Professor Lee Quinby, Spring 2011

Lolita and Pearl – Sister nymphets?

Lolita and Pearl – Sister nymphets?

Throughout Part One of Lolita, H.H.’s descriptions of nymphets in general and Lolita in particular strongly reminded me of Pearl, from The Scarlet Letter. Of course, Pearl was 7 for most of The Scarlet Letter, and H.H.’s nymphets are 9-14, but she seems to fit the rest of the characteristics. Hawthorne and various characters throughout The Scarlet Letter refer to Pearl as an elf (pgs 106, 123, 131 190, 201, 212, 235, 238, 294, 295), demon offspring (pgs 113, 114, 276, 294), sprite (pgs 105, 110), witch-child (pg 277), and imp (pgs 107, 112, 121, 152). Similarly, a nymphet is a “little deadly demon” or “demon child” (pgs 17, 20), delinquent (pg 32), diaphanous (pg 29), “a mixture of dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity” (pg 44), and “beastly and beautiful” (pg 135), with other “certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm” (pg 17).

We talked about how the magnificent clothing Hester sewed for Pearl turned her into the sexualized child, and, in light of Lolita, Pearl’s interactions with the minister seem a little less innocent. Exhibit A:

Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself, “Is that my Pearl?” Yet she knew that there was love in the child’s heart, although it mostly revealed itself in passion, and hardly twice in her lifetime had been softened by such gentleness as now. The minister—for, save the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is sweeter than these marks of childish preference, accorded spontaneously by a spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming to imply in us something truly worthy to be loved—the minister looked round, laid his hand on the child’s head, hesitated an instant, and then kissed her brow. Little Pearl’s unwonted mood of sentiment lasted no longer; she laughed, and went capering down the hall so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question whether even her tiptoes touched the floor.

“The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess,” said he to Mr. Dimmesdale. “She needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!” (Chapter 8, The Elf-child and the Minister)

Exhibit B:

But, whether influenced by the jealousy that seems instinctive with every petted child towards a dangerous rival, or from whatever caprice of her freakish nature, Pearl would show no favor to the clergyman. It was only by an exertion of force that her mother brought her up to him, hanging back, and manifesting her reluctance by odd grimaces; of which, ever since her babyhood, she had possessed a singular variety, and could transform her mobile physiognomy into a series of different aspects, with a new mischief in them, each and all. The minister—painfully embarrassed, but hoping that a kiss might prove a talisman to admit him into the child’s kindlier regards—bent forward, and impressed one on her brow. Hereupon, Pearl broke from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it, and bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed off, and diffused through a long lapse of the gliding water. (Chapter 19, The Child at the Brookside)

Exhibit C:

“My little Pearl,” said he feebly—and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child—“dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?”

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled. (Chapter 24, The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter)

Is it reading too much into this to say that Pearl’s kiss, the consummation of her relationship with the minister, is comparable to H.H.’s first night with Lolita? No doubt. But for the sake of the thought experiment, let’s look at Humbert’s feelings from the following morning: “Whether or not the realization of a lifelong dream had surpassed all expectation, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark – and plunged into a nightmare…somewhere at the bottom of that turmoil I felt the writhing of desire again, so monstrous was my appetite for the miserable nymphet” (140). Obviously, the sex was good. But “overshot its mark” is a curious phrase, and far from being satiated, all H.H. can think about is getting another chance. It’s almost like the chase and anticipation of being with a nypmhet are what H.H. craves, not (or at least, not as much) the actual sex. Even before Lolita, he tires of the prostitute nymphet after a mere two days (3 meetings). She didn’t grow up overnight; she was simply too available.

So, in addition to the characteristics listed above, I would add “unattainable” to the qualities of a nymphet. Pearl kisses Dimmesdale and he dies, and with him, the “spell” that turned her into a nymphet does, too. H.H. has sex with Monique, and she ceases to be a nymphet. In the few pages after H.H. and Lolita have sex but before the end of part 1, he obviously still desires her. But how long before she’s no longer a nymphet? H.H. knows “she would not be forever Lolita…In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl’ and then, into a ‘college girl’ – that horror of horrors” (66). But I have a feeling** it will take far less time than two years for him to lose interest, and not because of any physical maturing on her part. Because for Humbert, and maybe even for all of us, there’s nothing more interesting than wanting what you can’t have.


**Yes, I know it’s only been three years since I read the book, but honestly I have zero recollection of what happens in part 2 other than the murder and some kind of road trip. Sometimes I’m pretty sure my mom must have dropped me on my head when I was a baby.

One Response to “Lolita and Pearl – Sister nymphets?”

  1. Lee Quinby Says:

    Ariana, this is a terrific treatment of the way in which The Scarlet Letter participates in the emerging deployment of sexuality, in particular with Pearl’s character as an instance of the second strategic unity regarding the sexualization of the child. Setting it up the way you have allows us to discern the intensification of this process over the century from Pearl to Delores. I also like your Humbert Humbert method of legal exhibits.

    I think this would be a good topic for you to expand on in your final essay, should you want to pursue it further in relation to additional readings from the Peiss volume and Foucault (and perhaps an additional literary work from out course for another point of contrast, though that is not entirely necessary). Keep in mind—that is always clarify—the distinctions that emerge by considering Pearl to be both a character drawn by Hawthorne and an object of scrutiny (and projection) by the other characters in the novel, and Delores/Lolita to be HH’s projection, with both of them as characters portrayed by Nabokov.