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Lolita/Silence of the Lambs

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Edited: Aug 1, 2007, 3:01am Top

I just started reading Lolita and the first thing that came to mind was how similar the dialog is to Hannabel Lechter in the Silence of the Lambs.

and the moths

David Perrings

Aug 1, 2007, 12:12am Top

Interesting comparison! What is similar about the dialogue? It will be interesting to see if you find other similarities as you continue reading.

Aug 1, 2007, 4:15pm Top

Well, Humbert and Hannibal are definitely both psychotically unreliable narrators who hide behind façades of "culture" in order to justify their abusive behavior. Interesting parallel! I would never have thought of it, but there are definitely similarities.

Aug 1, 2007, 5:49pm Top

Yes, Emily, and what you say makes me realize there's a parallel between Lolita and Clarice. Clarice is a grown woman, of course, but her need to get information from Hannibal gives him a certain power over her. Also, throughout the book she is haunted by childhood memories, so that in a sense her childhood identity is present whenever she speaks with Hannibal.

Aug 1, 2007, 7:32pm Top

Interesting. I'd never thought about those two books together. But they actually have a lot in common. I think it was in Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power (and I'm sure a lot of other books that I don't know about) that one of the central themes is the similarity between desire and eating. The desire to control, the desire to possess is the same as the desire for power. The relation is even evident in the words that we use to describe desire (e.g., "hunger"). And to consume can mean "to ingest" or "to possess" (as in consumerism). Both men in the books wanted to control others, Lolita or the victims. Hannibal went farther and literally consumed his victims as his final act of ultimate control.

Aug 2, 2007, 4:02pm Top

I haven't read Lolita (I know, I know, I'm behind). Would it be a spoiler to explain about the moths?

Very interesting point about desire and hunger. Which psychologist was it who talked about the scale of human needs? It started with survival issues like breathing, eating, etc., and went up to more abstract and philosophical concepts as actualization of one's full human potential. I think sex was pretty low on the scale - maybe the next step up from eating.

Someone else wrote a book a few years ago about our legacy of prehistoric fears of being eaten.

Aug 2, 2007, 4:17pm Top

The author of Lolita studied moths and butterflys,
the moth or butterfly was important in Silence of the Lambs


Aug 3, 2007, 8:24pm Top

Thanks, David. I know about the moth which was an important clue in Silence of the Lambs. Didn't know Nabokov had studied moths and butterflies.

Edited: Aug 4, 2007, 10:01pm Top

You might find this interesting. I tried to put the urls in, but due to the bracket system here it sorta blew up in my face. Both are listed on Amazon though...
Nabokov's Butterflies and Nabokov's Blues

Edited: Aug 6, 2007, 3:33pm Top

Thanks, Cateline! The links worked fine and got me to Amazon, where I discovered that I have met one of the authors who contributed a foreword to the top-listed edition of Nabokov's Butterflies, Robert Michael Pyle. Small world - my husband is a conservation biologist and moves in the same circles. This adds a whole new dimension to Nabokov, and a rather charming one.

Aug 6, 2007, 5:25pm Top

I recently read that Nabokov was far more than a hobbyist when it came to butterflies. He was a research fellow at Harvard and organized the collection at its Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Edited: Aug 6, 2007, 10:06pm Top

Ratz! I "X'ed" out the wrong thing and lost a post.

Yes, when I really fall for an author, I enjoy reading up on them and reading about Nabokov's life is as interesting as his books, and adds so much to the understanding and enjoyment. With Nabokov at least reading his books in order is interesting as well. The growth and progression of complexity is fun to watch. Here is an interview he gave in the Paris Review... http://www.theparisreview.org/media/4310_NABOKOV.pdf

He had a rather dry sense of humor. Dry and sly. :)

Aug 13, 2007, 10:57pm Top

I just saw Sherlock Holmes, The Case of the Silk Stocking on Masterpiece Theater. It was originally done in 2004. The story is not an A.C. Doyle story though inspired by him and very true to the the style of Holmes. Although liberties were taken which made it some what different.

What I found interesting was how the villian was similar to Humbert Humbert. Faking interest in the Mother to get at the younger Girls.

