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“Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues: Unreliability, Taxonomy, and Narrative Ethics in Lolita.”

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“Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues: Unreliability, Taxonomy, and Narrative Ethics in Lolita.”

Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues:
Taxonomy, Unreliability, and Ethics in Lolita
Daniel Aureliano Newman
I’ve taken great care to separate myself from him. For instance,
the good reader notices that Humbert Humbert confuses . . .
hummingbirds with hawkmoths. Now I would never do that,
being an entomologist. (Nabokov, “Vladimir Nabokov and Li-
onel Trilling Discuss Lolita,” 26 Nov. 1958)
I cannot even copy his manner because the manner of his prose
was the manner of his thinking and that was a dazzling succes-
sion of gaps; and you cannot ape a gap because you are bound
to fill it in somehow or other—and blot it out in the process.
(Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight 35)
No wonder that even the crowning achievement among his bio-
logical reflections, that wonderful theory of “natural classif ica-
tion,” to which we now turn, has so far found no followers in
Russian, and has penetrated abroad rather haphazardly and in
incomplete, muddled form. (Nabokov, Nabokov’s Butterflies
213)
Early in the poem at the heart of Pale Fire, John Shade describes the
falling dark as “the gradual and dual blue” (33), a phrase so pleasing to the
eye and ear that it is easy to overlook its seeming contradiction. “Gradual”
bridges the division implied in “dual,” which, in turn, dissolves the shad-
ings of the “gradual.” The point at which day becomes night is indef inite,
JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 48.1 (Winter 2018): 53–83. Copyright © 2018 by JNT:
Journal of Narrative Theory.
yet eventually day will have definitely become night. There is no real con-
tradiction, however: it is a matter of the viewer’s perspective whether
nightfall is a finely incremental darkening or an abrupt shift between two
distinct states. Shade expresses no preference between the gradual and the
dual. In general, however, Nabokov’s fiction stages such mergers of the
gradual and dual as a choice between unequal ways of seeing and valuing
the world, privileging the recognition of division within a series over the
equation of gradation with sameness. These mergers amount to a test of
readerly acuity and discrimination, and as such represent one of the closest
points of convergence between Nabokov’s art and science.1 As invitations
to find the demarcative gap within a spectrum of fine gradations, such
mergers enlist readers to demonstrate the attention to detail and judgment
Nabokov honed as a taxonomist. By calling his taxonomic trope the Grad-
ual and Dual Blues, I thus allude not only to Pale Fire but also to
Nabokov’s monumental re-classif ication of the Lycaenid butterfly family,
or the Blues.
The stakes of Nabokov’s taxonomic trope are highest in Lolita, whose
central crisis hinges on the narrator’s failure to draw a moral line within a
graduated series (namely, the age spectrum linking childhood to matu-
rity).2In a rare moment of insight, Humbert senses his inability to draw
such a moral line: “I am trying . . . to sort out the portion of hell and the
portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world—nymphet love.
The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline I
would like to fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?” (135). Why? Be-
cause his lapses in artistic and ethical vision—beauty and beastliness have
both aesthetic and moral implications—is our chance to see what he has
missed or dismissed. The Gradual and Dual Blues serves as a crucial indi-
cator of Humbert’s unreliability and as primary motivation for Nabokov’s
use of unreliable narration. Like other forms of verbal irony, unreliability
inheres in the ascertainable gap between what is said (by the narrator) and
what is meant (as agreed upon by the implied author and the reader). Un-
able or unwilling to divide “the beastly” from the “beautiful,” Humbert is
a bad taxonomist. It is because he cannot, or will not, “fix” that crucial
“borderline” that he permits himself to act as if there were no “point”
(135) at which beauty becomes beastly. When Humbert misclassifies, we
are offered evidence of the alternative, authorial perspective. The option to
read a gap into a structure Humbert interprets as being perfectly graduated
54 J N T
constitutes one of Lolitas most consistent means of marking unreliability.
It is a subtle version of what Tamar Yacobi calls “commentary mediated by
reversal,” when “an unreliable narrator . . . quote[s] or otherwise present[s]
a contextually-valid outlook far from his own,” that is, the outlook on
which implied author and reader agree (34). This happens whenever Hum-
bert raises and then denies the possibility of “f ix[ing] the borderlines” be-
tween groupings—say, kinds of insects or legal categories—that the text
gives us reason to differentiate.
Unreliability is a favorite Nabokovian device because it combines the
moral energy of satire with the indirection of a riddle. This indirection
supplies the concealment, detection, and assessment that Michael Wood
finds in Nabokov’s treatment of both “epistemological” and “moral ques-
tions”: “Nabokov doesn’t write about them; he writes them” (7). One of
the devices Nabokov uses to write ethically but not didactically is the
Gradual and Dual Blues, which casts his unreliable narrators and his read-
ers as different kinds of taxonomists—as, respectively, “lumpers” and
“splitters.” Lumpers emphasize similarity by downplaying variation in
order to limit the number of separate categories. Splitters weigh variation
more heavily and more liberally subdivide groups; no reader will be
shocked to learn that “most entomologists, friend and foe, have looked
upon Nabokov as one of these” splitters (Johnson & Coates 54). Though
lumping and splitting do not carry fixed moral values, and though
Nabokov famously asserts that Lolita has no moral in tow” (Lolita 314),
his use of the Gradual and Dual Blues suggests that one of the novel’s
moral imperatives is thou shalt not lump. Combining the indirection of his
moral concerns with his epistemology of deception, unreliability turns out
to be a stylistic correlative of his worldview, a constitutive aspect of his
fictional world-building that bridges his aesthetics and ethics of attention
with his scientific theories on vision and classification.
Unreliable Narration and Taxonomic Classification
Humbert is almost universally recognized as an unreliable narrator, but
this agreement is based on various, sometimes incompatible, and often in-
correct interpretations of what unreliability means. A Buzzfeed feature on
“21 Unreliable Narrators” exemplifies the most common misconception of
Humbert’s unreliability when it states, “while some classify Humbert
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 55
Humbert as a brutally honest narrator, it seems like he is hungry for the
reader’s sympathy, and wants to justify his gross pervy-ness to us.” Though
not at all wrong in its assessment of Humbert’s character and motives, this
short gloss is misleading as an explanation of his unreliability, which is
often not a question of dishonesty (or, for that matter, criminality) but,
rather, of moral disagreement with an alternative, authorial sense of
morality. Humbert is unreliable not because he is a moral monster, but be-
cause his ethical norms differ evidently from those of the implied author.
