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Sarah Stevenson

Dr. Simcox
Communication Theory
November 25, 2013
Guilt and Redemption in Lolita

No villain in all of literature can charm us with public communication using the same
level of sophistication as the man who calls himself Humbert Humbert. This character, created
by Vladimir Nabokov, has a frightfully enchanting way with words, and he uses this intellectual
talent to attempt the persuasion of an audience. The main body of Nabokovs novel Lolita
consists of Humbert Humberts memoir about his relationship with a young girl named Dolores
Haze. After spending some time in a mental asylum under the observation of psychoanalysts, the
academically gifted Humbert enters the real world and falls under a peculiar enchantment with
Dolores; he quickly marries her mother in order to draw nearer to his new object of obsession,
and finds that she appears subtly willing to indulge his appetite. In the span of a few years
following the suspiciously sudden death of Humberts new wife, he and his stepdaughter, whom
he affectionately refers to as Lolita, travel across America and engage in a disturbing sexual
relationship. In Humberts record of his discovery of Lolita, his travels, and the emotional frenzy
he constantly experiences due to his fervent love, he directly addresses his readers as if they were
a jury. His initial task is to persuade us of his innocence and to convince us that we should not
judge him as a pedophilic criminal, but as a profound, erudite artist. His extraordinary use of
language is meant to manipulate the reader into believing that he is driven to lust after Lolita
because of his intense appreciation for beauty rather than his sick depravity. Therefore, as he

recounts in detail his physical and emotional journey with Dolores Haze, he hopes to narrate the
story in such a way that will change our attitudes toward sex offenders. Because of his fancy
rhetoric, the readers are often inclined to sympathize with him and perhaps even identify with his
desire for aesthetic transcendence.
Humberts memoir, which he composes in prison, is an important communication artifact
because of its complicated representation of the purging of guilt. He is fascinating to study due to
his strange, vacillating ways of relieving his conscience. The elements that complicate his
characteristics and language the most are his love of art and his inner need to act in a drama;
these are distorted fantasies over which he wishes to have complete dominance. While he cannot
manage to control life and the actions of those around him, he at least is able to display an
impressive power over words; he therefore must capture his epic love for Lolita within the
context of art and present his case to the audience within the most ardent depiction of the
glorious, painful events. The questions that I intend to study are these: How does Humberts idea
of himself being part of a dramatic work of art affect the way in which he purges guilt? How
does the directing of his extraordinary narration to an audience function as his attempt to relieve
his conscience and achieve redemption? Why is he not successful? Humbert provides a unique,
cognitively convoluted example of public communication, so it is necessary to analyze his
rhetoric as a way of gaining insight about how a person with psychological idiosyncrasies might
endeavor to deliver a persuasive message. Perhaps this particular character study is not
appropriate to apply to real people, but I believe that by analyzing the meaning of Nabokovs text
and treating the memoir as a valuable communication artifact, I am able to offer insight that
pertains to the concepts of drama and art within the realm of psychological study.

Literature scholars have written profound essays that I can relate to this topic of guilt and
redemption in Nabokovs fictional world. In Lolita and the Dangers of Fiction, Mathew
Winston places emphasis on Humberts role as an artistic rhetorician. He explains the duality of
the narrator by examining Humberts method of aesthetically appealing to the audience despite
our knowledge that he is a depraved man: the murderer, the madman, and the pedophile is
balanced against the artistic creator, stylist, lover of language, and master of literary allusion
(421). Winstons observation that Humbert tends to view himself as a character in a work of
fiction (423) corresponds with Elizabeth Powers reflection that, along with composing a
persuasive literary narrative, Humbert employs the language of filmmaking to transform his
world into a work of art (Power 105); in doing this, he confirms that he lives in a fantasy world
and for strange psychological reasons needs to construct a grandiose drama by embellishing his
memories with beautiful images. Winston aptly explains that, in order to cope with his guilt,
Humbert needs to memorialize his love for Lolita with the written word, which he presents to his
reader in colorful language that he hopes will purge him of guilt in one way or another. To
summarize the pedophiles longing for redemption through this written public address in which
he spills forth his agony over the loss of Lolita, Winston writes, Repentant and remorseful, he
glorifies her and compensates himself by writing a book about his love for her (425). Of
particular significance to the audience is that Humbert desperately asks us to sympathize with
him by charming us with powerful writing, a medium over which his intellectual mind is able to
exert full manipulation. When Winston writes, Our dilemma is that we simultaneously have to
evaluate a mans life and criticize his artistic creation, (426-427) he means that Humbert is
cunningly, although perhaps genuinely, begging the audience to look past his depravity by
admiring his poetically penitent rhetoric.

