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Structuralism In Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1656 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It has been said the Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. And while this is poetry not practicality, it does however speak to something that is, for lack of a better word, universal. Structure. Engineers will say that everything has a structure either biological or technological. Science speaks of mathematical ones. Language is no different. All these various disciplines are notes on the same chord, harmonizing in their definition. Whatever the field, the sound is the same. Structure is the name given to that which binds the constituent parts together, thus lending an amalgamated strength to the whole. This strength allows whatever is being structured to make the movements dictated by its nature without falling part. In this case, it is Lolita. This essay will analyze not only the content but also the form of this novel through the perspective of structuralism as first articulate by Saussure and introduced to English by Jonathan Culler. Because structuralist narrative theory concerns itself with what gives strength to the core of a work, it is best suited to dive beneath the deconstructionist surface of Lolita. Aiding in this exploration is binary opposition, a keystone of structuralism that is fundamental to an analysis of Nabokov’s narrative. Ultimately, it will the task of the conclusion to function as a diver. For it is the reader that sits in the small fishing boat, awaiting the return of the theory from the depths. It is the end that that will ascend, with what it hopes are pearls of wisdom. But it up to the sitter to hold up to the sun what came from the dark and see if value can be discerned.

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As mentioned above, Nabokov’s novel has routinely been misconstrued as falling within the auspices of deconstructionism, a literary theory that in many ways stands diametrically opposed to structuralism. Because Lolita draws exquisite pleasure from parodying the trappings of novels from a multitude of genres and exposing the absurdity of those structures, it can be seen superficially as a deconstructionist text. A deconstructionist reading of Lolita errs because as a theory, it cannot grasp what is the crux of the novel. What is missed with this analysis is the key idea that complete subversion of structural being in Nabokov’s book is in fact its own structure. More succinctly, the process of subversion itself generates structure. It is this creation that will be the primary focus of this analysis. While it is true that this structure stands in stark contrast to what one would expect to find in a romance, road trip, psychoanalytic or “great American” novel (all of which are imitated for the purpose of mockery in Lolita), it is still however a structure, with all the constituent mechanisms of lampooning forming it. The concept of structuralism basically entails any attempt to view a specific entity as a system of interconnected mechanisms, all working together to create a whole. Noted academic Jonathan Culler explains that “Structuralism is thus based…on the realization that if human actions or productions have meaning there must be an underlying system of distinctions and conventions which make this meaning possible.” (Culler, 56). Within literary theory, structuralism holds that all literary texts must be comprised of, fittingly enough, some structure. Like all structures, there are rules that the text must, and does, follow. More pointedly for the text being examined here, the theory also holds that works that intend to subvert a traditional structure are not devoid of structure themselves, but rather exist as a new structure. This last point is of particular importance for Lolita and the elements that compose its structure.

Before returning to the primary focus, it is useful to segue into an examination of some of these composing elements. The first one that the reader is introduced to is the foreword. Ostensibly written by a Dr. John Ray Jr. but in actuality penned by the author, the foreword is at times sarcastic, always overblown and delights in giving away the novels ending. Another one of these parodying particles is Nabokov’s consistent use of overwhelmingly casual, and at times vaguely dismissive, descriptions and explanations. While in “genuine” novels, a tragedy such as the death of the protagonists’ mother might be treated with some semblance of reverence, in Lolita the entirety of that even is condensed into a single sentence: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three” (Nabokov, 10). Another example of this throwaway nature (an examiner can have his pick, the novel is ripe to bursting with examples of the sort) is in the names Nabokov assigns to some places. In the vein, it is of no surprise that the location where the titular girl first has sex with a boy is called Lake Climax. Many events also occur for plot purposes as opposed to acts of the characters volition. Nabokov, parodying the need for a protagonist to have a tragic backstory, has his (a man named Humbert Humbert) childhood loved killed by a random disease for the sole purpose of setting up a mockery of tragedy. Much like the death of Humbert’s mother, the death of his childhood sweetheart eschews convention and is only a ten word phrase bolted onto the tail end of a run on sentence. Nabokov continues the pastiche by taking aim at romance and road trip novels by having his romantic road trip be that of scheming, appalling pedophile and his child sex slave driving across America because the community in which Humbert (the aforementioned pedophile) abused his “daughter” was becoming increasingly suspicious of the pair. It is now time to return to the body of the examination with a newfound clearness as to how, when taken as whole, the ideas behind these features form the basis of Lolita’s aesthetic, and this aesthetic in turn creates the book’s structure.

When examining the structure of Lolita correctly, it is impossible to ignore one of the most integral concepts of structuralism, binary opposition. Binary opposition originates with the father of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure. For Saussure, this takes place through his discussion of “concept” and “sound image” as the psychological parts that comprise a linguistic sign (Saussure, 61). Saussure uses complementary examples, such as tree/arbor (the numerator-denominator placing is of utmost importance) but this composition of a linguistic sign can also be comprised of opposed terms when placed in Saussurean power dynamic. This binary opposition is important to Structuralism because according to Saussure “The entire mechanism of language…is based on oppositions” (Saussure, 70). What Saussure means by this is the the light that opposites shine on one another are in turn crucial to illuminating how language and culture (among other things) are structured. Lolita draws heavily from this strain of thinking within structuralism by setting up a system wherein one object or character is meant to illustrate the nature of another through mirroring or the creation of an inverse relationship. These relationships, both in the literal and literary senses, are often a mirror in their own way.

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* Perhaps the finest example of the binary opposition inherit to Lolita is the diametric relationship between protagonist and antagonist and how they both relate to Lolita herself. While the protagonist is Humbert Humbert, the antagonist is the man who takes Lolita away from Humbert and whose pursuit comprises the better part of the last third of the novel. His name is Clare Quilty. On the most simplistic level, the mirror is an obvious protagonist/antagonist duality, but that is mere character development and any discussion concerning that point would be an anesthetizing intellectual lobotomy. No, far more interesting is how the two men interact with the object of their affection, Lolita, in ways that are as similar as they are different. Given that Lolita is the prism through which all the other characters’ actions pass through, the dichotomy of her relations with Humbert and Quilty serves nicely as a prime example of binary opposition and mirroring. Humbert is capable of feeling a genuine love for Lolita years after his pedophilia would suggest that he should not. This is seen when he visits her once she is grown up and married and proclaims to the reader that “until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth…I love this Lolita”. In contrast to this capacity for sincere love long after sexual desire is no longer psychologically possible, Quilty has enormous apathy to attempting to summon up old memories of her time with him. This is in spite of the fact that he was being forced to at gunpoint by Humbert (Nabokov 217). What this stark contrast allows for is the realization that Humbert has developed and changed over the course of the events of the story, since this progression falls into line with the traditional process of a hero’s journey, the audience is more inclined to dole out a measure of salvation to him. Conversely, Quilty remains a constant through the novel, and as such retains a consistent villainy. Nabokov has this relationship expounded by Lolita herself, but brilliantly using Humbert’s voice when he writes from Lolita’s perspective that the main difference between her two torments was that “He [Quilty] broke my heart. You [Humbert] merely broke my life” (Nabokov 202). This is but one example of a book replete with mirroring and inverse relationships. Furthermore, Nabokov’s use, and the readers interpretation of, a myriad of Saussurean oppositions deepens the understanding of Lolita’s overarching structure.


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