“What’s the katter with misses?”:

Language, the Commonplace, and the Power of the American Spoonerette in Lolita



















Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 582 W: Nabokov

Dr. Halpern

May 4, 2007

 “What’s the katter with misses?”:

Language, the Commonplace, and the Power of the American Spoonerette in Lolita


            Two dominant tensions operate in Lolita: the European versus the American and the exquisite versus the commonplace.  These two tensions converge in the notion that the pleasure of the novel is largely the pleasure Lolita and Humbert take in each other, particularly evident not in bed, but rather in their verbal jousting.  Echoing the dynamics of domination and submission, their interplay is most taught when their stylistic qualities check each other: Lolita’s American commonplaces cutting the intricate froth of Humbert’s delicate European elegies.[1]  When the “spoonerette” is at her most dominant, Lolita’s seductive witticisms cause Humbert to loose utter control of his language.  Even the discourse associated with Lolita, such as her very name, her passion for advertisements, or the bromides her “theme song,” “Little Carmen,” which features the refrain, “and the bars, and the barmen,” reflects Humbert’s literal and figurative imprisonment.  While Lolita manages to “win” all battles in the verbal arena, her daytime gum-snapping power only illuminates the anguish of her nighttime sobs, showing that her language is most vibrant when it is used as a defense mechanism.  Lolita’s witticisms serve to shape her reality, mitigating the power she perceives of her captor; in the post-coital night, however, when the two are no longer verbally sparing, Lolita has no opponent and thus no words to shape—to deny-- her situation, and so she is left with tears, the byproduct of failed language.   Similarly, Lolita is linguistically diminished without Humbert at the end of the novel.  While Lolita’s “triumph” is the triumph of the well-deployed American commonplace, her language only reigns supreme as a comeback to a Humbert who is ironically relegated to play the straight man.  As Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, Dolly has attained the normalcy she had come to need; no longer in need of such linguistic defense mechanisms, her commonplaces expressly lack wit.  Using padded phrases like “no, honey, no” in earnest, Dolly Schiller is no longer Lolita, and fades into just another American commonplace. 

Linguistic tension between the exquisite and the commonplace is evident within the novel’s famous first lines. Humbert pulls off “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul,” because the melodrama, albeit flawlessly rendered, is immediately balanced with his ensuing descriptions, “Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock,” and “She was Dolores on the dotted line” (9).  Humbert’s recognition of – consecration of—the detailed commonplace, such as Lolita’s yawning stature in one sock, provides the balance necessary for the unbridled lyricism in “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” (9).  The commonplace is what allows for the naked emotion of “But in my arms she was always Lolita” (9).  We acknowledge Humbert to be capable of a genuine love partly because he not only notices, but elevates to poetry, the detail of Lolita’s less ideal moments.  For instance, Humbert is excited, but amorously so, by his “vulgar darling,” who, “with a childish hand tweaked loose the frock-fold that had stuck in the peach-cleft—to quote Robert Browning” (117).  Because Humbert consecrates Lolita’s vulgarity, his commentary operates in a liminal space between humor and genuine emotion.  Humbert is able to get away with blasphemy, for instance, casting himself as a Christ figure in asking the jury to “Look at this [read: my] tangle of thorns” with his own reductionist wise-cracking: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (9).

Even without her presence, the language associated with Lolita, such her cliché “theme song,” “Little Carmen,” which features the refrain, “and the bars, and the barmen,” reflects Humbert’s literal and figurative imprisonment.  Humbert repeatedly refers to Lolita as Carmen (59, 60, 61, 242, 243, 251, 256, 278, 280).  Much has been written on the significance of the Carmen allusion, such as the notion that the name Carmen is traditionally used to describe enchanting fatales; the allusion is a trap to readers familiar with the opera into leading them to suspect Humbert will murder Lolita, and so on (Appel 358).  Of interest here, however, is not Bizet’s Carmen, but rather “Little Carmen,” the teeny-bopping hit song that was also Lolita’s favorite record as well as the soundtrack to Lolita’s squirming and unwitting lap dance.  Similar to how Humbert feigns random capitulation in Chapter 26 when he asks his printer to finish the page with “Lolitas” after writing her tri-syllabic name exactly nine times, Humbert here feigns the lack of significance of the song.  He goes so far as to quote two verses of it capping the end of one of the most controversial chapters in all of literature, but stresses its marginal importance: “At this point I may as well give the words of that song hit in full—to the best of my recollection at least—I don’t think I ever had it right” [my emphasis] (61).  The parts he remembers may well be significant, for they reappear throughout the text. Specifically, when Humbert is losing time or overcome by emotion for Lolita, he repeats derivations of these lines: “And the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen” (61).  Humbert finds solace in the American trite and “foolish” rhymes because they are attached to Lolita (61).  In describing the song, he dotes a few lines later on her American commonplaces, characteristically mixing them with the language of Keats: “Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet…” (59).  He reflects, “I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell (spell because of the garbling),” but in prison he is also subjecting himself to its special spell as he repeats the refrain. 

