The orthodontic treatment of Nabokov and his nymphet
by Dr.Samantha Wrighting
A reminder: Dr. Samantha Wrighting is a fictional character and not a real doctor.
She exists only on this site, in books such as Retainer Girl, Love and Braces and The Braced Experience and in the imaginations of readers.
This essay and all essays attributed to Dr.Wrighting represent the opinions of her character.
They should not be construed as the opinion of anyone with any actual orthodontic expertise or training.
When Humbert Humbert is first enchanted by the young nymphet in Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita (Amazon), she is at an age typically associated with orthodontic treatment.
The use of braces was not as widespread at the time when the novel is set as it has become since, but then as now a patient typically would begin orthodontic at about this age, eleven or twelve.
Nabokov's Dolores Haze — Lolita — does not have or get braces in the novel, but in the 1997 film version, directed by Adrian Lyne and with a screenplay by Stephen Schiff (film site; Amazon) the character, played by Dominique Swain, wears a Hawley-type retainer much of the time.
Utilized very effectively — the orthodontic appliance is explicitly presented as part of Lolita's allure — it is also a major departure from the novel, a fundamental change not only in Lolita's appearance but in her entire person.
Characters with braces are relatively rare in movies.
When they do appear the braces often are used for a specific purpose or effect — as is also the case here.
Removable appliances have the additional advantage that they can conveniently be left out when necessary, or characters can be allowed to outgrow them; somewhat surprisingly, while Lyne does have Lolita take it on occasion, she is not shown having outgrown it until the final scenes, when she is years older.
(Continued nighttime wear, as is universally recommended (and, in the short term, absolutely essential) is almost never alluded to or shown in films.)
In some ways it is encouraging to see Dominique Swain wear a retainer on-screen, though the film is inappropriate for the age-group most likely to find itself in the same orthodontic situation as her (and parents would obviously not want her to be considered a role model in any other regard).
But even solely in not hiding the device the film accomplishes something, setting an example for adults and showing that the temporary disfigurement braced patients must endure is acceptable and that such devices can be worn without too much embarrassment or inhibition — though Lolita's almost aggressive flirtation using the device may be of less comfort to parents.
However, in not being true to the book and how Nabokov imagined his Lolita something is also lost.
Nabokov's use of orthodontia in the novel is far more subtle,
yet even as a very small piece of his large picture very effective.
Likely informed by his own experiences, braces serve a very different function in Nabokov's novel.
It is more convincing, and does not take away or distract from the perverse passion Nabokov is trying to convey.
In contrast, in the film version Lolita's retainer is a central prop which Lyne invests with much too much meaning
I. Playing with her retainer: Dominique Swain's braces
Dominique Swain still had fixed braces when she auditioned for the part of Lolita in Adrian Lyne's film; they are clearly visible on the screen test that is included on the DVD.
She got the role despite
— or perhaps in part because of — the impression she made in braces, but by the time filming began they had been removed.
Despite the ease and feasibility
of then depicting the character as a girl who — just as in the novel — has not undergone or is not undergoing orthodontic treatment, director Lyne made the conscious decision to have Swain wear her removable retainer almost throughout the film.
Among the justifications for showing Swain wearing her retainer is that it makes her look younger.
Fourteen at the time, and already looking considerably more mature than she did in the screen test footage, the retainer was an element that could better suggest the younger Lolita.
(In his earlier film-version (Amazon), Stanley Kubrick used an even older actress, Sue Lyon, in the part, but she was not made to wear any sort of orthodontic appliance.)
The first time Humbert sees Lolita she is lying in the grass, flipping through a magazine.
When she sees him she smiles, revealing the wire from the retainer (10m21s), and in the commentary on the DVD Lyne notes how the device helps serve as a reminder that she is "part child, part woman".
It is a reminder he continues to rely on for most of the film.
Swain's retainer wasn't just used for appearances' sake.
It proved to be a handy prop, which Lyne turned to repeatedly.
The device does not remain in Lolita's mouth all the time, as she occasionally removes and plays with it.
This also can be seen as an attempt to reinforce the image of Lolita as a child, but there's more to it than that.
In an early scene (20m30s) Lolita removes her retainer and plops it into Humbert's drink.
He fishes it out and slips it back into her mouth.