David Perrings

Aug 14, 2007, 4:13pm Top

Margad, I think the psychologist you were referring to was Abraham Maslow, with the hierarchies of satisfaction.

I don't think there's much basis of comparison between Lolita and Silence of the Lambs. Lolita is a stunning recreation of the American environment of the 1950s, and could (despite Nabokov's Russian origins) be one of the Great American Novels like Kerouac's On the Road or Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is an inventive but poorly written thriller (actually, the film is much better than the book). Harris has an inventive sense of the horrific (and his Black Sunday was positive prescient in retrospect, considering 9/11), but his writing style is clumsy compared to Nabakov's.

Don't let the moths confuse you. B^)}

Aug 14, 2007, 4:26pm Top

jhavelin, I agree about the relative literary merits of these two novels, but what was interesting about the comparison to me was that it brings out Humbert's psychosis. I think too many readers of Lolita tend to think of Humbert as a more sympathetic character than he was intended, or at least to miss many of the layers of irony in his unreliable narration. I've noticed this in LOTS of conversations I've had about the novel. Comparing him to Hannibal makes it more obvious that there can be a cultured, ostensibly intelligent character who is totally insane and dangerous, and out of touch with the humanity of those around him.

Aug 14, 2007, 5:08pm Top

But Humbert is a sympathetic character, and that's part of Nabokov's genius. The seeming simplicity of the story belies its complexity. I'm not trying to build excuses for Humbert, but he's not the kind of monster that Hannibal is. Humbert is not Lolita's first lover, and he only kills once (Quilty). Hannibal is a true sociopath, with no sympathetic side at all.

Have you read Nabokov's Ada? He revisits the whole underage girl theme. I'd be curious what you think.

Aug 14, 2007, 8:32pm Top


You do not think that Humbert is a sociopath ?

I do.

I am not trying to compare Nabokov, with Harris.

I think it was a lot more gutsy for Nabokov to create Humbert when he did and publish it. By the time Harris came along we were all to anestitised to such creatures in film.

I am about half way through Lolita so I will let you know what i think at the end of the book.

david perrings

Edited: Aug 15, 2007, 2:51pm Top

This is such an interesting thread. I really must get around to reading Lolita, because I think its important to recognize that people who do terrible things are still, first and foremost, human beings like the rest of us. Otherwise, it's far too easy to categorize people as "good" or "evil" and excuse ourselves for actions others might view as "evil" because we know that we, unlike some others, are only acting out of good motivations.

I'm reminded of the character Smerdyakov in one of Dostoyevsky's novels (I think it was The Idiot). I'm thinking of the absolutely chilling scene when Smerdyakov goes into the little girl's bedroom and is convinced she is consciously and deliberately trying to seduce him. Although I never found Smerdyakov to be a sympathetic character, this scene was so powerfully presented from his point of view that I realized it was perfectly possible for a man like him to sincerely believe his impulse had originated with the child, and to blame the child's "evil" nature for it.

Yes, jhevelin, it was Maslow I was thinking of earlier. Thanks!

Edited: Aug 15, 2007, 3:32pm Top

Yeah, I think that Smerdyakov scene is a good parallel. Humbert is TOTALLY a sociopath; that designation isn't limited to serial killers. In a way, I think his pedophilia is a device to underline how removed and out-of-touch with the real world academics and those fancying themselves intellectuals, can get if there's no factors forcing them back to earth. Yes, he only kills once, but he warps Delores and, judging from his style of narration and level of comfort talking about "nymphets," I think there is a strong suggestion that he's done the same to other young girls. He thinks he can tell by looking at pre-prebescent girls, which ones are temptresses! That is totally dangerous and nuts.

Ada is completely different, in my opinion. Van and Ada are BOTH underage when they start their love affair, and their early forays into sexuality are believably childish and experimental, if quite precocious. There is a slight age difference between them (enough to make Van feel guilty and Ada feel off the hook), but nothing like the difference between a middle-aged man and a 15-year-old girl. Not to mention, the attraction is mutual, the sex is not coerced, there is a much more equal power dynamic between the lovers than between molester and victim (especially once Humbert kidnaps Delores and moves her haphazardly around the country), and their love endures throughout their entire lives. Completely different ball of wax.