As this statement attests, I use the term “unreliability” in Wayne
Booth’s original sense, since his precisely circumscribed definition suffi-
ciently delineates the kind of unreliability we find in Lolita.3I favor
Booth’s perhaps old-fashioned definition because, for all its problems, it
has analytical purchase that is lacking in some recent attempts to enlarge
the concept’s domain—for example Vera Nünning’s contention that “unre-
liable narrators abound . . . , unfortunately, in real life too. From little chil-
dren to leading politicians, unreliable narrators can be found everywhere”
(1). This is not to say that unreliability is a totally objective textual feature,
separable from readerly perceptions and biases. I agree, to a point, with
Ansgar Nünning that “the information on which the projection of an unre-
liable narrator is based derives at least as much from within the mind of
the beholder as from textual data,” though I question the “at least as much”
and vigorously deny his conclusion that “a pederast would not find any-
thing wrong with Nabokov’s Lolita” (61). Insofar as unreliability can serve
ethical criticism, it should provide insights more concrete than those we
can expect from impressionistic responses. Most readers find Humbert’s
deeds and beliefs abhorrent, but these make him detestable rather than un-
reliable. The difference, which is crucial for narratological and ethical
analysis, showcases why Lolita continues to serve as a test-case for the
utility of Booth’s notion of the implied author, a controversial concept
Nabokov anticipated in 1945, when he distinguished the politics of Gogol,
the real author of Dead Souls, from “the interior moral standards of the
book” (Selected Letters 57). Booth’s description of the implied author as
“an ideal, literary, created version of the real man” and “the sum of his
own choices” (75)—in other words, as a streamlined and ethically less am-
biguous version of the flesh-and-blood author—is, notwithstanding its
possible superfluity in many cases, excellently suited to Lolita. The con-
cept of the implied author permits evidence of some of the flesh-and-blood
56 J N T
author’s known expertise (Lepidoptera, French) and opinions (hatred of
Freud, love of Flaubert) even as it separates the text’s straightforward con-
demnation of pedophilia from the flesh-and-blood author’s problematic at-
titude toward young girls (as argued by Martin Amis). Unreliability’s
defining characteristic is its ironic structure—an essential element Vera
Nünning ignores by effacing the narratological distinction between a con-
fession told “realistically and truthfully” by an actual pedophile and an ev-
idently ironized confession like Humbert’s (10). As an ironic configura-
tion, unreliability must ultimately rest with the textual evidence against the
narrator; of course, a narrator’s anti-normative tastes and actions will help
readers become uncomfortable or suspicious enough to seek out corrobo-
rating evidence. A ‘pederast’ reading Lolita may be disposed to overlook
the text’s evidence, but this would be proof of uncritical reading, not of un-
reliability’s relativism. Even a consummate cannibal could not seriously
argue that “A Modest Proposal” is an earnest manifesto for eating babies.
Most debates about unreliability hinge on the question of whether a
narrator is unreliable, that is, on how a text betrays its narrator. In the case
of Lolita, several critics including Nabokov himself have treated this ques-
tion at length and convincingly. Yet the question has not been settled. De-
spite the widespread recognition that Humbert is unreliable, the evidence
and implications of his unreliability are so often misunderstood, by stu-
dents and some critics, that discussions of this difficult and still shocking
book continue to be hampered by terminological and theoretical confu-
sion. How Humbert is unreliable, therefore, remains a pressing question.
To this end, I will retread some of this critical debate, adding new evidence
and interpretations along the way. I am ultimately concerned, however,
with the related question of why: why is Humbert an unreliable narrator? I
don’t mean why does Humbert try to mislead us but rather, why does
Nabokov make Humbert misleading? Such questions tend to be over-
looked or undervalued in narrative theory, or else they are handled gener-
ally.4
Unreliability and other such narrative situations are not merely ways of
telling a story; they participate in the construction and experience of a fic-
tional world. They are therefore intimately connected with questions of
aesthetics, epistemology, ontology, and, as novels such as Bret Easton
Ellis’s American Psycho, John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, and of
course Lolita attest, good and evil. It would follow that in using unreliabil-
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 57
ity to communicate the specific content of Lolita, Nabokov creates a fic-
tional world that demands investigation of an almost scientific kind, a
world that, like a specimen in relation to a certain butterfly species, can be
read well or badly. Only the incurious, self-absorbed, and impercipient in-
terpreters (notably Humbert) view it as a world of chance and “dazzling
coincidences” (Lolita 31). Now, what if the fundamental fact about Hum-
bert were his unreliability rather than his pedophilia? This is not to down-
play the significance of his crimes, but rather to understand why Nabokov
would even allow a story of abuse to be narrated from the perspective of
the abuser. Humbert is unreliable and he is a pedophile, but he is not unre-
liable because he is a pedophile; nor is it helpful to conclude that he is un-
reliable because the alternative would be intolerable. It might be more pro-
ductive, if rather odd, to entertain the problem backwards: that Humbert is
a pedophile because such an unequivocally compromised moral perspec-
tive maximizes the stakes of unreliability as a mode of encounter with the
world (both the diegetic and the extra-textual world).
Addressing the why question, however, requires a return to the question
of how we identify Humbert’s unreliability. Unlike the narrator of “A Mod-
est Proposal, he is always in excellent rhetorical control—even his ex-
pressions of remorse and many of his apparent lapses are in fact part of his
campaign to seduce and distract. Yet the novel’s unreliability inheres at
least as much in Humbert’s dodges as in his intentional or unwitting fail-
ures along what James Phelan calls “the axis of knowledge and percep-
tion” (Living 34), especially Humbert’s inadequate percipience about nat-
ural history. In Richard Rorty’s phrase, Humbert is a “monster of
incuriosity,” “the form of cruelty about which Nabokov worried most”
(161, 158). In any case, the clues that betray him are detectable only with
sustained and careful attention. Anyone who has taught Lolita will recall
students who take Humbert at his word, not because they share his views
but because they overlook the clues that undermine or invalidate his justi-
fications. Lolita therefore neatly conforms to the terms of Booth’s narrow
formulation of unreliability. Monika Fludernik, noting that this formula-
tion describes “only texts with quite prominent discrepancies and with
clearly marked disparities,” compares the novel to a “detective scenario,
in which the narrator unwittingly offers clues that, decoded by readers, in-
criminate him (78). Readers therefore find themselves implicated in the
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“problematics of delimitation” (78) whose Nabokovian correlate is taxo-
nomic delineation.
Nabokov’s scientific interests and achievements are often praised but
rarely well understood, not least because many critics are quick to conflate
his professional scientific views with the often heterodox scientific theo-
ries expressed in his creative fiction and nonf iction. His oft-expressed an-
tipathy to Darwinism is popular with readers similarly put off by notions
of struggle, competition, and randomness, but it tends to obscure his ac-
tual scientific practice. For despite his reservations about the creative pow-
ers of natural selection, Nabokov’s preferred school of classification was
Darwinian insofar as it grouped taxa according to their common descent.
Likewise, his literary use of a taxonomic logic is founded on one of the
most revolutionary implications of Darwinism: the fact that “no clear line
of demarcation” separates species, whose “differences blend into each
other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea
of an actual passage” (Darwin, Origin 51). Before Darwin, the gap be-
tween species marked an essential difference which taxonomists strove to
uncover, but “post-Darwinian taxonomists have had to face . . . a phyloge-
netic continuum . . . , one taxon changing into or giving rise to another”
(Davis & Heywood 71). The status of species, Darwin notes, though “not
arbitrary like the grouping of the stars in constellations,” is nonetheless
“arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely
resembling each other” (Origin 411, 53). Modern classification, dealing
with fuzzy sets rather than absolute differences, is a pragmatic exercise in
deciding where to place the gaps.
Darwin’s “idea of an actual passage” is literalized in what must be the
most outlandish manifestation of Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues: Her-
mann’s apology for murder in Despair. “Let us suppose, I kill an ape,
says Hermann. “Nobody touches me. Suppose it is a particularly clever
ape. Nobody touches me. Suppose it is a new ape—a hairless, speaking
species. Nobody touches me. By ascending these subtle steps circum-
spectly, I may climb up to Leibnitz or Shakespeare and kill them, and no-
body will touch me, as it is impossible to say where the border was
crossed, beyond which the sophist gets into trouble” (Nabokov, Despair
220).5 In this legalistic travesty, Hermann conflates the lack of absolute
differences with the lack of any difference, thus rehearsing the argument
of taxonomic anarchy that has served some of the shrillest reactions to
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 59
Darwinism. In 1889, for example, Edward Carpenter decried “Evolution”
because it
obliterates distinctions. . . . There is a continuous variation
from the mollusc to the man—all the lines of distinction
run and waver—classes and species cease to exist—and
Science instead of many sees only one thing. What then is
that one thing? Is it a mollusc, or is it a man, or what is it?
