Jennifer Miao Wang
Professor Nick Mount
January 29th, 2018
A large boom in the consumer industry occurred in the 40s and 50s in America, following the Roaring Twenties and the economic depression during the 30s; this created a thriving economy for United States, as well as a completely new era and culture. In this new culture, advertisement were being spewed out from every company imaginable, and the purpose of these ads were to persuade, whether subliminally or noticeably, customers and passerby to engage in the consumer culture and industry. With this theme in Lolita, a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, a parallel can be drawn. As a young girl, Dolores Haze, or as Humbert like to call her, Lolita, can be seen as a blank slate; she is malleable, and ready for anyone to make an impression on her. Humbert slowly moulds Lolita in to his ideal version of a lover, much like what the intent of an ad is to coerce consumers to give in to the seduction. Nabokov writes Dolores to be both the ad, and is ‘seducing’ in Humbert’s eyes, therefore the object of his desire, as well as the consumer, for she is slowly being coerced to becoming the model of perfection Humbert wishes to possess. Lolita discusses how the consumer culture provides instant gratification, and Nabokov compares perverse relationship between Dolores and Humbert to consumerism, and how consumerism not only depicted the life Americans lived, and their personal values, but also played a large part in the development of Humbert’s exploitation of Lolita.
Societal expectation of perfection drives individuals to unhealthily devote themselves to become the curated images that are created in advertisements. The image of a young teenage girl is the object of desire in the consumer industry, and therefore Humbert positions Lolita in that frame of the perfect image of youthfulness that many people aspire to have. In the novel, Humbert willingly gift Lolita the objects of her desire, while judging her for having these wishes. “Mentally, Humbert found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl” (148), and that “she it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster” (148); what he does not seem to realize is that after all, Dolores is in fact a young American girl, and it is perfectly standard for her to have these desires. In addition to this, she is indeed what producers are seeking for; she is the ideal consumer to purchase the unnecessary, but nonetheless desirable items that an individual spring to have an ‘all American dream’ life would obtain.
Humbert despised Lolita’s obsession with materialistic things, and many times, Lolita is only described through her materialistic wants, such as “sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth” (148). She is seen as a commodity for Humbert’s taking, and is only valued by him physically. Humbert is able to ‘bribe’ his way around Lolita by satisfying her fixation for commodities; through indulging Lolita in her desires, Humbert can simultaneously indulge himself in Lolita, and provides an outlet for his own perverted needs and derive gratification from her. The two are in an ongoing vicious circle, and the two remain prisoners to each other. Lolita lost her mother, and “she had absolutely nowhere else to go,” (142) which Humbert himself even acknowledges, which he takes advantage of this, and uses it against Lolita to satisfy his own sexual impulses. Their relationship can be equated to the relationship between consumer and producer, for the producer need the consumer to succumb to, and purchase, their products, and consumers need producers to provide them of their immediate gratification. Nabokov points out an important parallel between the two, for one is a socially acceptable practice of consumerism, while contrasting it to Humbert’s widely socially unacceptable practice of pedophilia and rape. It questions the reader to think how two relationships that are so different can end up with commonalities that are the fundamental building blocks of both relationships.
Humbert believes himself to be a cultured European aesthete, and mocks the Americans obsession of materialistic and superficial objects. However, he himself gives in to the very same actions that he looks down upon. Humbert describes Lolita as the “subject and object of every…poster” for everyone wishes for her youth, her beauty, and her spirit, which society has made everyone believe that those things slowly chip away with age and time. This comment is particularly ironic for it is clear to everyone that it is the Lolita’s innocence and young, simple mindset that allows her to be manipulated and brainwashed by Humbert’s sexual advances, and therefore, his tactics of seduction acts just as how an advertising campaign would to a consumer. Humbert is actively participating in the capitalist consumption by purchasing Lolita gifts and giving her money to overcome her resistence. Humbert’s actions can be seen as hypocritical, for he is looking down upon he very action that he is participating in. This depicts that Humbert, like a client to a prostitute, is remunerating Lolita in order for the two to take part in sexual activities, and is taking advantage of that “ideal consumer” mind, for she is easily, and does not know any better, seduced by consumeristic gifts and objects. As Humbert and Lolita’s relationship progresses, it becomes much more like a business transaction rather than a relationship. Lolita begins to demand more objects and money, and Humbert begins to reflect that he is “emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches” (184). Here, Humbert describes himself to be almost like an ATM machine, “emitting” coins to Lolita, and “vomiting riches” to keep Lolita by his side. “Lolita would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist,…as she scrambled away to hide her loot” (184). Eventually, Lolita also becomes a distinct active member in this transaction, and begins to play the same game, and Humbert has lost the control that he previously had; Lolita is able to manipulate Humbert, and it is clearly seen that Humbert is paying for him to indulge in his pleasures with Lolita.
The story of Lolita is about how an adolescent and naive little girl is manipulated and plied to be the perfect fantasy of Humbert Humbert. Using the American consumer culture as a comparison, Nabokov not only effectively showed how erroneous the actions of Humbert were, but also how many people over look similar actions in society, such as the consumeristic culture in America, because it is see as more socially acceptable. Humbert eventually falls in to the cycle of the culture as well, and becomes entangled in the very web of seduction that he despises Lolita, and the rest of Americans, for. The author uses this theme in the novel to criticize the belief many Americans have that possessing objects and materialistic things produce a feeling of significance or importance in one’s life, and that producers use that to their advantages by bombarding the public with images of the ideal perfection, and the realness of living is replaces by a false sense of belonging and worth.
Jennifer Miao Wang