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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Nabokov’s allusions to Midsummer Night’s Dream AND Mansfield Park in Lolita

In the Nabokov-L listserv, Eric Hyman wrote this response to my post “The Connected Enchanted Hunters of Mansfield Park & Lolita”, in which I claimed that the brief Enchanted Hunters amateur theatricals episode in Lolita was in part Nabokov's veiled allusion to the Lovers Vows episode in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:    
“This seems to me to be a stretch.  Certainly amateur theatricals are central to Mansfield Park, but are they central enough to Lolita to constitute an allusion?  One might just as well argue that Lolita alludes to the amateur theatricals in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—for those actually take place in the woods, are more explicitly sexual, have the tragic death of a young woman, and, most of all, have enchantments.  We know that Nabokov, like all educated Russians, was deeply interested in Shakespeare because Bend Sinister has a parody of Hamlet.” END QUOTE

Eric, I have two answers to your very interesting response:

First, if you read my earlier posts (from the past few weeks) about the allusion to Mansfield Park that I see in Lolita, you’ll see that my amplification of Nepomnyashchy’s earlier claim re the play Enchanted Hunters in Lolita alluding to Lovers Vows in Mansfield Park  is only part of a much larger allusion by Nabokov to MP in Lolita. Had the amateur theatrical parallel been all there was, I would agree with you that it could be coincidence. But it’s not—far from it. I continue to claim that what Nabokov was really responding to most of all in MP, was the incestuous sexual abuse theme that Austen hid in plain sight there, as I have been arguing for a number of years (not in this group, but in my own blog and in various Austen online venues). Plus, I think that Nabokov giving the play virtually the same title as the name of the fateful motel where Humbert first abuses Lolita gives the otherwise short play episode much greater significance—he’s telling us, in an overt way, that the abuse and the play are thematically connected.

Second, your suggestion of  Midsummer Nights Dream as a more likely candidate for allusive source for The Enchanted Hunters in L---- is interesting on its own terms, for the reasons you briefly state—but even if supported by additional textual evidence upon closer examination, why do you assume that this would rule out the allusion to Mansfield Park that I claim is there in L----? Would you not agree that Nabokov, being the extremely erudite and sophisticated literary scholar that he was, was perfectly capable of layering in multiple allusive sources? I’ve found that to be true of all the great writers I’ve studied—the correct critical answer re allusions is often not “either/or” but “both”.

And that layering would make even more sense in this particular case, given that (as you may or may not be aware) Midsummer Night’s Dream was an important allusive source for multiple Austen novels, most notably Emma. So, if Nabokov did have MND in mind as he wrote L----, it would suggest to me that he had also recognized the allusion to MND in MP, which I have previously noted, and will give you a few highlights of, off the top of my head:

ONE: It has been recognized for some time by several Austen scholars that the Sotherton “ha-ha” scene in MP, when the mismatched lovers, Maria, Henry, Edmund, and Mary bypass the gate and enter the “garden” where bites of the proverbial apple are taken, to the prim and proper Fanny Price’s horror, is an obvious allusion to the young mismatched lovers of MND.

TWO: Sir Thomas Bertram has deep roots in the character of the domineering patriarch of MND, Egeon, who tries to force his dutiful daughter Hermia to marry the wealthy jerk Demetrius, just as Sir Thomas first turns a blind eye when his daughter Maria marries the wealthy fool Rushworth, and then cruelly coerces niece Fanny in an attempt to get her to marry the rake Henry Crawford.

THREE: There is a disturbing pedophilic subplot in MND in which Oberon and Titania spar over the little changeling boy whom Oberon demands as his “henchman”--- that is parallel both with the bringing of Fanny Price to Mansfield Park where (I claim) Sir Thomas sexually abuses her, and also (obviously) with Humbert Humbert vis a vis Lolita.

And last but not least, there is the obligatory textual wordplay, in which Jane Austen winks to her knowing readers that, yes, she really DID mean to allude to MND in MP. Here is what Henry Crawford muses while looking back at the amateur theatricals at Mansfield Park, as if he were Bottom rhapsodizing about his asses-head interlude with Titania:

"It is as A DREAM, a PLEASANT DREAM!" he exclaimed, breaking forth again, after a few minutes' musing. "I shall always look back on our theatricals with exquisite pleasure. There was such an interest, such an animation, such a spirit diffused. Everybody felt it. We were all alive. There was employment, hope, solicitude, bustle, for every hour of the day. Always some little objection, some little doubt, some little anxiety to be got over. I never was happier."

Do you get the puns on “animation” (Bottom is turned into an animal!) and “spirit” (meaning Puck, who turns Bottom into a jackass!)?

And, speaking of Bottom the Weaver, there are also four gratuitous, otherwise trivial references, within a very short amount of text, to a “bottom” during that same Shakespearean Sotherton “ha-ha” scene:

“A few steps farther brought them out at the BOTTOM of the very walk they had been talking of; and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, and looking over a ha-ha into the park, was a comfortable-sized bench, on which they all sat down….At last it was agreed that they should endeavour to determine the dimensions of the wood by walking a little more about it. They would go to one end of it, in the line they were then in—for there was a straight green walk along the BOTTOM by the side of the ha-ha—and perhaps turn a little way in some other direction, if it seemed likely to assist them, and be back in a few minutes….Fanny's thoughts were now all engrossed by the two who had left her so long ago, and getting quite impatient, she resolved to go in search of them. She followed their steps along the BOTTOM walk, and had just turned up into another, when the voice and the laugh of Miss Crawford once more caught her ear; the sound approached, and a few more windings brought them before her. They were just returned into the wilderness from the park, to which a sidegate, not fastened, had tempted them very soon after their leaving her, and they had been across a portion of the park into the very avenue which Fanny had been hoping the whole morning to reach at last, and had been sitting down under one of the trees…..On reaching the BOTTOM of the steps to the terrace, Mrs. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris presented themselves at the top, just ready for the wilderness, at the end of an hour and a half from their leaving the house. Mrs. Norris had been too well employed to move faster. Whatever cross-accidents had occurred to intercept the pleasures of her nieces, she had found a morning of complete enjoyment…”

Of course I claim this is Jane Austen reminding us of “Bottom”, the dreaming director of the play within a play.

And Nabokov, the master wordplayer, fully understood Austen’s love of puns, and so here are Nabokov’s winking double entendres (also in one very short bit of narration in L----) at the scholarly articles, computations, studies, euphemisms, and descriptions required of his readers in order to recognize his hallucinatory, mythological Midsummer Night’s Dream allusion in L---:

“Apart from measurements, I could of course visualize L--- with HALLUCINATIONAL lucidity; and nursing as I did a tingle on my breastbone at the exact spot her silky top had come level once or twice with my heart; and feeling as I did her warm weight in my lap (so that, in a sense, I was always "with L--" as a woman is "with child"), I was not surprised to discover later that my computation had been more or less correct. Having moreover STUDIED A MIDSUMMER sale BOOK, it was with a very knowing air that I EXAMINED VARIOUS PRETTY ARTICLES, sport shoes, sneakers, pumps of crushed kid for crushed kids. The painted girl in black who attended to all these poignant needs of mine turned parental SCHOLARSHIP and PRECISE DESCRIPTION into commercial EUPHEMISMS, such as "petite."…. There is a touch of the MYTHOLOGICAL and the ENCHANTED in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can DREAM of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool. Life-size plastic
figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, FAUNISH faces floated around me.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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