My studies were meticulous and intense, although not particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

I can’t understand the highlighted part at all. Starting with a noun phrase, then a clause, and a noun, and a participial or a verb phrase, it makes me only confused. Would you show me the clear sight into the structure?

2 Answers 2


Without further context, I'm guessing that the narrator is speaking/writing to someone who is a doctor. The snippet feels very much like a natural thought-process; he is remembering back to how he was thinking and feeling at the time, and writing it down. Therefore I'd guess that style here is that the sentence is being written as it would be spoken, and in speech we often interject thoughts into the middle of sentences. To punctuate it more clearly:

a peculiar exhaustion—I am so oppressed, doctor!—set in;

So as far as I can tell, "I am so oppressed, doctor" is meant to be a separate interjection; regarding everything he has already mentioned, he is commenting that he feels oppressed by it all (after which the rest of the sentence is to be read as if there had been no interruption, at which point it makes perfect grammatical sense). I would further guess that the atypical punctuation (because you're right, if you try to just read it as one sentence straight though, it is nonsense) is a matter of style. Sometimes authors use "improper" punctuation to make sentences flow together in a certain way. Sometimes to keep up the tension of a scene, or sometimes (as in this case) to maintain the flow-of-thoughts feel of the narrative, etc.

  • +1 I think the key is "I planned to take a degree in psychiatry". Training in psychoanalysis traditionally requires that students themselves undergo rigorous analysis; HH is quoting himself speaking to his analyst. May 5, 2013 at 15:02

I agree with Wendikidd that I am so oppressed, doctor is a "parenthetical" element, but I don't interpret it as the speaker telling the doctor he's currently feeling "oppressed". I think oppress here is OED's...

Of grief, sleep, hunger, etc.: to affect with a feeling of pressure, constraint, or distress; to afflict; to (mentally) overwhelm or weigh down (a person). Freq. with by or with. Also intr.

The speaker is pointing out to the doctor that he is prone to being afflicted by a "peculiar exhaustion" (tendency to get bored?, inability to concentrate?), which on this occasion caused him to switch from psychiatry to English literature. So here means in that manner, not to an extreme degree.

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