In 19th century England
, Oscar Wilde
found the British social purity
movement to be a formidable opposing force. His already controversial work, in combination with a growing public imperative for reform, led to the suppression of both his writings and to legal attacks on Wilde himself. Despite these repercussions, Wilde's work may be considered a success purely on the basis of its ability to secure the attention of its readers, a challenge in any culture. When faced with this task in 20th century America
was confronted by very different obstacles. While post-Victorian
English society provided an excess of sacrosanct targets for Wilde's attacks, America is founded on the idea of a very few truly unquestionable rights
, among these the right to free speech
. If this right is revered above all else in our current culture, it becomes supremely challenging for an author to truly unsettle or offend us. Nabokov exploits perhaps the last and most powerful modern taboo
, the sexuality of a child
, and thereby attracts the attention of even the most jaded audience. But this initial attraction would be worthless without a story worthy of the reader's attention. Lolita
accomplishes this goal by adhering to Wilde's definition of Art
as a fantastic lie. Its contents are fantastic exaggerations of reality, and secure the readers attention by their simultaneous absurdity and supposedly factual context. Lolita is, at its center, "Delightful fiction in the form of fact" (Wilde).
Sonya Rose argues in her essay, "Cultural Analysis and Moral Discourses," that a group defines itself by a set of commonly held ideals and assumptions, and that "culture" is defined as this set of preconceptions. She further distinguishes between different concepts as being unequally important, with some changing frequently, while others exist as unquestionable facts, constituting what she labels a "deep structure" (Rose). In Wilde's culture, this set of incontrovertible ideals included a fundamental homophobia that was so deeply inculcated in the broad social consciousness that any attempt by Wilde to attack these standards could only result in his defeat.
Nabokov's audience holds vastly different ideals than those Wilde attempted to reach. Nabokov wrote the book for Americans, a fact made clear by his frequent references to the difficulty of English, and his vicarious descriptions of America through Humbert. In her essay, "Fetish or Fatwa?", Steiner defines American fundamentalism as the belief in the right of free speech as an absolute. This position is supported by our Declaration of Independence, which defines this liberty as a truth so basic that it does not require explanation, the exact definition of Rose's "deep structure." How could an author, exercising freedom of speech, provoke a culture based on the validity of this freedom? The one place freedom of speech has been most frequently limited in America has been with the goal of protecting children and, most frequently, protecting them from sexual material. This tendency is evident in limitations placed on newspapers, radio, TV, movies, and more; the common goal is to protect children from what we consider obscenity. This pattern illuminates one of the very few areas where Americans are willing to compromise the idea of freedom of speech, a rarity that Nabokov recognizes as a cultural sore spot that can be exploited to command attention.
Wilde defines art as a lie, a falsity at odds with reality but capable of delivering a form of beauty beyond reality. In his dialogue "The Decay of Lying" Wilde uses the character Vivian to argue Wilde's ideas on art and its role in a culture. In Wilde's view, art is the creation of an ideal or of a concept in a way it cannot exist in life. To accomplish this, an artist must craft a self-sufficient archetype that ignores the limitations of reality, relying instead on its internal beauty; "Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself" (Wilde). A work of realism, in contrast, bases itself on external facts, thereby limiting itself both to a restricted set of rules and preventing it from every being entirely original. Synthesizing this perception of art and realism, Wilde praises most highly the art disguised as realism, such as that of the ancient historians who "Gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact" (Wilde). Wilde's definition of art is likely shared by Nabokov, a possibility supported both by Lolita's adherence to that definition and Nabokov's own words. Lolita is itself a "Delightful fiction in the form of fact," a goal it accomplishes by establishing a fantastic and realistically impossible story as supposed truth.
The perception of Lolita as fact is carefully nurtured through roughly the first half of the book. This cultivation begins with the opening introduction, which establishes a third party that simultaneously vouches for the accuracy of the document and contextualizes it by providing supposedly factual background and details on the fictional characters. Nabokov is essentially using lies to lend credence to his main storyline, another lie. This method of self-sufficient lying is extolled by Wilde as the product of "The true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence." (Wilde). Nabokov's deception continues in his choice of format. Whereas a work of fiction with an omniscient narrator repeatedly reminds the reader that the story is fake, by using Humbert to narrate Nabokov leaves the reader with no internal proof of the falsity of the story. Furthermore, the format of a testimony easily lends itself to the many minor tactics Nabokov employs to insinuate that the story is fact. These include Humbert's constant citing of records, the narrator's ability to talk directly to the reader, as well as providing the impetus for the existence of the work at all. Because of the selected format, all these methods can be used without reminding the reader that the work is fiction.
Lolita, both internally and externally, is fiction. For the obvious reason that it did not occur, we can externally judge it and determine it to be fantasy. Perhaps more importantly, the book's opening insistence of truth gives way to an internal declaration of fiction. As the book progresses, many of the reminders Nabokov used to convince the reader that the story is real disappear, and other factors remind the reader with increasing intensity that the story is pure fiction. These cues include the storyline, which becomes increasingly fantastic as it moves from the fairly believable story of a closet pedophile to the surreal murder of a mysterious abductor. The reader becomes increasingly skeptical as each new level of unbelievable lie is added. While the first significant impossibility of Humbert's chance fatherhood of Lolita is generally accepted, by the time Humbert is being chased by a half-imagined phantom, and his normally carefully ordered thoughts have lost their coherence and reason, the reader is constantly aware of the impossibility of the story. When the book climaxes in the most surreal of murders, the reader cannot retain any faith in what has become almost a strange fairy tale. Any remaining semblance of fact is dismissed by the afterward, which specifically talks about Lolita as a work of fiction, and even goes so far as to talk about the introduction as being fictional. At this point, Nabokov has successfully presented the reader with a story that can be subconsciously read as if it were fact, and successfully completely broken down this impression.
With regard to Wilde's definition of art as an imaginative and illustrative lie presented as fact, Lolita both meets and exceeds this basis. Not only does Nabokov successfully "trick" the reader into thinking of the novel as fact, but he goes beyond, deliberately showing the reader the trick, and forcing the reader to think about the work as a constructed lie. Nabokov manages to force the reader to further consider the work by selecting a topic that pits American's fundamentalist belief in the freedom of speech with our willingness to compromise that freedom to protect exactly the kind of exploitation and corruption that is the subject of the novel. The combined effect of these methods is to produce a work of art that requires and obtains both the reader's attention and understanding.