Searching high and Lo: unholy quests for Lolita is an article by Jennifer L. Jenkins that
describes Humbert as a passionate pilgrim seeking something akin to a holy grail in the form of
Lolita. Jenkins seems to be one of the readers whom Humberts language manages to enchant;
she emphasizes his repentance and, more importantly, the sense that he was powerless beneath
the gaze of young Dolores Haze. By saying, The still point in Humberts turning world is Lolita,
the force that draws him in and sets him spinning in a celebration of language and imagery,
(237) she is casting a positive light upon Humbert. First of all, the word celebration has
pleasant connotations; secondly, by describing Lolita as a force that draws him in, Jenkins is
removing blame from Humbert and saying that he was quite helpless when confronted by this
stunning temptress. A further way in which Jenkins seems to provide the sympathy that Humbert
seeks from his reader is her claim, Visual and olfactory sensations crowd Humberts already
overstimulated brain (218). Again, she attributes his thrust into sexual desire with forces
external to his own inherent wickedness. Humberts language, which she acknowledges is
ornate and self-consciously dramatic in style, intent, and execution, (122) successfully
motivates Jenkins to choose a rather sympathetic perspective of the imprisoned man who
beseeches forgiveness. She follows the notion that Humbert is a poor soul who seeks a
satisfaction in body, mind, and soul through pursuing a girl who becomes a sacred object to him.
Jenkins does not give attention to the corruption found in Humberts common method of using
language to present himself as blameless; rather, she only acknowledges his beautiful repentance
for his misdoings. She epitomizes an audience member who sees Humbert in the way that he
wants to be seen.
An analysis of Humberts narration that I find to be helpfully thorough in its examination
of duality is Amit Marcuss The self-deceptive and the other-deceptive narrating character: the

case of Lolita. He questions whether we should look at Humberts language as depicting pure
self-deception, or if we should see his language as the rhetoric of deception. What he means
by referring to the memoir as self-deceptive is that, as Humbert is reflecting on the past, he truly
goes through a tormented transformation of heart that elicits sympathy from the reader. The
meaning of rhetoric of deception is that the narrating character is extremely aware that he is
exhibiting a change in moral position. The position in question is the technique he chooses for
dealing with the guilt he feels over his sexual crimes. Either he consciously uses language to
depict himself as innocent, or he consciously uses language to depict himself as repentant. While
purging himself of guilt, he reaches out to the jury by relying on a convention characteristic of
various aesthetic theories, distinguishing men of tasteexceptional individuals with an
extraordinary ability to discriminate between the beautiful and uglyfrom the rest of humanity,
who lack taste (19). Unlike Jenkins, who emphasizes the outside forces that overwhelm
Humberts senses and launch him into a heartbreaking pilgrimage, Marcus states, The narrating
characters contemplation of Dolores blurs the distinction between external and internal reality
(190). This particular audience member realizes that the aesthetic qualities of the memoir warp
our impressions of his forced sexual encounters with Lolita, contributing to the rhetorical
impact of his words (190).
Dramatism is the perfect communication theory to apply to Humberts memoir, because
he truly sees his life as a drama. Craig R. Smith encapsulates Kenneth Burkes assertions, saying
that he realized that many speakers are successful because they have the ability to use dramatic
techniques in the rhetorical arena (Smith 319). To begin the process of looking through the lens
of Dramatism, Burke recognizes the concept of identification as the speakers effort to assert
common ground between himself and the audience (Griffin 300); to be effective in persuasion,

the speaker wants to create as many perceived similarities as possible, achieving

