A primary facet of the American literacy consciousness is the ideal of American innocence and the tragic consequences if that innocence is lost. Yet many American authors remain deeply troubled by the role of sexuality within that conception of American identity, and more importantly, the role of those desires that have been deemed deviant. When Vladimir Nabokov first published Lolita in 1955, it was considered so scandalous it was rejected across the board by American publishers. Only a few decades earlier, William Faulkner had also questioned the meaning of sex and family in America, yet he was careful to make this question only one of many to be explored through his novel Absalom, Absalom! thereby gaining greater acceptance within the United States. In terms of narrative, plot and purpose, these two novels are highly incongruent, each using sexual deviance to make different critiques of American culture, and speaking to the audience of their particular time. Yet, by exploring the different ways in which each author identifies sexuality and sexual deviance in American society, we begin to gain a better understanding of how these traditionally taboo subjects have been dealt with in a literary culture so consumed by the desire to maintain purity and innocence. In these two novels, sexual deviance is portrayed as an inescapable part of the characters’ lives, manifesting itself though social and familial relations, and perhaps most disturbingly, through American culture itself.
The argument that sexual deviance is inevitable is a particularly interesting method by which both authors seek, if not to justify the behavior of their characters, then at least to make them more acceptable to readers. This idea also meshes in important ways with the ideology of American innocence: these characters are not the norm, but rather outliers who had no choice but to behave in deviant ways, engaging in incest and pedophilia despite their own abhorrence of these acts. By placing sexual deviance within the context of fate, readers are able to distance themselves from the disturbing subject matter with the knowledge that these tendencies are simply the curse of the minority.
Nevertheless, many readers of Lolita were immediately outraged when accosted by pornographic images of Humbert Humbert molesting the young Lolita. Nabokov introduces the reader to the idea of Humbert’s deviant behavior through the tragic, and socially acceptable, anecdote about the death of Humbert’s first love during his youth. Humbert says of that moment, “Was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was it my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? I am convinced, in a certain magical and fateful way, that Lolita began with Annabel” (Nabokov 13). All readers can identify with the pain of loss, and so they are led to pity Humbert long before they have reason to be disgusted by him. Because Humbert’s sexual preferences are described as the inevitable result of an early tragedy, this peculiar fate serves as a subtle buffer between his behavior and the American readership.
The nature of the inescapable in Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom! Is not described as a characteristic of a single character, but rather as an endemic feature of the Old South’s corruption, and the key to its decay. Faulkner introduces the concept of fate within the context of the more recognizable ideal of American innocence when he writes of Thomas Sutpen, “His trouble was innocence. All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not” (Faulkner 178). Despite earlier critiques of Sutpen’s multiple marriages and infidelities, this passage places those flaws within the larger framework of American innocence. Sutpen, like all of the Old South, is so consumed by a false ideal he is unable to see the innate error of his ways, a failure that can only lead to his inevitable downfall.
Faulkner builds upon this background of inevitability to introduce the more shocking idea of incest. As Bon and Henry first begin to suspect that they are brothers, Faulkner writes, “The two of them both believing that Henry was thinking He (meaning his father) has destroyed us all” (Faulkner 267). The fact that the children are somehow aware of their doom is reinforced when Henry discusses Judith with Bon: “Henry talked about her to him, saying every time he breathed: Hers and my lives are to exist within and upon yours. Because the fate was on her too… maybe Bon didn’t even have to wait to see her to know this” (Faulkner 260). Although the focus here is upon the potential for sexual deviance, Faulkner brilliantly ties in the greater atrocity of racism in the Old South. Faulkner relieves the Sutpen children of any blame for their circumstances, instead directing readers to consider the “peculiar institution” that serves as a breeding ground for other forms of unnatural and immoral behavior. Thus, it is all the more powerful when Faulkner later reveals the centrality of racism in their ultimate doom.
