The mention of the “American dream” evokes many, stereotypical images: a nice, neat house surrounded by a large lawn, a normal, happy family with a working father, stay-at-home mother, and two children ,and the ability of anyone of any race or background to be able to arrive in the country and make a living for his or her self. Naturally, it is these images and prospects of the aforementioned that have lured many immigrants to the United States with the expectation of building a “better” life for themselves. This is certainly the case for Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. This particular novel, narrated by a foreigner and written by a foreigner, seems to challenge these superficial assumptions about the United States as it delves into the country’s issues with mass consumerism, blind materialism, and obsession with artificial Hollywood glamour. In this way, through Nabokov’s descriptions of the American characters and landscapes, he portrays the dark, superficial side of America that can only be noticed through the eyes of a foreigner. Furthermore, the plot line of Lolita itself becomes an implication of the impossibility of the attainment of the American dream.
One way in which Nabokov demonstrates the materialism and superficiality of the United States is in his careful crafting of the American characters, particularly in comparison to Humbert, the European protagonist. Interestingly enough, there does not seem to be a single American character outside of Humbert (with, perhaps, the exception of Quilty) who seems to be unique, remarkable, or even comparable to Humbert in any aspect. Mrs. Haze, for example, is several times referred to as “bland” (41) and utterly artificial with her “carefully dyed hair” (76) and “plucked eyebrows” (37). In one instance, she is not just described as “bland” but as “bland American Charlotte” which suggests that blandness and American-ness go hand-in-hand (83). Perhaps it is just Humbert’s narration, but Mrs. Haze is never given any sort of depth or agency as a human being as she seems incapable of thinking for herself. In fact, it seems all of her actions revolve around either her obsession with Humbert or with her desire to give off the false impression of the perfect, all-American housewife. This can be seen in her reaction after Humbert treats her disrespectfully as instead of standing up for herself she “kiss[es him] on [his] underlip” and “brightly say[s] she would bake a cake” (93). Instead of arguing back as Humbert most likely deserved, she responds in a submissive, naïve manner that makes her either blind to the unfair way in which Humbert treats her or simply shallow and eager enough to give off the impression of a “perfect” housewife. Furthermore, her want of becoming the “perfect, all-American housewife” in the form of a consumer can be seen in her attempts to make the house “depressingly bright” with her constant purchasing of returning : “new shades and new blinds” and other, decorative aspects of the house. As with Lolita, it is clear that Charlotte’s preoccupying thoughts are nothing more than such trite concerns.
Although Humbert obviously harbors a serious obsession and interest in Lolita, it is certainly not for aspects or depth of personality as he describes her as a “disgustingly conventional little girl” (148). In essence, Lolita is the typical, American schoolgirl. She is concerned with appearances (as is seen with her constant reading of celebrity magazines and the celebrity posters on the wall of her room), fascinated by the artificiality of the cinema (as opposed to the “high culture” of literature and the arts that Humbert tries to instill in her), and is the girl “to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster” (148). In this way, Lolita is literally the embodiment of American consumerism and materialism as a true believer in all the falsehoods offered by these advertisements. No doubt, her interest in these advertisements and the promises that they offer have been influenced by her desire to appear as something she is not; namely, to achieve the “glamour” as she has seen it in popular culture. Humbert naturally has noticed the effect that popular culture has had on Lolita (and arguably the American youth in general) as he states that if he were to kiss her she would certainly “close her eyes as Hollywood teaches” (48).
Aside from the characters, the settings described in the book also work to portray the United States in an artificial and superficial light. This can most obviously be seen in the descriptions of the numerous motels in which Humbert and Lolita traverse. Just as with the American characters, these American motels rarely have any sort of distinguishing or interesting feature regardless of their distance from one another. This is shown not just in their similar appearances and amenities (for example, Humbert mentions that all have showers that are either exceedingly hot or exceedingly cold) but also in their “repetitious” and overly-optimistic names like “all those Sunset motels, U-Beam Courts, Skyline Courts, [and] Park Plaza Courts….” which give the false impression of pleasant lodgings (146). Not only are these motels conformist, they are also portrayed as rather cheap or tacky with “instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were un-hygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, [or] stillborn babies” (146). This demonstrates that, although these motels may be advertised to have a “gracious atmosphere” and “picture windows,” in the end, these advertisements often proved to be false exaggerations (147).
Another very telling line regarding the American setting of the novel illustrates Humbert’s disappointment in seeing the country’s true landscape. He states that “as a child in Europe…[he] gloat[ed] over a map of North America that had ‘Appalachian Mountains’ boldly running from Alabama up to New Brunswick” that appeared to him to be a “glorious diamond peak upon peak” (209-10). However, upon arrival in the United States, Humbert remarks it was “appalling” to realize that his hopeful image of the landscape of the United States “all boiled down to a measly suburban lawn and a smoking garbage incinerator” (210). In this particular instance, clearly Humbert was misled by the false hopes often given to newcomers in the United States by imagining that they will be able to partake in the optimism that is the American dream.
While Nabokov’s descriptions of the American characters and landscapes may work to portray aspects of the country’s shallowness, the plot line itself emphasizes the “myth” and superficiality of the American dream. The novel begins with a foreigner of “obscure European origins” hoping to make a living for himself, as consistent with the aforementioned American dream (105). However, perhaps because of his non-American origins, to Humbert the American dream is Lolita as he will not consider himself successful until he can “attain” her, just as many others pursing the American dream may not consider themselves successful until they have a wife, a steady job, and children. However, just as the American dream, Lolita proves to be unattainable. Yes, Humbert can have “bits and pieces” of her but he can never have her completely as he is balancing the incompatible roles of both lover and caregiver. Yet he continues to try, as can be implied by the “long highways” of “the geography of the United States” throughout which Humbert tries to “give…the impression of ‘going places’” (152). This idea of forever trying to give this impression of “going places” in the hopes of eventually winning Lolita over can be linked to the constant struggle and pursuit in attaining this mythical American dream. In the end, this pursuit proves to be a huge failure for Humbert, indicating that the pursuit for the American dream will prove to end in the same way, with bitterness and bleakness.
Interestingly enough, after Lolita finally escapes (and ruins Humbert’s “American dream”) she seems to set out and find her own slice of the American dream and of what she believes should be (no doubt influenced by her mother’s pursuit of the same as the images she perceived in movies and magazines) by settling down in a house, marrying, and having a child. Although Lolita claims that she and her husband “were quite happy together” (272), she is also described as “hopelessly worn out at seventeen” (277) with “washed out gray eyes” (272) and wearing “sloppy felt slippers” (269) making her seem rather pitiable and significantly older than her true age. Naturally, this suggests that the typical American dream and its associated happiness is more complicated than expected as achieving the so-called “dream” is by no means a guarantee of happiness, satisfaction, or success.
Overall, it is clear that the image of The United States in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is not a positive one. While the characters and settings are used to represent the superficiality and materialism of the country, the plot is used to demonstrate the way in which the “American dream” is truly a myth. Despite this, however, it is still a myth that many work towards achieving as its allure is unbeatable.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.