Are we to say that man may be looked upon as a variation
of a mollusc or an amoeba, or that the amoeba may be
looked on as a variation of man? (94–95)
This prospect still has anti-Darwinian traction today; as creationist Peter
Hammond argues, “the evolutionist maintains that we are matter in mo-
tion, evolved slime, monkeys who mutated from goo to the zoo to you”
(164). For both Hammond and Carpenter, gradation without absolute
boundaries amounts to homogeneity.
Hermann’s argument rests on the corollary view articulated by the sys-
tematist H. L. Mason, that “taxonomic structure has no foundation in real-
ity and obviously cannot be objectively defined” (qtd. in Davis & Hey-
wood 88). Indeed, as Dieter Zimmer argues, “all taxa are constructs” and
“delineating them always involves some degree of arbitrariness” (Guide).
This is not to say, however, that taxonomies are entirely fictitious. Delim-
iting taxa is always controversial—hence the question whether chim-
panzees should be included in the genus Homo (Wildman 7181)—but the
dispute hinges on where to impose the limit, not on whether it exists. Fur-
thermore, taxonomy is not entirely without empirical basis. The biological
concept of species, notes Zimmer, is “less of a construct than all the other
taxa” (Guide) because of its testable assumption that members of a species
do (or, in some versions, might) interbreed. Though imperfect and debated,
the test nevertheless “explains why there should be any species in nature to
begin with, rather than a continuum of forms” (Guide). That said, the sub-
jective element remains, in part because of intractable boundary issues,
and in part because at least some of the evidence needed to reconstruct
evolutionary relationships has been lost to time.
The reconstruction of taxonomies is therefore a hypothesis about the
most likely or plausible distinctions between taxa; it involves making a de-
60 J N T
cision. Given empirical evidence and a favored theoretical framework, the
taxonomist chooses how and where to delimit biological groups. In On the
Origin of Species, Darwin concludes that his theory will free biology
“from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of
the term species” and that “systematists will have only to decide (not that
this will be easy) whether any form be sufficiently constant and distinct
from other forms, to be capable of definition; and if definable, whether the
differences be sufficiently important to deserve a specific name” (484–
85). This decisional aspect of taxonomy makes several appearances in
Nabokov’s natural-history writings, too. For example, he observes in his
1970 review of Higgins and Riley’s Field Guide to the Butterflies of
Britain and Europe that “in deciding whether to regard a butterfly as a race
of its closest ally or as a separate species the Field Guide displays good
judgment” in at least some cases, and later admits the possibility of a
“compromise” between splitting and lumping (Strong Opinions 232–33).
Within biology and beyond, classification involves fixing limits in the ab-
sence of natural or absolute boundaries, often based on criteria that are
subjective and pragmatic. This does not mean that the limits cannot have
real and far-reaching implications for communication, social life, ethics,
and law. It is arbitrarily that we set a wavelength of 450 nm as the line be-
tween violet and blue; 0.8 mg/ml as the legal limit for a driver’s blood-
alcohol content; or 18 as the voting age.
The decisional aspect of taxonomic delineation is crucial to Nabokov’s
Gradual and Dual Blues. Hermann conveniently forgets that something ad-
mitting no objective definition can still be defined. As Fyodor writes in
the abandoned addendum to Nabokov’s The Gift recently published in
Nabokov’s Butterflies, even between nearly identical forms “there is al-
ways a gap through which subjectivity can creep in” (305). No matter how
a species is fixed, “there exists, for possible deviations from type in both
time and space, a curve, a boundary beyond which a given species, as
such, can no longer be considered authentic” (Nabokov’s Butterflies 225).
There is always a demarcation, whether our conscience chooses to draw
the moral line at killing a fellow human or at killing a fellow ape. Her-
mann, a murderer who classifies his crime as “a work of art” (Despair
188), is also blind to the physical differences between himself and the vic-
tim he takes to be his perfect likeness. The novel offers a clear alternative
in the real artist Ardalion, who warns Hermann that “every face is unique”
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 61
and that “what the artist perceives is, primarily, the difference between
things. It is the vulgar who take note of their similarity” (50–51).
Artistic insight is more often equated with synthesis than with analysis,
but Nabokov’s aesthetics of differentiation, what he calls “the dissociative
stage” of aesthetic apprehension (Lectures 377), accords perfectly with his
scientific attitudes. His fiction continually privileges the Ardalion over the
Hermann, the splitter over the lumper. To split closely related species is to
find the dual in the gradual, as Nabokov intimates in his definition of a
species
as a phase of evolutional structure, male and female, tra-
versed more or less simultaneously by a number of, conse-
quently, more or less similar organisms morphologically
shading into each other in various individual or racial
ways, interbreeding in a given area and separated there
from sympatric representatives of any other such phase by
a structural hiatus with absence of interbreeding between
the two sets. (“Neotropical Plebejinae” 3, emphasis added).
This def inition of species foregrounds the “structural hiatus,” a gap de-
tectable within the “shading” of differences between very similar speci-
mens. Elsewhere, dividing “a series of mixed specimens” previously
grouped as one species (Neonympha henshawi) into two distinct species
(N. henshawi and N. dorothea), Nabokov observes that “we can distin-
guish here, through the fade-out of dorothea, an elegant and correct delin-
eation” (“Some New” 77).
The task of differentiation can be difficult. One of the productive (and
subversive) aspects of Darwinism is its attention to boundary cases at the
expense of the type or norm. “Most important” to Darwin—and to
Nabokov—are “those forms which possess in some considerable degree
the character of species, but which are so closely similar to some other
forms, or are so closely linked to them by intermediate gradations, that
naturalists do not like to rank them as distinct species” (Darwin, Origin
47). The stakes in taxonomic delineation are highest when the distinctions
are least definite, and Nabokov devotes much of his scientif ic papers to
the resulting dilemmas. Describing specimens that other lepidopterists
might divide into Neonympha scudderi and N. melissa, he decides that “al-
62 J N T
though different shades of underside coloration can be racially perceived,
the intergradation is so complete and geographically so intricate that I do
not hesitate to group all such specimens which only differ in the shade of
fawn . . . under melissa melissa” (“Nearctic Forms” 96). Elsewhere he sub-
divides one species, Neonympha dorothea, into three distinct subspecies,
variations in wing coloration making “the fixation of these three definite
racial points . . . unavoidable,” but resisting the possibility of splitting the
three forms further because “one does not care to indulge in pursuing this
course and giving names to the various transitions which occur between
them” (“Some New” 68). Nevertheless, splitting is usually nearer to
Nabokov’s purpose. The difficulty lies in “find[ing] somewhere in the spi-
rals of racial intergradation a point at which the whole system can be ele-
gantly . . . divided into two parts, i.e., two species” (“Neotropical Plebeji-
nae” 4). Nabokov focused on the ornate genital structures of his butterflies
because these constitute “structural . . . unities which may be termed
species”; these “unities are separated throughout the numerous forms that
cluster around the three peaks of speciation by constant relations between
certain parts” (“Nearctic Forms” 87–88). Whatever the taxonomic deci-
sion, it must ultimately be based on the available evidence, which must be
clear, accurate, and detailed to be useful. Nabokov thus dismisses a de-
scription of Neonympha henshawi by W. H. Edwards (“working, it may be
assumed, in a bad light”) as “worthless for all purposes of determination”
(“Some New” 72–73).