consubstantiation by intertwining his own substance with the listeners substance. Humberts
ambition to form a speaker-audience connection exemplifies Burkes theory, because he knows
that to meet someones needs on their termsto achieve consubstantialityincreases the
probability that the message will be accepted and understood, then subsequently embraced and
acted upon (Smuddle 427). To establish identification, Humbert aestheticizes and
intellectualizes his language for the reader to obscure the despicability of his crimes. He hopes
his scholarly language will speak powerfully to an audience of people who appreciate his tragic
passion for beauty.
When we utilize Burkes Dramatistic Pentad to analyze how Humbert tries to persuade an
audience, we must direct our attention to the five crucial elements of the human drama: act,
scene, agent, agency, and purpose (Griffin 301). The act is the action that was taken to make the
drama, also known as the what in the pentad. In Lolita, the act can be defined as Humberts
recording of his memories, specifically the memories of his idealized yet tumultuous relationship
with Dolores Haze. The scene of Burkes pentad constitutes the when and where of the
speech, in which Burke included not only the time and the physical surroundings, but the
backdrop of values (Smith 319). For Humbert, the scene must be defined within the context of
his time in prison and the medium of literature, which he chooses as a method of persuading an
unknown audience. The who of the pentad is termed the agent, also described as an actor to
fit the terminology of a drama. Of course, the sentimental actor is Humbert, who narrates the text
with a distinctive, eccentric voice. The agency is Burkes insertion of the how into the list of
dramatic questions, and this term examines how the act was achieved (Smith 320). For Humbert,
the agency of his speech is his intelligent, artistic approach to language. The purpose is the

why of the act, which in Humberts case, begins as his desire to convince the audience that he
is an innocent, sensitive man who did not truly sin against Dolores Haze; the act develops into
his desire to persuade the audience that he is sincerely remorseful.
One of the reasons Dramatism so easily pertains to Lolita is that in the text, Humbert
really believes that his life is just one grandiose, poignant theatrical production. He describes
himself as being akin to a celebrity, a great big handsome hunk of movieland (Nabokov 39)
whom the little Lolita naturally falls for. Humberts knowledge of Lolitas love of movies is
diabolical when he kisses her and says, I knew she would let me do so, and even close her eyes
as Hollywood teaches (48). Humbert claims that when Lolita was taking part in play rehearsals
at her new school, she became irrevocably stage-struck (200). This is a trait that Humbert
appreciates, since he sees himself as an actor upon a stage, with Lolita as his starlet (255).
While Lolita eventually evades Humberts grotesquely colorful world to find a colorless reality,
Humbert continues to abide in the rich Technicolor (156) of his fantasy, where he is still a great
actor. The act of performing is part of Humberts essence since he seems so averse to confronting
his cruelty and uncovering his core identity, even insisting on the use of the perfect, alliterative
pseudonym. He always sees himself on a stage or screen, with events unfolding fatedly and
sometimes appearing magically scripted. Even his enemy, Quilty, is living in a fairytale land on
Grimm Road, where Humbert arrives to enact a meticulously premeditated theatrical climax.
The Guilt-Redemption Cycle is Burkes classification of the root of all rhetoric. He was
convinced that the ultimate motivation of all public speaking is to purge ourselves of the guilt
from which we are constantly suffering due to the noxious feelings that are so intrinsically
inescapable within the human psyche (Griffin 302). Since Burke emphasizes the unique human
ability to create, use, and abuse language as a way of relieving guilt, Humbert is an appropriate

character to analyze in regards to this yearning for redemption. The two terms that Burke uses to
describe our methods of purging guilt through public speaking are victimage and
mortification (304). Someone who uses the process of victimage designates blame to an
external enemy, whereas someone who chooses mortification will confess his or her sin and
request forgiveness. The fascinating aspect of Humberts homily is that he befuddles the reader
by using both of these methods of alleviating the guilt he feels over his sexual relationship with
Dolores. Burke would obviously define Humberts entire memoir as a divulgence of guilt, but he
would have to apply both victimage and mortification to explain his speech. It seems that Burke
normally classifies guilt-purging with one term or the other, but in evaluating someone as
complex as Humbert, it is apparent that we must look at both ends of the spectrum.
Convincing the audience of his victimage is the predominant ambition of Humberts
language in the first part of Lolita. He wishes to gain sympathy for his actions by attributing his
misdeeds to external forces that are beyond his control. His power over language allows him to
create poetic descriptions of his beloved stepdaughter that he hopes will persuade the audience to
see him as a helpless aesthete. These poetic descriptions do not depict Dolores Haze as a flawless
idol; his words of choice imply that she is the one who actively exerts sensual, wicked forces
upon his passively artistic soul. Burke would say that Humberts rhetoric about Lolita consists
words that fall subservient to what he calls a Devil term (301). This word is nymphet, and
through identifying Dolores as such a creature, Humbert consciously paints her as the true
perpetrator. After being overpowered by the ecstasy of discovering a young female who closely
resembles Annabel Lee, the girl whom he adored as a boy, he recognizes traits in Dolores that are
completely opposite from the angelically innocent girl of his youth (Nabokov 125). Devil is a