Doll in hand to emphasize that this is still a child at play, Lolita is also obviously flirting with Humbert, the removing and returning of the retainer a vicarious bit of oral play.
(Earlier, Humbert had put some gum that Lolita had been chewing in his mouth, the only way he could think of hiding this evidence from her mother.)
Removing her retainer is one way for Lolita to test her freedoms.
Obediently, however, she puts it back in her mouth, where it is less a safety net for her teeth than for her innocence.
Dropping it into Humbert's drink was a safe way of teasing Humbert: doll in hand, and her mother quickly back at her side, there is no danger of any escalation — at that point.
When Lolita kisses Humbert good-bye before she goes to summer camp (24m58s) it is the first truly intimate scene between them.
Appropriately, she is still wearing her retainer here: despite it being a foray into adult territory it is clear it can only last those few moments, as her mother is waiting in the car to drive her off.
Again, there is no danger of further escalation, and therefore also no need to put the badges of childhood behind her yet.
Leading up to the kiss Humbert is all quiet anticipation, standing and waiting, while Lolita rushes madly up the stairs and leaps into his arms, a clever show of contrast of the two characters.
In her rush it's no surprise that Lolita doesn't bother about her retainer; it's also for the best, the retainer a reminder of a remaining barrier that can't yet be surmounted.
When Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, and before he has told her that her mother is dead, they kiss again; this time Lolita removes her retainer (40m04s) before kissing him.
As it turns out, she has undergone at least some sort of sexual initiation at camp.
She hasn't completely outgrown the device, but she has seen the first possibility of leaving it behind.
When she and Humbert wake up in bed together at the first hotel they stop at she kisses him without removing her retainer (54m01s), but when the scene escalates into one that will clearly lead to consummation she removes it (55m15s) — though only after she has undone his pajama pants.
While Lolita isn't quite a model orthodontic patient
— she sometimes chews gum while wearing the device — most orthodontists would be thrilled by a patient who is so conscientious about wearing her retainer.
Even taking into account that 24/7 retainer-wear was prescribed for a longer period at that time than is currently fashionable, Lolita wears her device for longer than would generally be expected.
She wears it wherever they go, and doesn't even dispense with it when she starts a new school, or even when she gets a part in the school play.
One reason is, possibly, that she is never taken to a follow-up visit to an orthodontist, so she may be unsure of how much longer she should wear it during the daytime, as well as at night.
However, given how Lolita experiments with freedom otherwise, and given that all her ties with her past have been cut, it must seem surprising that she holds onto such an old-fashioned and cumbersome restraint which she could so easily dispose of; one suspects few children would be as dutiful.
Even if it was Humbert admonishing her to keep wearing it (though there is no reason to believe this is the case), the retainer could easily be misplaced or 'accidentally' lost.
But Lolita never lets it go for the entire time she is with Humbert.
Lyne means, of course, to use it as a reminder that she is just a child.
He mentions that in the DVD commentary to one of the most visually striking of Lolita's poses, when Humbert returns to the motel and finds Lolita with smudged lipstick and white shirt, protesting her innocence even as her sly smile suggests she must have been up to something (1h39m34s).
Lyne notes how young she looks in the scene, and the retainer is a necessary part of creating that picture.
A bit earlier she literally hangs it up, dangling her retainer in the car they are driving in (1h28m34s) as she then also removes the gum she is chewing to put a banana in her mouth in an unmistakably sexually provocative show.
Here she is almost adult, and there's no place for the retainer.
But though there's little innocence left to Lolita, Lyne feels the need to remind viewers that she is still a child
— and the retainer is the simplest device to do that with, which is why she continues to wear it until she disappears from Humbert's life.
Lolita's insistence on continuing to wear her retainer can also be interpreted as a refusal to give in completely to Humbert.
She is willing to gratify him sexually, removing the retainer when she does so, but her insistence on always eventually putting the device back in her mouth is also a reminder that she is not always and entirely available to him.
The retainer is not an effective chastity belt
— there's some intimacy even when she is wearing it
— but it is a barrier between them, one she continues to rely on.
Possibly, the retainer is also a retreat into childhood, a pacifier of sorts that affords some additional sense of safety
and that she returns to her mouth as a comforting crutch.