The “bars” and the “barmen” in the refrain that recurs throughout the text are of most interest, however, because they comprise a larger motif of imprisonment both in lust as well as the dominance of Lolita’s commonplace language.  According to Nabokov, the original inspiration for the novel was “prompted by a newspaper story about an ape [in the Paris zoo] 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” (qtd. in Appel 432).  Humbert is, then, the imprisoned ape:

H.H., the ‘aging ape’ writing from prison, whose impossible love metaphorically connects him with that imprisoned animal, learns the language, in his fashion, and records his ‘imprisonment.’  His narrative is the ‘picture’ of the bars of the poor creature’s cage. (Appel 432)


The consequential conceit of Humbert as jailed animal accounts for his notoriously hairy hands, his self-characterization as an ape, as well as the bars throughout the text. 

As the enchanted hunter, Humbert is consistently brought to his knees by a girl who barely reaches his chest.  That Lolita’s witticisms mark her dominance and his submission is ironic on two counts: besides the fact that she actually wields little control over her situation, her wisecracks are most domineering when they relegate Humbert to the status of the straight man in their comedic duo.  Humbert the “pedarast,” the beast, the “flâneur,” is, of course, anything but straight.  Moreover, he is funny.  He is only the funny man, however, in his interior monologue.  In reading the Beardsley Star for advice on how to be a good American father to a young lady, he pokes wild fun at the column’s reminder that “To you,” the father, “she is still a little girl,” --thankfully for Humbert—but “To the boys she’s charming and fun, lovely and gay” (185).  The column advises the father to draw the boys out, and attempt to “make them laugh and feel at ease,” to which Humbert quips, “Welcome, fellow, to this bordello” (185).  But while Humbert privately, to us, may ridicule advice columns, advertisements, staid neighbors, and the frigid gentlewomen of the jury, when with Lolita, he tends to be sublimated into that bland American rhetoric.  For instance, in trying hard to mimic the father who knows best, he asks, “Don’t you want to tell me of those little pranks of yours in camp?” to which Lolita snaps, “You talk like a book, Dad” (114). 

Similarly, when Lolita wishes to hurt Humbert, she also consigns him to the straight man status of the excluded clueless father.  When Humbert turns his back “to buy this very Lo a lollipop,” or attempt to encase her in what he would view as the girlish innocence of “nymphancy,” he hears “her and the fair mechanic burst into a perfect love song of wisecracks,” a repartee from which he is expressly barred (159).  She also succeeds in undermining his savoir-faire by privileging working-class cliché; every time any roadside help would inquire, “’Any honey?’” Humbert notes with bitterness, “my sweet fool giggled” (160).  Contrastingly, Lolita rejects the more international love language of nuzzles that Humbert offers, commanding with a quite American “twangy whine” for him to “Lay off” (133).  To Humbert’s dismay, she deems, “all caresses except kisses on the mouth or the stark act of love either ‘romantic slosh’ or ‘abnormal’” (133). 

Although, as even Humbert notes, “(as the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules of such girlish games are fluid,” Humbert’s narration suggests Lolita’s witticisms initially are intended to seduce him (113).  When Humbert continues to play the kind dad, the embarrassing father, attempting to rationalize why the two must sleep in a single room, Lolita silences his stuttering with one of her more well-known cutting remarks: “The word is incest” (119).  The content of this quoted dialogue may suggest that she is not seducing him; rather, by using such a specific term, she seems to indicate her knowledge of both Humbert’s intentions and her evaluation of them as immoral.  Humbert, the arguably unreliable narrator, however, casts her indictment in a different light: “’The word is incest,’ said Lo—and she walked into the closet, walked out again with a young golden giggle…” (119).  According to Humbert, Lolita is flirting.

