Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Butterflies and birds in Lolita

Butterflies are all over the place in Lolita. When you know Nabokov's interest in lepidopterology, it's easy to notice. And they're not random. In the notes, Alfred Appel Jr wrote:
"One of Nabokov's lepidopterological finds is known as "Nabokov's Wood-Nymph" (belonging to the family Nymphalidae) and he is not unaware that a "nymph" is also defined as "a pupa", or "the young of an insect undergoing incomplete metamorphosis". Crucial to an understanding of Lolita is some sense of the various but simultaneous metamorphoses undergone by Lolita, H. H., the book, the author, and the reader, who is manipulated by the novel's game-element and illusionistic devices to such an extent that he too can be said to become, at certain moments, another of Vladimir Nabokov's creations- an experience which is bound to change him. The butterfly is thus a controlling metaphor that enriches Lolita in a more fundamental and organic manner than, say, the Odyssey does Joyce's Ulysses. Just as the nymph undergoes a metamorphosis in becoming the butterfly, so everything in Lolita is constantly in the process of metamorphosis, including the novel itself- a set of "notes" being compiled by an imprisoned man during a 56-day period for possible use at his trial, emerging as a book after his death, and then only after it has passed through yet another stage, the nominal "editorship" of John Ray, Jr. As Lolita turns from a girl into a woman, so H.H.'s lust becomes love. His sense of a "safely solipsized" Lolita is replaced by his awareness that she was his "own creation" with "no will, no consciousness- indeed, no life of her own", that he did not know her, and their sexual intimacy only isolated him more completely from the helpless girl. These "metamorphoses" enable H. H. to transform a "crime" into a redeeming work of art, and the reader watches the chrysalis come to life. "And a metamorphosis is a thing always exciting to watch", says Nabokov in Gogol, referring to etymological rather than entomological phenomena."
That is interesting.