(There is no doubt that Lyne's frequently gum chewing Lolita has an oral fixation.)
Lyne's main motivation in keeping the retainer in the picture is to make Dominique Swain look like the child Lolita is meant to be throughout the film.
He does not, however, leave it simply at that, and in giving the retainer such a prominent role adds layers to the character that Nabokov did not intend or conceive of.
II. Nabokov's braces
Orthodontic treatment wasn't widespread at the beginning of the 20th century, but Vladimir Nabokov did have braces.
He describes the experience in the autobiographical Speak, Memory:
In August 1910, my brother and I were in Bad Kissingen with our parents and tutor (Lenski); after that my father and mother traveled to Munich and Paris, and back to St.Petersburg, and then to Berlin where we boys, with Lenski, were spending the autumn and beginning of the winter, having our teeth fixed.
An American dentist — Lowell or Lowen, I do not remember his name exactly — ripped some of our teeth out and trussed up others with twine before disfiguring us with braces.
Even more hellish than the rubber pear pumping hot pain into a cavity were the cotton pads — I could not endure their dry contact and squeak — which used to be thrust between gum and tongue for the operator's convenience
These were "dreadful mornings" for him, but perhaps quickly forgotten.
There is no further mention of the treatment or other complaints about the devices he wore — though perhaps this brief description was all he could bear to dredge up of what was clearly a traumatic and unpleasant experience.
It seems unlikely that Nabokov harbored any positive associations with orthodontic treatment.
He could perhaps understand the necessity of it, but he does not even speak of the benefits or results, suggesting they were unimpressive — or not nearly compensation enough for what he had to endure.
While Nabokov acknowledges the braces themselves were "disfiguring", his actual complaints are almost entirely about the experience in the dental chair.
The cotton pads bother him far more than the metal and wire cemented to his teeth and the constant irritation they must have inflicted.
Pain-management has clearly advanced since the time of of Dr.Lowell or Lowen, and few current orthodontic patients would echo Nabokov's complaints.
While patients do find the discomfort of cheek-retractors and the occasionally briefly painful process of installing braces (especially bands) bothersome, almost all find the actual braces the most unpleasant part of orthodontic treatment.
The pain after they have been tightened, as well as the irritation they can cause inside the mouth — which was a much greater problem until relatively recently — also far outweighs the brief discomfort felt when an orthodontist works on them in almost all cases.
Nabokov's particular aversion to the feel and sound of cotton explains his extreme reaction — but not entirely.
Possibly Nabokov managed to repress all memory of the unpleasantness of wearing braces in the intervening decades, or perhaps it is only the extreme sensations — the annoyance of the cotton pads, to which he was so sensitive, not the numbingly constant irritation of the braces themselves — that remain clearly in his memory.
Nabokov was eleven years old when he got braces, and it is also possible that since this was an experience he shared with his brother the everyday embarrassment and unpleasantness of having braces was made more bearable (while the sessions in the chair were something that he had to endure by himself).
Nevertheless, whatever the case, there is no reason to believe that any sort of orthodontic device could be seen as a positive by Nabokov, and it is not surprising that he did not burden his fictional nymphet with one.
III. Braces in Nabokov's Lolita
In the novel, Nabokov does not have Lolita in braces; it is inconceivable that Humbert's vision could be marred by such metal dentalwork.
Nabokov could have had Lolita undergo orthodontic treatment before Humbert first laid eyes on her, which could have explained a perfect smile on the girl, but he did not choose to do that either.
Instead, braces play a different role in the book.
Orthodontic treatment is brought up almost incidentally, when Humbert complains to Lolita's mother, Charlotte, about an abscessed tooth — but even the smallest aside is of significance in Nabokov's carefully written work.
"We have," said Haze, "an excellent dentist.
Our neighbor, in fact.
Uncle or cousin, I think, of the playwright.
Think it will pass ?
Well, just as you wish.
In the fall I shall have him 'brace' her, as my mother used to say.
It may curb Lo a little.
I'm afraid she has been bothering you frightfully all these days.
Lolita's mother sees braces as a more general corrective device, rather than just one that is medically called for.
Reining in her teeth might mean reining in Lolita herself, the devices a physical restraint in more ways than one.
