Humbert Humbert’s passion for the young girl, Lolita, in the novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov, has many similarities to the story of Messr. Swann’s passion for the young woman Odette in the Marcel Proust novel “Swann’s Way,” the first book of his epic “Remembrance of Things Past.” First, the similarities in these two relationships and then the only major difference I can see.
In both instances the man’s love–Messr. Swann in Swann’s Way and Humbert Humbert in Lolita–is entirely subjective, in that the Man seems to be in love with his idea of what the woman is like, which has little to do with the reality of the woman. In both novels this leads to tragedy, albeit in the Nabokov novel more than the Proust novel.
The woman in both instances is intellectually and emotionally far inferior to the man, but the man is so overcome with what appears to him to be love, that he ignores that fact, as if it is of no consequence. Maybe for a one-night stand it isn’t of any consequence, but for a marriage it is. Both relationships are disasters because they are both based on something going on inside the man that isn’t real. Real love is expansive, not limiting. Humbert Humbert’s love is the opposite of that, which indicates something is going on removed from reality. He wants to keep Lolita locked up and all to himself even if it makes her miserable. If you love someone, it isn’t normal to want to make them miserable. Mr. Swann doesn’t even care for Odette until one night when circumstances converge to make him insanely jealous. If this one jealous episode had never happened it appears that he would never have fallen in love. Humbert Humbert’s love for Lolita is an unrequited love, which is another sign that something not entirely real is happening here. Odette in Swann’s Way is a lesbian which either Messr. Swann is blind to see, refuses to believe, or convinces himself that it is of no consequence. I think that Proust makes her a lesbian just to add one more characteristic to point out how removed from reality is Messr. Swann in his love for Odette. Nabokov uses Lolita’s youth for the same purpose. Both men want to see the object of their affections as suits their own needs and not as the woman is in reality.
What Lolita is really about, we can see by the kind of man she eventually ends up with–a Joey Buttafucco, a mechanic, and Lolita ends up as Mrs. Joey Buttafucco and seems as happy as she’s ever about to become. Humbert Humbert, a brilliant scholar, can’t see that this mechanic is the right mate for her, because he can’t accept Lolita as herself. When she’s in the hospital, Humbert takes Lolita these brilliant novels to read (like Joyce). She despises him for that, because he’s trying to make her into something she isn’t. If he loved her for who she was, he would have brought her a romance magazine, maybe a movie magazine, or maybe Oprah, the magazine.
Real love is when we can look at another person and not project any of our own personality onto them, both Swann and Humbert are doing the total opposite. The bloke Lolita ends up with is probably a man who can see her for what she is and loves her, not some imaginary image of her. If Humbert Humbert would have married Lolita, it would have been as if this brilliant scholar and professor married Mrs. Joey Buttafucco, and would wake up one day and realize what had happened to him. This is actually what does happen to Proust’s Messr. Swann. After marrying Odette, he wakes up one morning realizing he married a woman who isn’t even his type, an actual statement he says in the novel. Swann becomes the habitual unfaithful husband, still in search of the real thing, while Humbert Humbert is driven to commit a crime, because of this love for a woman he has totally concocted in his head.
The main difference between these two novels is that what Proust is saying about Swann and Odette, he is applying to love relationships in general. As though this is what all sexual-love relationships are about–the other person is mostly a figment of our imagination. There might be some truth to this. Sometimes you meet someone who doesn’t seem to understand anything about their mate. Things about the mate, that is obvious to people outside the marriage, the husband or wife can’t see at all (“Love is blind”). Real love is not when one can’t see the other’s imperfections, or refuses to acknowledge them, but loves the other person in spite of their imperfections. Nabokov is applying this same concept of subjective love to the particular person of Humbert Humbert, whom he is portraying as a man with a psychological problem. However, Nabokov isn’t saying that this is what love is all about, but only what it is about to this one man, Humbert Humbert, and because it’s so extremely subjective, and so removed from reality, it destroys his life.