I do not know what it means, but I've noticed that there are not only dogs and butterflies but also lots of birds in Lolita.
(emphasis mine) 
"I remember walking along an animated street on a gray spring afternoon somewhere near the Madeleine. A short slim girl passed me at a rapid, high-heeled, tripping step, we glanced back at the same moment, she stopped and I accosted her. She came hardly up to my chest hair and had the kind of dimpled round little face French girls so often have, and I liked her long lashes and tight-fitting tailored dress sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained — and that was the nymphic echo, the chill of delight, the leap in my loins — a childish something mingling with the professional frétillement of her small agile rump. I asked her price, and she promptly replied with melodious silvery precision (a bird, a very bird!) “Cent.”" (P.1, ch.6)
Note: women and birds.
"Exhibit number two is a pocket diary bound in black imitation leather, with a golden year, 1947, en escalier, in its upper left-hand corner. I speak of this neat product of the Blank Blank Co., Blankton, Mass., as if it were really before me. Actually, it was destroyed five years go and what we examine now (by courtesy of a photographic memory) is but its brief materialization, a puny unfledged phœnix." (ch.11)
Nabokov dislikes symbols, but a phoenix is a bird that rises from its ashes, a symbol of resurrection and immortality. Immortality is 1 of the themes of Lolita, the book being "the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita", Humbert Humbert says in the end. 
"Gone with her mother to the Hamiltons — a birthday party or something. Full-skirted gingham frock. Her little doves seem well formed already. Precocious pet!" (ibid.)
What a creep. 
"Then, figuratively speaking, I shattered the glass, and boldly imagined (for I was drunk on those visions by then and underrated the gentleness of my nature) how eventually I might blackmail — no, that it too strong a word — mauvemail big Haze into letting me consort with the little Haze by gently threatening the poor doting Big Dove with desertion if she tried to bar me from playing with my legal stepdaughter." (ch.17)
Lo is a dove. Lotte is a dove. 
"With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog, she had slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed how by a jerk of his padded shoulder)." (ch.23)
A metaphor for the swift moments. I wonder what colour the pencil is. 
"Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head, pulling a drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, then neatly spreading a banknote over it with a bright “…and five!”; photographs of girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall (“nature study”); the framed diploma of the camp’s dietitian; my trembling hands; a card produced by efficient Holmes with a report of Dolly Haze’s behavior for July (“fair to good; keen on swimming and boating”); a sound of trees and birds, and my pounding heart… " (ch.27)
"Then [Lolita] raised by the armlets a copper-colored, charming and quite expensive vest, very slowly stretching it between her silent hands as if she were a bemused bird-hunter holding his breath over the incredible bird he spreads out by the tips of its flaming wings." (ibid.)
That is some time before Lo seduces Humbert Humbert. Who are the hunters in the book? 
"I had almost to carry her into our room. There, she sat down on the edge of the bed, swaying a little, speaking in dove-dull, longdrawn tones." (ibid.)
I have no idea what that means. 
"Its matter-of-fact intonations, however, helped to bring in the dawn, and the room was already suffused with lilac gray, when several industrious toilets went to work, one after the other, and the clattering and whining elevator began to rise and take down early risers and downers, and for some minutes I miserably dozed, and Charlotte was a mermaid in a greenish tank, and somewhere in the passage Dr. Boyd said “Good morning to you” in a fruity voice, and birds were busy in the trees, and then Lolita yawned." (ch.29)
"There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies—a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat." (ch.30)
I'd like to note that the snake image appears about 6 times in the novel, and there's another time that it's close to the bird image: in the passage above of Lo looking like a bird-hunter, the next action is that "she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried it on". 
"Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist." (P.2, ch.1)
Colour. The funny thing is that in my mind, I have always associated doves with the colour white, it's pigeons that are grey. 
"... every morning, oh my reader, the three children would take a short cut through the beautiful innocent forest brimming with all the emblems of youth, dew, birdsongs, and at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth, Lo would be left as sentinel, while Barbara and the boy copulated behind a bush." (ch.32)
"There and elsewhere, hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers." (ch.2)
Nabokov himself notes that these are actually "hawkmoths which do move exactly like hummingbirds (which are neither gray nor nocturnal)". Proof that Humbert Humbert really knows nothing about moths. Why Nabokov does this, however, is something I don't know. 
"Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine, and revise the recent matitudinal swoon to the moan of the mourning doves, and devise the late afternoon one, and slitting my sun-speared eyes, compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious chance collected around her for my anthological delectation and judgment..." (ibid.)
I have just learnt that mourning doves are not doves that are mourning (you know, anthropomorphism), but a species whose scientific name is Zenaida macroura
Headmistress Pratt at Beardsley school calls Humbert Mr Humbird in chapter 4. 
Is that the reason there are a few hummingbirds in the novel? 
""... You see, Mr. Haze, Beardsley School does not believe in bees and blossoms, and storks and love birds, but it does believe very strongly in preparing its students for mutually satisfactory mating and successful child rearing..."" (ch.11)
Everyone knows the term. I always thought of love birds as a term, and didn't know a lovebird's a kind of small parrot. But I've digressed. 
"Around Christmas she caught a bad chill and was examined by a friend of Miss Lester, a Dr. Ilse Tristramson (hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul, and you touched my dove very gently)." (ch.12)
Again, Nabokov's not fond of symbols, but I don't believe he didn't have in mind the association of doves with innocence. 
"She bared her teeth and after her adorable school-girl fashioned, leaned forward, and away she sped, my bird." (ch.14)
"I was now glad I had [the gun] with me — and even more glad that I had learned to use it two years before, in the pine forest around my and Charlotte’s glass lake. Farlow, with whom I had roamed those remote woods, was an admirable marksman, and with his .38 actually managed to hit a hummingbird, though I must say not much of it could be retrieved for proof — only a little iridescent fluff." (ch.17)
Humbird hits a hummingbird. 
In chapter 20, Beardsley is incorrectly spelt as Birdsley, twice; which Humbert Humbert mentions again in chapter 22. 
I'm not sure if it has meaning, or Nabokov's just playing with us. 
"This was Tuesday, and Wednesday or Thursday, splendidly reacting like the darling she was to some “serum” (sparrow’s sperm or dugong’s dung), she was much better, and the doctor said that in a couple of days she would be “skipping” again." (ch.22)
I'm not sure what that means. 
 "... And another nurse whom I never identified, and the village idiot who carted cots and coffins into the elevator, and the idiotic green love birds in a cage in the waiting room — all were in the plot, the sordid plot." (ibid.)
"No doubt, I was a little delirious — and on the following day I was still a vibration rather than a solid, for when I looked out the bathroom window at the adjacent lawn, I saw Dolly’s beautiful young bicycle propped up there on its support, the graceful front wheel looking away from me, as it always did, and a sparrow perched on the saddle — but it was the landlady’s bike, and smiling a little, and shaking my poor head over my fond fancies, I tottered back to my bed, and lay as quiet as a saint —..." (ibid.)
Another sparrow. 
"Elphinstone was, and I hope still is, a very cute little town. [...] Very amusing: at one gravel-groaning sharp turn I sideswiped a parked car but said to myself telestically — and, telepathically (I hoped), to its gesticulating owner — that I would return later, address Bird School, Bird, New Bird, the gin kept my heart alive but bemazed my brain, and after some lapses and losses common to dream sequences, I found myself in the reception room, trying to beat up the doctor, and roaring at people under chairs, and clamoring for Mary who luckily for her was not there..." (ibid.)
That is when Humbert Humbert realises Lo has gone. 
"The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
Have certain obscure and peculiar habits.
Male hummingbirds make the most exquisite rockets.
The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets…" (ch.25)
I know nothing about hummingbirds to know what they symbolise. 
"... Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time..." (ch.26)
What is a Persian bubble bird? 
"A thunderstorm accompanied me most of the way back to Grimm Road, but when I reached Pavor Manor, the sun was visible again, burning like a man, and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees." (ch.35)
That's a haunting image. 

This is even worse than my previous post on the dogs in Lolita. I've only picked up on a recurrent motif, without knowing what it means. 


  1. I found the "dove-gray" color in Ivan Bunin's stories, over and over again, and again, and again. Maybe a little too often, honestly. I have no idea what Russian word was being translated. Mourning doves are, of course, gray. Members of the species visit my feeder several times a day.

    1. Oh, that's interesting.
      And yeah, I didn't know about mourning doves until yesterday. I only knew about white doves.