It is also clearly implied that Lolita's mother considers them a chastity-device, which also explains why she has waited until now to proceed with the treatment: they weren't necessary when she was still a good little girl (even though that might have been a medically more appropriate age to fix her teeth), but now that Lolita is becoming a wilder adolescent the unsightly metal devices will help keep her out of trouble.
Braces aren't presented as a medical necessity here; if anything, they are a punishment.
Charlotte can't put a harness on Lolita, or force her to wear a real chastity belt, but braces are a socially acceptable alternative which she hopes will serve the same purpose.
Charlotte's announcement also puts more pressure on Humbert to act.
He could continue to live with the Hazes as he has been doing, but if Lolita's mother really does go through with her threat then his nymphet will be disfigured when she returns from camp.
He doesn't say it in so many words, but this is clearly something he can't allow to happen.
There is no question that Charlotte's threat to 'brace' Lolita helps seal her fate.
In a novel in which every detail is meaningful and links abound the fact that the dentist who will be called upon to brace Lolita is Ivor Quilty is also significant.
It is Clare Quilty — his cousin or uncle — that is the nefarious rival to Humbert.
The barest shadow of a figure at this stage in the novel, Clare Quilty's role only become evident later, but much of the groundwork has already been laid.
Orthodontic treatment, and especially the time spend in the dental office and chair, was traumatic for Nabokov, and there's no doubt that the threat of Lolita being at the mercy of a Quilty in this awful way is meant to foreshadow Clare's coming role in her life.
Ironically, the threat Ivor Quilty holds turns out to be far the lesser; indeed, perhaps if Lolita had been braced by him Clare would not have emerged as a rival — though, of course, she would no longer have been Humbert's ideal either.
Braces could have saved Lolita — and her mother.
As Charlotte Haze recognized, her daughter was growing up too fast.
Charlotte clearly sensed that she couldn't keep her daughter innocent much longer.
Unable to hold her back in any other way she did hit on the perfect solution — but she did not act fast enough, and failed to understand the nature of the threat in her own house.
Would Humbert have acted as rashly if Charlotte had not revealed her plans for Lolita ?
But if Charlotte had sent Lolita next door earlier she may have been able to avert the disasters that followed.
In having Lolita wear an orthodontic appliance in the film, Adrian Lyne makes a significant departure from the novel.
It does serve as a constant reminder that Lolita is a child, making the actress playing her look younger than she actually is, but Lyne also uses the retainer for more than that.
It is a significant prop, as Lolita removes it at certain times and even uses it in flirting with Humbert.
Lyne's use of the orthodontic device is effective.
It is a memorable part of the movie, and seems to work.
It is believable as a device that Lolita clutches onto like a security blanket, taking it out when she dips her toes into adulthood, then putting it back in when she reverts to being a girl.
But this is not what Nabokov had in mind.
Nabokov's Lolita did not have braces.
She did, however, live with the threat of braces — which was probably a reason why she hoped to escape her mother.
The threat of braces also hastened Humbert's plans, since the status quo would not be maintained when Lolita returned from camp.
His nymphet would be disfigured, Charlotte (and a Quilty) exerting this control over her.
Lyne does not use the retainer in a Nabokovian way: the device his Lolita wears isn't enough to "curb" her, as her mother hoped braces would in the novel.
Remarkably, they do not inhibit her in any way, and it is only her insistence on continuing to wear them almost at all times (and long past any orthodontic necessity) that suggest they affect her in any way: like the gum she chews, the retainer appears to be a necessary security blanket that she unashamedly clings to.
That makes her a different creature from Nabokov's nymphet — a convincing character, but fundamentally different from the one in the novel.
Lyne's use of Dominque Swain's retainer is, in a way, inspired, and even in its unintended consequences successful.
But it is not how Nabokov imagined the character, and it is hard to believe that Nabokov would ever have accepted his Lolita being depicted like this.
The author thanks Natalie Wrighting for assisting with the research for this paper, and the staff of Intraoral Press for their editorial advice and help.
Other Dr. Samantha Wrighting essays:
94 Weeks and Single Episodes: The Unfabulous Appearances and Reality of Braces on TV
all the Dr. Samantha Wrighting books currently available.
Our orthodontic fiction is solely meant as entertainment, not information that patients or their parents should rely on.
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