Although the two novels have very different forms and voices, one point of continuity can be found in the fact that in both stories, the main character ponders the moral weight of his sexual deviance, and uses a historical referent to justify that behavior. In the first chapters of his novel Nabokov writes, “While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea… Rehab was a harlot at ten years of age… and after all, Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, and this was in 1274” (Nabokov 19). Likewise, Faulkner’s Henry Sutpen also grapples for years with the possibility of consummation between his siblings before ultimately turning to history for absolution when, “Henry cited himself authority for incest, talking about his Duke John of Lorraine as if invoking that shade to tell him in person that it was all right, as people both before and since have tried to evoke God or devil to justify them in what their glands insist upon” (Faulkner 276). Perhaps the choice to include historical justifications simply reflects the authors’ desire to validate that subject matter; it also serves to tie sexual deviance more forcefully to the motifs of fate and the past. Having the characters struggle with their sexuality as a moral issue also reinforces their humanity, while driving home yet again the idea that their sexual deviance is not simply the result of their moral failure, but rather, is tied to their fate.
The role of sexual deviance within social and familial relations is another aspect that each author deals with in the novel, challenging readers with new interpretations of sexuality in the American family. Nabokov disarms the reader with Humbert’s unfiltered honesty about his desires, when he states, “There were times, if I know my Humbert—when I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say, Charlotte Haze) with not one relative in the wide gray world, merely in order to have my way with her child” (Nabokov 70). The unapologetic honest of this claim is certainly shocking; Nabokov does not hesitate to challenge American sensibilities with the idea of an older European infiltrating American society and poisoning its youth. But the fact that the narrative completely disregards social norms actually serves to make the story more real. Humbert’s lighthearted eloquence is an experiment in the logic of a deviant mind—a choice that is compelling even when found at the epicenter of American innocence, within a single-mother family.
Once Humbert succeeds in marrying Charlotte, becoming Lolita’s legal stepfather, the reality of that paternal connection becomes all the more evident. As Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, Nabokov writes, “‘Talk Lo, don’t grunt. Tell me something.’ ‘What thing Dad?’ (she let the word expand with ironic deliberation)” (Nabokov 112). Despite the sarcasm of Lolita’s tone, it is impossible to deny that Lolita’s dependence upon Humbert and their familiarity with one another is uncomfortably familial. Yet as her year with Humbert wears on, Humbert reveals how traumatic this relationship truly is for the child when he notes, “It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest” (Nabokov 287). Describing Lolita as conventional in this passage purposefully places her as a symbol of American innocence. The fact that her idea of the family has become so grossly deviant is a direct challenge to the popular image of the wholesome nuclear family that was so important to 1950s American culture. By introducing such an overwhelmingly unacceptable idea into American literary consciousness, Nabokov challenges readers to accept a reimagining of American culture in which even the most normal and healthy appearances may hide a much darker reality.
In Faulkner’s tale, sexual deviance is not portrayed as an externality intruding upon American innocence, but rather as a force that is already dormant within the American family, brought to fruition by the ties of blood and fate. The passage where Bon seeks Henry’s permission to marry Judith is particularly revealing of this deep-seated perversion at the heart of the American family:
And then Henry panting and saying, ‘Don’t try to explain it. Just do it,’ and Bon: ‘You authorize me? Me as her brother you give me permission?’ and Henry: ‘Brother? Brother? You are the oldest: why do you ask me?’ and Bon: ‘No. He has never acknowledged me. You are the brother and the son. Do I have your permission?’ (Faulkner 279)
Despite the fact that incestuous marriage is undoubtedly socially unacceptable, the brothers still seek to follow tradition with Bon demanding Henry’s permission as the recognized brother, to marry Judith. This warped sense of tradition reinforces the decline of the Old South, as the characters obsess over the social importance of blood and lineage while simultaneously ignoring the most obvious moral and logical reasons for avoiding incest.
Once the idea of marriage between the siblings has been openly introduced, Faulkner expands upon his conception of the psychological background that makes incest a social possibility. Henry and Judith are described as being unusually close, often feeling as though they were almost the same person, and Henry adds an interesting new dimension to this when he says to Bon, “’I used to think I would hate the man whose every move would say to me, I have seen and touched parts of your sister’s body that you will never see and touch: and now I know that I shall hate him and that’s why I want that man to be you” (Faulkner 262). In this passage incest between Bon and Judith becomes a way for Henry to reconcile himself with the fact that he can never have this most intimate relationship with his sister, despite how close they are in every other way. Because he and Bon share a bond of blood, Henry is able to imagine himself as having vicariously slept with his sister, and though he finds that desire repugnant, he cannot help but want it. Through the ties of carnal knowledge Henry feels that all of the siblings become somehow closer, reinforcing the importance of blood and family in the Sutpens’ doomed fate.
