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Freudian Symbols Symbol Analysis

Freudian Symbols Symbol Icon
Throughout Lolita, Humbert Humbert is constantly making fun of Freudian Psychoanalysis. He calls Freud “the Viennese medicine man,” (274) and points out everything that Freudians might consider to be an important psychic symbol—not because he agrees, but just to make fun. Lolita is chock full of Freudian symbols—guns which are compared to male genitals, for example—but they are not meant to serve their usual purposes. They symbolize nothing, and have been placed in the novel just to make fun of Freud.

Freudian Symbols Quotes in Lolita

The Lolita quotes below all refer to the symbol of Freudian Symbols. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Lolita published in 1989.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory...

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert has begun to give a brief summary of his personal background. Here, he offers a glancing remark on his mother’s death and absence from his life.

The passage’s immediate—and presumably intended—effect is to garner the reader’s sympathy for Humbert. He presents himself as a lonesome, even traumatized child, who lacked a maternal figure throughout his development. Humbert's mother's extremely early death, in particular, has removed her not only from his life, but also from his “memory,” so she cannot even play a moral or inspirational role. That distance is also stressed by the lack of detail available on her death, which is only conveyed in two vague nouns in the parentheses: “(picnic, lighting).” Here we see Humbert’s prose winning over the reader’s emotional sensibilities in addition to our aesthetic ones.

Yet even in a line intended to garner sympathy, there are disturbing moments. The reference to his mother’s “photogenic” nature applies an erotic eye to the woman, and considering that Lolita was described as a fire, the reference to “warmth” should invite similar caution. One need not commit to a fully Freudian reading of the passage in order to observe that there is a perversion to the way Humbert speaks of his mother. Nabokov places us, then, in an ethically compromised position in which we must assess whether a dead mother is indeed a good justification to treat Humbert with more compassion.


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Part 2, Chapter 17 Quotes

We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Now at the Chestnut Court motel, Humbert has become increasingly paranoid and fearful that his escape with Lolita will fail. To increase his confidence, he consults his gun, which prompts this mockery of psychoanalysis.

Nabokov was an open critic of Sigmund Freud’s theories, both in his fiction and in real life—and he found the methodology and the reading practices it invited insufferable. This line parodies the way Freudian critics will interpret any image as phallic: The “pistol” would normally be seen as an analog for the male genitals, due to its phallic shape and role as an assertion of violence and strength—and Humbert mocks this sexual reference by describing it as the “Ur-father's central forelimb”—thus stressing how ridiculous such one-to-one comparisons can be. Whereas the gun was intended to offer personal security, instead it just plays a ridiculous symbolic function. Nabokov seems to imply that the paranoid interpretation invited by psychoanalysis—one both performed and burlesqued by Humbert—prevents us from actually considering the reality of objects. And this idea is critical to the way that Humbert’s flagrant use of symbolism has often distracted the reader from seeing the actual way he has violated Lolita.

Part 2, Chapter 25 Quotes

It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art.”

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert grows increasingly despondent over Lolita’s absence and begins to conflate her with other women in his life. In response, he describes their experiences as a route to the creation of art.

Here, Humbert rejects what he sees as a common hierarchy between sex and art in which “shams and shamans” (probably another mocking reference to Freud and psychoanalysis) see the aesthetic as secondary to the purely sexual. Humbert he does not fully deny the value of sex, but rather considers it most important as a means to art. (If this seems to contradict the reality of Humbert's own life, it is probably because it's another example of him aestheticizing and beautifying his own sexual obsessions and sordid acts.)

An ancilla is a device used to obtain or master something difficult, so “the ancilla of art” would be something that helps someone create art. To call sex “but the ancilla” is to render it solely a means to aesthetic ends rather than a goal in an of itself. Humbert is thus building on his previous defense for his actions under the idea that his Lolita is an aesthetic construction. After all, she has served as the ancilla to the very narrative that we are reading. This line demands a revisiting of Humbert’s earlier language when describing his sexual encounters, which was itself highly aesthetic and metaphorical. Here, he implies that the metaphors were not used to obscure the sex, but rather that the sex served as the inspiration for the language. And by valorizing its gorgeous language and intricate structure, we seem to be affirming Humbert’s exact point.

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Freudian Symbols Symbol Timeline in Lolita

The timeline below shows where the symbol Freudian Symbols appears in Lolita. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,” is written by the fictional psychologist John Ray Jr., Ph.D., a specialist in perversions and abnormal states of mind. It frames... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Exile, Homelessness and Road Narratives Theme Icon
...must go to a sanatorium for a third time, he continues to play games with psychoanalysts by repeating exactly the kind of dreams and patterns of thought they describe in their... (full context)