In looking for images for the book cover for The Woman in the Window, I stumbled upon something both surprising and depressing at the same time. Most of the images that come up through the various major search engines if you enter “the woman in the window” are of a particular sort. I’m not talking about pornography.
What I was looking for were images in which a man is standing before an imposing facade, probably stone but at least tallish and dark and rather cold looking, from which a woman looks out from a window above. Or there might just be a window but no woman, but we all know that she’s back there somewhere, just as we all know this image in our mind. It’s at least Shakespearean, maybe Medieval, and if you start trying to think of examples from various famous and non-famous books, and then films on top of that, it’s hard to stop. This is where the title of the book comes from.
But it’s hard to find images from that angle. Most of them are of women at a window but seen from inside, by someone in the room with her. This is not at all the same thing. This was the surprising part.
Why it should be depressing comes from the analysis of one of the treatments of the woman-in-the-window trope that I explore in the book. When Humbert Humbert looks at Lolita at the window, he is in the room with her, spying on her, noting down aspects of his perverse infatuation in tiny scribbles in a notebook that he keeps hidden and locked inside his desk. He looks at her as she leans over the casement, talking with Kenneth Knight, a boy from her class who has exactly the right sort of name to be standing below her window in the traditional pose, and he realizes that he (Humbert) is seeing her somehow incorrectly. It was as if, he admits, he were seeing her through the wrong end of telescope.
Nabokov was a very smart writer. He knew how to work a trope. He also understood what was gathered up inside this particular one. And he destroys it and all that’s supposedly inside it in his lovely and terrible book. What does it say about our society that looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope, spying on her in effect from inside her room, is no longer perverse but utterly mundane?