Just to let you know that I’ve posted a few exemplary creative adaptations of Queneau’s anecdote. Thanks to the students for allowing me to share these. I hope to have all the Exercises that were submitted on time back to you by Tuesday. If you haven’t yet submitted your assignment, remember that Tuesday is your last chance (barring exceptional circumstances–in which case you need to contact me asap).
Below is a fairly long clarification (I hope) of unreliability. But first, for Tuesday, in addition to all the Lolita reading you have to do, please read and try to understand these lines from “Pale Fire” from the poet John Shade, one of the characters in Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire. In many ways, this is a reader’s guide to Nabokov’s art–his use of metafiction and involution, his interest in the play between ideal and real, his belief in the beauty and recognition of the dangers of art, and of course his wordplay:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky…. (1-4)
Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view…. (13-18)
If you want to see what I’ve omitted, the whole poem is given here. Remember that this is just part of a larger novel. In the context of Lolita, I think the two passages in bold are the most significant. The first gets back to the recurring issues of trying to see beyond the bars of one’s cage (later in the poem, John Shade actually admits that “we are most artistically caged” ). The second is crucial too, getting at the issue of those grey areas in moral issues. Though morality pertains to deal in the dualness of “right” and “wrong,” in practical life it inevitably involves shades and nuances (thus John Shade is a gentle and harmless doppelgänger of Humbert –the first being obviously related to the “gradual” but Humbert too means “shady”–think the colour umber or the French ombre). We will discuss these issues next class.
We will also address the issue of unreliable narration, but now we will be collating some of the evidence against Humbert. Unreliability, as we saw in class today, is a slippery concept. (See also the comments to this and other posts.) Below is a not-too-short discussion of what is means, and I hope it’ll help you as you struggle to navigate the complexities of Humbert Humbert’s seductive rhetoric. Perhaps my glossary on this site will prove helpful too, especially for terms like “implied author.” Many people assume that a narrator who tells lies or who is unlikeable is unreliable, but this is not how the term is used in literary criticism, where it means something quite specific. The term was proposed in 1961 by Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction:
I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work …, unreliable when he does not. It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony, and they are thus “unreliable” in the sense of being potentially deceptive. But difficult irony is not sufficient to make a narrator unreliable. Nor is unreliability ordinarily a matter of lying…. It is most often a matter of what [Henry] James calls insouciance [carelessness]; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the [implied] author denies him. Or, as in Huckleberry Finn, the narrator claims to be naturally wicked while the [implied] author silently praises his virtues behind his back. (154-55.)
Now, this is a difficult concept (and I should mention that I’m not coming even close to covering the nuances and problematics involved in the concept: if you’re curious, click here). First, note that I’ve inserted editorial square brackets, especially when Booth refers to the “author.” I’ve added “implied” because it’s best to leave the flesh-and-blood author out of it. The “implied author” is a terribly complicated and not universally accepted notion, so for simplicity where it says “implied author” you could simply read “the text.”
A useful but maybe misleading way to think about it is to imagine that Othello were a novel narrated by Iago, or that King Lear were a novel narrated by Edmund. When we watch or read one of these plays, we know that no matter how eloquent Iago is in his amazing soliloquies, his moral norms and values are at odds with the norms and values of the play as a whole. Now picture Othello: The Novel, featuring Iago as the narrator. The main difference here is that in the play Iago is only one of several speaking parts, whereas in the novel he controls most of the text. So how can the text “tell on” the narrator? Isn’t the narrator the text? Not quite: the text can, so to speak, encode ironies into the narrator’s words without the narrator noticing what he’s “really” saying, and the careful reader can pick up on these clues and decode them. This is what Nabokov makes us do throughout Lolita.
Another good example is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). It’s worth quoting because Huck Finn is unreliable and good (unreliability doesn’t mean you’re a villain or bad person). The context is this: Huck Finn is drifting down the Mississippi with Jim, a runaway slave. They’ve become friends and look out for each other. Once, Huck lied to some bounty hunters who were looking for Jim in order to protect his friend from being taken back into slavery.
Now he’s the kicker: Huck feels terrible about having protected Jim because he’s been raised in a society where Christianity has been used to justify slavery, and he therefore not surprisingly believes that those who help slaves escape “go to everlasting fire.” He feels that it’s been moral weakness on his part to protect Jim when he “knows” that the “right thing” would have been to betray Jim. Then Huck gets a second chance to do just that. He writes a letter telling Jim’s owner where he can be found and captured. Then he waffles about whether to send it:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog. (284-85)
Huck Finn thinks he is making a kind of devil’s bargain. His vow to “take up wickedness” and do it “whole hog” are versions of Satan’s vow in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my Good” (Book IV.109-110). But the context is quite different: by accepting evil as his good, Satan is rejecting God, and the norms of Paradise Lost are pretty clear on this point: rejecting God makes you wrong. If Paradise Lost assumes that God’s side is the right side, and that to choose another path is therefore wrong, Huckleberry Finn is clearly an anti-slavery text, which means that when Huck refers to the thought of not betraying Jim as “awful thoughts” and “wickedness” he is speaking against the norms of the text. You need only look at the long paragraph above to see plenty of evidence that Jim is a good guy who’s been kind and protective towards Huck. Yet Huck can’t help but think, because of his upbringing, that not betraying Jim is wrong. So because his heart tells him to stick with Jim instead, Huck can only see it as a willing act of self-damnation: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
Twain put it nicely, I think, when he says that in this moment “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat” (qtd. in Kaufman 463). Huck’s heart is sound because it instinctively pushes him to protect his friend Jim despite the protests of his “deformed” moral conscience, which tells him that protecting an escaped slave is wrong. But poor Huck is unable to see that he’s done a good thing, so his insistence that he’s done a bad thing makes him unreliable: we need to read through his words in order to see what the text really means.
One of the difficulties making this case convincingly is because we all (I’m assuming) agree that slavery is bad, so it can be hard to tell the difference between “the narrator is wrong because he says slavery is right, and I hate slavery” (this would be our reaction even to a sincere pro-slavery text, where the narrator would be pro-slavery but not unreliable–because he speaks for the norms of that pro-slavery text) and “Huck is wrong because he says slavery is right, and the text gives us evidence that he’s wrong in saying so” (this is our discovery that the narrator is unreliable). The same is true of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, of course.
The take-away lesson from all this is that you need strong evidence to show that the narrator is unreliable. With a naive narrator like Huck Finn, it is not hard to see the evidence. With a sophisticated and erudite narrator like Humbert, however, readers are never safe from being swept up in his gorgeous prose and convinced by his fallacious arguments, and thus overlooking the ample evidence Nabokov placed throughout the text to undermine Humbert’s assessments, values, and arguments. As you read on, then, keep a keen eye out for evidence that would stand up in court: it has to prove or strongly suggest that the text means something opposite to what Humbert says. Happy detective work!
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Kaufman, Will. “Mark Twain’s Deformed Conscience.” American Imago 63.4 (2006): 463-74.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room. Ed. Thomas H. Luxon. 04 June 2015.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Putnam, 1962.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper, 1912.