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Unreliable Narratives in Nabokov’s “Lolita” Novel

Some novels are quite easily comprehended by the readers. The reader may distinguish the narrator’s point of view and objective descriptions of the plot (Blahuskova, 2011). There are different methods used by the narrators to pass the main ideas to the reader. Sometimes this narrator is identified with the implied author and sometimes it is not. There is the problem of an unreliable narrator in literature. Is it a problem for the experienced reader? What signals testify to the notion of unreliability? The main aim of the present research paper is to analyze the type of narration of Nabokov’s Lolita within the bounds of Genette’s structuralism taxonomy of discourse.

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Vladimir Nabokov uses unreliable narrators in his works. The reader may conclude that the narrator’s point of view may be distorted, and it should not be trusted by the reader. It seems that the reader looks at the distorted mirror reading his works. There are a lot of techniques used by the narrator to make the reader trust his point of view. Nevertheless, an attentive reader may catch the hint of unreliability in his narration. Lolita is the most controversial novel written by Vladimir Nabokov. It is considered to be the queen of all unreliable narratives.

One of the basic problems posed by this novel is the misconception of the main character. Humbert is known to be the main narrator of Lolita. The ambiguous nature of Humbert’s narration has become the subject of much research since the year of its publication. Many critics blame Nabokov who is considered to share the same immoral points of view as the narrator of his book. Nabokov has decided to add afterword to the American edition of this book where he states that he does not support Humbert’s morals and their points of view differ from each other considerably (Wasmuth, 2009). This afterword has not satisfied the critics and they consider Nabokov to be on the side of Humbert rather than of Lolita. This misunderstanding has been caused by the freedom that Nabokov endows his main character. Two camps of researchers consider Humbert to be an unreliable narrator and those who understand his words in the direct sense. If his words are understood directly the narrator is considered to express the thoughts of the implied author. We support the idea of unreliability in our research. It should be noted that there is a great number of signs that testify to the unreliability of the narrator. One of the main aims of this research paper is to prove that Humbert’s narration is an unreliable one.

First of all, it will be quite reasonable to define the “unreliable narrator”. This term comes from Wayne C. Booth’s work Rhetoric of Fiction published in 1961. This notion is considered to be the basic concept of modernism (Wierhardt, n.d.). Booth provides the following definition of the “unreliable narrator”: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts under the norms of the work (which is to say under’s norms), unreliable when he does not” (Booth, p. 158-159). When the narrator expresses values and beliefs that do not correspond to the author’s ones, he is considered to be unreliable. The “unreliable narrator” is the narrator who should not be trusted. The author usually uses such a technique to express the opposite morals from his ones.

According to Rimmon-Keenan, there are three sources of unreliability: “the narrator’s limited knowledge, his involvement, and his questionable morals” (p. 100-101). There are cases when the narrator is inexperienced and young or is not very clever to provide information in a logically connected way. On the other hand, the narrator may provide the information in a distorted way either from self-interest or ignorance. Sometimes he makes mistakes as far as nobody is insured from mistakes and a narrator is an ordinary man. More than that, the narrator may lie deliberately or not if he does not remember all details. The unreliability of narration may sometimes be explained by the gaps in memory when the narrator describes the events taking place in the past. He presents the information as he remembers it or as he wants to present it. This type of narration makes the literary work more interesting as far as the reader is expected to understand why the narrator is not straightforward and hides a lot of facts (Wierhardt, n.d.). Nabokov uses this type of narration to present Humbert’s nature fully. An experienced writer understands all motifs of Humbert’s incompleteness and uncertainty. Factually, the unreliable narrator is not the problem for the experienced writer. Such kind of narration makes the work deeper and more interesting for the reader.

The author uses this literary device to create an atmosphere of authenticity in his work. It is kind of ironic when the author uses an unreliable narrator to present the opposite point of view. The narrator himself is excluded from the real understanding of his behavior except for the implied author and the reader. The author hopes for the reader’s experience to catch his irony and understand what the author tries to drive at.

Ansgar Nunning points out a wide range of signals that allow the reader to decide whether the narrator may be trusted or not. The textual signals of unreliability are (1) the narrator’s contradictions that may be explicated from his words; (2) contradictions between the narrator’s words and actions; (3) discrepancies between the narrator’s description of himself and other characters’ points of view; (4) divergences between the narrator’s comments on other characters and their representations of themselves; (5) gaps in the story and discourse; (6) other characters’ comments and remarks that do not correspond to the narrator’s ones; (7) contradictions in representations of the same event; (8) accumulation of comments and assessments relating to the narrator testifying to his subjectivity; (9) an accumulation of direct addresses to the reader with the attempt to activate the reader’s sympathy; (10) syntactic signals expressing the narrator’s emotions, feelings and troubles; (11) the lack of reliability based on memory gaps and others (Olson, p. 93). All these signals should be explicated by the reader to be sure of the narrator’s unreliability. The narrator’s unreliability is justified by the author. It is no coincidence that Nabokov has chosen this particular type of narration for his Humbert.

