Executing Sentences in Lolita and the Law
by Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
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Last Words

As Humbert concludes his narrative, at the end of the final chapter (part 2, Chap. 36), he tries once more to confess his initial crime. But this time he expresses his guilt in writing, rather than enacting it in physical brutality or proclaiming it to a disbelieving audience, and he cites his own memoir as evidence of his wrongdoing. Within his imaginary courtroom, then, Humbert finds himself guilty--an unusual judicial outcome, although implicit in such procedures as the confession or the guilty plea. Individuals, presumably, can decide for themselves whether their conduct is wrong, but only a duly constituted civil authority may determine that it is criminal. Humbert also imagines sentencing himself. People can figuratively "punish" themselves, of course--with ascetic, masochistic, or self-destructive behavior, for example--but only a duly constituted civil authority may impose actual punishment, whether just or unjust. According to H. L. A. Hart, punishment "must be intentionally administered by human beings other than the offender," under the auspices of "a legal system against which the offense is committed" (1968, p. 5). And yet Humbert, who in the previous chapter tried to punish another for his own misdeeds, now seeks to become someone else in order to pronounce his own sentence.

He begins by claiming that he has already examined the confession still being perused by the novel's readers: "This, then, is my story. I have reread it" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 308). In contrast to the preceding chapter--which implicitly compared Quilty's murder to a rhetorical device--Humbert here describes the text itself as a corpse or piece of forensic evidence: "It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies." Suddenly, his words bear tangible traces of his actions. But if his writing now offers incontrovertible evidence of his guilt, he still does not name a specific crime. He admits that his narrative remains disturbingly ambiguous: "At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe" (p. 308). That even the purported author finds this memoir opaque and impenetrable is indeed troubling. Humbert's confession, apparently, can even deceive Humbert himself. And since he is its first reader, his profoundly ambivalent judgment of this text--especially with regard to how reliably it indicates and documents his guilt--anticipates the various responses that actual readers might have.

To add to the text's elusiveness, Humbert explains that its purpose changed during the fifty-six days that he spent composing it. Originally, he intended to "use these notes in toto" at his trial; now, although he "still may use parts [. . .] in hermetic sessions," he realizes that he cannot possibly "parade living Lolita" in the courtroom (p. 308). He again describes the text in corporeal terms, associating it with Dolores's "living" flesh--a rhetorical strategy that recalls the blazon, a device by which Petrarchan love poems emblematized women's bodies (Vickers, 1981, p. 277). The decision not to display that body at his trial reverses his previous tactics. Earlier he appealed to phantom jurors when describing Dolores's rape--for example, "Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! [. . .] it was she who seduced me," or "Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover"--but now he resolves not to mention her before a real jury (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, pp. 132, 135). It is not clear whether the decision to keep Dolores's textual incarnation (and presumably her physical body) out of the courtroom is a last-ditch effort to defend himself against murder charges,26 another example of his inability to admit the rape in public, or a sign of genuine remorse because he wishes to spare her further pain and notoriety. At any rate, readers now know that his confession will never be read by an actual jury.

Immediately after judging his narrative--by evaluating its reliability and deciding its role in his defense--Humbert shifts to assessing his legal case. Meanwhile, his allusions to the text's ambiguous corporeality, which evokes both dead Quilty and living Dolores, yield to concern about the fate of his own body. Speculating about the trial's outcome, he worries about the punishment he will receive, not the verdict. Despite his exhortations to imaginary jurors in the preceding narrative, he now assumes that a real jury will find him guilty; instead, he wonders only what penalty the judge will mete out. (In the early 1950s, a jury established the verdict in capital cases and a judge determined the sentence.) Humbert presents this concern about a possible death sentence as if it were a philosophical position, rather than the dread of his own imminent death: "For reasons that may appear more obvious than they really are, I am opposed to capital punishment; this attitude will be, I trust, shared by the sentencing judge" (p. 308).

Once he has eliminated the jury and invoked a make-believe sentencing judge who shares his attitude toward punishment, Humbert announces the sentence that he considers appropriate for his behavior: "Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges" (p. 308). This statement acknowledges its illegitimacy as a performative declaration from the very beginning, even as it introduces another imaginary Doppelgänger that recalls Quilty's earlier role. The sentence indicates this doubleness with a subtle shift from first person ("Had I come before myself") to third-person singular ("I would have given Humbert"). It also manipulates both mood and tense. Humbert's statement employs the subjunctive, as required in clauses describing wishes, requests, and recommendations or speculating about conditions contrary to fact. Indeed, this grammatical form is predicated on the distinction between an assertion made within a sentence and the feasibility of executing it.27 Although Humbert correctly uses the subjunctive to formulate his imaginary case, he chooses the phrase "Had I come before myself" instead of "If I were to . . ." or "If it were possible to . . . ." "If" is often only implied in such statements--in the phrase "had I but known," for example--but even so, its omission here makes the situation he describes seem less farfetched.28 The sentence's construction suggests that he simply did not happen to appear before himself, not that it would be physically and legally impossible to do so. And whereas the subjunctive mood demands the past tense for conditions contrary to fact, Humbert uses the past perfect--"I had come" and "I would have given," not "I came" and "I would give"--as if describing a completed action. No trial has occurred, but the past perfect implies that he has already been tried, judged, and sentenced by someone else. Nevertheless, despite such conditional qualifications, grammatical elisions, and slippery temporal markers, this sentence provides the most direct statement of Humbert's guilt in the entire narrative. He finally admits to rape and recommends that he receive an extensive punishment for it.

