of feminine passivity and masculine activity were distorted by a new consumer environment that saw women actively spending money on objects that they desired. Even the thoroughly modern Freudian discourse of barbaric Id and civilised Ego seems ill equipped to deal with a phenomenon that facilitated the repression of forbidden appetites, while at the same time, it celebrated the ecstasy of indulgence. Essentially, “retail therapy” was more about the splurge than sublimation. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s prolonged explication of one woman’s insatiable material longing, the author comments on this modern psychological middle-state as being “scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is no longer wholly guided by reason” (70). Inhibition was the enemy of profit; it was the very thing the ad man worked tirelessly to erode. The ever-expanding influence that such (typically male) marketeers held over the desires of young women thus sparked moral concern. There was an implicit fear that once female desire was acknowledged, it might spill over into unchecked areas. As Rita Felski has explained,
Young women who moved to the city in search of work were considered to be highly susceptible to promiscuity and ultimately prostitution, because their appetites for luxury, once awakened by their proximity to an alluring profusion of material goods, could only be satisfied by selling their bodies for financial gain. (72)
It is important to remember that, when we talk about the female consumer of the Postwar America depicted in Lolita, we are often talking about women spending money allowed to them by men—this itself is implied by the word “allowance”. A world profuse in material temptation, and relatively lacking in professions open to women, was seen as a moral minefield for the unmarried girl, for whom commercial seductions were apt to translate into sexual ones. Of course, from Moll Flanders to the aforementioned Sister Carrie, literature abounds with enterprising young women who used their most marketable asset—their “feminine charm” (euphemistic to varying degrees)—to achieve social ascension and material gain. Rich women were made by rich men. Notions of sex and capital, then, express an inherent power structure. The fallen woman was an inevitable casualty of a capitalist system where men held the purse strings and women, being wooed by window displays, showed themselves to be susceptible to all kinds of suggestion.
For young Lolita, the dangerous lure of commodity culture is made manifest in Clare Quilty, a man who looks like Humbert, talks like Humbert, and even shares the same peculiar sexual compulsion as Humbert. He is, in the words of critic Dana Brand, “a pop-cult American version of Humbert” (20). Playwright and pornographer, Quilty baits Lo with the promise of stardom, and Humbert, self-described as “a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood” (39), simply cannot compete with his rival’s aura of real fame. In fact, when Humbert boasts of his matinee idol good looks, and his resemblance to “some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush” (43), both he and the reader are quite unaware of both the identity and proximity of his famous doppelgänger. Likewise, he has no clue that little Lo’s “crush” is reciprocated. In Humbert’s final meeting with Lo, now Mrs Richard F. Schiller, seventeen and hugely pregnant, we watch Humbert’s heart and ego shatter as the girl he loves describes the man she left him for, as being “not like me and her but a genius” (275). Here, we are perhaps for the first time offered the girl’s real perspective, rather than the one superimposed onto her throughout Humbert’s self-aggrandising first-person narrative. It is Quilty that she loved all along, although he never loved her, not in the mournful, artistic way that Humbert did. Humbert suddenly discovers that in Lo’s eyes he was “not a glamour man” (283), but rather more of a humdrum Humbert, lacking Quilty’s comparative celebrity appeal. While academic Humbert’s only foray into the production of popular culture comprised a brief stint in the “pseudoliterary” job of “thinking up and editing perfume ads” (32), Quilty trumps this by actually being in the ads. Lolita is drawn to him like a Nabokovian moth to the luminescence of Hollywood, and hapless Humbert can only lament, “Oh Fame! O Femina!” (121). While Humbert considers himself a man of intellectual substance, Lolita is wholly more susceptible to Quilty’s surface gleam.
Of course, this susceptibility of Lolita’s is a kindred concept of passivity. Both terms imply a kind of benign defencelessness, and essentially a penetrability. The sexualised female body therefore becomes a perfect carrier for such concepts, and, as previously mentioned, the discourse of advertising that set about orchestrating women’s wants, was not dissimilar to that of sexual conquest. What’s more, the notions of seduction and desire which are integral to the mechanisms of the marketplace are also integral to any reading of Lolita. The novel presents the desires of Humbert and Lolita as representing an ideological contrast. While Humbert is enthralled by Lolita’s “fey grace […] elusive, soul-shattering, insidious charm” (17), he frames his desire for the nymphet as something akin to aesthetic appreciation. Humbert, we are to believe, is not a pervert, but a connoisseur. For, in order to identify the nymphet among the “wholesome children”, he tells us, “you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy” (17). Thus Humbert’s subversive lust and criminal compulsion are elevated from the carnal to the intellectual—reimagining the perverse as the poetic.
When this is juxtaposed with Lolita’s frivolous and apparently indiscriminate desire for the material, the novel’s central conflict emerges as one not merely between European high art and American pop culture, but between the binary opposites of mind and body, form and matter, masculine and feminine. The opposition of Humbert’s esoteric, aestheticised desire against Lolita’s lowbrow commodity fetishism implies a hierarchical gender dichotomy, the crux of which is that we, the discerning reader, are meant to be more repelled by the “disgustingly conventional” than the disgustingly aberrant.
