A Psychoanalysis of Humbert Humbert’s Personality and Behavior
Sigmund Freud developed a theory called the Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality; it argues that one’s behavior is a result from an interaction of three mind structure that are the id, the ego, and the superego. David Myers says in his recent book Exploring Psychology in Modules that most of Sigmund Freud’s studies focused on the unconscious psychological conflicts and how those shape humans’ personality and behavior. In addition, Myers states that Freud’s analysis of his patients “convinced [him] that personality forms through life’s first few years” (457). He also believed that children go through five stages of psychosexual development; those stages are the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genitals. According to Freud’s theory, each of those stages are presented at a certain age of a child’s life line, and the inability to master one of the stage will reflect through an adults’ behavior and personality when he is fully-mature. In Lolita, a book by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert’s actions can be psychoanalyzed in order to find the cause behind it, but even after comparing Humbert Humbert’s mind structure and his psychosexual development to Freud’s personality theory one cannot completely sympathize with him.
Based on Freud’s prospective, David Myers states that Freud thought the human mind is divided into three parts known as the id, ego, and superego. Those parts work together and influence the development of an adult’s personality and behaviors. When analyzing the human mind structure and comparing to Humbert Humbert’s, one can understand how Humbert’s personality and behavior came to be.
The id has an “unconscious psychic energy [that] constantly strives to satisfy basic drives to survive, reproduce, and aggress” (Myers 456), which basically means that the id is a pleasure seeking structure that forces people to only think of ways to satisfy their desires. Humbert Humbert’s pleasure is the attractions for nymphets, are girls aged nine to 14 who “reveal their true nature which is not human” when they are around a person that is much older than they are (Nabokov 16). This attraction is driven by Humbert Humbert’s tragic childhood love that he talks about throughout chapter 3. As a teenager, he fell in love with a girl named Annabel, and before he could explore his sexual fantasies about Annabel, she was taken away from him because of typhus. After her loss, Humbert Humbert mourns to relive his fantasies with Annabel, and that is the unconscious part of his id. Although he knows that his attractions are because of that lost childhood romance, what he doesn’t realize until later in the book is the fact that he is desperately trying to have those unfulfilled Annabel fantasies with a nymphet.
The ego “contains [human’s] partly conscious perceptions, thoughts, judgments, and memories” (Myers 456), and because of that, the ego function is solely based on reasoning and the reality of the reaching the id’s pleasure, so it would only act when it is appropriate. Humbert Humbert, although he has a consumable obsession and pleasure with nymphets, understands the cost of acting on those urges. He states, “I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach” (Nabokov 18). This quote demonstrates the depth of Humbert Humbert’s fixation with his pleasure source, the nymphets, but at the same time he is rationally thinking and acknowledging the stakes of acting on his desires. By referring to the laws that forces him to control himself, he is demonstrating that he is reasonably looking at the potential positive outcome that result from following through on his pleasures, and the punishments that could result from that and making his choices based on that. However, at a later point in time, after he had met with Lolita and her mother had died he rethinks those stacks and from his point of view the risk was worth it especially since after her mother’s death Lolita had no one to go to, and the fact that he kept terrorizing her to make sure that she did not tell anyone by telling her that if she were to tell anyone the worst that could happen is that he goes to jail, and if that happens then she would have no one to care for her. For example, he says on pages 150-151 the following:
[W]hat happens if you complain to the police of my having kidnapped and raped you? Let us suppose they believe you. A minor female, who allows a person over twenty-one to know her carnally, involves her victim into statutory rape, or second-degree sodomy … and the maximum penalty is ten years. So, I go to jail. Okay. I go to jail. But what happens to you, my orphan? … While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays … [I]f we two are found out, you will be analyzed and institutionalized, my pet. (Nabokov)
In addition to those horrifying words, he also says, “I was clever enough to realize that I must secure her complete co-operation in keeping our relations secret…” (Nabokov 149). Even though terrifying her was a cruel thing to do, he was still using reason and logic to approach the situation. He knows what she has to lose and since she was still young and dependent, the things that she would lose were of great value to her; therefore, he knew threatening her with them would make it possible for him to have his pleasures met and his jail-freedom protected.
