Executing Sentences in Lolita and the Law*
by Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

"Let the jury consider their verdict," the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first-verdict afterwards."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!" [. . .]
"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
-Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1866/1960, pp. 160-61)
Sentence First

A "sentence," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a pronouncement of opinion, a pithy statement, an authoritative decision, or an idea expressed in a grammatically complete, self-contained utterance. Notice that these definitions all emphasize thought rather than action. Of course, sentences--such as "Let there be light," "Keep off the grass," "You shall be hanged by the neck until dead," and "Notice that these definitions all emphasize thought rather than action"--may command or recommend an act. Some philosophers even maintain that "certain classes of utterances, in certain situations [. . .] bring about, rather than refer to, a new state of fact" (Hollander, 1996, p. 178). J. L. Austin, whose book How to Do Things with Words established the field of speech-act theory, argues that "performative" statements can have the effect of actions (1962).1 And yet the words in a sentence--whether it is an ordinary linguistic unit or the judgment in a criminal case--are still distinguishable from the deed they describe. The differences between pronouncing and executing sentences even led Justice Antonin Scalia to assert, in Wilson v. Seiter, that restrictions against "cruel and unusual punishment" should apply only to pain "formally meted out as punishment by the statute or the sentencing judge," or meant to be cruel and unusual by the inflicting officer (1991, p. 2325). He is assuming, of course, a legal system that "guarantees--or is supposed to--a relatively faithful adherence to the word of the judge in the deeds carried out against the prisoner" (Cover, 1992, p. 225).2 As Scalia's remarks demonstrate, however, the distinction between a sentence's pronouncement, on the one hand, and its execution, on the other, raises disturbing questions about intention, interpretation, agency, and responsibility.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita offers a provocative case study in which to explore such questions (1955/1989b). Unlike "execution novels" based on actual cases (Guest, 1997, p. 8)--such as Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Wright's Native Son, Capote's In Cold Blood, or Mailer's The Executioner's Song--Lolita takes the form of a fantastic memoir that a man charged with murder writes for his attorney.3 The narrator, Humbert Humbert, stages his confession as a grandiose rehearsal of his upcoming trial, while depicting courtroom procedures with the same absurdity as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.4 Humbert's text not only anticipates and attempts to control the proceedings, but actually replaces them: he dies soon after completing his confession but before his case can be heard. He is never tried in a court of law, leaving the novel's readers--the sole witnesses to his confession, apart from a fictitious lawyer and editor--stuck with the tasks of both judge and jury.

Nabokov designed his novel, in other words, so that readers feel compelled to resolve its convoluted narrative structure by finding a verdict and pronouncing sentence on the narrator.5 Lolita thus exemplifies the kind of tautological, circularly constructed, morally ambiguous narrative--whether legal or literary--described in Peter Brooks's Troubling Confessions. Brooks explains that

confessions activate inextricable layers of shame, guilt, contempt, self-loathing, attempted propitiation, and expiation. Unless the contents of the confession can be verified by other means, thus substantiating its trustworthiness, it may be false--false to fact, if true to some other sense of guilt. (2000, p. 6)
As a performative declaration, the sentence "I confess" seems to demand forgiveness but may lead to other profound, even irreversible consequences (p. 21). And yet it seems nearly impossible to determine the legitimacy of such a statement, let alone decide what a just response would be.