Aug 15, 2007, 3:42pm Top

Given the sensationalistic primary theme in Lolita, I think it's important to emphasize that Nabokov sketches other contemporary (1950s) relationships in the book: (1) the relationship between Humbert and Lolita's mother Charlotte; (2) John and Jean Farlow, Charlott'es friends; (3) the world of playwright and nemesis Claire Quilty; and finally, the world of Lolita and her husband Dick. Although Humbert's obsession for the underage Lolita forms the backbone of the plot, this is a subtle, complex novel of a high order that defies simplistic interpretation.

Humbert is an educated, cultivated, intelligent man who has the tragedy of being erotically obsessed with a woman he can't have. Or shouldn't have. I can empathize with those feelings. Circumstances enable him to obtain his dream, and much of the book explores the consequences of that act. Lolita is not porn, and it is not NAMBLA-like advocacy of seducing underage girls -- it explores the tragedy that befalls everyone because of Humbert's actions. It is also a brilliant exploration of American culture and mores.

But Humbert is not Hannibal. I can't get inside Hannibal's head -- there's nothing in the character that I can identify or empathise with or understand in any way. It's a plot device -- he's brilliant because Harris says he has, not because I can feel his brilliance or his education. And since his goal seems to be pure savagery (as opposed to the mix of love and lust that Humbert feels for Lolita), I can't find much to interpret.

P.S. margad, Wikipedia says that Smerdyakov is from the Brothers Karamazov. I'm fairly weak on Dostoyevsky, so can't really comment, but the scene sounds fascinating.

Aug 15, 2007, 3:53pm Top


you say:

Humbert is an educated, cultivated, intelligent man who has the tragedy of being erotically obsessed with a "woman" he can't have.

I think you mean "girl",

My understanding of Humbert from the book is that he has no legitamite interest in "women".

David Perrings

Edited: Aug 15, 2007, 4:28pm Top

As I see it, Lolita is all about abstraction and disconnection from other people, and the pathological ways that people find to try to bridge that disconnect. All of the relationship-worlds you describe, with the possible exception of the Farlows, feature unhealthy pathology, and to that extent lots of characters are AS sociopathic as Humbert: Charlotte Haze's cloying melodrama and obliviousness to Humbert's obvious distaste for her; Quilty's frankly alarming willingness and ability to follow Delores across the country in different guises, and then use her as some kind of disposable toy; Delores' sadly lukewarm compromise in marrying Dick, a man she doesn't respect and doesn't really even seem to like that much.

I think the key here, though, is that again and again the "other" person in the relationship is objectified - either they are presented to the reader solely through the subjective haze of another's perception (Delores, through the eyes of Humbert; Quilty, through the eyes of Humbert and Delores; Dick, through the eyes of Delores through the eyes of Humbert), or they are plainly acting in a way not consonant with reality/morality (Charlotte Haze, Humbert). Each character who "loves" or "wants" another character is drastically out of touch with who that person actually is. And everyone who is "wanted" in this dissociative way is really hurt and warped by the experience (except maybe Dick, but it's early days). Humbert is disgusted; Delores is molested; Quilty is inconvenienced; Delores is scarred; Dick is treated unfairly. Because nobody in the book takes the time to get to know anyone else! They come into relationships with ideas already fully-formed of who these people are and what they want from them! Sociopaths!

I think it's problematic to say that "circumstances enable" Humbert to "obtain his dream." First of all, circumstances really have little to do with it: Humbert is the one who makes the decision to molest Delores while she is emotionally vulnerable in the aftermath of her mother's death, and the one who rationalizes why it's morally acceptable. It would be obvious to any right-thinking person that Delores doesn't reciprocate Humbert's feelings, and doesn't even understand what a sexual relationship means (she doesn't enjoy foreplay, for example, and seems to feel little real affection for Humbert). Any crush she may have had on him rapidly turns to fear and resentment when his controlling demands start to mount. Is this the "dream" he has "obtained"? He is totally delusional! Charlotte and Quilty are totally delusional too, but at least the one obsesses on a grown man, and the other has a community of artists to foster his delusions. Humbert distinguishes himself by being SO delusional that he convinces himself that a fifteen-year-old is a consenting "nymphet" capable of having a relationship with him. In addition to the whole "by-virtue-of-my-education-I'm-morally-superior-to-the-Philistines-of-Middle-America" trip, which he is also on with a vengeance. I think he is humanely portrayed, but not one of Nabakov's more sympathetic characters. I don't think he's the same character as Hannibal, but I do think that forcing a young person out of their childhood too early via sex IS an extreme act of violence, and I think Nabokov acknowledges that.

