Father Ralph and Humbert Humbert

On the face of it, you might think that no two books could be more different than The Thorn Birds and Lolita. The former an epic romance set in the Australian outback charting the fortunes of the Cleary family, a big, brave book destined to make readers weep copiously into their hankies as undeserved misfortunes are piled upon that poor family’s head. Lolita, by contrast, is the story of an immoral maniac managing to outwit most of the divine retribution he deserves; it’s an intellectual book written in an ornate and sophisticated style that favours cynicism and eschews sentimentality. Yet at the heart of each story, powering the narrative forward, is a forbidden love affair between a clever, older man and a young girl.

In Lolita, the narrator, Humbert Humbert recounts in a manner that is both self-castigating and self-justifying his hopeless passion for the 12-year-old American girl Dolores Haze. Humbert knows he has always had a Lolita shaped hole in his heart, and his fate is sealed when he first catches sight of her guileless, sunbathing form on a suburban lawn. In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph de Bricassart is an ambitious young Catholic priest rusticated to Australia after an unexplained act of insubordination. His life is transformed when he collects the family of one of his rich parishioners from the station, and sees young Meghann Cleary, neglected and isolated in her family and desperately in need of love. Meggie is beautiful and unaware of it; Dolores possesses the untarnished gloss of youth and makes the most of it, but both respond instantly and unwarily to the men who finally provide them with the attention they have longed for. In both cases, unloving and uninterested mothers have failed to provide any anchoring affection.

It is extraordinary how many similarities Humbert and Ralph share. Both are described as uncommonly handsome men, whose looks are more of a burden than a blessing. Humbert has no interest in women, and Ralph is forbidden by his vows from having any. Yet the issue of male beauty is more profound than this; for Ralph in particular, seems to despise those who admire him on the strength of his looks alone, and to fear that his popularity among his parishioners is due entirely to his aesthetic charm. Humbert has the same sort of reaction, although his disdain is born from a sneering contempt for women who cannot see past his charm to the monster who lies beneath. If both sidestep orthodox romance, it’s because, in their own minds, they are reaching for something much greater and nobler, and they fear the bestial side of their nature. Both are characterized as formidably intelligent men, but whereas Ralph’s intelligence aims for the spiritual, Humbert’s brain is one that maximizes cunning to keep him out of trouble. Neither can be content to be ordinary, or to be ‘just a man’ as Ralph puts it. Their whole beings are intent on transcending the drearily enmeshed fate of the domesticated male, in pursuit of an ideal – Ralph’s being a perfect relation with God, Humbert’s being a perfect relation with beauty.

And so, oddly enough, both authors find their way around the terrible obstacle of middle-aged men preying on little girls, by having these love affairs humanize their male protagonists. Ralph’s otherworldly ambitions are cast aside when Meggie comes into his life, and his strength and goodness, the nurturing, sympathetic side of his character are shown to the full. We cannot help but love Ralph as he loves Meggie because again and again he rescues her with gentleness and tact. The very fact that she is a child makes their relationship safe for him, although he is partly aware that it becomes a convenient cover behind which he can hide his deeper feelings. And the ghastly Humbert is touchingly concerned to protect Lolita from the reality of his passion for her. However tragi-comic his literary fumblings may be as he wrestles his young love on the sofa, he is most intent to keep her pure and untroubled by his lust. And what’s more, these men devote themselves to their girlish loves with absolute loyalty. No other woman stands comparison to the objects of their desire, they exalt and cherish and worship – and they do it silently and as unobtrusively (at first) as they can.

But what really struck me as intriguing was the use in both novels of an older woman to stand as an unwitting guardian to the younger girl, by trying to usurp the protagonist’s desire. In Lolita, Dolores’ mother, Charlotte, repeatedly comes between Humbert and her daughter in a competitive attempt to win his love. Completely blind to the attraction Humbert has for his Lolita, Charlotte nevertheless sends her daughter away, out of the house, eventually away to camp, in order to have their self-effacing lodger to herself. In the end, of course, Humbert agrees to marry her, seduced only by the thought of what easy access to Lolita such an arrangement will provide. In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph is in unwilling thrall to rich Mary Carson, the doyenne of the region, on whom his hopes for a big donation to the Catholic church reside. Before Mary transports her brother and his family (including Meggie, her niece) to live at Drogheda with her, she provides Ralph with the only female company he enjoys, although it comes in the form of barbed, combative conversation. Mary is in her 60s and knows that this in itself would prevent Ralph from desiring her, although she nurses a fierce, unrequited passion for him. It is Mary who sees and fears the intimacy growing between Ralph and Meggie, and she hates her niece for being able to enjoy the genuinely loving companionship she shares with the priest.