Such taxonomic dilemmas and decisions carry over into Nabokov’s fic-
tion. When Nabokov uses the scant details provided by Kafka to identify
Gregor Samsa as “a big beetle” rather than, say, “a dung beetle” or a
“cockroach,” he is not being merely fastidious: he is producing a radically
original reading of The Metamorphosis according to which Gregor, “never
[having] found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back,”
ironically fails to escape his dreary circumstance by flying away (Lectures
259–60). As a reading of Kafka’s novella, Nabokov’s interpretation is
rather unconvincing, not least because he ignores Gregor’s pathetic family
loyalty. Yet the interpretation beautifully mirrors Nabokov’s use of taxo-
nomic detail in his own fiction; in fact, he might be said to read The Meta-
morphosis as a tragic inversion of Invitation to a Beheading, one in which
Cincinnatus fails to f ind his means of escape. Jim Endersby observes that,
“the way we classify is ultimately a product of why we classify” (1499);
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 63
Nabokov’s fiction, no less than his scientific studies, asks us to classify in
order to perceive and thus respect difference.
Nabokov’s Implied Reader as Taxonomic Splitter
Taxonomy motivates Nabokov’s attention to detail and its relation to per-
ception, in science and in art. To apprehend subtle gradations, he writes in
Nikolai Gogol, is a mark of artistic vision:
The difference between human vision and the image per-
ceived by the faceted eye of an insect may be compared
with the difference between a half-tone block made with
the very finest screen and the corresponding picture as rep-
resented by the very coarse screening used in common
newspaper pictorial reproduction. The same comparison
holds good between the way Gogol saw things and the way
average readers and average writers see things. . . . Thus the
development of the art of description throughout the cen-
turies may be profitably treated in terms of vision, the
faceted eye becoming a unif ied and prodigiously complex
organ and the dead dim “accepted colors” (in the sense of
“idées reçues”) yielding gradually their subtle shades and
allowing new wonders of application. (24)
The vision of a character like Humbert corresponds to the insect’s pixe-
lated vision and to the conventional tastes of “average readers”; only the
artist is truly “human.” Linguistic and rhetorical talent aside, such charac-
ters are perceptively limited. Paradoxically, Nabokov’s adaptation of the
classic Darwinian problem of the eye’s evolution equates the perception of
only crude “half-tone block[s]” with blindness to difference; only those at-
tuned to “subtle shades” actually see differences. Detecting gradations is a
precondition for the acuity needed to distinguish a leaf from a butterfly on
which “not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but mark-
ings mimicking grub-holes are generously thrown in” (Speak 125). The
same applies to the sensitivity to tell apart a Dolores from a Lolita. Such
distinctions would be lost on those who see the world in the coarse pattern
of newspaper print—those who would rely, like Gogol’s precursors, on
“the rigid conventional color-schemes of the Eighteenth Century French
64 J N T
school of literature” (Nabokov, Gogol 24). The taxonomic valence of this
point is clearer in a similar attack, this time against vulgar color symbol-
ism that “substitutes a dead general idea for a live specific impression”
(Lolita 364n56.1). Reacting against color symbolism associated with
“red,Nabokov lists “the shades, or rather colors, of, say, a fox, a ruby, a
carrot, a pink rose, a dark cherry, a flushed cheek” (364n56.1, emphasis
added). Gradations do not erase difference but give it a finer grain and
thus produce more differences. Incremental shading does not blend two
color categories but creates more colors between the two. The imperative
for naturalists and readers alike is “to see things, to discriminate between
visual shades as the author does, and not to lump them under such arbi-
trary labels as ‘red’ (364n56.1). Even Old Masters fail as artists when
they paint butterflies, Nabokov points out, because they “did not know that
in different species the venation is different and never bothered to examine
its structure. . . . Only myopia condones the blurry generalizations of igno-
rance. In high art and pure science detail is everything” (Strong Opinions
168). For Nabokov, perceiving difference is synonymous with valuing the
specimen. In “Some New or Little Known Nearctic Neonympha,”
Nabokov posits a diagnostic link between “indifference and consequent
lack of precision” (61). No doubt he would say that the converse is also
true: that a lack of precision betrays indifference. If, as Brian Boyd avers,
“Nabokov’s precise use of natural detail . . . raised literature’s standard of
honesty to nature” (103), the virtue he assigns to reading carefully against
the grain of an indifferent narrator raises the ethical stakes of classif ica-
tion to a level we tend to associate less with science than with the best lit-
erature.
Attention to detail is more than a means of acquiring knowledge about
a text or butterfly: it is also the key to discovering the nature of the textual
or natural world. Nabokov would have agreed that beyond its proximate
objectives, taxonomy seeks “a ‘natural’ system, one that reflects the causes
of order, not just an artificial arrangement for efficient pigeonholing”
(Luria, Gould, and Singer 661). This search for order is clear from the way
Nabokov deploys taxonomic detail in order to reveal the nature of his fic-
tive worlds—its function is ontological as well as epistemological. What
we notice in the world we inhabit reveals the nature of that world. As
Nabokov writes in “Father’s Butterflies,”
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 65
certain whims of nature can be, if not appreciated, at least
merely noticed only by a brain that has developed in a re-
lated manner, and the sense of these whims can only be
that—like a code or a family joke—they are accessible only
to the illuminated, i.e., human, mind, and have no other
mission than to give it pleasure—we are speaking of the
fantastic refinement of “protective mimicry, which, in a
world lacking an appointed observer endowed with artistic
sensitivity, imagination, and humor, would simply be use-
less (lost upon this world), like a small volume of Shake-
speare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert. This
fact, even taken alone, implies a silent, subtle, charmingly
sly conspiracy between nature and the one who alone can
understand. (Nabokov’s Butterflies 219)
This model of scientific inquiry is natural-theological, reading nature like
a text, exegetically, for evidence of “an appointed observer,a designing
intelligence. In this context, perceptiveness is a key skill in “a game of in-
tricate enchantment and deception” between nature and scientist, or novel
and reader (Speak 124). In both cases, the game reveals Nabokov’s rhetor-
ical engagement with, if not philosophical commitment to, the Argument
from Design, which places the scientist and reader in the position of ex-
egete reconstructing the intentions of an Author-God. It is in this context
that we should read Nabokov’s claim that, in art as in life, the “capacity to
wonder at trifles[,] . . . these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the vol-
ume of life[,] are [sic] the highest form of consciousness, and it is in this
childishly speculative state of mind . . . that we know the world to be
good” (Lectures 374). Unlike most followers of the Argument from De-
sign, however, Nabokov envisions a role for chance—the fall of a raindrop
on an ancient butterfly’s wing “had somehow been phylogenetically re-
tained as a spot” (Lectures 375). Whether or not Nabokov really believed
the Argument from Design,6his expressed views on design clarify how his
fictional worlds reflect his taxonomic vision. The function of his Gradual
and Dual Blues is, in Lolita and elsewhere, to reveal the crucial classifica-
tions hidden behind the seeming incidentals of his storyworlds.