In Lolita, several factors make judging Humbert's case particularly difficult. Humbert concludes his confession by announcing that he is not guilty of murder, but rape; and that his victim is not the man he killed, Clare Quilty, but his own stepdaughter, Dolores Haze.6 Initial concerns about the validity of this statement--for example, that he may be "copping a plea" to a lesser offense, since rape is rarely prosecuted as a capital crime--spiral into a series of seemingly insoluble ethical dilemmas.7 Does it matter that Humbert claims to love Dolores, and that most readers (or at least those in my classes) tend to believe him? If he loves her, are his actions more or less reprehensible? Since he apparently cannot control his desire for prepubescent girls, to what extent should he be held accountable for his behavior? (This question is especially pertinent now that sex offenders are presumed incorrigible by ordinances such as Megan's Law.) And how should his references to nervous breakdowns, hallucinations, fugue states, and psychiatric treatment affect readers' assessment of either his criminal liability or his narrative reliability? Indeed, there is little evidence of Humbert's guilt apart from his own confession--a situation that underscores the crucial difference between criminal thoughts and criminal acts. His narrative, in effect, is his most immediate crime in the novel.8 Nabokov emphasizes this point by inviting readers to decide whether Lolita is pornographic, and therefore whether they are complicit in Humbert's wrongdoing.9 The matter of pornography leads to other vexing questions of artistic expression and free speech, which Justice Scalia, in a courtroom exchange on virtual images of children engaged in sex acts, linked specifically to Lolita.10 Determining whether Lolita is obscene involves even more subtle distinctions among thought and action, intention and execution, representation and actuality. Humbert's mock trial, in fact, seems to anticipate the obscenity charges that Nabokov expected to be brought against the novel itself.11

Readers of Lolita must not only confront such tricky moral and aesthetic questions but must also unravel the knotty connections among them. The novel's intricate design incorporates all of these factors, moreover, so that readers experience overwhelming pressure to pronounce judgment even as they are forced to acknowledge everything such judgment entails. Humbert's narration reminds readers of this task, too, by directly addressing them as "ladies and gentlemen of the jury," "Jurors!" "winged gentlemen of the jury!" or "Frigid gentlewomen of the jury!" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, pp. 9, 70, 125, 132), and as "my judges" or "your Honor" (pp. 40, 185). At one point, while sketching a possible defense based on his mental status, he even alludes to the outcome of their deliberations: "If and when you wish to sizzle me to death, remember that only a spell of insanity could ever give me the simple energy to be a brute" (p. 47). And yet it turns out that the man on trial--Humbert Humbert, molester, rapist, murderer, and author of "Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male"--is already dead. This fact, of course, makes it harder to determine a just solution to his case.

The necessity of distinguishing between word and deed permeates every aspect of Lolita. Humbert's narrative depicts various stages of a criminal trial--indictment, plea, examination of evidence, summation, verdict, and sentence--not only as verbal utterances but also as highly self-conscious soliloquies in an imaginary courtroom.12 He presents a case riddled with instances of grandstanding, special pleading, and leading witnesses, but there is no one to object. He claims on the very first page that "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" (p. 9). He admits the falsity of his confession even as he articulates it.13 He craftily inverts the structure of traditional detective stories, acknowledging "whodunit" from the outset but obscuring the victim's identity--except for strategically placed clues--until the crime's final reconstruction. When Humbert first names his victim, for example, he does so only obliquely, through apparently offhand wordplay: "Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!" (p. 32). This distinction between word and deed becomes particularly urgent in the novel's ending. Two parallel scenes in the last two chapters--one in which Humbert sentences and executes someone else, and one in which he pronounces sentence on himself--make his confession still more "troubling," and make judgment of his case even more complicated than it was before.

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Reprinted from Punishment, Politics and Culture, Vol. 30, Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth, "Executing Sentences in Lolita and the Law," pp. 185-209, Copyright 2003, with permission from Elsevier.

1. Austin posits various factors that make such statements legitimate (or, as he says, "felicitous") and therefore effective. In addition to his lucid, witty analysis (1962), see Petrey (1990) on performative utterances and literary theory, and Butler (1997) on hate speech. On death sentences as performative declarations, see especially Kaufman-Osborn (2003, pp. 23-29).

2. Cover adds that doubts about the system's integrity can affect sentencing: "A judge may or may not be able to change the deeds of official violence, but she may always withhold the justification for this violence. She may or may not be able to bring a good prison into being, but she can refrain from sentencing anyone to a constitutionally inadequate one" (1992, p. 229, n. 48).

3. On these four execution novels, see both Guest, who focuses on "diagnostic biography" in the real cases and their fictional adaptations (1997, p. 3), and Algeo, who compares the novels' representations of actual trial scenes (1996). For the general similarity between a jury trial and "Anglo-American plot structures and narrative procedures," see Clover (1998, p. 99).