But here’s where the differences arise that make all the difference: In Lolita, Charlotte is a stupid, unobservant woman, worthy only of Humbert’s pity and his shuddering physical dislike. He can’t even feel passionate enough about her to murder her when the opportunity arises, although he toys with the idea. And although Charlotte is only a middle-aged woman, the signs of ageing are drawn with delicate revulsion and lingered upon. In The Thorn Birds, the two female characters are more polarized in age, Meggie still very much a child, with Mary Carson a distinctly older woman, but Mary has intelligence and cunning and is more than a match for Ralph. If she can’t love him, then she’ll torture him, and this she achieves with notable success. In Lolita, Humbert describes himself as a spider in the middle of his web, throwing out silken strands in order to track Lolita’s progress through the house. In The Thorn Birds, that spider analogy goes to Mary Carson, sitting in the middle of her estate and manipulating the lives of all those around her. And so, Lolita reveals itself as a thoroughly misogynist text, all women condemned as innocent victims of clever males, despicable and worthless creatures once the initial bloom of beauty has faded. Whereas The Thorn Birds, by contrast, shows a much more even-handed attribution of power; women have as much right to money, intelligence and authority as men. And so for all that Lolita may be the literary classic, and proud of its pedigree, my vote so far goes to The Thorn Birds, a supposedly trashy family saga that never descends into unredeemable ugliness.

But I’m only halfway through both books, so we’ll see how it all goes.

On an entirely different note, I’m sorry to be so behind in my comments on this site – it’s just that everyone has been writing such interesting things, I feel I should set aside quality time to respond. And so it hasn’t happened. But I will certainly get to them later in the day.

23 thoughts on “Father Ralph and Humbert Humbert

  1. It’s been a while since I read Lolita, but if memory serves, Humbert’s concern to preserve the little girl’s innocence doesn’t last very long. How far have you gotten with Lolita? Is this your first time ever reading it?

  2. What person is The Thorn Birds in? I ask because I can’t help inserting “HH says” in many of your sentences. E.g., “HH says Charlotte is a stupid, etc.” or “despicable and worthless to HH“.

    Why do you think HH “outwit[s] most of the divine retribution he deserves”?

  3. What an interesting juxtaposition. I read The Thorn Birds about fifteen years ago, when I worked a “regular” job … there was a little room where reference materials were kept, where I would go to have some peace during the lunch hour, and some other employee had left a copy of it there. I picked it up out of mild curiosity, and read the whole thing in fits of laughter … I am one of those people to whom melodrama is extremely funny, and the bepurpled struggles of Meggie and Father Ralph, and the wilds of Australia … oh, the humanity! I particularly remember Meggie’s character quirk of vomiting under emotional stress.

  4. Very interesting comparison. I definitely don’t want to read Lolita though. Not sure that I could stomach that unredeemable ugliness. And I wonder if the nuances of the Thorn Birds plot made it to the TV series.

  5. Jenny – I’m on page 109 of a first-time read, so HH has just gone to collect Lolita from camp (trying to avoid spoilers here). I thought it was interesting that the narrator makes so much effort to tell the reader about his intent to keep Lolita safe from his desire, it’s a strong attempt to keep readerly sympathy and narrated with much conviction. His line, of course, is that Lolita herself pushes it, and again, the issue of reliability is there, but with a first person narrative it’s difficult to be sure of an alternative reading that isn’t a projection or speculation on the reader’s part. Well, thus far, as I say, I don’t know what is going to happen next, and I could of course change my mind capriciously later on. 🙂