Aug 16, 2007, 1:20am Top

Quilty was a pornographer, that is the reason Lolita left him in the end. He wanted her to perform with other men for film, she refused, he evicted her. By no stretch of the imagination would I call pornographers artists.
Now I certainly agree that Charlotte was delusional, but if I recall correctly the Farlows had a touch of off-key about them as well. I seem to remember Humbert thinking Jean Farlow was "after" him for a threesome. So all of the characters had their "ticks".

Rarely do I see Rita mentioned in discussions of Lolita. That section of the book that takes place after Lolita runs from HH and he finally quits chasing shadows and settles down a bit has some of the funniest passages I've read. I found myself wishing HH could have just stayed with her and Lo had not written him at all.....but it wouldn't be the story it is were that the case.

Goodness knows this is not a book that provokes laughter, but that part had me laughing out loud.

Aug 16, 2007, 12:33pm Top

Question #1

Who do you relate to in the book?

For me it is throught HH

David Perrings

Aug 16, 2007, 12:36pm Top

Question #2

Moving past HH, what message is Nabokov giving about American Culture.

How is it different from european culture ?

Aug 16, 2007, 12:40pm Top

Question #3

Is HH's character a literary devise (dark) to allow Nabokov a perticular perspective to get his message across?

And what is that message ?

David Perrings

Aug 16, 2007, 9:29pm Top

In #22, Emily, you say, I think the key here, though, is that again and again the "other" person in the relationship is objectified... which brings up another similarity to Silence of the Lambs: it would be difficult to objectify another person in a more extreme way than by relating to them as meat.

However, the two novels are quite different in genre. Though I haven't read Lolita yet, I did read Pnin, so I feel confident in assuming that, as jhevelin points out in #20, Humbert and Hannibal are different kinds of characters. As a character in a literary novel, Humbert is presented as a real and complex person who (whether or not an individual reader can sympathize with him) is presented with great realism as a complete, if terribly flawed, human being. In contrast, though quite well-written, Silence of the Lambs is a genre novel. Appropriately for a character in a genre novel, Hannibal is presented as a larger-than-life figure, a symbol of the extreme sociopath. Likewise, Claire Starling (am I remembering her name correctly?) is a personality reduced to a few basics. Readers sympathize with and identify with her not because she is presented as a full and complex human being, but because she has a set of personality characteristics and basic challenges to overcome that we can identify with.

Genre novels and literary novels both have their place. Literary novels remind us that life can't be reduced to a few good-vs.-evil, yes-vs.-no principles. They challenge us to consider the paradoxes and complexities of life and to see the humanity in saints and evil-doers alike. Genre novels operate at a more symbolic level, isolating a particular principle to present it to the reader with exceptional starkness. The best of these also recognize life's complexity - in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is not merely a monster, he is also a monster who can be persuaded to serve a good cause and help a woman heal her inner pain. But his story is a symbolic representation of this principle rather than a fully realistic representation of humanness.

So regarding your Question #3, David, I think Humbert is not a literary device to allow Nabokov the chance to get a message across. What distinguishes the literary novel is that is has no message other than the message that we are all human beings and this is what life is like for people like Humbert, Lolita, et al. Rather than delivering a message, I think Nabokov wanted to stimulate thought - and would be delighted to have his readers arguing about whether they could or could not sympathize with Humbert and why.