Humbert may well be appropriately characterizing Lolita as a naughty flirt.  Admittedly, he is also baiting her, calling her the pre-teenage girl’s equivalent of a “chicken.”  In asking her to sit still, obey logic, and in short, do what no self-respecting hellion would, he pointedly phrases his request sexually: “’So be a good girl’” (113).  She takes the bait: “’Bad, bad girl,’ said Lo comfortably” (113).  Whether she is intentionally appropriating associations of fellatio (perhaps from Camp Q, perhaps from the movies) or whether she is the innocent victim of Humbert’s over-eager hearing is unclear, but she quips next, “Juvenile delickwent, but frank and fetching.  That light was red.  I’ve never seen such driving” (113).  Let us clarify the dominant aspects of her possible multiple innuendos and flirtations.  To begin with the surface elements, she criticizes real faults in his driving, acknowledging his nervousness, which establishes her control of the situation.  She notes that Humbert is not only driving too fast, but mentions his running of the red light, that consciously or unwittingly —but tantalizingly-- evokes a color simultaneously connoting both “stop” and “lust.”  She draws attention to her juvenile status, something she has sensed as alluring to him arguably since she controlled his initial gaze of her through her sunglasses.  By invoking the notion of the delinquent, she summons all the word’s 1950s associations garnered from the pulp fiction she reads, such as the “bad girl” in “caged heat.”  In mispronouncing the word, she not only highlights the “baby talk” of the inversion of phonemes, but also draws attention to the embedded words “lick” and “dick,” which need little explanation here.[2]  Her use of “fetch,” “frank,” and “drive” further suggest phallic imagery, but again, whether it is intentional, aped, or creatively heard by Humbert is unclear.                    

 The tension between Lolita’s arguably intentional seduction and Humbert’s possible machinations intensifies as the two approach their first consummation (or, Lolita’s rape, as she will later taunt).  Lolita continues her flirtation in the same vein as above, describing the skills she has garnered from Camp Q:  “My duty is—to be useful.  I am a friend to male animals.  I obey orders.  I am cheerful.  That was another police car.  I am thrifty and I am absolutely filthy in thought, word and deed” (114).  It is important to note, however, that the only consolation to Humbert the imprisoned writer is the The Children’s Encyclopedia article on girl scouts.  Lines such as those in Chapter 26, when Humbert bemoans, “Don’t think I can go on.  Heart, head—everything,” illustrate how the girl scout and 4-H rhetoric infuses his memoir in ways that question his veracity in dialogic reportage (109).[3]  Humbert may be creatively hearing or writing with encyclopedia-influenced poetic license in narrating the questionable sexual prowess of the “witty child” (114). 

While the degree of intentionality of Lolita’s seduction might be in question, her effect on him is especially significant because it operates in the arena of language.  Specifically, Lolita’s wielding of sexual discourse linguistically annihilates Humbert.  The loss of control of not just wit, but language itself is tantamount to immorality in the Nabokovian world.  Consider the following passage:

Then (while I stood waiting for her) she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried it on.

Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes—for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties.  For that is what nymphets imitate—while we moan and die.

“What’s the Katter with misses?” I muttered (word-control gone) into her hair.

“If you must know,” she said, “you do it the wrong way.”

“Show, wight ray.”

“All in good time,” responded the spoonerette (120). 

Seva ascendes, pulsate, brulans, kitzelans, dementissima.  Elevator clatterans, pausa, clatterans, populus in corridoro.  Hanc nisi mors mihi adimet nemo!  Juncea puellula, jo pensavo fondissime, nobserva nihil quid quam…


Humbert’s narration at the beginning of the passage casts Lolita as an erotic performer and enchantress.  In the tradition of the “mysterious,” “indifferent” Egyptian snake charmer, Lolita manipulates both Humbert’s gaze as well as the phallus, “pull[ing] out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tr[ying] it on.”  Meanwhile, Humbert is frozen before her in his waiting stance.  He is also stylistically ensnared in the text.  Throughout this passage, his self-descriptions are bound by parentheses or other subordinating devices: “(while I stood waiting for her)”; “—while we moan and die”; and “(word control gone).” 

            In addition to her physical enchantment, Lolita’s verbal seduction drives Humbert, “the murderer with a fancy prose style,” to progressively lose utter control of his language.  The passage begins with Humbert’s musing that the nymphet’s imitation of “the cheapest of cheap cuties” renders the “pedarast” as speechless as a wounded animal, or in other words causing him to “moan and die.”  In response to Lolita’s earlier taunt that they “cut out the kissing game,” Humbert is reduced to spoonerisms, asking “What’s the katter with misses?” and admitting his “word control [is] gone.”  After her implicit invitation that he kisses the “wrong way,” Humbert not only flips his letters but drops his articles: “Show, wight ray.”  As Lolita responds “All in good time,” her invitation is no longer merely implicit, and Humbert “croaks incomprehensibly,” literally fleeing the English language altogether in the italicized portion at the end of the passage (Appel 379). 

