Creative Madness and Paranoia in Vladimir Nabokov's novels "Lolita" and "Pale fire"

Essay, 2011

26 Pages, Grade: 1.2


Table of Contents


Doublings and Mirrors

Stylization of the Self

Solipzising the Other

The Blindness of Desire

The Madman as Genius

Paranoid Writers - Paranoid Readers

Double-Dealing of the Mind

The Paranoid Interpreter

Paranoid Criticism



David Trotter examined the relation between paranoia, understood as a delusional psychic system, in the culture of late modernity. Literary Modernism saw the rise of institutionalized criticism, which threatened the authority of writers and the literary critic became a rival in the meritocracy of expertise. By the nineteen-fifties, the representation of paranoid minds in literature reflected the pervasive climate that Trotter termed “psychopathy of expertise.”[1] At that time, the various portraits of delusion in fiction questioned the ontological basis of reality and mirrored the cultural obsession that gave rise to Freud and psychoanalysis.

In this essay, I argue that Nabokov’s portrayals of paranoid minds implicitly critique the tendency in Modernism to professionalize both artists and art criticism.

Louis A. Sass explored the clinical picture of paranoid narcissism and its inherent contradictions, which is a particularly useful framework for revisiting Nabokov’s two novels. The protagonists in Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) suffer from an interpretive delirium that rejects the real in order to impose meaning and the premise that the novels are studies of paranoid selves has not been explored in sufficient depth to date. A more developed understanding of the pathology of paranoia and schizophrenia as delusional disorders with alternating states of grandeur and persecution helps to elucidate that the protagonists are locked in internally consistent systems of false beliefs.

Humbert Humbert, who projects his desires onto the world, comes close to insanity; Charles Kinbote, who literally as well as metaphorically obliterates the poet and his work, has gone beyond the pale of sanity.

Doublings and Mirrors

Lolita ’s subtitle is “the Confession of a White Widowed Male” and indeed, Humbert narrates his life in changing modes of self-analysis, self-castigation, and self-justification, whereby he puts the reader, as Michael Wood points out, into the role of “judge and jury.”[2] Frequently, he seeks readers’ complicity by verbal bonding: at first, his address is simply to “my reader,” which gradually becomes more personal, ranging from an intimate “comrade” to the capitalization of the word reader, “O, Reader, my Reader;” and finally, he invokes Baudelaire in his appellation “Reader! Bruder !”[3] The implicit allusion to the poem “Au lecteur” that prefaces Les Fleurs du mal, in which Baudelaire accuses readers of hypocrisy, also suggests a cautionary function in Lolita: readers should stop pretending moral indignation and acknowledge their voyeuristic desires, which Nabokov then parodies with textual titillation that panders to their penchant for explicit pornographic contents.

Humbert and his nemesis Claire Quilty are set up as mirrors of Baudelaire’s dandyism. The wealthy playwright Quilty is a caricature of the decadent dandy, whose blasé attitude is exaggerated to such an extent that his prolonged resistance to die deflects the seriousness of the act of killing and turns murder into a cartoon chase, accompanied by verbal extravaganza. Both men attempt to convert the serious into the frivolous; they ultimately strive “to annihilate hierarchies of judgement.”[4] Dandyism employs a cynical view of society and seeks to undermine morality by imposing its own aesthetic rules.

A maze of mirrors holds the animal Humbert captive, as the phrase “legal captivity” in the Foreword of Lolita suggests (p. 5) and, the belief that humans are “most artistically caged,”[5] is fundamental to Nabokov, who states in the afterword to Lolita that the idea “was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage” (L p. 313). Like an ape in a zoo, Humbert sits behind narcissistic bars and, in order not to be the only ape in that cage, he perceives ape-like features in Dolores: “long-toed, monkeyish feet,” a “monkeyish nimbleness,” and at some stage, he says that he bought “a bunch of bananas for my monkey” (L pp. 53, 60, 215). Thomas R. Frosch sees Humbert trapped in a “matrix of doubleness” in which “the double serves as a second-order reality, or parody. The double Quilty parodies Humbert who parodies Edgar Allan Poe.”[6]

Although plotted as a separate character, Quilty is also a shadow figure who appears as Humbert’s evil fugitive brother and therefore as closely related to himself, which Humbert recognizes in the clues that Quilty left behind and he proclaims that “his genre, his type of humor – at its best at least – the tone of his brain, had affinities with my own. He mimed and mocked me. His allusions were definitely highbrow” (L p. 251). Quilty is Humbert’s alter-ego, or what Wood calls the “mind’s nasty analogue, a material semblable and frère. He is an aspect of Humbert’s self-image which has got loose, seceded, and taken over a part of the plot” (p. 127). It can therefore be concluded that the murder of Quilty signifies not only an act of revenge but a metaphorical suicide.

Humbert projects his guilt onto Quilty by wrongly accusing him of kidnap but Quilty’s repartee is that he had saved her from a pervert, which throws the guilt back onto Humbert. Nabokov turns the horror of killing Quilty into artwork that parodies, according to Alfred Appel, “the gore and rhetoric of literary death scenes.”[7] The entanglement of their fighting bodies is expressed as a linguistic confusion, which fuses the identity of both men in Humbert’s jumbling of personal pronouns; Quilty "rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us" (L p. 301). The death of Quilty also parodies the traditional simultaneous deaths of doubles: Humbert does not drop dead the very moment Quilty dies, but immediately realizes his failure to make a sinister ‘second self’ responsible; now guilt literally sticks to Humbert’s body when he feels to be “all covered with Quilty” (L p. 308).