4. Similarities between Humbert's mock trial and the one in Alice (1866/1960, pp. 143-62) are probably deliberate. Nabokov knew Dodgson's fantasy well, having translated it into Russian in 1926. He alludes to Alice elsewhere in Lolita and thought of its pseudonymous author, Lewis Carroll--who may have been a pedophile--as "Lewis Carroll Carroll [. . .] because he was the first Humbert Humbert." However, "some odd scruple" prevented Nabokov from explicitly mentioning Dodgson's "wretched perversion" in Lolita (as cited in Appel, 1991, pp. 381-82).

5. The novel consists of symmetrical parts--the first leads to Dolores's rape, the second to Quilty's murder--and doubled incidents or characters. Its narration comprises several levels: the events of the plot; Humbert's unreliable memory of them; their misleading representation in his confession; his ambivalent response to that representation; and the editing of his manuscript.

6. Humbert's opening paragraphs identify Dolores, list her various nicknames, and explain: "But in my arms she was always Lolita" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 9). Although most critics follow his lead--using the sobriquet that he repeats throughout his narrative, from first word to last, and reiterates in its title--I prefer to call her Dolores. Since she never identifies herself as "Lolita," using Humbert's pet name seems to deny her subjectivity and minimize his unreliability.

7. Humbert's admission that he is guilty of raping Dolores, but not "the rest of the charges," implies that he is indicted for rape but tried only for murder (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 308). He also commits other sex crimes on the books in the 1940s and 1950s: kidnapping; statutory rape; transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes; sexual slavery; Peeping Tomism; corrupting a minor's morals; engaging in prostitution; and sodomy, which included oral-genital contact in some states. He reveals knowledge of these laws, too, by mocking legal terms like "lewd and lascivious cohabitation" and dismissing the Mann Act, which prohibits interstate transportation of minors for immoral purposes, as "lending itself to a dreadful pun" (p. 150).

8. Humbert composes his narrative behind bars, "writing under observation" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 4) first in a "psychopathic ward" and then a "tombal" cell (p. 308). On pornography and other "crimes of writing," see Stewart; on pornography as performative, see MacKinnon.

9. Lolita often elides, obscures, or delays description of actual sex acts, including Dolores's rape--thus prompting readers to anticipate and imagine those scenes.

10. During Ashcroft v. The Free Speech Coalition, Scalia asked what masterpieces we would be denied "if we couldn't see minors copulating." The petitioner's attorney, taken aback, said, "Well, the movie Lolita"--to which Scalia sarcastically replied, "A great work of art!" (as cited in Greenhouse, 2001). Indeed, producers of this 1998 film hired a lawyer to assist in the editing and ensure that it conform to the 1996 Child Pornography Protection Act (Van Voris, 1998).

11. The novel's most extended allusion to actual jurisprudence, which appears in the foreword, cites Judge Woolsey's 1933 decision that Joyce's Ulysses is not obscene. The foreword adds that "not a single obscene term" occurs in Humbert's narrative (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 4), and that any scenes "a certain type of mind might call 'aphrodisiac' [. . .] are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis" (pp. 4-5). Nabokov, like his protagonist, has prepared his defense ahead of time.

12. On legalistic protagonists who construct "complex narrative structures to avoid relatively simple central realities," see Weisberg (1984, p. ix).

13. Humbert repeatedly implies that his confession is coerced or fabricated. At one point, promising "to tell [his] tormentors" about a scheme for gaining access to Dolores, he says:

This I confess under torture. Imaginary torture, perhaps, but all the more terrible. [. . .] Humbert Humbert sweating in the fierce white light, and howled at, and trodden upon by sweating policemen, is now ready to make a further "statement" (quel mot!) as he turns his conscience inside out and rips off its innermost lining. (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 70)
He even warns his inquisitors to "take down the following important remark" (p. 71). Elsewhere, describing prior romances that he invented or exaggerated for his wife's "morbid delectation," he observes: "Never in my life had I confessed so much" (pp. 79, 80). He also mocks the jury for expecting reliable testimony from a criminal: "Being a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory, I cannot tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the exact day" (p. 217).

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