How the use of first person narration creates mood and tone in 'Lolita'
A middle-aged man marries a woman he cares little for because he's in love with her fourteen year old daughter. When presented from the point of view of an outside party the idea may cause people to recoil in distaste. In his novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov instead presents this material in first person from the point of view of said middle-aged man Humbert Humbert, which helped to create a rose-colored perception of the offending main character. Humbert admits to having amorous and sexual feelings for girl-children, ages nine to fourteen, or as Humbert affectionately dubs them "nymphets." Yet, with the strategic use of the intimate first person narrative, in Humbert's smart and sentimental dialogue, the mood and the tone of Lolita is seductive and romantic, a contrast to the content, which is shocking and repulsive. The novel is also tinged with the narrator's erratic and slightly unhinged commentary. It is with first person narrative that these three elements—seductive, smart, and unhinged exposition—work best to create a sympathetic antihero and compelling mood and tone.
The choice of narration is important to the mood and tone because it is one of the main elements that help set the stage and establish the frame of mind of the novel. In his essay "Show Us the Narrator, Too" Steve Almond describes the narrator "as an all-purpose guide to the fictional world. They provide everything we might need to enjoy the show: the relevant histories and impulses of the characters, the prevailing mores, certain broader insights into human nature traceable to the author." In Lolita, first person narrative guides the readers into Humbert's world—his personally crafted account of what happened.
The story is driven forward by Humbert's conversational tone. He is writing his confession of child molestation, statutory rape, and murder, but describes the events as his great love story. He is casual and charming in his speech, describing his spotted nymphets and his feelings for these young girls as something beautiful. "Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek" (Nabokov 58). Although the content is shameful, first person narrative is successful in describing Humbert's feelings towards nymphets with rhythm and beauty because the character's ability to wax poetic.
Humbert is an eloquent speaker, but he is also an egotistical and unreliable narrator. He takes full advantage of the fact that his side of the story is the only side the reader receives. Though it's obvious he knows the difference between right and wrong, or at the very least what is lawful and unlawful, he is unapologetic about his desires. "Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child, 'enfant charmante et fourbe,' dim eyes, bright lips, ten years in jail if you only showed her you are looking at her" (Nabokov 19–20).
The example above also shows that at certain times throughout the story, the narrator goes in out and of first person perspective. The story is still being told by Humbert, but he takes this moment to speak of himself in the third person—a grandiose and egotistical trait.
To him, he is the hero, and through his undependable filtered narration the reader is given his sugar coated version of the story. Whether he is referring to himself as "I" or in any version of nicknames and pseudonyms he gives himself through the book, Humbert is in control of how the story is put on view, the mood, and tone.
Humbert downplays the severity of his actions with Lolita by claiming to be in love with her. He is graceful and tender in his descriptions. "Under my glancing finger tips I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay…As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body" (Nabokov 59–60). His unsavory and illegal adventures with Lolita told in this passionate and loving manner create provocative moods and tones.
In his essay "POV:NBD" author Steven Almond explains that the choice of point of view—first, second, third (or an assortment of all three)—isn't as important as "the emotional posture you've taken toward your characters and sort of narrative latitude you desire." While the emotional stance and narrative point an author chooses is important, the point of view used to communicate these choices is as important because it may make or break the mood and tone of the story. The narration style is a main element in which the world the reader is entering is refined through. In Lolita, mood and tone may be lost if the point of view was switched to, for example, a third person narrative. Then, the reader is being told second hand the feelings and thoughts about a perverse man whose desires are more compelling when he describes them himself.
Almond writes, "You want readers to care about your characters, to feel the way they experience the world." While any point of view can accomplish this, in the novel Lolita first person narrative, with Humbert's intelligent, seductive, and inconsistent storytelling, makes for a more gripping story, believable character, and sensuous, witty, and unpredictable moods and tones. Here is the offender, describing to the audience why he does what he does—and while he may be an unreliable narrator, Humbert's firsthand account of abducting and taking advantage of a pre-adolescent child is more jarring because it's a personal confession. What he does is abhorrent, but they way he describes his own actions—with tenderness, self-pity, and little remorse for the consequences his actions have on others—is equally, if not more, appalling. This would have been lost if told from another point of view.
Works Cited: Almond, Steve. "POV: NBD." In This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. Self-published, Harvard Book Store's Espresso Book Machine.
———. "Show Us the Narrator, Too." In This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. Self-published, Harvard Book Store's Espresso Book Machine.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Paris: Olympia Press, 1955.