In Speak, Memory Nabokov explicitly links his entomological and lit-
erary approaches to precision and perception, as in the passage below,
where he disparages the school of “Continental lepidopterology”:
66 J N T
Its high priest, Dr. Staudinger, was also the head of the
largest firm of insect dealers. Even now, half a century
after his death, German lepidopterists have not quite man-
aged to shake off the hypnotic spell occasioned by his au-
thority. . . . While he and his followers stuck to specific and
generic names sanctioned by long usage and were content
to classify butterflies by characters visible to the naked eye,
English-speaking authors were introducing nomenclatorial
changes as a result of a strict application of the law of pri-
ority and taxonomic changes based on the microscopic
study of organs. The Germans did their best to ignore the
new trends and continued to cherish the philately-like side
of entomology. Their solicitude for the “average collector
who should not be made to dissect” is comparable to the
way nervous publishers of popular novels pamper the “av-
erage reader”—who should not be made to think. (Speak
123–24)
The most apparent analogy is that between taxonomy and reading. Both
are activities requiring careful attention and a microscopic acuity; neither
of them is conducive to Staudinger’s philistine approach. There is also,
however, a suggestive resemblance between Dr. Staudinger and “Dr. Hum-
bert” (Lolita 166). Like Humbert, he bases his descriptions and conclu-
sions on crude details, overlooking or ignoring the information hidden to
“the naked eye”—a significant echo of Nabokov’s contrast between “the
way Gogol saw things and the way average readers and average writers see
things” (Gogol 24). Not unlike Humbert, Staudinger perpetuates falsehood
out of self-interest, resisting better alternatives in order to protect his busi-
ness. It is in the context of this resemblance to Humbert that I wish to pre-
sent Nabokov’s preference for the English school of taxonomy, which
posited “a new, multiform and fluid kind of species, organically consisting
of geographical races and subspecies. The evolutional aspects of the case
were thus brought out more clearly, by means of more flexible methods of
classification, and further links between butterflies and the central prob-
lems of nature were provided by biological investigations” (Speak 124). It
is, of course, during these “biological investigations” that Nabokov “dis-
covered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that [he] . . . sought in art”
(Speak 125).
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 67
Humbert as Taxonomic Lumper
The Argument from Design implies that the natural world exists in order
to be deciphered by “the one[s] who alone can understand” (Nabokov’s
Butterflies 219). In other words, a designing intelligence intentionally
leaves clues for the naturalist; without these imperfections or gaps nature
would be unreadable. Why, asks William Paley in Natural Theology
(1802), would a perfect God “resort to contrivance” when “contrivance, by
its very def inition and nature, is the refuge of imperfection”? His answer
is that the imperfection of God’s creation is not bad craftsmanship but a
generous concession to our limited perceptual faculties: “It is only by the
display of contrivance, that the existence, the agency, the wisdom of the
Deity, could be testified to his rational creatures” (Paley 230). Custom-
made to suit our limited faculties, creation is designed to be explored; its
details invite detection, curiosity, enquiry, and insight into God’s intention.
Design is not only the expected discovery of science but also a precondi-
tion for doing science at all.
Applied to fiction, the Argument from Design articulated in “Father’s
Butterflies” approximates Wayne Booth’s definition of unreliable narra-
tion. Fyodor describes a “silent, subtle, charmingly sly conspiracy between
nature and the one who alone can understand” (Nabokov’s Butterflies 219)
that corresponds exactly to the complicity between implied author and
reader. In Nabokov’s accounts of mimicry, nature is the curious naturalist’s
“intelligent accomplice” (Nabokov’s Butterflies 223). Nature and naturalist
share an understanding that excludes the “average collector,” an impercip-
ient bumbler who overlooks the “conspiratorial sign” and cannot tell the
leaf from the leaf-mimic (Nabokov’s Butterflies 85, 220). In Booth’s ac-
count of unreliability, the implied author conspires with the reader in a
complicity that excludes a narrator too obtuse or insensitive to recognize
what he himself is saying. Similarly, Paley’s understanding of scientific
(that is, natural-theological) investigation assumes that “any man in his
senses” would recognize in the complexity of a watch, and by extension of
living organisms, proof of creation by an intelligent agent (Paley 6). The
implied butt of Paley’s argument is a third player. In addition to the cre-
ative intelligence and the “man in his senses” is the man who is not in his
senses (63). This is a man whose own scientific study reveals nothing but
“the effect of chance” (63). For Paley, the atheist is a fool because his in-
68 J N T
terpretations of the world are bad in both logical and moral senses; he is
excluded from an understanding between God and the scientist who inter-
prets the natural world as God’s creation. In novels like those of Nabokov,
whose plots and ethics foreground the possibility of discovering realer
worlds beyond the apparent world, the link between design and unreliabil-
ity is foundational. Given Nabokov’s chosen science, the evidence of de-
sign and thus the evidence of unreliability lies, more often than not, in the
nuances of taxonomic detail.
Nowhere else do unreliability and taxonomy converge as clearly as in
Lolitas butterflies. As early as 1958 (see my first epigraph, above),
Nabokov pegged his moral superiority to “Humbert’s complete incapacity
to differentiate between Rhopalocera and Heterocera” (viz. butterflies and
moths; Lolita 376). Lepidoptera are clear markers of Humbert’s unreliabil-
ity because they occupy a textual reality that is literally beyond him. In Al-
fred Appel’s words, “the butterfly motif enables Nabokov to leave behind
on H.H.’s pages a trail of his own phosphorescent fingerprints” (Lolita
327n5.1). Like Demon Veen, Nabokov “doesn’t give a hoot . . . for the
myth behind the moth” (Ada 437). Leaving sloppy or symbolic identifica-
tions to Humbert and his ilk, Nabokov’s “interest in butterflies is exclu-
sively scientific” (Strong Opinions 10). Given the years Nabokov spent
scrutinizing minute differences between closely-related butterflies, Hum-
bert’s incapacity to split creates opportunities for an implicit but unmistak-
able form of authorial comment—what Brian Richardson calls “authorial
interpolation,” when authorial presence is secreted between the lines of the
unreliable narration (85).7
An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us,” writes Humbert,
identifying (yet not realizing that he has identified) the moment of deci-
sive break in his control over Dolores (Lolita 234). This entomological al-
lusion has numerous antecedents in the text, many of them foregrounding
the problem of taxonomic delineation. Humbert recollects sitting on the
porch at the Enchanted Hunters, “looking at the hundreds of powdered
bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black night, full of ripple
and stir,” then comments chillingly on his imminent rape of Dolores: “All
I would do—all I would dare to do—would amount to such a trifle” (126).
The planned crime is “a trifle,” in Humbert’s eyes because Dolores would
be unaware of the violation. On the other hand, the reader sees a failure of
moral assessment thanks to its association with Humbert’s failure to iden-
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 69
tify moths, with their attraction to lights and their “powdered” wings
(Lolita 126). Any entomologist will insist that “bugs” should be reserved
for members of the order Hemiptera (the ‘true bugs’). Similarly, Hum-
bert’s admiration of “yucca blossoms, so pure, so waxy, but lousy with
creeping white flies” betrays a double entomological blunder, mistaking
yucca moths (useful pollinators) for flies and linking them to lice (156).
Later, “near the Mexican border which I dared not cross” Humbert mis-
takes hawkmoths for “hummingbirds” (157).
The border Humbert dares not cross emphasizes the borders he has
transgressed, the literal ones, like those that he erases between humming-
birds and hawkmoths, and the moral lines he has breached. I therefore dis-
agree with Johnson and Coates’s claim about the “intersection of lepi-
doptery and literature” in Lolita, that “no amount of ingenuity can make
much more of this than what Nabokov himself said it was: a private
mnemonic handle on his characters that provided him with great fun”
(305). More persuasive is Azar Nafisi, who identifies a particular entomo-
logical allusion as “the heart of the novel” (35). It is the moment when
Humbert describes “some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely
pinned to the wall” of the camp office where he fetches Dolores mere
hours before he f irst rapes her (Lolita 110). “Humbert’s inability to differ-
entiate between the two,writes Nafisi, “implies a moral carelessness in
other matters” (36). His carelessness goes beyond his fellow characters; it
also prevents him from understanding the very story he is narrating. Since
“there is scarcely an entomological reference that he uses accurately,
notes Joann Karges, Humbert’s pursuit of nymphets is, in addition to a
legal and ethical crime, a failure to realize that the text “Lolita is based on
the pursuit of a butterfly for scientific description” (45, 46). By equating
the text of Lolita (if not Dolores) with a butterfly in need of correct classi-
fication, Karges intriguingly suggests that Humbert’s failure to classify in-
sects is not only a specif ic instance of the general failings in his character.
