Abstract

Martha Nussbaum has famously argued that narrative fiction can expand readers' capacity to make appropriate ethical judgments because it requires readers' discernment of nuanced ethical situations, and because the emotional dynamics of engaging with the particulars of a fiction aids that discernment. In this essay, I argue that Nabokov's Lolita pushes Martha Nussbaum's philosophy of emotions and ethics to its limits by creating the audience position of “lyrical addressee,” which, in contrast with two other central audience positions, encourages affective participation and thus temporarily sidesteps concerns over ethical judgments against Humbert. Accounting for the critical tendency to ignore the power of emotions, I first describe how Lolita invokes the lyrical addressee only after Humbert establishes two other narratee positions, both of which devalue emotional experience and make it easy to ignore the lyrical addressee position. I argue that in the audience position of “lyrical addressee,” a reader can notice two important features that emphasize affective experience and feeling with Humbert: (1) the breakdown of the communicative situation, indicating the power of Humbert's emotions; and (2) the establishment of a “fuzzy” mood that transcends character and setting boundaries to involve even a reader who wishes to sympathize with Dolores's pain. Ultimately, in passages aimed at the lyrical addressee, there is a significant loss of the specificity that Nussbaum claims aids ethical decisions. In these moments, the move to generality, which appears in the form of a breakdown of communication and the permeable boundaries between characters and settings, renders ethical decisions temporarily irrelevant.

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