perfect word to apply to Humberts use of persuasive language, because he depicts Lo as being a
hellish creature completely separate from the purity of childhood.
Humbert is famous for verbalizing his experience of agony within the maddening world
of nymphet love (135), and while he certainly seeks to derive heavenly ecstasy from Lolita, he
continually degrades her in the minds of the audience by emphasizing the devilish qualities he
perceives. This begins by his immediate equating of the word nymphet with a demoniac
nature (16). Far from a divine virgin, he says that Lolita possesses a nymphean evil which
breathes through her every pore (125). He implies his own position of blamelessness by
presenting himself as a respectable man who would never touch ordinary children, but who
cannot resist sexual urges when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child (19-20).
In his object of fancy he sees a little deadly demon with fantastic power (17), as though she
is a witch who possesses the magic of Satan. He removes guilt from his own soul and places it
upon Lolita by asserting that he is unable to fight the enchanted hold she has over him. Humbert
attempts to convince the reader that he is just a gentle, sensitive man who is helplessly bewitched
by this otherworldly girl who has a diabolical glow and sinful feet (214). While Lo lures him
with her dreamy childishness, she also expresses an eerie vulgarity (44) that Humbert
describes as a hurtful plague that often leaves him heartbroken. She is a temptress, an enemy to
spiritual uprightness, dangling an Eden-red apple in front of poor Humberts face and
beckoning him to fall to the desires of the flesh.
Deep into Humberts memoir, as his language lets him play the role of the devil-childs
victim, he appears to find that this particular method of purging guilt is unqualified to achieve
true redemption. Therefore, we see a blatant shift from victimage to mortification, as Humbert
reveals his need to repent of his sins and find divine forgiveness. While his stages of placing

blame on Lolita were meant to earn sympathy from his reader through the affirmation of
innocence, he gradually seeks a deeper sympathy by morally humbling himself. He admits that
he himself is something of a devil, saying that the sensualist in me (a great and insane monster)
had no objection to some depravity in his prey (124). Here, he is attributing the sinful acts not
only to the external force of nymphet love, but also to his internal pedophilic desires, using the
word monster as a Devil term for himself. Although he seemed as if he only wanted to
rationalize with us about his guiltlessness, he displays a strange duality when he does not hesitate
to identify himself as a villain who fans the flames of iniquity. Although he might initially plead
his respectability, he cannot ignore the devilish dog within him. Even by saying that he is trying
to sort out both the portion of hell and the portion of heaven that he experiences within his love
of Lolita, he implies that by glorifying her as an idol and degrading her as a demon, he has
forced her to embody the conflict between good and evil. After losing Lolita to Quilty and
contemplating his wretchedness, he displays to the audience that he truly bears the guilt of
corruption and even convinces us that he has turned his gaze to heaven: I hope to deduce from
my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being (282). He clearly acknowledges the blame he
carries, saying that he has actively wounded her in unforgiveable ways: Alasnothing could
make my Lolita forget the foul lust I inflicted upon her (283). Humbert presents himself to us as
a genuinely repentant man whose soul needs to be saved by God, but he fails to find salvation
due to the debilitating torture of guilt. Interestingly, he does not lose grasp of his linguistic
prowess, thereby implying that, even at his stage of repentance, he is still attempting to alter our
perceptions of pedophiles through his poetic language.
What Burke calls God-terms also come into play in Humberts speech; this is the word
a speaker uses to which all other positive words are subservient (Griffin 301). Strangely,