It is also a case of misreading, which sees similarity or sameness despite
textual evidence of difference. Lumping moths and butterflies clearly il-
lustrates this kind of misreading because Nabokov’s lepidopterological ex-
pertise is well known. Yet the lepidopteran motif, in its more metaphorical
or allusive incarnations, also enables Nabokov to export the Gradual and
Dual Blues into contexts unrelated to natural history. By naming Hum-
bert’s car ‘The Melmoth,’ for instance, Nabokov transfers the association
70 J N T
of entomology, unreliability, and taxonomic competence into a game of
cat-and-mouse with Quilty, who initially favors
the Chevrolet genus, beginning with a Campus Cream con-
vertible, then going on to a small Horizon Blue sedan, and
thenceforth fading into Surf Gray and Driftwood Gray.
Then he turned to other makes and passed through a pale
dull rainbow of paint shades, and one day I found myself
attempting to cope with the subtle distinction between our
own Dream Blue Melmoth and the Crest Blue Oldsmobile
he had rented. (Lolita 227)
By shifting models and slipping gradually along the color spectrum,
Quilty’s cars flummox Humbert’s attempts at classification and, as a result,
compromise Humbert’s rhetorical control. By recognizing the gradual con-
vergence of Quilty’s ever-changing cars and his own Melmoth, but failing
to appreciate the similarities it suggests between himself and his pursuer,
Humbert fails to lump where it would for once be appropriate. His insis-
tence on differentiating the two vehicles despite their similarities mirrors
his willful denials of resembling Quilty—denials that turn his charges
against Quilty (kidnapping, abuse) back on him.
Closer to the heart of the novel, Humbert’s misclassification of butter-
flies sharpens the unreliability of his duplicitous dealings with the vexed
issues of age, maturity, legal competence, and consent. In some cases, the
lepidopteran motif is explicitly coupled with the issue of age, for example
when he refers to “children in all their instars” (146). In addition to its
mythic and sexual connotations, “nymphet” tragically suggests the larvae
of insects that, unlike butterflies and several other groups, undergo “in-
complete metamorphosis”—a reminder of Dolores’s lost childhood and
truncated life. More often, the novel foregrounds the connection between
misclassified butterflies and transgressed age limits through the structural
analogy of the Gradual and Dual Blues. Like Hermann, in Despair, as-
cending the subtle steps from ape to Shakespeare, Humbert descends the
gradual increments of chronological age and purports to f ind no threshold
between too-young and old-enough. His rhetoric, like Hermann’s, depends
on stressing the legalistic in order to eclipse the ethical and moral (“what-
ever these are” [Lolita 150]) arguments against rape or killing (humans or
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 71
apes). Conveniently occluded by Humbert’s wrangling about the details of
this or that legal age threshold is the intention motivating age of consent
laws, which is, as legal scholar Kim Stevenson has noted, to protect the
vulnerable (130).
Humbert regularly downplays the fact or the relevance of age differ-
ence and age categories, often on the bases of the fluidity of time and the
variability of human maturation. Whereas “Miss Pratt” tells him that
“Dolly will presently enter an age group where dates, dating” matter,
Humbert repeatedly suggests that the very notion of “age group,” on
which age-of-consent laws depend, is arbitrary and unnatural (Lolita 177,
emphasis added). His strategy mirrors the blindness he unwittingly dis-
plays in relation to insects, in that it likewise overemphasizes Gradual’s
sameness while eclipsing Dual’s difference. Humbert is unaware of the
need to be careful about insects; when he lumps moths and hummingbirds,
then, he is merely careless. By contrast, fully aware that the age issue tells
against him, he is downright devious when he lumps children and adults.
For Humbert, the fact of variation is a case against distinction. That the
“age of pubescence for girls . . . varies for individuals from ten, or earlier,
to seventeen” (43) enables him to lump the entire range to suit his pur-
poses and to justify himself on the grounds that legal age distinctions are
artificial: “I have but followed nature,” he says (135). For further authority,
Humbert cites the ostensibly natural practices and traditions of “the An-
cient World” and “dignified Orientals” (124), as well as the example of
Western literature’s great poets:
Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are
still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces. Lep-
cha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and no-
body minds. After all, Dante fell madly in love with his
Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen, painted
and lovely, and bejeweled in a crimson frock, and this was
in 1274, in Florence, at a private feast in the merry month
of May. And when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Lau-
reen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in
the wind, in the pollen and dust, a flower in flight, in the
beautiful plain as descried from the hills of Vaucluse.
But let us be prim and civilized. (19)
72 J N T
The transitions are interesting here, especially the “after all,” which enno-
bles pedophilia through its association to the great love poets, and the
“but” opening the second paragraph, which implies that acting lawfully is
an unnatural alternative to what is “still not uncommon” and what “no-
body minds” anyway. Having naturalized his sexual preferences with the
help of biology and tradition, Humbert decries the arbitrariness of age-of-
consent laws in the language of a taxonomic lumper: “the old link between
the adult world and the child world has been completely severed nowadays
by new customs and new laws” (124).
Humbert deplores as artificial and debased the “civilization which al-
lows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of
twelve” (18). Stressing the lack of clear division between 12 and 16, both
of which fall within the range of “age of pubescence,” he shifts the blame
onto the law, which, he suggests, limits his freedom to range across the
age-spectrum on the basis of mere convention (43). Thus, even when
Humbert acknowledges the possibility of a criminal age difference, citing
the case of “a middle-aged morals offender who pleaded guilty . . . to
transporting a nine-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes,
whatever these are,” he conveniently glosses over the fact that his relation-
ship with Dolores is nearly identical to the case in question. By pointing
out that Dolores is “not nine but almost thirteen” (150), he implies that she
is, despite legal definitions, mature enough to be his lover; as he has al-
ready noted, “the end of their twelfth year” is the age at which “girls ma-
ture” not far from Dolores’s birthplace (135). More clearly militating
against Humbert’s reliability is his other reason for differentiating himself
from the “middle-aged morals offender”: “I am your father” (150). Yet, of
course, he is only her stepfather. I am not suggesting that Humbert would
be more justified had he been Dolores’s father but, rather, that his act of
misclassification—conflating father and stepfather—carries special evi-
dentiary force in the reader’s case against him because it is the only unam-
biguously false statement in his string of assertions—“I am your father,
and I am speaking English, and I love you” (150). He is indeed speaking
English and love is too slippery a concept or experience to admit of proof
or falsification.
The same passage, however, contains another manifestation of the
Gradual and Dual Blues when Humbert, with stunning callousness, ex-
plains to Dolores that his abuse is for her own good, a therapeutic treat-
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 73
ment for her (consensual, age-appropriate) sexual encounter with Charlie
Holmes. “I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties
with a child,he insists: “The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the thera-
pist—a matter of nice spacing in the way of distinction” (150). This is the
most complicated of Lolitas takes on the Gradual and Dual Blues, not
least because Humbert seems sensitive, for once, to the dual within the
gradual. Then again, any insight he appears to exhibit is annulled by the
fact that he is after all a rapist, as he admits himself when he sentences
himself to “at least thirty-five years for rape” (308). Moreover, the phrase
“spacing in the way of distinction” ambiguously suggests that spacing
might impede (stand in the way of) as well as enable distinction. Hum-
bert’s unusual locution echoes Baillie’s 1910 translation of Hegel’s Phe-
nomenology of Mind: “in this simple beholding of itself in the Other, oth-
erness . . . is not as such set up independently; it is distinction in the way
of distinction, in pure thought, is immediately no distinction” (781).8
Viewed through this lens, “therapist” and “rapist” (Lolita 150) are not
truly distinct but constituent parts of each other—a view that accords per-
fectly with Nabokov’s animus towards psychotherapy. By calling himself a
“therapist,” Humbert yet again overlooks the crucial gap, lumping into one
falsehood the two words that handily describe him.
