Posted by: siobhananderson | November 30, 2010

Humbert Humbert and Lewis Carroll

After reading Martin Gardner’s introduction and then revised introduction to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I was struck by how so many aspects of Carroll’s life and demeanor reminded me of someone I just couldn’t put a finger on. It hit me finally several pages in that Carroll did not in fact remind me of a real person, but rather a literary one, that of Humbert Humbert, the famed girl-child obsessed protagonist of Nabokov’s Lolita. As Gardner says, “…Carroll’s principle hobby–the hobby that aroused his greatest joys–was entertaining little girls.” And later, “He thought the naked bodies of little girls (unlike the bodies of boys) extremely beautiful.” These few lines in addition to several quotes and letters included in the text as made by Carroll himself reminded me so much of Humbert that I brought out my copy of Lolita and found their language to be strikingly similar. For example, this passage from Lolita seems to me representative of the relationship between Carroll and Alice Liddell:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

The fanciful language concerning his obvious affection and passion for this young girl simulates what I also imagine to have been consuming Carroll. However, further on in the introduction, Gardner refutes this possibility saying that “their goals [Humbert Humbert and Lewis Carroll] were completely different.” Gardner goes on to suggest that while Humbert Humbert’s fascination and attraction to little girls was purely sexual, Carroll’s interest was “of complete sexual innocence with a passion that can only be described as thoroughly heterosexual.” In my opinion Gardner dismisses this comparison far too easily. The character of Humbert Humbert did not only have a sexual attraction to little girls, but he was selective in choosing which ones merited his attention. Carroll seems to have done something very similar with his pursuit of Alice Liddell or Irene Barnes. In addition, like the writer Humbert Humbert in Lolita,certain little girls became life-long muses, their girlhood forever captured between the pages of books, the greatest example in Carroll’s case being of course Alice in Wonderland. And, just as with Humbert Humbert, Carroll’s fascination with little girls was precisely that: once they became older, young women, the relationship faded, or served an entirely different purpose than before. Though there is speculation that Carroll had wanted to marry Alice Liddell, her mother was stern about this never coming to be. And just as with other little girls he had doted on or brought to the seaside, his relationship with her changed and soon disappeared after she encountered adulthood.

It is certainly more difficult to prove that Carroll desired and perhaps had sexual relationships with his, if I may, “nymphets”, but after all of the nude photographs, romantic letters and whimsical story telling and weekends at  the beach, it is foolish to dismiss the possibility of the sexual undertones and perhaps frustration of Lewis Carroll, not unlike Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.

I’ve included some photographs of Humbert Humbert and of Lewis Carroll below:

A scene from Stanley Kubrik's Lolita, 1962

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll seated in much the same way as Humbert is often depicted


  1. Your first image reminded me of an interesting fact about the 1962 Lolita film: Sue Lyon plays Lolita as a fourteen year old instead of a twelve year old (the character’s age in the book) in an intentional effort to make the theme more palatable to movie-going audiences. To anyone who has seen the film, does this increase in age alter your reaction at all?

  2. I forgot the most important part! Sue Lyon was a sixteen year old playing a fourteen year old, which waters down the man/child relationship even further.

  3. When I originally looked at Carroll’s photographs I immediately thought that it was strange that a grown man would make photographing nude girls his hobbies. However, during the Victorian period it was common to take pictures of new children and they were often put on post cards and it was common to see nude children at the beach as chidlren were seen as sexless. With Alice Liddell it’s been suggested that he was never really interested in her and only came to know the family due to his liking for the Liddell’s son Henry. Also in regards to the split within the family it could have been because Carroll and Ina Liddell (14 at the time) accompanied two children to the seaside unescorted. During that period a 14 year old girl was seen as a woman and therefore it could have ruined Ina’s prospect if it was seemed that she was already going about with men. In the mystery of Lewis Carroll it’s been suggested that Ina possibly had a crush on Carroll which would explain why she was so evasive when a reporter asked her questions about it in 1920 and why she lied about being younger at the time in order to avoid embarassment. Also it could have been that Carroll and Mrs Liddell genuinely did not get on as Carroll referred to her as King Fisher due to her desire to see her children marry royalty or at least a very rich man.
    Also when Carroll was growing up he was the 1st son of a family of 11 children and it was drilled into him from an early aged that he would resume responsibility for the family once his father died. Therefore his childhood was limited. This coupled with attending boarding school brought out a dislike in him of overly-male behaviourr which could explain why he was drawn to girl children in particular. Carroll was rather shy and during the Victorian period you could immediately strike up conversations with children and through friendships with children gain admittance to the family circle. However, with adults you weren’t expected to talk to someone whom you hadn’t been formally introduced too. Carroll disliked this formality which is why his friendships with girls tended to trail off if they became the sort of person who wanted him to bow or act conventionally

  4. […] romantique entre Humbert et Lolita était une vision moderne de celle entre Carroll et Alice ; et le parallèle entre les deux a été établi plusieurs fois. En revanche, au contraire des personnages de […]

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