Humbert's use of the past perfect, in pronouncing his hypothetical lengthy sentence, also adds to a sudden compression of time in the novel's last two paragraphs. By commenting on his narrative, he has already dissolved the implicit gap between the past events that he recounts and the present moment in which he records them. Now he reveals that when readers encounter the text, not only will his trial be over but both he and Dolores will be dead:

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive. Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. (pp. 308-309)
Since its publication entails her death, the text inevitably becomes identified with Dolores's dead body as well as her living flesh. Earlier, Humbert calls her "my American sweet immortal dead love; for she is dead and immortal if you are reading this. I mean, such is the formal agreement with the so-called authorities" (p. 280). He also wrongly surmises, in another instance of temporal telescoping, that her probable lifespan means his manuscript will not be published until the twenty-first century: "In its published form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first years of 2000 A.D. (1935 plus eighty or ninety, live long, my love)" (p. 299). When he addresses Dolores in the last paragraph--"while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you" (p. 309)--the effect is especially uncanny because she not only is absent, and already deceased, but according to Humbert's own stipulation could never have read the memoir anyway.

Strangely, Humbert is already dead as well. His reference to "a signed testament" suggests a will, one of Austin's primary examples of a performative utterance (1962, p. 5)--that is, a more legitimate and legally binding statement than the sentence he tries to pronounce on himself, because it concerns matters over which he does have jurisdiction, such as his manuscript.29 In an interview, Nabokov explained that he wanted the novel's final sentences "to convey a constriction of the narrator's sick heart, a warning spasm causing him to abridge names and hasten to conclude his tale before it was too late" (1973/1990, p. 73). The foreword reveals, in fact, that soon after completing this memoir Humbert dies "in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial [is] scheduled to start" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 3). His narrative thus resembles not only a confession, a trial, and a sentencing hearing, but also the traditional last words spoken by a condemned criminal before his execution and immediately preserved in written form.30 Indeed, the novel's ending seems to occur simultaneously with the death of its fictitious author--as if that mysterious body, repeatedly evoked in the text's final pages, turns out to be his own corpse.

Earlier, Humbert ignored his actual trial, jury, and sentencing judge to describe the sentence he would impose on himself. Now, at the very moment when readers feel most pressured to assess his case, they learn that he is already dead. Turning the novel's final pages, readers may still be deciding whether they find him guilty or innocent--not to mention hopelessly regenerate, sufficiently repentant, or somehow redeemed by either his love for Dolores or his literary achievement. In the midst of this interpretive process, the sudden revelation of Humbert's death may seem like a fait accompli. Although no verdict has been reached and no sentence determined, the death penalty has effectively already been administered to him by God, or fate, or Nabokov, or the necessities of the plot. At the same time, however, the circumstances likely to result from his death--the dismissal of charges, the discontinuance of the trial, the failure of any judge or jury to hear his case--mean that now only the novel's readers can find a verdict or pronounce a sentence.

Nothing remains at the end of Lolita, in fact, except the readers and the text. In the final sentences, Humbert suggests that he and Dolores will continue to live solely within the memoir his readers have almost completed:

one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer [than Quilty], so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (p. 309)
The text now transcends the physical death of both Dolores's body--variously described as living, dead, or immortal--and his own, which he pictures as a posthumous "specter," "like black smoke" (p. 309). Meanwhile, the novel's time frame shifts to an increasingly remote future, when his narrative will preserve "the living record of [her] memory [. . .] even in the eyes of all posterity," as Shakespeare puts it in his Sonnet 55 (1609/1983, p. 188).

This ending reminds readers that Quilty, Humbert, and Dolores died before the confession was published; that the trial never took place; that nothing remains, even in the world of the novel, except the text itself; and that the only "sentencing judge" Humbert will ever face is a reader of Lolita. Nabokov's novel thus urges readers to pass judgment on Humbert even as it reveals the utter impossibility of imposing any sentence in his case. After all, is there any point in sentencing someone who is already dead? That question underscores the vexed relationship between words and deeds when establishing blame, pronouncing sentence, and administering punishment in both literature and law.

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26. By minimizing references to Dolores in court, Humbert could presumably avoid alienating the jury and make it difficult for prosecutors to establish his motive for Quilty's murder.

27. For the subjunctive's relevance to narratives, like Lolita, that focus on a protagonist's mistaken assumptions, see my essay on "'Subject-Cases' and 'Book-Cases'" (Sweeney, 1999).

28. Earlier, in a similar construction, Humbert uses the indicative mood: "if I ever commit a serious murder." He warns readers to "Mark the 'if,'" but his failure to employ the subjunctive ("if I were to commit . . .") implies that killing someone is a possibility, not a hypothesis contrary to fact. Clearly, he does not consider Quilty's murder "serious" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 47).

29. According to the novel's foreword, Humbert's will includes a clause relating to "the publication of Lolita for print" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 3).

30. Banner explains that "The crowd went home, the condemned person was cut down and usually buried, the gallows was dismantled, and everyday life picked up where it had left off, but the execution lived on in three generations of literature: the sermon, the last words, and the account of the prisoner's life of crime and public death" (2002, p. 48).

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