While his ensuing interior monologue may look like a delicate string of Latin aphorisms, the complete opposite is the case.  Alfred Appel, Jr. argues the apparent Latin here turns out to rather be a “curious mishmash” of Latin, English, French, German, and Italian, roughly translating to, “The sap ascendeth, pulsates, burning, itching, most insane, elevator clattering, pausing, clattering, people in the corridor.  No one but death would take this one [Lolita] away from me!  Slender little girl, I thought most fondly, observing nothing at all” (379).  Appel argues Humbert’s impressionistic “Latin” is more than just lustful gibberish; he views it as a parodic stream-of-consciousness serving to critique the literary technique even as used in the novels of Joyce, whom he revered.  At the end of Ada, for instance, Nabokov more directly comments, “poor Stream of Consciousness, marée noire by now” (qtd. in Appel 379).  Further, Appel asserts that according to Nabokov’s logic, “the unconnected impressions and associations that impinge on the mind were irrational until they were consciously ordered” (379).  To order them in art “is to fulfill virtually a moral obligation, for without a rational language man has ‘grown a very / landfish, languageless, / a monster,’” quoting Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (379).  Appel views not Humbert’s impressionistic nonsense, but Cincinnatus’ final attempt to “humanize the dystopian world” through the establishing of a new ordered alphabet in Invitation to a Beheading as the type of behavior Nabokov sanctions in art (380).  If we discount his repetition of the name Lolita precisely nine times at the end of Chapter 26, Humbert’s frenetic “Yiddishizing” of the Latin language may in fact mark the only instance he does lose utter control of language.  This is the effect of the American “spoonerette.”

The importance Nabokov places on Lolita and Humbert’s wordplay becomes more apparent when we compare what Nabokov, via Humbert, deems “printable” versus what he deems “unprintable.”  While most dramatists would seek to highlight the verbal histrionics of a lover’s quarrel, Humbert censors them.  Nabokov dons the “printable” verbal jousting and Americanisms, conversely, with it’s own brand of poetry.  Humbert revels in the stridently spoken “vulgar vocabulary” of his darling: “‘revolting,’ ‘super’ ‘luscious,’ ‘goon,’ ‘drip,’” as lovingly belonging to “–that Lolita my Lolita,” (66).  He adores her colorful turns of phrases such as, “The fruithead!” in describing the patrolman that should have stopped the speeding Humbert on the way to Leppingville.  Nabokov infuses much of Lolita’s “printable” dialogue with lyricism, such as the assonance in her petulant flirtations.  Note, for instance, the prevalence of /uh/, /iy/, /i/, and especially /ow/ sounds in, “Well, the speed in this bum state is fifty, and –No, don’t slow down, you, dull bulb.  He’s gone now” (113).  Hers is of course a less flamboyant, less self-conscious prose style than is Humbert’s but it is an incisive one, particularly when in conflict with Humbert’s delicacies.  An especially cutting midmorning repartee is drawn attention to, for instance, by capping Chapter 3 of Part Two.  Lolita reads from the grotesquely pop psychological advice column, “Let’s Explore Your Mind,” which ironically explores whether “sex crimes would be reduced if children obeyed a few don’ts” (165).  Lolita characteristically checks Humbert’s more highbrow witticisms such as his reply to a child’s possible lack of a pencil:

“We,” I quip-quoted, “medieval mariners, have placed in this bottle—“

“If,” she repeated, “you don’t have a pencil, but are old enough to read and write—this is what the guy means, isn’t it, you dope—scratch the number somehow on the roadside.”

“With your little claws, Lolita.” (165) 


 Whenever Lolita dismisses their power game, however, Humbert refuses to be subordinated.  In attempt to elevate her mood on the way to Leppingville, Humbert pointedly returns to the realm of language, “racking his brains for some quip, under the bright wing of which he might dare turn to his seatmate” (140).  He will tolerate and will not censor, Lolita as long as she continues the banter, even when treading in treacherous territory.  He will not inhibit her, for instance, when she assails him for being a “chump,” and “revolting creature”: “I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me.  I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me” (141).  Humbert will allow her to continue to dominate, and even get nervous himself (“Was she just joking?”) as long as she remains “sweetly smiling,” and more importantly, as long as she maintains the flirtation: “Oh, you dirty, dirty old man” (141).  Later, Humbert clearly takes masochistic pleasure in Lolita’s cruel but vibrant wit and even seems to commend her for her ability to put him in his place: “Can you remember…. what was the name of that hotel, you know [nose puckered], come on, you know…. Oh, you know [noisy exhalation of breath]—the hotel where you raped me.  Okay, skip it” (202).  He delights in her ability to humiliate him, but it is imperative that she give a “yelp of amorous vernal laughter” and maintain her free, childish sexuality, “slap[ping] the glossy bole and [tearing] uphill… one hand dreaming on her print-flowered lap” (202).  Humbert stifles Lolita, however, once she stops the dominance game.  It is not her tendency to humiliate him, but rather her “neutral voice that hurt[s Humbert] so,” in her demand for him to “Look… give me some dimes and nickels.  I want to call mother in that hospital.  What’s the number?” (141) [my emphasis].  It is only when Humbert senses he can no longer safely joust with Lolita that he tells her she can’t in fact, call that number, “Because,” he retorts, “your mother is dead” (141).