Both Humbert and Quilty defend their well-meaning intentions: Quilty poses in the mask of the good uncle and insists that she had a good time. But according to Dolores, he turned out as a despot, who behaved as “a complete freak in sex matters” (L p. 278). Humbert hides behind a false paternal role, but factually, Dolores was his private sexual slave. The vilification of Quilty is a strategy to exonerate himself in the eyes of his readers, but his arguments do not convince, considering that Dolores was free to leave when she disagreed with Quilty’s pornographic proposals, whereas Humbert’s threats of institutionalization held her in terror and captivity for two years.

Stylization of the Self

Humbert’s exaggerated aestheticism is comparable to the modern sensibility termed Camp, which Susan Sontag describes as the modern dandyism of the twentieth century. Camp understands the world through stylization: it transforms the natural into the unnatural, which has the effect that “things-being-what-they-are-not … Camp sees everything in quotation marks.”[8] The rhetorical framing with quotation marks imbues things with desire-driven significance and turns them into products of culture that stops them from being merely things-in-themselves. Camp expresses the human agency in creating reality where identity becomes a kind of artistic construct that, according to Sontag, understands “Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.” Exhilarating aesthetic self-stylizations enclose the self in a solipsistic fantasy that denies the autonomy and needs of others, but paradoxically, Humbert needs confirmation from outside, which is the ulterior motive behind his stylized confession that implicitly seeks readers’ sympathy by claiming that the frenzy of his grief is hidden under the mask of “a trembling ingratiating smile” (L p. 249).

Lying in his bed, Humbert imagines himself as an inflated pale spider who sits in the centre of a web from where he can control the world through the activity of his mind (L p. 51). HIs egotism resembles the spider who spins his cobweb out of materials extracted altogether out of its own person.[9] In the allegorical debate between the spider and the bee, Jonathan Swift sets the modern writers’ claims to superiority in a satirical parable and personifies the moderns in the figure of the spider. Like the spider, who feeds on other creatures and uses his digestive products for his architecture, the value and independent existence of others is obliterated by Humbert’s ignorance and pride, attributes that Swift personifies as the father and mother of “a malignant deity called Criticism,” who lives “on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla.” Surely, it cannot be mere coincidence that mad Kinbote in Pale Fire believes to be the king of Zembla.

Understood as a symbol of the solipsistic mind, the image of the spider is caught up, as Sass writes, “in the intensity and seriousness of his own scrutinizing effort … thus cutting himself off from any possibility of effective action, of real discovery, or of meaningful communication with his fellow human beings.”[10] Humbert, the Spider, who draws other creatures into his web, is an appropriate ominous metaphor, although he turns into a comically deflated spider after his mental game of detecting movements in the house has failed. Megalomania and vanity are part of his psyche, evident in his descriptions of appearing in different roles: opposite Dolores he wears his “adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood),” he thinks of himself as “Humbert le Bel” or as “the glamorous lodger” (L pp. 41, 43, 51).

By referring to himself in the third person, Humbert shifts agency to another Humbert: he is not responsible, it was the other, “Humbert the Cubus,” who “schemed and reamed” (L p. 73). The objectification of his body produces an eerie agency; instead of saying ‘I’, he uses synecdoche to deflect moral agency: “my glance slithered,” “my hand creep up,” and, on the hotel room bed, his fingers metamorphose into “tentacles” (L pp. 41, 48, 132). The dehumanization of the body has the effect that the active self disappears and the body is presented as acting on its own, against the will-power of the mind. Humbert feels haunted by his urge to break the taboo and states early on that he fears that his cravings are forerunners of insanity: states of grandeur alternate with self-accusation and his sardonic eloquence produces sometimes amusing effects, but more often unsettling disgust in the reader, who senses that moral questions are raised only to be immediately covered by Humbert’s justifications, which shows that he is indeed, as Nabokov wanted him to be, “a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching’” (quoted in Wood, 107). Humbert might not have raped Dolores in the strictest sense, but there remains a palpable uneasiness that he might have misread her intentions, especially when, after the act, his qualms manifest themselves in a violent image of “stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child” (L p. 137).

Solipzising the Other

Humbert’s re-enactment of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’ serves to add a poetic notion to his obsession with “a certain initial girl-child,” also named Annabel, who is Lolita’s precursor (L p. 11). His grief following Annabel’s sudden death mirrors Poe’s lamentation for his cousin, who also died very young; Humbert makes it explicit that this tragic event ended his emotional development and that her ghostly presence precludes adult erotic relationships. He has grown into Humbert, the misanthropist, and has married the adult Valeria, who is merely “a glorified pot-au-feu and animated merkin,” with one important, albeit short-lived attraction, that is to say for “the imitation she gave of a little girl” (L p. 27). But as soon as the ‘little girl’ impression has worn off, he is horrified that he has married “a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba” (L p. 28). Humbert’s cynical and angry narration clearly accuses Valeria of deceit; he presents himself as the victim of a lewd woman and makes a strange excuse that claims as once innocence and corruption; retrospectively, he says that he “was as naïve as only a pervert can be” (L p. 27).


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Creative Madness and Paranoia in Vladimir Nabokov's novels "Lolita" and "Pale fire"
Durham University
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Nabokov, Lolita, Pale Fire, Modernism, Literary Criticism, Paranoia, Delusion, Narcissism, Baudelaire, Dandyism, Doubles, Camp, Desire, Creative Madness, Dionysus Myth, Psychosis
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Dr. Sabine Mercer (Author), 2011, Creative Madness and Paranoia in Vladimir Nabokov's novels "Lolita" and "Pale fire", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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