The superego is what David Myers describes as the “moral compass” on page 456 because it considers the social and moral perspective on the id’s pleasure. Humbert Humbert not only realizes the legal issues that were associated with his desires, but he also recognizes the social view on the morality of the ideas that he is presenting, and he knows that in order to fit in with society one must follow them. In order to fit in, Humbert attempted to hide his attraction to nymphets by getting married. He marries the “daughter of a Polish doctor” (Nabokov 25). His marriage was not only an attempt to curtail his illegal desires, but also he wanted and needed to fit in with what society views as suitable, and that way he is a lot more likely to be respected. Even though the marriage did not work out, it was his first effort at pleasing and fitting into his social surrounding. His second attempt is a little different because it is the first time that he made a legal and safe approach to act on his pleasures, and because in the previous case he was not “in love” with a nymphet. The second attempt was after her met Lolita, he decides to marry her mother, only so he can freely be around Lolita. He admits to the idea by saying, “I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow… merely in order to have my way with her child” (Nabokov 70). Even though Humbert Humbert’s desires are illicit, however, he uses his marriage from Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, which is an accepted idea in public as a way to be closer to Lolita, and by doing so he is showing the social and moral approach of the superego to regulate or control his pleasure.
Sigmund Freud’s assumed that those three mind structured helps children pass through the different psychosexual development stages, which are five developmental phases that Freud believed in the importance of mastering them to prevent troubles in a child’s future adult personality. He called this idea the Psychosexual Theory of Development. During each stage a child presented with a challenge that must be mastered to prevent problems during adultery. The two stages that are most relevant to Humbert Humbert and have caused him problems are the phallic stage and the genital stage.
During the Phallic stage is when a child first develops his or her “unconscious sexual desires” for the parent of the opposite sex and starts considering the other parent his or her rival. It is a child’s first opportunity to learn how to please that opposite sex by learning from what their rivals do. Freud believed that was the reason girls were more attached to their dad and the boys to their mother. Knowing that this stage lasts from 3 to 5 years of age, a reader may conclude that the loss of Humbert’s mother at age three, could have caused his sexual tension. Although, readers don’t get much details as to how she died, other than that it involved a lightning and a picnic, but reader can still assess the significance of the dilemma. His mother’s death was the first tragic and sudden death that he experienced, and losing his mother at a young age implies that he had lost an important source of love and nurture, which leads him to crave it and he only sees that love and nurture a nymphet due to their purity. In addition, even though he says he is attractive, and smart, but when it comes to the sexual matters it seems that he discredits himself, probably because he did not have that proper training of to behave when attracted to another woman; so he seeks attention from young girls as a way for him to learn because all he hopes is that the nymphets that he encounters are pure.
The genital stage needs successful relationships between adolescents’ peers are critical in order to master this stage because during this stage is when a person’s “maturation of sexual interests” starts developing (Myers 457). This stage is when a person’s sexual interests starts growing. Humbert Humbert’s lover’s death only added to the issues that were caused by his mother’s death. Annabel’s death was yet another sudden death that left many burning desires, and unattended wounds that maintained a gap in his life that he wished to fill. Annabel’s death is a strong cause behind Humbert Humbert attraction to nymphets because he did not lose a loved one, but a “displaced maternal object to be re-found” (Holt). Warren Holt’s concept is proven when Humbert Humbert tries to recreate his experience with Annabel by taking Lolita to the beach, but he fails at actually reliving it. His attempt to relive his experience with Annabel suggest that his sexual interests did not evolve with him.
When a reader looks closely at both Humbert Humbert’s mind structure and his developmental stages, they can provide an explanation behind Humbert Humbert’s actions. Comparing Freud’s personality theory to Humbert’s behavior and actions help develop a psychological reason – such as his mother’s loss and the death of his childhood romance – behind his sexual attraction to nymphets, which moves Humbert Humbert from a stable person to a psychologically troubled person. Doing so affects the way that the audience, or the jury, perceive him because they develop a more sympathetic view towards him. Unconsciously, Humbert makes people analysis him and how he came to be and draw the connection that because of the events that happened in his life he is attracted to the nymphets. Providing his history acts as a defense strategy because through it he is trying to win the jurors’ sympathy and protect himself. However, Freud’s personality theories do not make what Humbert Humbert did acceptable. In fact, there are many instances where the readers find themselves disgusted at his actions. One of those moments was when he was threatening Lolita on pages 150 and 151 about what would happen to her if she reported him. In addition, when preventing Lolita from forming any social relationship with the outside world, as a matter of fact, throughout the book, Humbert Humbert prevents Lolita from socializing. There are so many others, but it is those moments when readers realize the tragedy that this book addresses, so his actions were unacceptable and morally wrong, but when one approaches the text through Freud’s theory of personality, they can understand the event that led to his sexual attraction towards nymphets.