Aug 16, 2007, 9:45pm Top

In an attempt to pinpoint just why I think Humbert is a somewhat sympathetic character, I drew up a list of other books depicting "monsters": Zombie (Joyce Carol Oates), Predator (Patricia Cornwell), Red Dragon (Thomas Harris), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson), and The Collector (John Fowles). I'll limit myself to literature, although we could include the real-world rape squads in Bosnia, or Saddam Hussein's "rape rooms" described by Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation.

What differentiates Humbert from all of the monsters depicted above is that while they delight in torture and mayhem, the infliction of pain and suffering, Humbert does not -- he is unable to kill Charlotte, and he is only able to kill Quilty at the end, as a form of suicide. Humbert is selfish and amoral, and his weakness injures those around him, but takes no delight in other people's pain.

I suppose I'm running the risk of sounding like I condone Humbert's behavior (I don't), but I'm fussy about words, and I don't think I would term the seduction of a quasi-compliant (albeit underage) girl as "an extreme act of violence." Earlier this year, People Magazine reported on a case where a man kidnapped a girl, held her captive while repeatedly raping and torturing her, and posting videos on the Internet -- that's "extreme violence." I repeat, Humbert's behavior is reprehensible, but it is distinguishable from violence. There are many good reasons why adults shouldn't seduce children, and many of them are depicted in Lolita.

I say that "circumstances" enable Humbert to seduce Lolita because had Charlotte not been hit by the car, she would have thrown Humbert out of her life, as she fully intended to do after reading his secret diary.

If "being out of touch" with the reality of an object of desire defines one as a "sociopath," then the world is full of sociopaths.

Emily, I don't understand why you seem so contemptuous about Dick Schiller, dismissive of Lolita's marriage to him as a "lukewarm compromise." He seems to be the one character in the book that really loves her and cares for her. It's a very conventional relationship, but it's one she chose for herself.

I think Nabakov admires Lolita. She's victimized, but not a victim. She escapes from Humbert, she escapes from Quilty, and she finds a world of her own choosing with Dick. Humbert may mock her lack of "class," but I think Nabakov is celebrating her strength and resourcefulness.

Lolita is a sad book. It is sad that Lolita loses both her father and mother. It is sad that Charlotte loses her husband and makes such a mistake in marrying Humbert. It is sad that Lolita loses both her parents. And it is sad that Dick Schiller will lose his wife to childbirth.

This discussion is inspiring me to reread this book.

Aug 17, 2007, 2:41am Top

I think I was a bit sloppy in my last post. I didn't mean to imply that Humbert was a monster. Quite the contrary. My point was that in literary novels, as contrasted to genre novels, no character is going to be a monster, because literary writing sees the human who commits the acts. It would be the same, I think, if Nabokov had chosen to write about a murderer. It was the same when Dostoyevsky chose to write about a murderer. Raskolnikov committed a horrible crime for the worst possible reason, but he was not a monster.

Though now that I have made that point, you've listed some novels that are making me wonder whether I should reconsider it. Does Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, belong on a list of literary novels? Or is it a genre novel that only seems literary because it's an exceptionally skillfully written novel that has stood the test of time and become a classic?

In the Brautigan/Roethke topic, Theresa Williams makes the point (if I'm conveying it correctly) that these two poets who write about the most ordinary details of life in a transcendant way are making the ordinary sacred through their attention to detail. I wonder if there may also be something sacred in the act of writing about characters like Humbert and Raskolnikov when it honors pscyhological truths and recognizes the humanity even of people who do horrible, awful things that nobody should ever do?

Oct 3, 2007, 12:28pm Top

Humbert Humbert is back!

In the lastest episode of Law and Order SVU "Avatar" as the perp Copper.

It was errie to watch.


Oct 3, 2007, 3:03pm Top

jhevelin: While I think you're exactly right about Humbert/Lecter/etc. being of a piece in terms of them all being "monsters" who do attract a kind of sympathy, I don't think one can say Humbert didn't enjoy "torture and mayhem" ... it's Lolita who is his primary victim, and he certainly enjoyed what he inflicted on her.