Similar to how Humbert is uninterested with the details of sex, the “elements of animality” that “anybody can imagine,” he is unconcerned with any dramatization of poorly orchestrated yelling matches (134).  Humbert is committed to the flirtation, to the balance of style between the two; when they become verbally too imbalanced, he censors her or accelerates his narration.  Humbert will report Lolita’s dialogue in a quarrel until the dynamic looses control.  After Humbert finds out Lolita has been skipping her piano lessons, he will quote her as long as she maintains her sass, checking him with brassy retorts like “Oh, yah?” and “Anything can happen, huh?” (205).  However, when Humbert looses his temper, hurts her badly, and the two begin screaming at each other, her voice is censored: “she said unprintable things” (205).  Because the game is abandoned and the “hateful scene” becomes too real, Humbert refuses to quote her, relying rather on his framing of her words: “She said she loathed me…. She said I had attempted to…. She said she was sure I had…. She said she would sleep with….” (205).  Later in the text, Humbert similarly observes the disconnect between language and violence, insinuating that the latter is due to the failure of the former: “and without a word I delivered a tremendous backhand cut that caught her smack on her hot hard little cheekbone” (227) [my emphasis].  Notably, it is through language that Humbert seeks to regain control in his application of juxtaposition and polysyndeton; to quote but an excerpt of the ten-line paratactic sentence: “….and once or twice she jerked her arm so violently that I feared her wrist might snap, and all the while she stared at me with those unforgettable eyes where cold anger and hot tears struggled, and our voices were drowning the telephone, and….” (205). 

            It is not just Humbert, but also Lolita who relies on their repartee.  While Humbert derives sexual pleasure from their sadomasochistic exchanges, Lolita needs them to affirm a sense of power she possesses on a verbal level.  Although Lolita manages to “win” all her jousts in the verbal arena, her slicing quips only illuminate the anguish of her nighttime sobs, showing that her language is most incisive when it is used as a defense mechanism.  In other words, her witticisms serve to shape her reality, diminishing the power she perceives of her captor.  When Humbert assumes masochistic stances, it is not exquisite physical pain she cuts him with, but rather its linguistic equivalent: sarcasm, or the tearing of figurative flesh.  Consider Humbert’s supplication: “Sometimes… I would literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita!” and how she slices him:

--how I longed to ….take your head between my unworthy hands, and kiss your chinesed eyes, and—‘Pulease, leave me alone, will you,’ you would say, ‘for Christ’s sake leave me alone.’  And I would get up from the floor while you looked on, your face deliberately twitching in imitation of my tic nerveux. (193) 


Lolita may feign boredom and even express real disgust, but as long as she is without freedom or stability, she needs her captor to have a tic nerveux.  Her sadism helps create the semblance of control in a situation in which she has little or none.  In the post-coital night, however, Lolita is no longer the wisecracking comedienne feeding on Humbert’s humiliation.  It is in these times she realizes her life “was no more… than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep” (176).  When the two are no longer verbally sparing, Lolita has no opponent and thus no words to shape her circumstances, and so she is left with the primitive remnants of language, her “storm of sobs” (169).  As even Humbert realizes, “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (142).

Lolita’s “triumph” is also the triumph of the well-deployed American commonplace over European delicacy.  Nowhere is Lolita’s implacable dominance more evident than her associations with American advertising.  Humbert occupies a curious relationship to Lolita’s consumerism: he despises it or doesn’t quite understand it, but when he feels securely her captor, he is enamored by it.  Unswervingly European in dress, affect, and diction, Humbert is practically a dandy as he watches Lolita by the poolside: “Comfortably robed, I would settle down in the rich post-meridian shade after my own demure dip” (161).  He delights in watching the contrastingly pre-packaged Lolita “gambol,” as “glad as an ad,” expressly because he can “marvel that she was mine, mine, mine” (161).  At other points, however, Humbert is less fond of the notion that she is but a byproduct of voracious Capitalism.  With an overt revulsion, he describes her as believing, “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’” (148).  It is because “She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster,” that he summarizes disappointedly, “Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl” (148).   