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There are three aspects of unreliability in Nabokov’s Lolita. They are “Humbert’s alleged insanity, his direct addresses to the reader and perhaps most palpable in the novel, his eloquent use of language” (Wasmuth, 2009). Humbert’s insanity is one of the main signals to the reader about his unreliability. He is a man who has mental problems. A man who can commit such crimes as kidnapping, child abuse, and even murder is not considered to be mentally healthy. From his description, we may understand his unreliability. He presents himself as “a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory” (Nabokov, p. 217) when he notices that they are pursued by the police. The first hint of his mental instability is noticed when John Ray, the author of the fictional foreword says to Humbert that he should go to the psychiatrist if he wants to avoid kidnapping and further murder. Although Humbert has visited some sanatoriums, it does not help him to get rid of his obsessions. He says after his several visits the following words: “the reader will regret to learn that soon after my return to civilization I had another bout with insanity” (Nabokov, p.34). The references to the narrator’s insane and his psychological instability with all these visits to the sanatoriums are the bright signal to the reader about the narrator’s instability.

Humbert adds a certain portion of uncertainty to his narration. He uses a wide range of such narratological devices as foreground description, interruptions of chronological descriptions, and the deliberate choice of speakers. He has chosen himself whose words should be provided and whose words should be hidden from the reader. He often renames the characters including Lolita who has been named Dolores. Humbert demonstrates his intellectual superiority over other characters. All these devices are used to confuse the reader in some way and present the information in a way that is favorable for the narrator. It may be observed in the central scene of the work, the seduction of Lolita by Humbert Humbert in the Enchanted Hunters hotel. Humbert gives sleeping pills to his stepdaughter and uses her powerlessness to enjoy her body. In this scene, the narrator describes all the details of the foreground including the sounds of the hotel, the visitors of this hotel, and the night streets to deaden the reader’s attention to the narrator’s abuse of this little girl. The reader pays more attention to the night atmosphere of the hotel rather than to the process of the narrator’s intrusions (Blahuskova, 2011).

This foregrounding description makes Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. Factually, the readers decide who the villain of this novel is. Is it Humbert Humbert who rapes the girl or Lolita who seduces an adult man with her overfree behavior? It is quite difficult to find sufficient evidence testifying to the guilt of one of the main characters. All the information presented in the novel is sifted through the narrator’s world. Humbert Humbert provides the information in such a way he wants the reader to perceive it. That is why this novel is considered to be quite complicated and it is necessary to reread it several times to catch the main idea of Lolita. There is no wonder that every time of reread it the reader has a new impression of this work.

Humbert uses direct addresses to engage the reader in the happening events. He does not want the reader to be just the observer. He aims at making the reader the participant of this story. The reader may understand it from the following words: “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, “impartial sympathy.” So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me” (Nabokov, p.57). The narrator wants the reader to try to understand him. He wants the reader to identify with him. Humbert calls his audience “a learned reader” with the hope that this reader understands all his emotions and feelings and justifies his actions. That is why he does not even try to justify his crimes himself he gives this responsibility to the reader.

Lolita is considered to be one of the richest texts in allusion and quotation among the literature of twenty century. The language used in Lolita plays a very important role. Humbert Humbert uses the evocative power of his language to distract the reader from his crimes. He says: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (Nabokov, p.9). The keyword of this work “the nymphet” is firstly presented in the fifth chapter. Humbert describes them as the girls between the ages of nine and fourteen who are known for their “fey grace, elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm” (Nabokov, p.17). He presents them as very rare phenomena. They seem to be like demons compared to normal girls. Humbert’s description of nymphets is considered to be an attempt to present his obsession with young girls as a romantic attraction. Such a way of description may confuse the reader as far as such an insidious girl as Lolita may seem to be the culprit of all these crimes.

It should be noted that literary work is a kind of art and it is not real life. It is only its reflection. There is no problem that the reader does not have reliable access to the story world. An unreliable narrator is considered to be the advantage of the work as far as this method makes the reader think over and come to his/her conclusions. As we know good literature should make the reader think over it.

Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse is very helpful at understanding narrative techniques used in Lolita. The taxonomy of discourse consists of five constituents namely order, duration, frequency, mood, and voice. These elements should be presented in any narration to make sense. More than that, these key points are used to influence the reader. Order is known as the relation of events presented in the story. A narrator may present the events chronologically or violate their real order. Non-chronological order is called anachronic in Genette’s work. There are two types of anachrony namely analepsis and prolepsis (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.). Analepsis is the way of narration when the narrator describes the events that took place in the past and he tries to recollect his memories and emotions in the present. Prolepsis is another way of narration when the narrator looks forward to the events that take place in the future. Humbert’s narration is considered to be analepsis as far as all these events have already taken place and Humbert just shares his emotions with the reader. An anachrony may refer to the past or the future, when the events take place in the present it is considered to be a chronological narration. Analepsis is chosen as the way of narration for Lolita as far as it is the best way to present an unreliable narrator who describes the events of the past through the prism of his memory. This way of narration plays a dissenting role (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.).

