Note: I first submitted this essay with my MA in English Literature application. I received the admission offer, and so now I can publish it here.
The humanity of taboos
Explored through Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
It is not the most common thing to associate Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita1 with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things2. Published forty-two years apart, former by an established Russian author relocated to America, and the latter by an Indian author who has produced no other work of Fiction, Lolita and The God of Small Things are two masterpieces with one thing in common: they show us, as we will see throughout this essay, that taboos are taboos not because they are against human nature, but because they are a side of human nature we would rather feign ignorance too.
Nabokov didn’t write Lolita to be scandalous. He wrote it because it was a story that called to him and he felt that if he didn’t finish it, “the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.” [Nabokov, 310]
Roy felt a calling too, but of a different kind. Her story is semi-autobiographical, set in the world of her childhood. When asked about the book’s focus on the caste system and attitude towards women, Roy said, “I never set out with the intention to write about it. I think one of the saddest things that’s happening to literature is that it’s getting over-simplified by this diet of simple political ideas.”3
By remaining true to their fiction, they managed to pinpoint unpleasant truths of our reality more effectively than any political statement or philosophical argument could ever have done. Through the lives of their very human characters, both Nabokov and Roy showed us the immorality of our humanity.
It’s a norm in Western society to paint paedophiles as monsters. Yet, as we go through Humbert’s narrative, and feel disgusted as we’ve been conditioned to feel by the moral compass of our times, a trace of sympathy sneaks in when we see him suffer, and know that however taboo, he loves. “…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” [Nabokov, 275, 276]
We don’t believe him merely because he says so. We believe him because we’ve witnessed his journey, and also because even he is relieved by the awareness that it wasn’t just “the foul lust.” [Nabokov, 281]
Humbert’s relationship with Lolita is a taboo because the rules of our society say so. If that wasn’t the case, the reaction to this novel would have been different. As Humbert pointed out, “Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces. Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.” [Nabokov, 19]
The taboos in Roy’s world are labelled different, but the crimes are similar. All the central characters break rules, and suffer the consequences, though some pay a price much steeper than others. “Perhaps, Ammu, Estha and she (Rahel) were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tempered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” [Roy, 31]
Roy shows us humanity’s fear of any threat to its order. The society creates layer upon layer of structure, each with its own set of rules, embedded in the very consciousness of people from the time they are born. Very few people, like Ammu and Velutha, manage to escape this inherent conditioning. The majority, like Vellya Paapen, merely struggle on, accepting their lot in life.
Humbert knew he was breaking the rules. He doesn’t ask for or expect forgiveness. Though he claims his preference for young girls a natural inclination, he knows that it is a violation of legal and social rules, and accepts his due penalties. What he insists on, is making the world aware that he loved, and loved truly. “…how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still grey-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” [Nabokov, 276]
It is not just Humbert towards whom our emotions are inverted. Lolita, the victim by the standards of our society, should have been the one a reader would root for. However, though we can see that she is largely a product of her circumstances, there is also an element of her inherent nature that does not generate sympathy. Lolita, as a person, as a child, does not fit neatly into the victim mould. In her relationship with Humbert, she was more often the one with the power. Humbert knew it too. “…I was weak, I was not wise, my schoolgirl nymphet had me in thrall.” [Nabokov, 181]
When Estha is abused, we feel the emotions we are supposed to feel, because both characters meet our moral expectations. Estha is a good boy, a victim. The man who abuses him is someone we can easily envision standing in a corner, looking out with a predator’s eye for vulnerable children. “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s hand closed over Estha’s. His thumbnail was long like a woman’s. He moved Estha’s hand up and down. First slowly. Then fastly. The lemondrink was cold and sweet. The penis hot and hard.” [Roy, 103]
Lolita is not frightened of Humbert, though perhaps she doesn’t see another way out. When we see her manipulating him, using his lust against him, while we can’t blame her, it becomes a clash of two taboos. Humbert is wrong by our moral standards for having sex with a minor. Lolita is wrong by our moral standards because she behaves like a prostitute, demanding things and money for her favours. “Her weekly allowance, paid to her under condition she fulfil her basic obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start of the Beardsley era – and went up to one dollar five before its end.” [Nabokov, 181]
Estha, on the other hand, is terrified that “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man could walk in any minute.” [Roy, 194] The fear drives him to find a refuge away from home, to discover, “The boat that Ammu would use to cross the river. To love by night the man her children loved by day.” [Roy, 202]
The relationship between Ammu and Velutha is one of the two main taboos in The God of Small Things. It is this relationship that offers hope of finding one’s own happiness, even in the world made of rigid rules. “And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared.” [Roy, 337] It also sprinkles sorrow that seeps through the lives of all the central characters. Everyone is somehow left broken, and alone.
The second main taboo is when the twins, Estha and Rahel, have sex. Technically, it is incest and like Humbert’s love for Lolita, based on the rules of our society, we are expected to show disgust. Yet, as we travel with the story, we can see that “…what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.” [Roy, 328]
For Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twins with “the single Siamese soul” [Roy, 41] there was an intimacy that went beyond their individuality. The events that destroyed their lives, made them accomplices in the deaths of Velutha and Sophie Mol, and the slow disintegration of their mother’s life, connected them further. For two people, so intertwined that there was no clear distinction between where one person began and another ended, the sex was merely an attempt to find solace in the company of the only other person who knew everything, could understand everything, was a part of everything – and was essentially a sharer of soul.
The characters and the scene make us think about – even if we can’t quite gather the courage to challenge – the taboos as defined by our civilised society.
Despite the seemingly destructive themes, both novels end on a hopeful note, highlighting that no matter how rigid the rules, no matter what the consequences of breaking those rules, humans will strive to capture the fleeting moments of joy. In The God of Small Things, the hopeful note is highlighted in an impactful manner by ending the story, in the middle, when Ammu promises to meet Velutha, “Tomorrow.” [Roy, 340]
In Lolita, the hopeful note comes from Humbert’s acknowledgement of his crime. “I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape.” [Nabokov, 307] His regret is not for loving Lolita, nor for having sex with her. His regret is because he caused her pain, and destroyed her childhood. However, he also convinces us that his love for her was genuine, in his own way, and ends his memoir wishing Lolita only happiness.
Humbert also shows us another side of Lolita, which in turn makes her a more sympathetic character. “She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom…” [Nabokov, 283]
Neither of the authors set out to convert us to change our moral compass, but they show us that like nearly all the elements of humanity, the definitions of monsters and victims are not always black and white. Their works and their worlds challenge us to look at our own morality, at the taboos of our society and consider the reasons behind them. People who don’t like that challenge are the ones who call for banning of these books.
Oscar Wilde4 said it long ago, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” Both Roy and Nabokov shame the world, by showing us the humanity of taboos.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Penguin Books 1997, ISBN 0-14-026407-8
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo 1998, ISBN 0-00-655068-1
3. Small is Beautiful – An Interview with Arundhati Roy, Harper Collins Australia http://www.harpercollins.com.au/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=50000537&displayType=interview
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Chapter 19