The final manifestation of sexual deviance within the two novels is through American culture itself. For Nabokov, this comes most clearly through Lolita’s obsession with consumerist mass culture, and the hypersexualized descriptions of her that run through Humbert’s narration. This portrayal is perhaps more deeply troubling for many readers than the more obvious sexual deviance of Humbert himself, because as a young, American child, Lolita becomes a symbol of American purity and innocence gone horribly wrong. Nabokov proves that Lolita’s sexuality is not merely a figment of Humbert’s imagination, for in many scenes she either describes her own sexual conquests or is admired by others, despite her young age. While on the road they stop at a diner, where, “Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with synthetic syrup. It was erected and brought to her by a pimply brute of a boy who eyed my fragile child in her thin cotton frock with carnal deliberation… fortunately she dispatched the stuff with her usual alacrity” (Nabokov 115). Here the ice cream serves as the material object of Lolita’s desire, which is just as sensual as the waiter’s perception of her, a parody that proves the real pornographic subject is American mass culture. Everything Lolita consumes is described as in some way overly decadent, and the manner in which she gorges herself on material items is just as repulsive to Humbert as his sexual obsession is to readers.
Nabokov further underscores the deeply problematic relationship between American popular culture and the perverse when he writes, “To the wonderland I had to offer, my fool preferred the corniest movies, the most cloying fudge. To think that between a Hamburger and a Humberger, she would – invariably, with icy precision – plump for the former” (Nabokov 166). Again, Nabokov’s language smacks of covert sexuality in mirroring descriptions of Lolita and her preferred forms of consumerism. Even at such a young age Lolita is bent upon developing a lifestyle singularly built upon satisfying her desires through purchasing power. The fact that Humbert is cast in the role of an academic is no accident in this context, for while he violates Lolita sexually, he is also violating the American cultural norm of materialism, and that culture’s pretensions of innocence.
Faulkner’s critique of American culture is also tied to the portrayal of sexual deviance, though his criticisms of the racial logic of the South lead his narrative in a very different direction from that of Nabokov. When Henry finally gives Bon permission to marry Judith, he says, “’Thank God. Thank God.’ Not for the incest of course but because at last they were going to do something, at last he could be something even thought that something was the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity and training and the acceptance of eternal damnation” (Faulkner 277). For Henry, the act of incest is an opportunity to become something outside of the corrupted Southern culture into which he was born. Even though he realizes he is sealing his own doom, that prospect is preferable to continuing a life within his current distorted reality. Southern society’s flaws are brought home most clearly when at the end of the novel Henry discovers Bon’s heritage: “Henry looked at the pistol, saying “You are my brother.’ ‘No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister’” (Faulkner 286). Even after Henry has forgiven Bon for polygamy and incest, he cannot forgive Bon’s mixed parentage, proving that while even the most perverse sexual deviance might be a social possibility, a bi-racial marriage can never be accepted. This warped perception is further proof that the Old South and its “peculiar institution” are inherently corrupted, and ultimately doomed.
From Whitman to Hemingway, American literary consciousness has been consumed by the ideal of American innocence. By turning that ideal on its head, Nabokov and Faulkner simultaneously critique unrecognized but nefarious elements of American culture, successfully comparing these social flaws to the more shocking idea of sexual deviance. Using the motifs of children and family, both authors manage to strike home where readers will be most deeply affected, challenging the social mores of the status quo. While the idea of inevitability and fate makes the characters more acceptable in the minds of the readers, the placement of sexual deviance at the very core of American culture and family relations challenges readers to question those elements of their lives which feel most secure. In this way the authors displace the traditional conception of American innocence in favor of a more critical analysis, with a deeper understanding of what makes us truly American.