Can we really be surprised that readers have overlooked Nabokov's ironies in Lolita, when Humbert Humbert is given full and unlimited control over the rhetorical resources? . . .
One of the delights of this delightful, profound book is that of watching Humbert almost make a case for himself. But Nabokov has insured that many, perhaps most, of his readers will be unsuccessful, in that they will identify Humbert with the author more than Nabokov intends. (391)
I should have distinguished more clearly between the conclusions that were derived from rhetorical inquiry and those that were simply my unargued personal commitments. . . .
And sometimes, especially in chapter thirteen, I seem to forget just how difficult it is to do justice to ethical complexities, in our reading experience, in our study of rhetorical problems, and in our thought about the relative values of particular art works in constituting and criticizing selves and societies. (419)
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. (9)
In 1961, when Wayne C. Booth published The Rhetoric of Fiction, the dominant literary theory was of course the New Criticism. The New Critics famously regarded canonical literary works as verbal icons or well-wrought urns and just as famously ruled that interpretations based on responses of individual readers were guilty of the Affective Fallacy. In this climate, Booth's Chapter 13 on "The Morality of Impersonal Narration," the chapter that includes Booth's commentary on Lolita, was a radical statement, because it viewed fictional narratives not as autonomous objects but as acts of communication whose aesthetic qualities were intertwined with their ethical effects on individual readers. Given the hegemony of the New Criticism, it is not surprising that Booth's chapter encountered a lot of resistance from its initial readers or that its remarks about Lolita were a flashpoint for that resistance. Even from a 2007 perspective that values ethical criticism, Booth's comments invite objections. How can Booth both acknowledge that Nabokov has marked Humbert as an unreliable narrator and complain about the morality of Lolita? Nabokov should not be impugned for his readers' failures, should he? And isn't Booth here and throughout Chapter 13 working with a narrow, moralistic view of the art of fiction?
In his Afterword to the second edition in 1983, Booth does not say anything further about Lolita, but he does make two general responses to the objections generated by Chapter 13. (1) He defends his concerns with the relation between technique and morality as fully consistent with his conception of fiction as rhetorical action; and (2) he admits two problems with the execution of his argument. As my second epigraph indicates, these are (a) mixing his personal beliefs into his analyses and (b) underestimating the difficulties of ethical criticism. I think Booth is on target in both of these general responses, but I also think that his commentary on Lolita is more a sign of his underestimating the difficulties of ethical criticism than of his mixing his personal beliefs into that commentary. Although Booth finds the novel to be "delightful" and "profound," his comments also make it clear that he finds nothing "delightful" in the narrative's main action, Humbert's violation of Dolores. With these considerations in mind, I undertake in this essay the task of doing better justice to the difficult problem of the relation between technique and ethics in Lolita. From the rhetorical perspective that I share with Booth, doing justice to the problem means developing a solution that will account for two especially notable groups of readers without jumping to castigate either those readers or Nabokov. The first group is the one that most troubles Booth, those who are taken in by Humbert's artful narration. The second is a group that is, as far as I can tell, more common today than it was in 1961. This group is determined not to be taken in by Humbert and thus resists all of his rhetorical appeals, including those that arise from...