            To his grave disadvantage, however, Humbert misunderstands the significance of advertisement in the capturing of Lolita’s affections.  In a particularly significant passage, Lolita frames Humbert in the language of advertising, illustrating her desire for him to conform to a set of clearly defined romantic ideals.  The scene occurs in Lolita’s room, just after Humbert has read Charlotte’s letter.  The moment is marked as significant because whatever Humbert realizes here causes him to “reread the letter,” deciding it is prudent to enter into a fraudulent marriage.  Humbert views a full-page advertisement tacked on Lolita’s wall of a man modeling a robe by “So-and-So” (69).[4]  Although the advertisement does not specify the source, Humbert correctly identifies the Rev. Thomas Morell’s song, “See the Conquering Hero Comes” as being the inspiration for the legend that calls the male model a “conquering hero” (Appel 366, Nabokov 69).  Humbert characteristically takes potshots at the advertisement, deconstructing it by questioning the whereabouts of the “thoroughly conquered lady… who was presumably propping herself up to receive her half of the tray” (69).  Humbert does notice, however, that Lolita has labeled the romantic domestic hero “H.H.” and is implicitly flattered as his next action is to consider suffering Charlotte’s affections to get to Lolita.  Humbert does not grasp, however, the significance of the next advertisement, which features Clare Quilty, “A distinguished playwright [who] was solemnly smoking a Drome,” assuming this is but another comparison to himself (69). 

The two advertisements are significant because Nabokov here establishes a comparison between Humbert and Quilty in relationship to how Lolita wishes to perceive both men.  Specifically, she wishes for them to embody the ideals distinctly outlined by the marketed ideal of the 1950s male: he should be distinguished, tall, dark, and handsome, but also be a domestic “conquering hero.”  As an intellectual European, Humbert sees only foolish artifice in advertisement.  He can deconstruct it and poke fun at it, but because he can never figure out how to adopt its rhetoric, he loses Lolita’s affections.  Humbert is puzzled later in the text at how Lolita considers “all caresses except kisses on the mouth or the stark act of love either ‘romantic slosh’ or ‘abnormal,’” because he fundamentally cannot understand that Lolita desires the simple, brawny, “conquering hero” (133).  Humbert’s failure is, in short, the failure to advertise himself sufficiently.[5] 

Quilty, Humbert’s American foil, is far more successful with Lolita because, while Humbert is only able to deconstruct, despise, and ridicule how advertisement functions, Quilty understands how to wield its rhetoric to his advantage.  The double-voyeurism scene in which the two men compete for ownership of Lolita’s eroticism is particularly representative.  In this scene, which pits the European against the American, the effete against the red-blooded, the masochist against the sadist, Quilty emerges as the “conquering hero” to Humbert’s heartbroken underdog:

…and there she was, and there was I, in my robe—and so I stopped calling; but suddenly something in the pattern of her motions, as she dashed this way and that in her Aztec Red bathing briefs and bra, struck me… there was an ecstasy, a madness about her frolics that was too much of a glad thing.  Even the dog seemed puzzled by the extravagance of her reactions.  I put a gentle hand to my chest as I surveyed the situation.  The turquoise blue swimming pool some distance behind the lawn was no longer behind that lawn, but within my thorax, and my organs swam in like the excrements in the blue sea water in Nice…. And I also knew that the child, my child, knew he was looking, enjoyed the lechery of his look and was putting on a show of gambol and glee, the vile and beloved slut (237).


Lolita’s performance as the girlish swimmer is in conversation with the aforementioned earlier scene in which Humbert “marvel[s] that she was mine, mine, mine” (161).  In both scenes, Humbert is “comfortably robed,” recalling also Humbert’s comparison –or contrast-- to Lolita’s ideal, the “conquering hero” in the advertisement for Viyellya robes.  In both scenes, Humbert describes Lolita’s relationship to advertisement using the word “glad,” clearly considered a trite Americanism to his multisyllabic vocabulary; in the former scene, she is “glad as an ad” and in the latter, “her frolics…[were] too much of a glad thing” (161, 237).  Further, both scenes describe Lolita as gleefully “gambol[ing].”  The difference, however, is that in the later scene, Lolita is self-consciously performing, and not for Humbert: “the child, my child, knew he was looking, enjoyed the lechery of his look and was putting on a show of gambol and glee” (237).  Of this, Humbert is painfully aware, as his reiteration, “the child, my child,” marks the loss of his earlier assured incantation, “she was mine, mine, mine” (237, 161). 

Lolita’s coquettish play here is explicitly for the benefit of Quilty because she is communicating in their shared language of advertising.  Specifically, her game with the “terrier of sorts,” is a troupe in echo of something Humbert, the less-versed American pedophile, might probably have missed: the Coppertone ad.[6]  The Coppertone suntan lotion campaign eroticizes, for the “afflicted,” a prepubescent girl in pigtails, covering her topless undeveloped chest, while a Scottish terrier puppy tugs at the back of her bikini bottom, exposing both her tan-line and the top of her buttocks.  Similar to how Humbert previously deconstructed and ridiculed the Viyella robe ideal Lolita had hoped he’d fulfill, Humbert here is only able to react to the artifice of Lolita’s performance.  He is unnerved by the constructs of consumerism, noting the “madness about her frolics that was too much of a glad thing” (237).  His observation that “even the dog seemed puzzled by the extravagance of her reactions” illustrates his dogged allegiance to perceptions of the real being superior to the glossed-over plasticity of advertisement.  Quilty, however, both understands her language and wields it to script her role.  Literally, he scripts her dialogue in The Enchanted Huntress, and here she continues to perform for him in the language she knows and knows he can appreciate.  Humbert cannot understand the language of the “glad ad” is genuinely viable American discourse.

