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Ingham, J.M. (2002). Primal Scene and Misreading in Nabokov's Lolita. Am. Imago, 59(1):27-52.

(2002). American Imago, 59(1):27-52

Primal Scene and Misreading in Nabokov's Lolita

John M. Ingham

In one of the most mischievous novels in the English language, Vladimir Nabokov weaves an enigmatic tale about a precocious early adolescent and a middle-aged pedophile with “a fancy prose style.” Humbert loves Lolita, or at least his artful image of her. Meanwhile, the mysterious Quilty, playwright and pornographer, shadows the mismatched couple and reads Humbert's mind. Humbert loses Lolita to Quilty. Eventually, Humbert catches up with Quilty and murders him, or so it seems. Finally, Humbert recounts the whole affair in his fancy prose and dies of a broken heart.

Lolita parodies classic romantic stories about ill-fated passion and struggles with Doppelgänger, it turns in on itself in self-parody of the artist manqué; and it parodies psychoanalysis, especially oedipal theory. While these elements are apparent, just what Nabokov was trying to accomplish with them, if anything, is far from clear. Nearly fifty years since the publication of Lolita (1955), and despite much scholarly exegesis, the novel remains a perplexing read. One possibility is that the parody, literary allusions, and wordplay represent nothing more than an especially strong form of literary aestheticism. It seems more likely, however, that the novel conceals an inner design or thesis. Nabokov himself likens Lolita to a “riddle” with an “elegant” solution (1990, 16), and he warns his readers to expect not only wordplay and artifice, but also deceit bordering on “diabolism” (1967, 289). In this paper, I try to work through the deception to an idea about the Lolita riddle.

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