Vladimir Nabokov

HH as "Thumber" in Lolita

By caroline_wall, 19 October, 2020

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! :)


3 years 8 months ago

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!~


3 years 5 months ago

Hi Caroline, 

The Daedalian plan smeared by the master thumb is brilliant! The quote is from Franklin Lane, who I have to assume must have known the connection. I imagine Nabokov knew and appreciated that, too. He very well may have known the "dolor" connection as well.



William Dane

3 years 5 months ago

Searching the e-book of the Annotated Lolita for "thumb," there are six instances in the main text, including in one of the more explicit of the sexually suggestive scenes (Humbert's "muscular thumb..."), and in one of the more suggestively violent of physical altercation scenes (Humbert reports that he "hurt my thumb against ["a pocket-sized wizened truculently tight old man"'s] hard head..." during a flashback to a scene with Rita). Twice it occurs in terms of flipping through a book's pages, and once in VN's afterword:


I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack.


"Muscular thumb" is somewhat near the end of Chapter 13, Part 1; and "hurt my thumb" is near the end of Chapter 26, part 2.


"Pocket," by the way, recurs 30 times in the text.


3 years 5 months ago

William, what do you make of the many pockets?


Caroline, I am intrigued by your Thumb Theory.


In Lolita it seems clear that the thumb imagery is phallic, and applies to HumbertHumbert. I am not so sure what it implies in PF; it seems to perhaps relate more to the ‘daedalien’ aspect, as in ‘skillful, ingenious, etc.' The French translation esp. makes that clear in lines 258-260:


A little phalange bone

Kept twitching. Then you turned and offered me

260 A thimbleful of bright metallic tea.


*** - In French: "et m'offris/ Un doigt de thé..."


 (I copied the French from Jansy Mello’s post; I don’t know if ‘phalange’ is in the French translation, but I would assume so.)


Then, again, ‘phalange’ suggests ‘phallus,’ although it seems the root words are different. If this were John Shades twitching phalange, instead of Sybil’s, that would make more sense. Just the same, it seems important that the thumb/finger-thimble-dedal-Daedalus was intentional. Why?


Daedalus seems to be suggested in the important ‘waxwing’ crash; actually it implicates Icarus’ hubris. I believe this act of

failed transcendence is the key to PF.


Curiously ‘thumb’, occurring 7 times in PF, seems to be largely associated with Gradus. The following has a gross erotic connotation:


There might be (I am allowing a lot) a slight, very slight, sensual satisfaction, not more I would say than what a petty hedonist enjoys at the moment when, retaining his breath, before a magnifying mirror, his thumbnails pressing with deadly accuracy on both sides of a full stop, he expulses totally the eely, semitransparent plug of a comedo - and exhales an Ah of relief.



William Dane

3 years 5 months ago

One of the more interesting occurrences: 

Et moi qui t'offrais mon génie ... I recalled the rather charming nonsense verse I used to write her when she was a child: "nonsense," she used to say mockingly, "is correct." 

     The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
     Have certain obscure and peculiar habits. 
     Male hummingbirds make the most exquisite rockets.
     The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets... 

Google claims the French is: "And I was offering you my genie."

The ellipses are part of the text.

Perhaps other instances are a satirically Freudian feint at a womb implication?


3 years 5 months ago

I just wanted to point out that what is mentioned as Catalan above is not really Catalan. I am a Catalan native speaker and "didal" is the word we use here for thimble. Finger is "dit" in Catalan, so the origin of "didal" is clear to me. Maze can be found as “dèdal” in Catalan, although it’s not the common word, but “laberint”. In Spanish, thimble is “dedal” and maze is “dédalo”, not common either. Finger is “dedo” in Spanish.

Searching the web, it seems to me that the reference given was really Occitan. I can't speak Occitan, but you can see all the references here. I consider this link useful. There is a little part ("comarca", in our administrative division) in Catalonia, Vall d'Aran, where a dialect of Occitan is spoken, "aranès", but there is a little variation in the terms mentioned. I haven't found a reference to maze here, maybe there is one. Thimble is called "didau" in Vall d'Aran.

Alain Champlain

3 years 5 months ago

William, re: 'Google claims the French is: "And I was offering you my genie."'

Sounds like you're suspicious of Google's claims, and rightly so: it should read "And I, who was offering you my genius..."


3 years 5 months ago


 I agree that the nonsense poem has sexual innuendoes, what with ‘snake’ and ‘pocket’ in the same sentence. Also, the male/female pairs, Squire/Squirrel and Rabs/Rabbits, and their peculiar habits likewise have prurient suggestions.


(BTW, I think on the surface the ditty is adorable, esp. the limbless snake walking with hands in his pockets. It also perfectly encapsulates HH’s wit, charm, perversion and obsession. He offers the poem as a refined and tender gift to his Love, in opposition to Lolita’s predilection for trash comics and magazines, despite her usual insensate responses; and yet it is precisely her childish vulgarity and mockery that he loves.)


I checked the online internet archive and there are 28 instances of ‘pocket.’ Most have to do with either a gun or keys (both phallic symbols) in HH’s pocket.




It seems to me that, like plalange /phallus, even if the root words are not the same I think VN would still enjoy the homonymic possibilities.