Returning to the erasure of age categories, we find some of Humbert’s
most inadvertently poignant revelations when his attempts to gloss over
Dolores’s age conflict with his pecuniary meanness. On their first road-
trip, for example, Humbert reports visiting “Crystal Chamber in the
longest cave in the world, children under 12 free, Lo a young captive”
(157). Being over 12, Dolores is not “free,” a pun the wordsmith Humbert
surely intends without, however, realizing how much it damns him by sug-
gesting the pain and helplessness of his underage “captive.” The pun’s im-
plications are soon clarified when Humbert reports visiting “our hun-
dredth cavern, adults one dollar, Lolita fifty cents” (158). The price of
visiting caves is about as variable as the age of consent: here she pays as
an adult, there merely half that. In the first case, Humbert justifies her
captivity because she is ineligible for the freedom of a child, here defined
as someone “under 12.” In the second case, her condition halfway between
“free” and “adult” situates her squarely within the age spectrum on which
Humbert’s self-serving justifications depend. Then again, the same classi-
74 J N T
fication of Dolores as “fifty cents” may be read against his intentions, as
an admission that she is only halfway to adulthood, that she is still a child.
Once established as a pattern, Humbert’s taxonomic ineptitude in mat-
ters of natural history and age affords better analytical purchase on the
subtler manifestations of his unreliability as a narrator. This ineptitude
sneaks into his style, and it is especially apparent in his predilection for
wordplay. His tendency to lump makes its first appearance in his narrative
when he mentions a maternal great-grandfather’s expertise in “paleopedol-
ogy” (10).9In his annotations to Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., defines paleope-
dology as “the study of the soils of past geological ages” (Lolita
334n10.2). However, the unusual word’s etymology also names the novel’s
central crisis of taxonomic boundary crossing: it is a portmanteau lumping
old (“paleo”) with child (“pedo-”). Similarly bolstering Humbert’s case
against dividing children from adults are phrases and coinages such as
“the mummy of a child” (157), “lollipop” (159), and “Lottelita, Lolitchen”
(76). The latter nicknames, attempts to see the former nymphet in Char-
lotte by blurring her age and individuality with those of her daughter,
allow Humbert to recast his new wife as “biologically . . . the nearest I
could get to Lolita” (76), a form of lumping he later calls “a Hegelian syn-
thesis linking up two dead women” (307).
Defined broadly, Humbert’s taxonomic ineptitude turns out to charac-
terize many of his most unreliable statements, even those that seem at first
unrelated to classification. This is the case for two of the novel’s clearest
instances of unreliability. The first is one of Humbert’s ostensible declara-
tions of guilt: “a man of my power of imagination cannot plead ignorance
of universal emotions. I may also have relied too much on the abnormally
chill relations between Charlotte and her daughter. But the awful point of
the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my conven-
tional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the
most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which,
in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif (287). He slyly miti-
gates his responsibility: by transferring blame onto Charlotte for relating
“abnormally” with her daughter (287); by tainting our sympathy for Do-
lores with a casual mention of her conventionality; by implicating the
child in her own victimization by using the term cohabitation” when he
paraphrases her protests; and by deflecting attention from his crimes of
rape and abduction by pleading to the lesser charge of a “parody of in-
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 75
cest, not really a crime if not technically incest. Yet his most damning
lapse is so simple that it’s easy to miss. Is this “cohabitation” really the
best [he] could offer” Dolores? Even Humbert doesn’t believe it: earlier,
on first seeing the newly orphaned Dolores at camp, he reports the clear
implication that all widower Humbert had to do, wanted to do, or would
do, was to give [her] . . . a sound education, a healthy and happy girlhood,
a clean home, nice girl-friends of her age” (111, emphasis added). That, he
knows, is the best he could have offered. The second case is when Hum-
bert explains why, following Charlotte’s death, he deferred the “unlimited
delights” awaiting him with Dolores (105). His self-flattering reason is
that he was “obsessed by all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears”
(105), but the “doubts and fears” he goes on to list are not “purely ethical”
at all—they are logistical. He worries that Dolores may have learned of her
mother’s death, which would complicate his plan to drug and rape her
(105). In both cases, Humbert’s unreliability inheres in faulty classifica-
tion. In the first he incorrectly situates “the parody of incest” on the spec-
trum spanning worst to “best” (passing through worse, bad, good, better);
in the second he misidentifies logistical anxieties as moral qualms.
Stressing the gradual against the dual serves to justify almost any
dodge. Late in the novel, Humbert unleashes what seems like an expres-
sion of compassion for his victim, but which soon becomes, with the help
of the logic of insensible shadings, a further case against her: “I happened
to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror
aslant and door ajar, a look on her face . . . that look I cannot exactly de-
scribe . . . an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade
into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit
of injustice and frustration—and every limit presupposes something be-
yond it—hence the neutral illumination” (283). That “every limit presup-
poses something beyond it” becomes, for Humbert, a pretext for dismiss-
ing and transgressing limits. Planning to murder Dolores’s lover, for
example, Humbert does not worry about guilt or even apprehension: he
sees a chance to find, “just for the heck of it, . . . some lightly clad child I
might hold against me for a minute, after the killing was over and nothing
mattered any more, and everything was allowed” (268). Each new situa-
tion imposes not a limit but further allowances. Recounting how Dolores
“seduced [him],” Humbert reports that “for quite a while my mind could
not separate into words the hot thunder of her whisper, and she laughed,
76 J N T
and brushed the hair off her face, and tried again, and gradually the odd
sense of living in a brand new, mad new dream world, where everything
was permissible, came over me” (132–33, emphasis added). Initially a fail-
ure to parse words meaningfully, Humbert’s inability to see the dual within
the gradual is quickly put in the service of his fantasies. Whatever legal
and ethical quibbles might pertain to the twelve-year-old’s agency at this
crucial moment, Humbert’s narratorial power “gradually” enables him to
justify taking the terms of her proposal to indefinite lengths, into the realm
of absolute permissibility.
Conclusion
While unreliability is often explained as a means of characterizing the nar-
rator, it can and often does serve what might be called greater purposes—
including, as “A Modest Proposal” and Huck Finn attest, political ones.