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Duration or narrative speed is another important constituent in narration. The narrative speed may be changed throughout the work. The narrator may quicken or slow down his narration (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.). The narrative speed depends on the interests of the narrator as in the case of Humbert. Some events are given particular attention by the narrator, and he describes them on more than one page and events that play a less important role and are summarized in a single sentence. Humbert quickens his narration when he describes his crime to make the reader pay less attention to them, but he slows down his narration by describing Lolita justifying his crimes in such away. Humbert uses the narrative speed to manipulate the reader’s attention. As a result, the reader’s judgment may be distorted by the narrator.

Frequency is another concept pointed out by Genette. This concept presents the relations between the real events and the number of their mentioning in the story. There are three basic types of frequency namely singulative narration when the number of events corresponds to the number of their mentioning in the story; repeating narrative when the narrator mentions the events more times than they happened and iterative narrative when the number of events is more than the number of their mentioning (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.). Humbert uses different types of narrative frequency to attract the reader’s attention to those events that present him more favorably.

The narrative mood is one more constituent enforcing the influence of narration over the reader. According to Genette, every narration should be in the form of diegesis (telling) that helps to create the atmosphere of the storyteller and the listener with the use of mimesis (showing) (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.). Every narration is impossible without the narrator. “Narrative does not ‘represent’ a (real or fictive) story, it recounts it – that is, it signifies it through language. There is no place for imitation in the narrative” (Genette, 1983, p. 43). The narrative mood is a sort of distance between the events and the narrator. This distance determines the level of reliability of the narrator and the accuracy of information conveyed in the story. There are four types of discourse defined by Genette that demonstrate different distances of the narrator to the text. They have narrated speech when the character’s words and actions are interconnected in the narration; transposed speech (indirect style) the character’s words and actions are presented by the narrator according to his subjective point of view; transposed speech (free indirect style) when the character’s actions and words are presented by the narrator without his assessment and reported speech when the character’s words are presented verbatim by the narrator (Guillemette and Levesque, n.d.). When there is no distance between the narrator and the story this type of narration increases the level of unreliability as far as the narrator is the main participant of the events and he tries to present himself in a favorable light as Humbert does it.

The narrative voice is another factor predetermining the position of the narrator. According to Genette, “We will therefore distinguish here two types of narrative: one with the narrator absent from the story he tells […], the other with the narrator present as a character in the story he tells […]. I call the first type, for obvious reasons, heterodiegetic, and the second type homodiegetic” (1980, pp. 244-245). Genette as the narratologist points out various kinds of narration. He analyses the type of narration considering who is speaking, when, where, and to whom. All these factors presuppose the type of narration. The notion of reliability plays a very important role in Genette’s taxonomy. There are three types of narration namely extradiegetic, homodiegetic and intradiegetic. Extradiegetic is the type of narration when the narrative voice is not the character. Factually, it is quite complicated for the reader to define whose this voice is. Sometimes it is identified with the implied author. This type of narration is considered to be reliable as far as this voice is presented as an all-knowing character. Homodiegetic narration means a character narration as in the case of Lolita. Humbert Humbert who is the main character of the story is its narrator. This type of narration contains a prominent level of unreliability as far as information is presented subjectively. The last type of narration is intradiegetic when two or more characters speak to each other. The story is presented as a dialogue and there is no objective point of view of the narrator. Sometimes, all three types of narration are combined in one work.

All main constituents of Genette’s taxonomy are observed in Nabokov’s Lolita. Genette’s approach helps to explain all details of Humbert’s narration and define the level of its unreliability. The unreliable narration is not concerned to be the disadvantage of Lolita. It helps to present the main idea fully. The fact that the reader does not have access to the story world is not a problem as far as literature is not real life, but it is only its reflection.


Blahuskova, V. (2011). Nabokov’s Unreliable Narrators. Web.

Booth, W. (1983). The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Genette, G. (1983). Nouveau discours du récit. Paris: Seuil.

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Genette, G. (1980). Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Guillemette, L. & Levesque, C. (n.d.) Narratology. Web.

Nabokov, V. (1995). Lolita. London: Penguin Books.

Olson, G. (2003). Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators. Narrative,11(1), 93.

Rimmon-Keenan, S. (1989). Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Routledge.

Wasmuth, J. (2009). Unreliable Narration in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Web.

Wiehardt, J. (n.d.). Unreliable Narrator. Web.

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