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The Technique of Time in Lolita
by William Vesterman

Readers of Vladimir Nabokov's works hardly need to be told that time makes one of his principal thematic concerns. His short first novel Mary (1926) is a story in part about recovering the past through memory, and the late Ada (1969) replays a similar theme in 589 pages with all the dazzling resources of the author's mature art. Still, Ada's working title—The Texture of Time—may remind us through its tactile metaphor of the consistent esthetic purpose of Nabokov's artistic performance: To present through language not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. The thing itself for the theme of time is the experience of time—its texture, its feel. I propose to examine the narrative art of Lolita (1955), with a view to explaining how Nabokov dramatizes Humbert Humbert's attempts to express his experience of time and to triumph over the crucial challenge mounted by time to the common goal of his life and his narration: "to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets" (Lolita I, 29).  1 

Only three pages into his story, Humbert Humbert employs an odd narrative chronology in telling of his first child-love, Annabel Leigh. In a brief numbered section (his third of the book), he describes how the two adolescents—he just thirteen, she a few months younger—fell quickly and desperately in love. He then recounts a failed attempt at sexual fulfillment, an attempt that takes place on a beach the night before she must leave the Riviera with her parents. Following the episode, Humbert begins his fourth section with a paragraph that speculates about whether his love for the young Annabel had caused the "rift" in his life or whether that brief affair manifested only the first evidence of an inherently irregular sexuality. His second paragraph testifies to the perfection of their love where "the spiritual and the physical had been blended." He starts the third paragraph by saying: "I have reserved for the conclusion of my 'Annabel' phase the account of our unsuccessful first tryst" (I, 4).

Now why should Humbert narrate his story in this way—or why should Nabokov have him do so? Why not tell us first of their first unsuccessful tryst (in a garden) and then of their second and final failed tryst (on a beach) before speculating about the meaning of the whole episode? I will attempt to show that the disruption and reversal of normal narrative chronology here is representative in both its causes and its effects of a technique used to manifest time throughout Lolita. Yet to describe that technique requires preliminarily a special understanding of some ordinary critical terms—plot, most especially—because this unusual narrative's unusual operation does not always allow for an ordinary critical description of its workings. I must therefore begin with a perhaps annoying but necessary fuss about the meaning of plot in Lolita with the help of insights by Paul Ricoeur and Frank Kermode, before showing in detail how different plots simultaneously manifested in the same words create the experience of time for Humbert and his reader.

Paul Ricoeur begins his monumental three-volume Temps et Récit (Time and Narrative, 1983) with an examination of the philosophical aporias (or irresolvable contradictions) recounted by St. Augustine in his discussion of time, where the subject may be seen as a mystery resistant to philosophical understanding.

We know by heart the cry uttered by Augustine on the threshold of his meditation: "What then is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled" (14:17). In this way the ontological paradox opposes language not only to the skeptical argument but to itself. How can the positive quality of the verbs "to have taken place," "to occur," "to be," be reconciled with the negativity of the adverbs "no longer," "not yet," "not always"? The question is thus narrowed down. How can time exist if the past is no longer, if the future is not yet, and if the present is not always? (I, 7)  2 

Ricoeur proposes that notwithstanding the demonstrable difficulties of talking about time, the resources of language are not confined to those available for philosophical discussion. Fictional and historical narratives allow language access to a reality unavailable to direct description (I, xi):

The world unfolded by every narrative work is always a temporal world. Or, as will often be repeated in the course of this study: time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience. (I, 3)

The organization of time through narrative proceeds by means of plots:

I see in the plots we invent the privileged means by which we reconfigure our confused, unformed, and at the limit mute temporal experience...which is prey to the aporias of philosophical speculation. (I, xi)

Ricoeur derives the powers of plot by means of an extended analysis of Aristotle's Poetics to show that a plot's ability to transform the expression and experience of time in historical and fictional narratives lies in its ability to turn "this after that" into "this because of that."

By means of the plot, goals, causes, and chance are brought together within the temporal unity of a whole and complete action (I,ix).

The whole and complete action composed by plot is what a narrative imitates, in accordance with Aristotle's formula in The Poetics.

However, in The Genesis of Secrecy (1979) Frank Kermode examines a kind of plot different from the defining paradigm in Aristotle, a plot that Kermode calls one of "pleromatic conformity."

This is a distinctive operation; these plot relations are not of the causal kind admired and recommended by Aristotle. They are rather, to use a word in a special sense that has been current in recent years, "hermeneutic" —that is the earlier texts are held to contain, possibly in a disguised or deceptive form, narrative promises that will later be kept, though perhaps in unexpected ways. (106)

Examples of pleromatic plots (or plots of fulfillment) may be found in the ways Christian scholars re-read the Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings) in the light of the Gospels to find not only what was always there—explicit prophecies of a Messiah—but also "types" of Christ in the story of Samson's betrayal and self-sacrifice, for example, or in the story of Jonah's descent into and resurrection from the belly of a whale. These stories would not appear related to one another or to the Messiah until Christ lived through His mission on earth. Christ's actions in a later time give new meaning to stories of an earlier time, combining and transforming their narratives into what then became the Old Testament, which was (in John Hollander's phrase) a previously inexistent book. Of course, Samson and Jonah did not cause Christ's coming or the events of His life. Yet in the light of the New Testament's revelation, new pleromatic plots are revealed in the Old Testament. With this book as part of the Christian bible, Samson and Jonah may now be seen in a new narrative with hermeneutic relations to one another and to Christ, whose story keeps their disguised or deceptive narrative promises in unexpected ways. It is in the light of the Christian bible as a whole that Kermode says: "scholars speak of the gospel as recording the end-in-the-process-of-realizing-itself" (134).


I propose to show how and why Humbert Humbert organizes the master plot of his narrative through simultaneous Aristotelian plots of causation and pleromatic plots of hermeneutic relations so that the meaning of his life may be properly understood. To express his own story truly often requires the same words to take on different meanings as a function of their position in one or the other of these plots. Before proceeding, however, I should try to explain why such a complex narrative strategy should be necessary in the first place.

Humbert Humbert faces formidable and closely related difficulties as a person and a narrator. In every public moment of his life he must conceal his real identity, lest by its being revealed the possibilities of its realization in action—through possessing a nymphet—be destroyed along with his freedom to act at all. Any overt manifestation of his real life is threatened not only by agents of the law, but by (among many other things) the normal protectiveness of mothers, the inescapable curiosity of neighbors, and the easily alarmed self-consciousnesses of pubescent girls.


1 Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Paris: The Olympia Press, 1955). After the fictional Foreword by "John Ray, Jr., Ph. D.," Humbert's narrative is divided into Part One and Part Two, which were originally published in physically separate volumes by the Olympia Press. Each part is divided into numbered units that I call "sections" and that extend from a few sentences to several pages. My quotations cite Part and section, e.g., (I, 3). I refer throughout to Humbert as the author of his story to avoid repeating the obvious.
2 Paul Ricoeur, Temps et Récit (3 volumes) (Editions du Seuil, 1983); trans., Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer as Time and Narrative (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984); paperback edition, 1990. Ricoeur's English quotations are taken from St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans., R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961).

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