Oct 3, 2007, 3:36pm Top

I don't think Humbert is a sympathetic character and I don't think he is meant to be one. One of the achievements of the book is that Nabokov's contempt for and mockery of Humbert comes through in a narcissist's first-person narrative. In the descriptions of Lolita's behavior when they're on the road it is clear, to me anyway, that she manipulates him as an act of survival and that Humbert takes it as coquettishness. Anybody who takes this book as a love story is not looking deep enough. It's about how a narcissist's obsession destroys everything around him. And we must be clear, as dperrings stated, that Humbert was only interested in little girls, not women. He begins the book by justifying the interest by relating the story of the little girl that he fell in love with as a child, the one who died. And, if Humbert is not a monster it is only because he lacks the guts to become one. The man had no conscience, only desire. Remember his fantasy about impregnating Lolita so that he can have new one, and impregnating that one, and so on.... You can get a lot from what is left out of the book, too. Humbert supposedly "loves" Lolita, but he knows nothing of her inner thoughts and only tries to please her so that he'll get what he wants, which is why he was so easy to manipulate. He never expresses a shred of empathy for this child who has lost her mother and is forced to cater to his desires so that she has a caretaker. When she leaves, he thinks only of his own pain. It never really occurs to him that he ruined her life.

Oct 23, 2007, 2:18pm Top

Have any of you read "Naomi" (in japanese chijin-no-ai the love of a fool/maniac) by tanizaki junichiro? It might be the better comparison or


Edited: Oct 23, 2007, 2:37pm Top

Wow, Keigu, you have stamina! I love the idea of comparing one book to a hundred others, one at a time. I'll bet a publisher would be interested in this, too.

It would be kind of like Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I found fascinating. She got bogged down with a novel she was writing, and decided to take a year off and read 100 classic novels, starting with Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji and finishing up with some modern works, including Ian McEwan's Atonement. Thirteen Ways is a wonderful book, full of good insights about the function of fiction in the world. One of the things she said that sticks with me is that even a tragic novel is essentially hopeful in nature, because it demonstrates how choice functions and shows that we can improve our lives and the world by exercising our freedom to make better choices.

In any case, we'll enjoy contemplating all your comparisons in this group.

I haven't read Naomi or any of Junichiro's books, and would warmly welcome a comparison that gives us an introduction to this author.

Oct 23, 2007, 4:19pm Top

and if each comparitive review is done right, each one would seem to be about a different one book = like borges re biographies. But i didn't say i was going to do it! You spoke of Smiley not yourself, but have you read liza dalby's Tale of Murasaki? As far as Tanizaki (the first name is junichiro, last in japanese, like chinese and hungarian but many japanese confuse matters by doing a "do in rome" on their names in english) goes, i am mostly interested in his book In Praise of the Obscure but Naomi in a nutshell is about a middle-aged man who finds a still teen-age tea shop girl charming for she speaks a few words of english and has a nose like mary pickford and he decides to educate her as he wants her and marry her and as might be expected he has a hell of a time and i read it too many decades ago to recall much more. I will contribute something re mishima and tanizaki for they are exemplars of two different types of cultural schizophrenia imho.

Edited: Oct 25, 2007, 12:21am Top

Naomi sounds delightful, a lot like Pygmalion.

I have read very little Asian literature, though I did read Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World this summer. My father had a book of classical Japanese haiku in translation. One of them I will never forget: a man walks into his bedroom and inadvertently steps on his dead wife's comb. A whole novel in the 3 short lines of that haiku.

I've enjoyed Lisa See's detective novels set in modern China, which have quite a bit more depth to them than the average detective novel, as well as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I also enjoy anything by Amy Tan. There's a detective series set in the samurai period of Japan that I enjoyed. I loved Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, which immersed me in the unique world of the geishas. But these are American authors, who probably bring a different sensibility to their work.

I will look forward to your comparison of Mishima and Tanizaki, Keigu.

Oct 25, 2007, 2:35pm Top

The comb felt cold underfoot: a winter ku. And it is one of Buson's best known ones. Please try Liza Dalby's Geisha some day. She is Usanian but apprenticed herself (and read in anthropology). No time for Mishima and Tanizaki today. sorry

Oct 25, 2007, 2:59pm Top

I've read reviews of Dalby's Geisha - it sounded really interesting, and I will put it on my to-be-read list.

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