Now at fourteen, admittedly, Lolita is humiliating herself in her imitation of “the cheapest of cheap cuties,” namely because gleeful gamboling with a puppy is the type of behavior that younger girls engage in; the Coppertone girl, after all, is probably about six years old.[7]  Yet, as we later find out about his “slaves,” and “weird, filthy, fancy things,” humiliation is precisely what Quilty has in mind (276).  Lolita’s performance is so particularly disturbing to Humbert because it sublimates Lolita, Humbert’s cruel comedienne, into a masochist.  Humbert literally vomits in reaction to his observation of Quilty’s sadism and its effect on Lolita: “This Trapp…. walked back with false insouciance to the pool.  And as if the sun had gone out of the game, Lo slackened and slowly got up ignoring the ball that the terrier placed before her” (237).  Unlike Humbert was ever able to do, the sadist in Quilty knows how to stop the game before his partner is ready.  Like an effective ad, Quilty knows how to keep his target audience wanting more.   

Because, unlike Humbert, Quilty is able to advertise himself effectively, he emerges from the scene as the American “conquering hero.”  While Humbert casts himself as the effete, heartbroken European, Quilty is ensconced in heroic imagery.  The “wool” of Quilty’s chest “spread like a symmetrical trophy,” but Humbert says quaint 19th century terms like “countenance” and “beatitude” (237).  Humbert makes effeminate, passive motions like merely “survey[ing] the situation” or “put[ting] a gentle hand to [his] chest” (237).  He even speaks of himself using passive voice in comparison to Lolita: “and there she was, and there was I, in my robe” (237).  Thoroughly aware of his diminutive European stature, he compares his organs to “excrements in the blue sea water in Nice” (237)[8].  Quilty, of course, is no pansy.  Humbert describes him in excessively active verbs and soundplay and warrior imagery: “his naval pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood” (237).  Notice also the punch of the unvoiced consonance of /k/, /t/, and /b/ in “tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting.”  Humbert, the poor, crumpled loser, is able to answer his own question. “Who can say what heartbreaks are caused in a dog by our discontinuing a romp?”

            Humbert’s greatest heartbreak, however, is not due to Lolita’s discourse with another man, but rather her loss of discourse itself.  At the end of the novel, Lolita seems to have forgotten the “love song of wisecracks.”  Humbert prophesizes not just her diminishment, but specifically her verbal diminishment, upon his first realization of his love for her:

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita…. The Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair—…and the vulgar vocabulary – ‘revolting,’ ‘super’ ‘luscious,’ ‘goon,’ ‘drip,’ –that Lolita my Lolita, poor Catallus would lose forever” (66).


Lolita’s dominance, and thus the very tension of their love affair, relied upon her well-deployed American commonplace slicing Humbert’s intricate, but submissive, lyricism.  As we have discussed earlier, their shared tension was so exquisitely maintained because they both needed it so.  Humbert was bound not only by his affliction for his “nymphet,” but for his unbending desire to be submissive to the most cruelly vulgar –“lusciously” “revolting” – elements of her language.  Lolita too needed the wisecracking whip.  Her needs were less lustful than they were defensive; in making her captor the verbal submissive, she was able to mitigate her perceptions of his actual control of her freedom.     As Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, however, she has attained the normalcy she had come to need.  The Dolly with the “washed-out gray eyes” framed in “pink-rimmed glasses” is no longer in such need of defense mechanisms, and so her commonplaces expressly lack wit (269, 272).  Humbert makes the greatest All-American, Humphrey Bogart speech he can muster:

‘Lolita’ I said, ‘this may be neither here nor there but I have to say it.  Life is very short.  From here to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces.  It is a very short walk.  Make those twenty-five steps.  Now.  Right now.  Come just as you are.  And we shall live happily ever after’ (278).


