HH as "Thumber" in Lolita

Submitted by caroline_wall on Mon, 10/19/2020 - 13:03

Good afternoon, folks! This is my first post—glad to be joining you all, and please forgive me if this already well-trodden ground. I was messing around with an anagram decoder earlier today, and realized I had never tried rearranging "Humbert" before now. Turns out I could have seen "thumber" hidden in there pretty easily if I just took out the space and wrote Humberthumbert, but hey, no use crying over spilled milk.

Someone on Goodreads pointed out a couple of passages where Humbert's thumbs are highlighted (I found it interesting that the two passages they included juxtapose phallic thumbs with wounds, and I'd like to look further into whether that juxtaposition carries over into other parts of the novel as well); there are two other connotations of "thumber" that I'm curious about, as well. First, a book-thumber, someone who thumbs through a book rather than reading it thoroughly—this seems appropriate for the incurious HH and his tendency to gloss.

Second, a hitchhiker, who sticks their thumb up to catch a ride (I think this is the only dictionary definition for "thumber," actually)—there's a passage in Part II Ch. 2 (page 159 of the Appel annotated version) that reads as follows:

We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms: the modest soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki's viatic appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs to tempt lone women or sadsack salesmen with fancy cravings.
"Let's take him," Lo would often plead, rubbing her knees together in a way she had, as some particularly disgusting pollex, some man of my age and shoulder breadth, with the face à claques of an unemployed actor, walked backwards, practically in the path of our car.

The thing that jumped out to me here was how close pollex sounds to Pollux, twin half-brother to Castor, coinciding perfectly with the Quilty reference in the second paragraph. But I definitely think there's more I should be pulling out of this passage and this thumber-hitchhiker thread in general. I plan on looking into this further in the future, but I would love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter! :)

Hi Caroline,


Nice find (after 60 years)!

Have you searched the archives here? (upper right) I did not see anything there for “thumber,” but there are pages with “thumb” (not all relating to Lolita).

The phallic connotations seem clear. Although the word “wound” wasn’t mentioned in the citations quoted, the proximity of H’s thumb to L’s bug-bite and bruise clearly suggest the word, as a common slang for the female genitalia.

The Castor and Pollux twin/double motif seems right on, too.

Good luck with your investigations!


Hi Mary,

Your suggestion about looking through the archives was a fruitful one—many thanks indeed! Something I dug up for anyone who's interested:

In their 2010 comments on Pale Fire, Jansy Berndt de Souza Mello noted that "thumb" may be etymologically related to Daedalus. (The Catalan dictionary referenced in the post seems to be the only one positing this connection, but I can see how anyone encountering the word "dedal" could be inclined to tie the two together.) The post quotes a passage from Pale Fire that juxtaposes the two, as well: "The crooked made straight. The Daedalian plan simplified by a look from above - smeared out as it were by the splotch of some master thumb that made the whole involuted, boggling thing one beautiful straight line." I briefly continued down this line of inquiry and found another rather startling relative of Daedalus: "dolor."

Jansy writes more about the Daedalus/finger connection here. I wish I'd read Ulysses, because I'm sure there are interesting things to be said here regarding Stephen Dedalus. But there is something immediately interesting to me about how Daedalus's labyrinth connects to the ape from the Jardin des Plantes. More for me to look into!~