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Nabokov has stated that, ‘ ‘reality’ [is] one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes’, and such a statement underpins both Lolita and The Handmaid’s Tale. Nabokov’s assertion is that reality is subjective and that to talk about it in an objective sense is futile. Both Humbert Humbert and Offred’s narratives support this claim; they show reality to be something malleable. This is shown through the employment of the post-modern convention of meta-narrative: commenting on his letter from Charlotte Haze, Humbert claims, ‘There is just a chance that ‘the vortex of the toilet’ … is my own matter-of-fact contribution’, and Offred admits to a manipulation of events when telling her story (‘it didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened, not exactly.’). By drawing attention to the fact that that their protagonists’ narration of events is flawed, both Nabokov and Atwood force us to question the very nature of storytelling, and whether we can really take a ‘tale’ at face value. Furthermore, this also conveys the notion that reality is not something fixed, but is instead something that has the capacity for manipulation and distortion. Primarily, in Lolita, Nabokov has Humbert manipulate ‘reality’ (defined as objective facts) in order to fit his own narrative and agenda. This is seen most notably in Humbert’s characterisation of the girls for whom he has sexual desires. These girls, Humbert states, ‘reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic … and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as nymphets’). By choosing to label the girls as ‘nymphets’, Humbert posits these girls in a folklorish and fantastical realm, one separated from reality. What is more, Humbert is keen to create a distinction between these ‘nymphets’ and other worldly children (‘Within the same age limits the number of true nymphets is strikingly inferior to that of provisionally plain […] essentially little girls’). This thus suspends any moral critique the reader may have of Humbert Humbert’s sexual desires by projecting them onto supernatural creatures rather than real-life humans. Humbert even goes as far as to make his actions appear somewhat out of his control by positing himself as the ‘bewitched traveller’. The lexical choice of ‘bewitched’ suggests that Humbert is not morally depraved but, instead, under the spell of enchantment from these ‘nymphets’, and ‘traveller’ (though Humbert is a literal traveller from Europe to America) suggests that he has inadvertently lost his way in this enchantment. The effect of this language is illustrated in the reaction of John Ray Jr. in the ‘Foreword’ to the novel: ‘how magically his singing violin [Humbert’s lyrical prose] can […] make us entranced’, the suggestion being, therefore, that Humbert has the reader under the spell of his own distortion of reality, severing us from our own. What Nabokov may have been trying to achieve then, contrasting to what was mentioned before, was not that we change our opinion of paedophilia, but instead highlight our susceptibility to have such entrenched views and our own moral compass changed through the power of language and the manipulation of reality.
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