    Amateur Reader – The Thorn Birds is in the third person. I was going to talk about the difference occasioned by the differing perspectives, but I had already gone on too long. I’m sure you’re quite right I ought to have added ‘HH says’, it’s these years of blogging – they blunt the edge of my more literary criticism. But when you have a first person narrative, it’s inevitable that on a first read at least, one’s perspective will be aligned with the narrator. As for divine retribution, well, HH was pretty unpleasant to that first wife, and not exactly honest with Charlotte, and it seems that fate rewards him each time. I gather he ends up in prison, although I haven’t got to that bit yet, so I hedged my bets with ‘mostly’. I should probably not write about a book until I’ve finished it, but I was afraid there’d be so much to say, I would write the mammoth blog post to end all mammoth blog posts, and no one would ever visit again.

    David – to be honest, I’ve actually enjoyed TTB and not found it melodramatic yet, but I could perhaps not have reached the parts that tickled you. And again, I saw it first on television when I was 15 and thought that melodrama was utterly moving, so that may also be influencing my response. 🙂 I’m not fond of stress vomiters in books as a rule, but when it was over that nun who was being so cruel to her, I actually transcended the moment and cheered her on.

    Pete – it’s really interesting to read it when my memories of it are all from the TV version (which I will admit to having seen several times). There is much more in the book, and pretty as Rachel Ward was, she was not the greatest actress ever, so I am liking Meggie better. I am certainly thinking about the differences between the two versions as I go along.

    Lilian – why thank you; I appreciate your vote. 🙂

  6. I gather he ends up in prison, although I haven’t got to that bit yet

    No, you’ve gotten to it. It’s the 2nd sentence of the novel.

    Are you sure it’s inevitable that I align with the first person narrator? I’m pretty sure I know how to resist them. I might even fight back too much.

    the mammoth blog post to end all mammoth blog posts

    Or a week’s worth of short blog posts!

  7. Definitely a unique juxtaposition. I remember the televised version of the Thorn Birds, too; while reading your commentary I had Richard Chamberlain going against James Mason–and that is truly unfair! Hypocrite vs. misogynist, hmmmm…

  8. I love this comparison and I’d be interested to know when each of the books was written. I’m sure they are both informed by the mindset of their times and that shines through in the books. For instance, today we are more suspicious of Catholic priests showing too much interest in young women or men and we are far more wary and informed about paedophiles.

  9. I haven’t read Lolita but loved The Thorn Birds, which I read in my 20s! Would I like it now? I read avidly in my 20s for the stories and didn’t analyse what I read, but reading your post this book still has the same appeal. It set me off reading Colleen McCullough’s books, especially her Masters of Rome series.

  10. Amateur Reader! – Oh dear! I am having all kinds of trouble being sufficiently clear for you, so sorry. Yes, the prologue says HH dies in prison, but I have not read the scenes in which he is caught/tried/committed, etc. After all there could be all kinds of twists – one book I read a while back had the murderer as the narrator, and in the conclusion he is acquitted of his actual crimes and then, in a final twist, jailed for ones he didn’t actually commit. So, I don’t quite know how it will all pan out. And we all do whatever works for us. I like to hear what my first person narrators are trying to tell me before I start to question them. Otherwise, for me, those questions risk laying my own assumptions on top of what’s being said (even HH should be innocent until proven guilty). Each to their own and whatever works best! And when I master the short blog post, I’ll be sure to let you know. 🙂

    ds – lol! That’s a wonderful mental image! And one I know I will remember as I’m reading on!

    Charlotte – that’s a good question – hang on, Thorn Birds: 1977, Lolita: 1955. And you’re quite right that the intervening social decades have seen immense cultural change. Makes you wonder what a contemporary rewrite would do to those stories…

    Booksplease – I saw the tv version at 15 and was deeply impressed by it (my romantic sensibility formed almost in one piece – alas! by it, although that doesn’t mean I rushed off to the nearest Catholic Church!), I’m really enjoying reading it now and would certainly like to read more McCulloch. I’ve heard those Masters of Rome books are really good.

  11. I tried to read Lolita a couple of years ago. Or rather I listened to Jeremy Irons read it and I found his voice combined with Humbert’s character so disturbing I had to give up after the first couple of chapters. I really enjoyed the Thorn Birds though and your comparison of both books may have convinced me to try to read, but definitely not listen to, Lolita again.

