On “Wanted, wanted” in Nabokov’s Lolita
Sep 28 · 6 min read
In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, protagonist Humbert Humbert employs full poetic license in his recount i ng the tale of his love story with 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Humbert insists, at the start of his narration, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” His artistic talent with words is artifice. Literary references — to Carmen, Catallus, Poe, Dante — combined with precise diction, modulation of prose, and the privileges of first-person narration, enable Humbert to compel readers to empathize with his perversions and tragic story. When Dolores disappears, he pens a poem beginning “Wanted, wanted…” The poem is a microcosm of Humbert’s manipulative tactics: casting himself as the passive victim, abstracting reality, using the power of nomenclature. However, the poem is also Nabokov’s creation, and captures the key complexity of Humbert’s character: his guilt for the tragedy he has made of Dolores’ life, the tragedy that he himself safeguarded with evil actions — the first action being his marrying Charlotte, to secure better opportunities to take advantage of Dolores. This essay will endeavor to show how this poem strengthens both Humbert’s and Nabokov’s goals.
The poem, constituting thirteen, four-line stanzas, begins as a wanted person advertisement: “Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.” This choice by Nabokov injects a dose of tragicomedy-irony to the start of this very serious composition by Humbert. The phrasing — “wanted”, not “missing” — invokes the image of a wanted poster, distributed to let the public know of an alleged criminal whom authorities wish to apprehend: Dolores. In actuality, the criminal, the kidnapper, the pedophile, is Humbert. The repeated word, “wanted,” like the repetition in Humbert’s own name, suggests a throbbing obsession. Dolores is not only a wanted person because she is missing, but because she is very much the object of Humbert’s base desires. Then, Humbert moves on to describe the color of Dolores’ hair (“Hair: brown”) but instead of another helpful identifying piece of information, for example, the color of her eyes, he cannot resist but to insert a sexualized detail of her body: “Lips: scarlet.” To readers, the classic image of red lips connotes maturity, sex appeal, and the glossy covers of magazines — not the image of a young girl. Then, Humbert writes, “Age: five thousand three hundred days,” and in purposefully using days instead of conventional years, further masking his lover’s youth and innocence. This type of maneuver is attempted again and again by Humbert, most notably by his insinuation that Dolores was the aggressor in their relationship, that she seduced him at Enchanted Hunters hotel. In the last line, Humbert describes her profession, “none, or ‘starlet’”. While this is clearly a reference to Dolores’ love for American cinema and celebrities, Humbert is also applying a descriptor with the feminine/diminutive use of the suffix “-et”, which appears most prominently in Humbert’s main description of Dolores: “nymphet.”
The skewed description of Dolores is followed by Humbert asking: “Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze? Why are you hiding, darling?” The effect is frightening and ominous, as figuratively, one gets the impression of a childhood game of hide-and-seek, interrupted by the queries of a pedophile. The playful, innocent game is ruined by the cadences of hunter and prey. Nabokov’s use of this image is also a reminder that Humbert has ripped from Dolores her childhood. Later, Humbert writes, “Where are you parked, my car pet?” Describing Dolores as a pet connotes complete dominance — she is not a partner or lover, just a small pet. The secondary effect is the reduction of Dolores’ humanity by Humbert, an ignorance towards her inner life. Later in the novel, after further reflection, Humbert writes, “Quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate.” In combination with Humbert’s wanted poster descriptions, readers are exposed to the vacillating and opposite influences that are Humbert and Nabokov’s literary machinations — Dolores’ age and innocence are disguised and exposed, in alternating moves. This dynamic in the poem is consistent with the rest of the novel.
After a few other stanzas, Humbert transitions to expressing outward guilt — slowly, then all at once. He uses French in one stanza, that ends: “Lolita, qu’ai -je fait de ta vie?” This line translates to, “Lolita, what have I done with your life?” In this poem, this rhetorical question is the first hint of regret Humbert conveys in this poem, and it is slightly hidden and inaccessible, written as it is, in a language other than English. However, this is followed by a stanza in English:
“Dying, dying, Lolita Haze,
Of hate and remorse, I’m dying.
And again my hairy fist I raise,
and again I hear you crying.”
The repetition of “dying” as well as the phrase “and again” punctuate a scene portraying Humbert’s intense distress. Suddenly, Humbert reveals his full-fledged guilt for what he has done, and claims that the remorse is so great, that he may die because of it — which is also a device to induce sympathy in the reader. However, this is followed by a figurative violent confrontation, with Humbert’s adult “hairy fist” raised, Dolores’ crying, its backdrop. Notably, for the first time in the poem, Humbert refers to his love not as “Dolores Haze” — her real, legal name — but as “Lolita Haze,” an uncomfortable combination of her “given” names, her fake father’s fetishized title, and her real father’s last name.
After Humbert’s guilty stanzas, he returns to the law enforcement motif, which began with the wanted poster description. He cries:
“Officer, officer, there they are —
Dolores Haze and her lover!
Whip out your gun and follow that car.
Now tumble out and take cover.”
Once again, here readers can observe a faint hint of the farcical irony and double meaning. In this stanza, Humbert is the one appealing to law enforcement officers, so that they may retrieve Dolores and her lover. This is a kidnapper (Dolores by Humbert) reporting a kidnapping (Dolores by Clare Quilty), an absurd occurrence. The parallels between Humbert and Quilty — later summed up by Quilty’s calm retort, “We are men of the world, in everything — sex, free verse, marksmanship” — indicate that this stanza may be about either Humbert or Quilty. There is ambiguity here, Nabokov suggests to the reader. One may interpret this stanza as a coded admission of Humbert’s extreme guilt, that he is identifying himself as Dolores’ lover, turning himself over to the authorities, and sentencing himself to death. One may also simply interpret it as Humbert’s simple wish for the capture of the mysterious man who helped Dolores escape. There are two interpretations, each “helmed” by either Humbert or Nabokov.
The last stanza of Humbert’s poem is designed to globalize his desires, and allow readers to empathize with his plight. It is also the most lyrical and romantic stanza of the poem:
“My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.”
Humbert puts a poetic spin on his dejection, his life without his Lolita by his side. He writes that he is not looking forward to the road ahead, and the last “long lap.” The last line of the stanza, however, is the most significant achievement of the poem. More than half a century after the book’s publishing, people still quote, “And the rest is rust and stardust.” In writing this phrase,
Nabokov strung together seven words that are still widely circulated (and misattributed) online, and often completely disconnected to the Lolita, the novel. They are words that can be used to describe any romantic relationship, any life event — past, present, future. The globalizing sentiment of the last line, the beauty of its imagery, and its simplicity, end Humbert’s poem powerfully, and contribute to the impression that the “love story” between Humbert and Lolita is just another story that, like all others, will eventually be “rust and stardust.” The poem, in its entirety, its shifts and deceptions, jointly penned by Humbert and Nabokov, vividly illustrates the complex character of Humbert Humbert, artist and madman — simultaneously manipulative, sincere, guilty, and revengeful.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, protagonist Humbert Humbert employs full poetic license in his recounting the tale of his love story with 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Humbert insists, at the start of his…