-- but Lolita, achingly, misunderstands him.  She replies, “’You mean,’ she said opening her eyes and raising herself slightly, the snake that may strike, ‘you mean you will give us [us] that money only if I go with you to a motel.  Is that what you mean?’” (278).  Further heartbreak for the reader occurs in the dramatic irony of Humbert’s last-ditch attempts to still view her as the sadist, the “snake that may strike,” although she is most probably finding him obtuse.  Instead, upon finally understanding his request, she replies with a simple, “No, honey, no” (279).  Lolita speaks now the language of the matron.  She has become but the “faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet,” but Humbert manifests his loss most resonantly not with lyricism, but rather with the more painful realization, “She had never called me honey before” (277).  And just as Lolita had sobbed when their verbal sparring was done each night, upon grasping the loss of their love song, Humbert can do little more than cover his face and break into “the hottest tears I had ever shed” (279).  “For some reason,” Humbert becomes plagued by the image of his “radiant child of twelve, sitting on a threshold, ‘pinging’ pebbles at an empty can” (279).  He misses her nonchalant radiance; he misses the careless quips she’d fling at him.  Without a Humbert to castigate and far past the threshold of twelve, Dolly Schiller is no longer Lolita, and fades into just another American commonplace: “’Good by-aye!’ she chanted, my American sweet immortal dead love” (280).


Attachment A: The Viyella Robe Advertisement

            The following is supplied by Alfred Appel, Jr., and depicts the source of the advertisement Lolita affixes to her bedroom wall and labels, “H.H.”  This advertisement is discussed on pages 16-20 of this paper.


Attachment B: The Coppertone Girl Advertisement Campaign

            The following images and explanation are supplied by wikipedia.org and refer to the Coppertone Girl Advertisement campaign.  A discussion of Lolita’s attempt to mimic this troupe is found on pages 18-20.  Note especially the sections in boldface.

Coppertone girl


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Original Coppertone ad.


Original Coppertone ad.


“Coppertone is the brand name for a suntan lotion, owned by Schering-Plough HealthCare Products Inc.  It dates to 1944, when pharmacist Benjamin Green invented a lotion to darken tans. The company became famous the following year when it introduced the Coppertone girl, an advertisement showing a young blonde girl in pig-tails in shock as a Scottish Terrier puppy sneaks up behind her and pulls down her blue swimsuit bottoms, exposing her pale white derriere as opposed to her tanned body. Accompanying the ads was the impish slogan, “Don't be a paleface!” This ad was created in 1959, not 1945.

Modern Coppertone girl icon

Modern Coppertone girl icon

“The original artist, Joyce Ballantyne Brand, created this iconic image using her daughter Cheri Irwin as the model. Cheri is presently employed as an aerobics instructor in Ocala, Florida. Later, Jodie Foster made her acting debut as the Coppertone girl in a television commercial, when she was 3 years old.

At the turn of the 21st century, Coppertone revised drawings of the Coppertone Girl so that they would be less revealing in an era of heightened sensitivity regarding pedophilia. Some recent versions show only the girl's lower back, as opposed to her buttocks (see the current icon, to the left) or wearing a T-shirt, a hat, and holding a bottle of Coppertone” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coppertone).

Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir.  The Annotated Lolita.  Alfred Appel, Jr., Ed.  New York: Random House, 1991. 1-457.

Appel, Alfred, Jr.  “Notes.” The Annotated Lolita.  New York: Random House, 1991.  319-456.

“Coppertone Girl.” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coppertone  4, May 2007.



Works Consulted

Gabbard, Krin.  “The Circulation of Sado-Masochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts.” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. 1 (1997) (no pagination).

[1] Due to the confines of this paper, I will discuss but not explicitly prove the existence of sadomasochistic power dynamics.  For a more extensive discussion on dominance/submission and sadomasochism, refer to Krin Gabbard’s “The Circulation of Sado-Masochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts” in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts.

[2] The use of “dick” to connote “penis” dates back to the 1891 in John S. Farmer’s book Slang and its Analogues, Past and Present; it was most probably popularized in Henry Miller’s 1934 Tropic of Cancer (OED).

[3] The comparison to girl scout and 4-H rhetoric was pointed out in class by Jennie Rae.

[4] Please refer to Attachment A on page 24.

[5] Even when Humbert understands that he should appropriate Lolita’s mass-market language, he cannot appreciate it enough to successfully mimic it: “Come and kiss your old man….[the reader will notice what pains I took to speak Lo’s tongue], you swooned to records of the number one throb-and-sob idol of your coevals [Lo: of my what?  Speak English”]… But now, I am just your old man, a dream dad protecting his dream daughter….  tight zippered Philistines. I am your father, and I am speaking English, and I love you” (149).

[6] Please see Attachment B on page 24.

[7] Note also, that Lolita plays with a dog, but not a puppy as does the Coppertone girl.  Both the terrier and Lolita are too old for this game.

[8] A play here on both Humbert’s “Europeanness” and his relegation to the “nice” guy.