  12. Heh, Lolita and the Thorn Birds, two books I never would have considered remotely similar. Who knew? I’ll get around to Lolita one of these days but I’ll probably keep Thorn Birds in my memories of the 80s, though I am enjoying your account of it 🙂

  13. I haven’t read either of these, although I have a hardcover copy of the Thornbirds from way back when it first came out. It has lost it’s dustcover over the years. Now that I’ve put myself on a budget, it’s time to read some of the books I already have just sitting there. I think I would enjoy it.

  14. I am so enchanted that you’ve reviewed these two together – the very title ‘Father Ralph and Humbert Humbert’ produced a frisson of adolescent delight! Nabokov…hmm. Well, as a writer I like said recently – the great thing about books is that they don’t go away; there’s always time to come round to them. I’m told I should love Nabokov. Still waiting for that. The fact that I acquired a stepfather called Humbert (no, really) and subsequently discovered ‘Lolita’ aged about 13, and then really, really couldn’t bring myself to read it for about 15 years, and still get upset when I think about the insinuation about my lovely, gentle, rigorously honourable stepfather…it doesn’t help. He’s a writer that I admire, for his technical deftness and showmanship, but whom I can’t bring myself to like.
    Colleen McCullough, however is a sort of guilty pleasure for me. I remember the TV adaptation of ‘The Thornbirds’ too – much too powerful for the adolescent female mind; we should never have been allowed to watch it! I caught a double episode on daytime telly last year, though, and howled with delight at the cartoon OssTraylia, the symphony of accents, the wildly veering plot. Finding out that Richard Chamberlain was gay was a heart-sinker for me – who’s next, I thought, Captain von Trapp? But you’ll be happily disturbed to hear that Rachel Ward/Maggie married Bryan Brown/Luke O’Neill, and they’re still content together in Sydney, stalwarts of the Australian film industry. See? Happy endings. Rarely the ones you would have predicted…especially aged 13.

  15. Well, this is making me want to read The Thorn Birds! I have a little trouble seeing Lolita as misogynist, although Humbert himself definitely is. Whether the text itself is or not, it certainly is an uncomfortable experience for a woman. We talked about Lolita a bit during my book group’s discussion of The Talented Mr. Ripley, as both books ask the reader to identify with a horrible, horrible character and see the world through their eyes. It’s a really harrowing experience.

  16. You know, I am realizing that I read both those books for the first time at about the same time and NEVER made the connection (perhaps because Lolita was for school and The Thorn Birds I didn’t finish, for some reason, not because I didn’t like it. I’m guessing I misplaced it or something). I’ll be intersested what you think by the end of Lolita, though, because I would argue that it is a book that highlights the power of women and why men might despise them and that the mysogyny grows from their inability to come to terms with that weakness in themselves, which leads to the desire and need to control or to think they are in control. I can’t comment on The Thorn Birds, because I have not reread it, and barely remember a thing about it.

  17. You know I was sure you had read and written about Lolita before. Now I’m wondering about my memory, my brain, my age. Perhaps I read someone else’s post or dreamed it or have been inhabiting a parallel universe. Anyway I was stopped in my tracks to see you linking it to The Thorn Birds. Just shows how what must be a habit of compartmentalizing books can be sitting there in the back end of the brain. I guess this is the sort of manoeuvre a theorist would see as normal. I was thinking about that comment about how we lazily accept the neurotic artist myth or the mad genius which I think someone mentioned. What would this have to say about Nabakov? He has a real scientific interest in butterflies and moths, but other than that he is in my mental image of him quite a straightforward personage, except for what he wrote. Perhaps I don’t know much about him – which is true. On a different track you might be amused to find Sharon Olds’ ‘Self Portrait, Rear View’ on Youtube. My wife found it amusing too, although you are younger, of course.

  18. A totally riveting and unexpected comparison here, LL!! I haven’t read The Thorn Birds because I *still* remember groaning as a child while catching snippets of the mini-series on TV – NOTHING could have been more unappealing to me at the time than the sight of a Catholic priest clumsily getting it on with an improbably attractive young lover – ugh! So I’ve just never been able to face it. Lolita, on the other hand, I think an incredible book, and I don’t regard it as misogynistic, though I can see why you’re feeling that way now. I really want you to finish it to learn what you make of it then.

