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The boundary between ‘reality’ and fantasy is, in both Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, blurred, made malleable and, when the two prove incompatible, serves as a means of conflict. Nabokov and Atwood, through the conduits of Humbert Humbert and Offred respectively, seek to, by both pioneering and adopting postmodern conventions, use and show ‘reality’ as something of a plaything. In doing this, and by entwining folkloric and fairytale conventions within their protagonists’ narratives, they not only expose humanity’s susceptibility to having our own ‘reality’ distorted and manipulated, but force us to question our own very conception of what reality actually is.
In both Lolita and The Handmaid’s Tale, our vision of reality is channelled through the eyes of the protagonists. In Lolita, reality is filtered, by means of first-person narration, through the prism of Humbert Humbert, an eloquent and learned paedophile. As paedophilia is a topic of societal repulsion and immorality, Nabokov, by writing a novel through the eyes of a paedophile, challenges us to rethink our notions of what we, and John Ray Jr. (the fictitious editor who pens the ‘Foreword’ to the novel) term as ‘moral leprosy’. Nabokov’s use of a verisimilar ‘Foreword’ before Humbert’s narrative begins could be to consolidate these conventional opinions on such an issue (‘horrible’, ‘abject’, ‘abnormal’) before having Humbert invert them and have them questioned by his romantic poeticism as opposed to complete sexual deviance. John Ray Jr. himself notes that, ‘not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work’, the suggestion, perhaps, that this is a story of love and romance rather than the explicit sexual frustrations of a man with a little girl. Indeed, Humbert is aware of such opinions: by adopting the post-modernist convention of reader involvement, Nabokov has Humbert address readers as, ‘Ladies and gentleman of the jury’, showing how he understands, or perhaps wishes, his story to be judged morally. This is emphasised by his allusions to foreign conventions (‘Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds’) and history (‘Hugh Broughton…has proved that Rahab was a harlot of ten years of age’), which seek to portray the societal view of paedophilia as wholly relative to Western society, and as such seeks to, chillingly, somewhat normalise his actions. This argument is strengthened by knowledge of Nabokov’s inspiration for the novel: ‘a newspaper story about an ape…who produced the first drawing charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage’ – by showing us reality through the eyes of Humbert, Nabokov forces us to question the constraints (the ‘bars’) enforced on those socially deemed ‘immoral’.
Like Lolita, reality is filtered through the protagonist, Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s characterisation of Offred is similar to that of the archetypal protagonist within dystopian fiction – she is the ‘everyman’ within the Gileadean regime. As Stillman and Johnson state, Offred and her circumstances – that being her descent into an absence of individuality at the hands of the regime – are a trope of the dystopian genre and serve to illustrate the effects such regimes have on the ordinary person.
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