Lolita transforms into the God-term. For instance, the image of a tangle of thorns, (Nabokov
9) which is associated with Christ, encapsulates the tragedy of the character named Dolores
Haze. While Amit Marcus assumes that Humbert is applying this clear allusion to the story of
Christs agony to himself, I believe that he is applying the term to Lolita. This complicates her
identity, since, in addition to being demonized by Humbert, she is also made out to be Christlike. When Humbert visits Lolita when she is older and married, he makes it clear that her
childhood and happiness were sacrificed for the sake of his lust, likening her to Christ when he
writes, [She] flattened herself as best she could to let me pass, and was crucified there for a
moment, looking down, smiling down at the threshold, hollow-cheeked with round pommetes,
her watered-milk-white arms outspread on the wood (270). He describes how in her childhood
years when he would initiate sexual intimacy with her, she would behave as a martyr: oh, no,
Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven (270), similar to Christs agonized pleading and sighing
to God when he was on the cross dying for the sins of the world. Ultimately dying during
childbirth on Christmas day, Lolita seems to suffer a martyrs fate, albeit without resurrection. In
a moment of poignancy, Humbert gives the child a voice within his narrative when he recalls her
utterance, You know whats so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own
(284). While words and phrases that imply torture and martyrdom may not seem positive, they
are still God-terms at an extremely profound level, fitting into Burkes fascinating love of
religious language.
Humbert explicitly tells the reader than he longs for redemption, which he feels has been
taken from him when he loses Lolita to another man. Humberts ultimate downfall is that he sees
his life as a piece of art, a drama in which he is only a heroic yet supremely tragic actor. Because
of this, he cannot find genuine spiritual solace; he renders himself as nothing more than a

fictional character. He even admits that he fabricated the names of the characters in the novel, the
name Dolores Haze being a particular symbol of his fluctuation between mortification and
victimage. Dolores means sorrowful, which signifies the pain Humbert inflicted upon his
stepdaughter and the consequential repentance for the internal monster that committed the crimes
and ruined the childs life. Haze implies the external force that clouded Humberts mind from
the start, which he accentuates with the language of victimage. Therefore, Lolita herself is a
personification of the contrast between Humberts two processes of expelling guilt before an
In my study of Humberts memoir as a public communication artifact, I have inferred that
it may be appropriate to apply Burkes Theory of Dramatism to the study of psychological
idiosyncrasy. If nothing else, I offer an interpretation of Nabokovs creation that can aid an
audience in reading Lolita; however, I can also suggest that this memoir can affect our
perceptions of real-life psychology cases. I have concluded that a mentally deranged person who
also happens to have fantastic power over words can twist an audiences views of guilt and seek
redemption in convoluted ways that surpass Burkes paradigms. Humbert uses the influential
language of victimage to manipulate the readers perception of the circumstances, and then he
switches to flowery mortification to inspire compassion. In the end, his deepest goal is to find
forgiveness from the reader, but more importantly, from God. However, his role as a mere player
in a drama warps his spiritual identity and renders both himself and Lolita unredeemable. After
all theyve been through, they only exist within his writing, the only immortality they might
possess; therefore Humbert must implore, Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the
tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these
essential pages! Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me (129). With the analysis

of this text, I am able to demonstrate a different perspective on Dramatism because of Humberts

notion that the only refuge for his soul, as well as Lolitas, is art. What I have found by
evaluating Humberts character and motives is that, while Burke views life as being a drama, his
concept of the guilt-redemption cycle has no possibility of succeeding if the person truly views
his or her life as being a theatrical performance. If someone is unable to cope with his or her guilt
and therefore escapes reality by transforming into a fictional character, there can be no authentic,
eternal forgiveness.

Works Cited

Griffin, Em. Dramatism of Kenneth Burke. A First Look at Communication

Theory. New
York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 299-306. Kindle Edition.

Jenkins, Jennifer L. "Searching high and Lo: unholy quests for Lolita." Twentieth Century
Literature 51.2 (2005): 210+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Marcus, Amit. "The self-deceptive and the other-deceptive narrating character: the case of
Lolita." Style Summer 2005: 187+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random
House, Inc., 1995. Print.

Power, Elizabeth. "The Cinematic Art of Nympholepsy: Movie Star Culture as Loser Culture in
Nabokov's Lolita." Criticism 41.1 (1999): 101.Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Nov.

Smith, Craig R. Psychology, Dialectic, and Dramatism. Rhetoric and Human Consciousness.
Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1998.296-339. Print.

Smuddle, Peter. Implications on the Practice and Study of Kenneth Burkes Idea of Public

Relations Counsel with a Heart. Communication Quarterly, Vol. 52 No 4, Fall 2004. 420
432. Web. 16. Nov. 2013

Winston, Mathew. "Lolita' and the Dangers of Fiction." Twentieth Century Literature 21.4 (Dec.
1975): 421-427. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz and Cath
Falk. Vol. 64. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Nov.

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