  19. It just goes to show you–highbrow or lowbrow both authors are trying to tell the same (or at least similar sotries–though I expect the outcomes to be different) and there is something comforting in that even if the characters motives are in some cases, um, questionable. I’ve not read either book but I have vagues memories of a beach scene (?) in the movie version of The Thorn Birds (where a priest is acting rather unpriestly).

  20. I’ve so enjoyed this post and all the comments on it! I read both of these books a long time ago, and definitely have put them in different boxes in my mind, so it’s really interesting to think about them together. Loved ds’s comment, too, because I thought of Richard Chamberlain and James Mason, too! Both creepy, in totally different ways!

  21. Your comment about being only halfway through both books is astounding! As I read your post I was certain you had absolutely finished and meditated for some time on both. What an intriguing comparison – I read Lolita but I haven’t read the Thornbirds and will confess to not having really wanted to in the past – before you are done you might just change that opinion. Currently I am reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and it’s a stunningly beautiful book – the perfect antidote for Atwood!

  22. apiece – I don’t blame you at all. Lolita is an extremely disturbing book, and Jeremy Iron’s voice wouldn’t make it any better at all! I loved the first two thirds of The Thorn Birds (I’ve finished it now) but liked the ending less. Now I must pick up Lolita again and finish it too. I’m kind of intrigued now to see where it’s going. Let me know what you think if you pick it up again!

    Stefanie – I would love to know what you think of Lolita. TTB is probably not quite your thing, but the tv version was good, no? I must say, reading it brought the 80s rushing back to me, too! 🙂

    Grad – I think you would enjoy The Thorn Birds. I’ve finished it now and loved the first two thirds (ending less so). But it was very evocative of Australia and the story of Ralph and Meggie was just a blast.

    Fugitive – I re-watched The Thorn Birds with a friend of mine a couple of years ago, and as we settled down she said ‘I adore Richard Chamberlain. Thank goodness he never turned out to be gay like so many other actors. I couldn’t have stood it if he had!’ I kept VERY quiet. It was indeed an unpleasant surprise. How interesting that Nabokov is a writer you admire but don’t love. I can feel that’s going to be my response too. But to think you have a stepfather called Humbert – oh MY! But that he should be a sweetie is just perfect. I love people who subvert stereotypes. 🙂

    Dorothy – do remember that I haven’t finished Lolita yet – that’s how it seems to me so far, but I still have two-thirds to go! The Thorn Birds was good – definitely a book to read when you want to switch off, but you have to have a Catholic mentality to get the most out of it, I think.

    Emily – I love your comment. I’m going to read it again when I get near the end of Lolita. I can tell it’s going to be very helpful to me. 🙂

    Bookboxed – I loved the end of that comment – particularly after having yet another birthday! 😉 I did write about Lolita before. The previous post was just a critical commentary on a longish paragraph. I get the feeling I am confusing everyone as I normally only write on a book once! The one book of Nabokov’s I really want to read is his autobiography, Speak, Memory. I’ll let you know what he’s like when I’ve read that one.

    Doctordi – I will get to the end of Lolita. I find it very easy to put down at the moment, but then I should probably make the effort to get into it properly. I’m interested to get to the end, but mostly because my blogging friends are making that conclusion intriguing for me!

    Danielle – oh yup, that would be the tv version! I watched it at a very tender age, myself. And you’re quite right to think that the same themes come up across all genres. Just think how many classics are basically romances! I love comparing books across the supposed high-brow, low-brow divide. You usually find they have more similarities than you would expect.

    Gentle reader – I know! I keep thinking of that now, too! And it only occurred to me when I was trying to dream up a comparison. It gave me a laugh to put the two of them together. 🙂

    Courtney – Now Willa Cather is someone I really want to read, and soon. I’ll bet she’s a great antidote! And I think I am probably going too far with my readings on half a book – I should get to the end. I loved the first part of The Thorn Birds, but wasn’t so keen on the ending. I will review that one properly next week. 🙂

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