The texts by Swift and Twain suggest, furthermore, that unreliability
points a distorting mirror not only inward, onto their own authorial norms,
but also outward, onto a world in which bland or saccharine words serve to
perpetuate the grossest lies. In Nabokov’s case, unreliability reflects a
thinker whose artistic views were never divorced from his scientific inter-
ests. As Leland de la Derantaye has rightly argued, “the closest point of
connection between Nabokov’s science and art lies in his intertwined ideas
of design and deception” (65). These two ideas find their stylistic correlate
in unreliability, which incorporates deception into the reader’s attempt to
uncover the design not only of the narrative but also of “reality” (Lolita
312). Nabokov’s taxonomic expertise is perfectly suited to the job: by con-
cealing difference within the narrator’s arguments for sameness, the Grad-
ual and Dual Blues enlist our attention to detail and our ability to judge
where to draw the line. Thus “the tactile delights of precise delineation . . .
and the precision of poetry in taxonomic description” (Strong Opinions
79) cut to the very heart of Nabokov’s thinking on perception, individual
distinctiveness, and design. Though not one to endorse the ethics or poli-
tics of art, Nabokov nevertheless hints, in an aside on the criminologist
Cesare Lombroso, at the real-life consequences of forcing sameness on the
world. The “madness” of Lombroso’s notion of criminal types is revealed
in his insistence on lumping, on eliding differences between individual
criminals: “Lombroso when attempting to find their affinities got into a
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 77
bad muddle by not realizing the anatomic differences between obsession
and inspiration, between a bat and a bird, a dead twig and a twiglike in-
sect” (Lectures 377). Yet for Humbert, as an unreliable narrator, this lump-
ing tendency plays a necessary part in giving shape to the world of Lolita:
by lumping he grants us the alternative choice of splitting.
In his afterword to Lolita, Nabokov calls the novel “the record of my
love affair” with “the English language” (316). Intriguingly, over ten years
earlier in a letter to Edmund Wilson, he appears to predicate his future
ability to make such a record on his current “scientific work on the Blues”
(the Lycaenid butterflies): “I have dissected and drawn the genitalia of 360
specimens and unraveled taxonomic adventures that read like a novel. This
has been a wonderful bit of training in the use of our (if I may say so)
wise, precise, plastic, beautiful English language” (Nabokov-Wilson Let-
ters 116). Nabokov never saw his taxonomic work as a pleasurable distrac-
tion, as did his wife Vera, but as an apprenticeship. It is only fitting, then,
that Nabokov’s infamous statement about Lolitas morality should require
a little taxonomic effort. Lolita may have “no moral in tow,” (Lolita 314);
yet, as he begs Wilson to recognize, it is “a highly moral affair” (Nabokov-
Wilson Letters 298). There is no contradiction: Nabokov is simply playing
on the crucial difference between noun and adjective. It is exactly the sort
of difference a bad taxonomist would overlook.
Acknowledgements
This paper emerged from discussions on Lolita with students at Concordia
University (Montreal). I am grateful for their questions and insights, as
well as for the invaluable criticisms and questions of Claire Battershill and
an anonymous reviewer.
Notes
1. Stephen Jay Gould posits a “fundamental unity of mental style” underpinning
Nabokov’s art and science, and concludes that this unity lies in his “meticulous accu-
racy in detail as the defining feature of all his productions” (43). This may be casting
the net too wide to capture Nabokov’s distinctiveness. After all, attention to detail is
not uncommon in novelists, especially those whose outlook might be called scientific.
George Eliot, James Joyce, and Alain Robbe-Grillet all use extensive detail, but in dif-
ferent ways and to different ends.What is distinctly Nabokovian is the use of detail as
78 J N T
a test of the reader’s attention and discrimination. For a similar argument, see Black-
well’s The Quill and the Scalpel and Zimmer’s excellent “Mimicry in Nature and Art.
2. Strategically interpreting gradation as the absence of difference, Humbert embodies a
perverse belief in the principle of “Gradus ad Parnassum” that characterizes several
other Nabokovian villains, including, of course, Gradus from Pale Fire.
3. There are serious problems with Booth’s term “unreliability,” but for better or for
worse it has stuck. Replacing the term now would cause more confusion than it would
solve. Otherwise I would favor Dorrit Cohn’s alternative: “discordance,” “when the
narrator’s normative views appear to clash in some manner with the story he or she
tells” (308).
4. A notable exception to this general tendency is the attention to free indirect discourse,
especially as it occurs in modernist fiction. Since free indirect discourse blends and
blurs the narratological distinction between narrator and focal character, it begs impor-
tant epistemological and ontological questions that narratologists have been careful to
address. Very little attention of this kind, however, has been devoted to unreliability,
whose use has been explained (away?) as a tool for awakening readerly suspicion and
critique or as a mode of ironic didacticism or satire.
5. Hermann clearly echoes Darwin’s Descent of Man. Proposing that animals may have
some intellectual and moral aptitudes, Darwin indicates “that there is a much wider in-
terval in mental power between one of the lowest fishes, as a lamprey or a lancelet, and
one of the higher apes, than between an ape and man; yet this immense interval is
filled up by numberless gradations. Nor is the difference slight in moral disposition
between a barbarian . . . and a Howard or Clarkson; and in intellect, between a savage
who does not use any abstract terms, and a Newton or Shakspeare. Differences of this
kind between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages, are con-
nected by the finest gradations. Therefore it is possible that they might pass and be de-
veloped into each other” (I.34–35). Hermann, being German, substitutes Leibnitz for
Darwin’s Newton—a clever Nabokovian wink.
6. I have trouble trusting Nabokov’s expressions (often if not always in fictional works) of
belief in the Argument from Design. His unorthodox biological statements in non-sci-
entific texts such as Speak, Memory, The Gift, and “Father’s Butterflies” serve more to
consolidate his carefully-constructed persona than to articulate actual scientific views
(hence the absence of mention of design in his entomological articles).
7. Richardson also coins another type of authorial comment, “transparent voice” (85), to
isolate cases when an otherwise unreliable narrator apparently drops his mask and
Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues 79
voices the author’s known views. There are some views that Nabokov seems unwilling
or incapable of denying even to immoral characters like Humbert or Kinbote, who both
echo his antipathy to philistinism, psychoanalysis, and anti-Semitism. In general, I
find Richardson’s categories more clarifying of Lolita’s rhetorical complexities than
Phelan’s notions of “bonding” and “estranging” unreliability (“Estranging” 232).
8. Besides Nabokov and the translation of Hegel, an internet search yielded no other use
of the phrase “in the way of distinction,” whereas the more idiomatic “by way of dis-
tinction” had innumerable hits. Nabokov’s “spacing” can be synonymous with Hegel’s
distinction in the way of distinction.”
9. The novel’s taxonomic motif begins even earlier, in the name of John Ray, Jr., a hapless
descendant of the early systematist John Ray (1628–1705) who, Davis and Heywood
argue, “was a better judge of species than Linnaeus, often discriminating between
closely allied species where Linnaeus confused them” (15).
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Book
Most famous as a literary artist, Vladimir Nabokov was also a professional biologist and a lifelong student of science. By exploring the refractions of physics, psychology, and biology within his art and thought, The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov’s Art and the Worlds of Science, by Stephen H. Blackwell, demonstrates how aesthetic sensibilities contributed to Nabokov’s scientific work, and how his scientific passions shape, inform, and permeate his fictions. Nabokov’s attention to holistic study and inductive empirical work gradually reinforced his underlying suspicion of mechanistic explanations of nature. He perceived chilling parallels between the overconfidence of scientific progress and the dogmatic certainty of the Soviet regime. His scientific work and his artistic transfigurations of science underscore the limitations of human knowledge as a defining element of life. In provocative novels like Lolita, Pale Fire, The Gift, Ada, and others, Nabokov advances a surprisingly modest epistemology, urging skepticism toward all portrayals of nature, artistic and scientific. Simultaneously, he challenges his readers to recognize in the arts a vital branch of human discovery, one that both complements and informs traditional scientific research.
Article
This article proposes the term 'discordant narration' for the ideological kind of unreliability that may induce a reader to attribute to a fictional text a different meaning from the one its narrator provides. After exemplifying this concept in works told by a first-person narrator (Marlow in The Heart of Darkness and Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights), it shows that discordance also applies to certain third-person narrators, like the teller of Death in Venice. It concludes by conceiving an ideal reader who is aware of the choices involved in understanding this type of fiction.