Jansy asked: “Did Nabokov employ incest in his novels as a deliberately romantic nuance?”


I think we have to distinguish between the kinds of incest he employs. The sibling incest of Ada is of a very different character than the incest in Lolita and the later novels. I haven’t read it in a while, but I recall that Don Johnson has a cogent essay on this topic as it relates to Ada. He also has one on incest in LATH! but it is mostly devoted to deciphering the family relationships therein, rather than relating the theme to a tradition.


The most helpful article I’ve read on this topic is by Peter Thorslev, “Incest as Romantic Symbol” (Comparative Literature Studies 2.1, 1965). Thorslev identifies three kinds of Romantic incest narratives: parent-child (with parent as aggressor), stepson-stepmother (the Don Carlos plot), and sibling. Parent-child incest always involves, at the symbolic level, “the sense of the past as being parasitic upon the future; of fathers, authorities, institutions, and traditions having outlived their usefulness, but being unwilling to grow old gracefully and wither away and even attempting grotesquely to renew their youth by devouring their young or by reproducing upon them.”  I suppose the idea of Humbert and Lolita being representative of the Old World and New World could be seen as a variation on Thorslev’s idea.


Sibling incest gets the most attention from Thorslev because it is the dominant form in the Romantic era.  Focusing primarily on Chateaubriand’s Rene and Atala, and myriad works by Byron and Shelley, Thorslev argues that, “there is a very real sense in which the only love possible for the Romantic hero - for Chateaubriand's René, for the Byronic Hero as epitomized in Manfred, for Shelley's poet-hero in Alastor, Laon and Cythna or Epipsychidion - is an incestuous love. First, it symbolizes perfectly this hero's complete alienation from the society around him; and second, it symbolizes also what psychologically speaking we can call his narcissistic sensibility, or, more philosophically speaking, his predilection for solipsism.” A few more quotes:


“The alienation of the more Romantic heroes…--of René, of Manfred, and of Shelley's Laon--as indeed of the poets whom these heroes in part represent, is based on more than a defiance of established social or religious conventions, or even of ‘natural’ laws : it is based, ultimately, on their narcissistic sensibilities, on their almost obsessive preoccupation with their own feelings, moods, and thoughts.”


Speaking of Chateaubriand’s Rene:


And long before a thought of incest has crossed his mind (as a matter of fact, it is his sister who first declares her love), he has reached the conclusion that his only salvation will be to find a soul that is the mirror-image of his own: in an especially revealing passage he wishes that God had given to him, as He gave to Adam, a love taken from his own side, a virtual extension of his own soul and body.


And of Shelley:


And even in Shelley's less avowedly narcissistic poems, such as Epipsychidion, in which the poet-hero explicitly affirms the existence of a transcendent reality which he shares with his beloved, one still gets the irrepressible feeling that here the poetic persona has in effect

stepped through Narcissus' looking-glass to embrace his mirror-image, his sister-soul. Certainly the never-never land of poetic phantasy at the close of Epipsychidion, the "Elysian Isle" to which the poet-hero proposes that he and his sister-psyche retire with a few books and musical instruments, is as idyllic as a classical pastoral, but also fully as artificial and far indeed from the emotions and realities of the world they would leave behind. And one remembers that the poem closes ambiguously, with the emphasis not on life, but on death: "One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,/ And one annihilation . . ." (11. 585-586).


He concludes:


Incest has been a popular theme in literature for well over two thousand years, and it continues so today; but it was in the Romantic Age that it was first developed into a literary symbol, a symbol of the Romantic psyche's love affair with self and of its tragic isolation in an increasingly alien world.


So, do we think that Nabokov was drawing from, or replying to, this Romantic tradition, particularly in Ada?


Matt Roth

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