It is in Humbert’s relationship with Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, that this artistic aversion to feminine conventionalism is rendered with most venom. In the following passage we have Humbert’s first impressions upon meeting Charlotte, the woman he will eventually marry with a view to violating her daughter:
She was obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humour; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations…(37)
For Humbert, Charlotte epitomises female pretension and bourgeois aspiration—the petty ideals of the God-fearing suburban American housewife. Charlotte’s practiced gentility, her soap-opera affectations of romance, homemaking catalogues, and cumbrous attempts at speaking French, horrify Humbert’s artistic sensibilities. Even her overdone flirtations read like ad copy: “Choose your favourite seduction” (50) she coos, when asking Humbert to select a perfume. Charlotte represents an association of the feminine with philistinism that permeates much of Nabokov’s work. She is the type of woman Schopenhauer had in mind when he condemned the entire sex as “unaesthetic”; women, he asserted, have no “receptivity” for the arts but “affect and profess to like such things”, in what he calls “mere aping for the sake of their keen desire to please” (Parerga and Paralipomena 619). Indeed, Charlotte’s desire to please is the subject of Humbert’s mocking contempt. Her lack of sophistication seems to be ideologically tied up with a certain lack of restraint, a seething sexual desperation. And all of this is incorporated in a physicality that it is utterly repugnant to Humbert—“heavy hips, round knees, ripe bust” (72).
The rhetorical line that Nabokov draws between sciolism and female sexuality is reiterated in his 1972 novel, Transparent Things, where protagonist Hugh, a literary editor, is tasked with rewriting a romance novel by a talentless and strangely lascivious older woman. Mrs Flankard, we are told, is “an exuberant and pretentious lady with a florid face and octopus eyes” (28). Like Charlotte, she seems happily oblivious to our protagonist’s revulsion, and Hugh, we are told, is keen to avoid lingering in her midst, “for he had the uncanny feeling that Mrs Flankard was planning to be raped” (29)—the rather unsavoury insinuation being that women such as she are duplicitous even in their sexual desires. “Like many overripe and still handsome lady artists”, he goes on, “she seemed quite unaware that a big bust, a wrinkled neck, and the smell of stale femininity on an eau de cologne base might repel a nervous male” (29).
This description is reminiscent of Humbert’s treatment of his first wife, Valeria, a character for whom he reserves particular misogynistic vitriol. She is described as an “animated merkin”, and “a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba”, whose “only asset was a muted nature” (Lolita 25). Humbert also subjects Valeria to physical violence, and bemoans the fact that he is not brave enough to take the same brutish approach with the more assertive Charlotte. What’s more, Humbert’s attacks on Valeria, both verbal and physical, are directed specifically at her woman’s body. In one such instance he muses on “slapping Valeria’s breasts out of alignment”, (87) as if her very anatomical makeup were an insult to his refined aesthetic sense. Large breasts, a feature Nabokov bestows upon Charlotte, Mrs Flankard, and Valeria, seem to be viewed as ugly encumbrances of the feminine form. Also, the idea of “stale femininity”, mentioned in relation to “overripe” Mrs Flankard, is integral to Humbert’s portrait of Valeria—a woman he married for her vague girlishness, who, with the progress of time and the benefit of familiarity, turned out to be disappointingly womanish. Of their conjugal relations, Humbert remarks, “I appealed to her stale flesh very seldom” (26). Ripeness and staleness then mark Nabokov’s image of mature femininity: words associated with rot and decay, disintegration and death. She is but rancid meat: he is repelled by her bulk and her stench.
It becomes clear here that it is not merely woman’s materialism that concerns Nabokov, but her very materiality—her fleshy composition, her corporeality opposing the artist’s supposedly transcendent intellectuality. As Mary Ellmann writes, “Materiality is the favourite statement of feminine alliance with the concrete. It implies, in turn, masculine alliance with the abstract” (97). Of course, in Lolita, fear of ripe femininity is intrinsic to Humbert’s sexual pathology. His fixation on girls between the ages of nine and fourteen is underlined by a somewhat violent contempt for women’s bodies. Charlotte embodies a tragic inevitability for Humbert—a death of sorts, what he calls “the coffin of coarse female flesh within which my nymphets are buried alive” (Lolita 175).
While Charlotte Haze represents to Humbert a horrifying glimpse of what his budding nymphet will become, Lolita’s materialism, her steadfast devotion to the capitalist dream, defies his attempts to aestheticise and immortalise her. Rather, she is fixed to the material, to the neon glare and plasticity of modernity, a feminised modernity that Nabokov views with acute scepticism. Nabokov’s dichotomous treatment of New-World Lo and Old-World Humbert is an exemplar of a greater discursive tendency to equate the modern with the feminine, all the while nostalgically mourning the loss of the masculinist past, like a postlapsarian Adam, ruing the day he asked God for a companion. Nabokov’s great American novel is tinged with a distinct pessimism. It guffaws at young America’s gullibility, its seeming fatuity in the face of an ever-growing array of cultural absurdities—the “soap operas, psychoanalysis and cheap novelettes” (80) that permeate the psychosphere of a burgeoning American population. As Dana Brand has commented,
Each of the Americans Humbert encounters construct their identity and view of the world according to the images of normalcy provided by advertising, mass culture, and applied social science. Only Humbert the foreigner is able to resist the influence of these new and powerful forms of coercion. He does this by aesthetically distancing himself from the American commercial and social environment. (14)
While Humbert represents his author’s aesthetic ideals and supposed intellectual impenetrability as a higher consciousness that is impervious to crass billboard seductions, the Lolita he paints represents not only an America that is young and impressionable, but an ideal that is hollow and transient: the inescapable ephemerality of the material.
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