In 1955 Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov published one of the most complicated American novels that would cement his name as a literary icon. This book, often praised for its excellent use of prose cast something in American culture that evolved into well, romanticizing pedophilia. This, odd cultural event that swept across the US into the 60s wasn’t only Lolita, as a strange child actor boom mixed with the artistic pushing of sexuality put us in a position to redefine what “romance” is. This of course ended with terrible movies, gross references in music, and the general robbing of adolescents that we as a society still don’t quite understand.
Now I am not here to preach about the cultural impact of the time or how Lolita found itself coined as “The only convincing love story of our century” by Vanity Fair. I am not qualified or well-informed enough to tackle a scope that large. However, what I can say is the way I interpreted the book, and how woefully I think the mass media has royally fucked it up.
For those who have never read the book or had heard of it over time this is the general idea of the book. At the very start of the book, there is a Foreword by one John Ray, Jr, Ph.D from August 5th, 1955. What Dr. Ray is stating in this three-and-a-half-page Foreword is this. The following is from the personal diary of an inmate named Humbert Humbert, HH, who died in legal captivity in 1952. Within this diary, HH is recalling to the reader, and his jurors, his life leading up to and thereafter meeting a young girl named Deloris Hayes. Within this script (as John Ray makes a point to make clear) HH reminisces and often defends his actions of child pedophilia (and possible murder) as he and this young girl travel across the country together.
Lolita is the diary of a brilliantly well-spoken, highly educated, and charming narcissistic pedophile defending the horrible shit he does. The book quite literally starts out with this * but somehow, it seemed to be missed by many who would go to read the book and praise it as romance. Or worse, make plays and films out of it. It is also important to note at the publishing of this Foreword that one Mrs. Richard F. Schiller had died on Christmas day in 1952 giving birth to a stillborn child. That individual is important to note as Dolores. So before the book even starts with its famous (infamous?) opening line Humbert and the girl he took everything from, are already dead.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
This is the opening paragraph in one of the most hauntingly magnificent novels I have ever personally read. And what follows is a heartbreaking story of a monster who reflects on his first love, a girl named Annabel whom HH alludes to being the start of his obsession with young girls he refers to as nymphets. A term as far as I am aware Nabokov coined for this story, and within the words of HH, he calls this many different things none of which of what it is, him being a pedophile.
With this narrative, the reader can naturally assume that HH blames these girls for seducing him as he washes his hands of any wrongdoing throughout the book which makes sense, ya know since it is his diary and all.
Eventually, Humbert meets Charlotte Hayes, a widow who under the circumstance offers her home to HH because of an original arrangement he had fallen through. Now I cannot state enough how absolutely disgusted with this idea HH is, he venomously attacks her (internally) and gets close to refusing her offer until he learns she has a 12-year-old daughter, Deloris Hayes. His Lolita, and it was enough for him to suffer her wench of a mother to stay.
I want to take a second to talk about this because there are a couple of things going on. The first HH truly HATES Charlotte, sometimes vaguely and randomly fantasying about killing her. The real tragic thing to me about this is how bad Charlotte treats her daughter Deloris, often getting mad at her for trivial things, wanting to keep her out of the house simply so she didn’t have to deal with her. It’s at this the reader is challenged, is Charlotte really so nasty to her daughter or is this the author, HH, projecting his distaste for Charlotte’s actions painting his “Lolita” as nothing more than a victim?
Sadly for me, I took it as her mother being just a bitch.
Much to Humbert’s dismay, Charlotte sends Deloris away to a camp and then floats the idea of putting her in a school. Stating how she is too troublesome and might get in the way of their new relationship. This is compounded when HH finds a letter penned by Charlotte asking for his hand in marriage. Initially, Humbert is repulsed but quickly realized if he can take over as a father figure for Deloris he can have more access to her so gives in taking Charlotte’s hand in marriage.
Then she finds his journal full of his sexual fantasies about her daughter and conveniently gets hit by a truck and dies. It’s fine I’m sure Humbert definitely didn’t kill her.
Finding himself as the “father” figure he immediately squares away his now dead wife’s affairs and heads to the camp where Deloris has been staying, picking as her ‘step-father’ it is at this moment the true antipathy yet fascinating part of this book really takes hold. The line between Dolores and Lolita gets blurred and as Humbert tells Dolores her mothers Is simply in the hospital, it shows how vile of a man he really is.
This is also the time some of the most iconic lines occur in the book. A time where we get to see Dolores firsthand say what she is thinking, say how fucked up all of this is only for that to be romanticized by Humbert.
Again I want to say this book is a pedophile defending his actions and sometimes it is hard to keep that in mind. I falter that thought a couple of times during this part of the novel. An example of this is when they are driving away from the camp in chapter 27 and Dolores opens up with this conversation.
“You Know I missed you terribly Lo,”
“I did not, Fact I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you, but it does not matter one bit, because you’ve stopped caring for me, anyways. You drive much faster than my mummy, mister,”
I slowed down from a blind seventy to a purblind fifty.
“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”
“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”
In this scene, we see a seeming tease, even flirt from Lolita but this, I think is a lens put on by HH. I say this because shortly thereafter she chastises him for incest and once they arrive at a hotel, the Enchanted Hunters, Humbert sexually assaults her multiple times which she states once they are on the road again.
“You chump,” she said, sweetly smiling at me. “You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man.”
This is an important quote in the book since it is one of the only two times she states that he raped her. It shows a glimpse of Dolores instead of HH’s Lolita. In this hazed moment, we see a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped and raped, and that is isolated and afraid. This part of the novel is closed with a crushing line. Dolores asks to use a pay phone at a gas station to call her mom. When he refuses and she pushes back he simply responds.
“Because,” I answered. “Your mother is dead.”
Cutting off the last illusion that Dolores had of escape.
The second part of the book starts at this time. A trip across the United States as he assaults her daily but becomes more and more paranoid that they are being followed. This paranoia however turns out to be true once Dolores becomes sick, directing to a compound of events that leads to her escaping Humbert’s grasp. The book shifts once again as Humbert spends the following years looking for his Lolita, turning up nothing he gets a letter 4 years later from Dolores. She states that she is married and pregnant and needs some money to live. She asks specifically for him not to come to her, and he of course ignores this request showing up at her doorstep.
Initially, Humbert is in a rage, expecting her now husband Richard Schiller to be responsible for taking him from her but quickly learns that is not the case. He then offers to take her back and pleads with her to go with him while offering the money she requested. She asks if she refuses will he still give them the money which he states he would either way. It is at this moment I think we see Dolores in her truest form, exhausted, defeated, and just wanting to move on.
But alas in this agreement Humbert demands she tells him who took her all those years ago which she concedes it was Quilty, a dentist from their past and also the writer of a play titled The Enchanted Hunters, a man who had been following them throughout most of the book. She states how initially she was in love with Quilty and was happy to be taken by him but ultimately he just wanted to make porn with her, casting her out without anything once she refused.
The book comes to a conclusion on this point, Humbert hunts down Quilty, shooting him before leading to a monologue outro of his ‘true’ love and loss of Lolita.
This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read both in content and in prose but I think in a lot of ways that is where the beauty lies even if it’s bound by malice. What Nabokov was able to pen with this book is a tale about a narcissistic pedophile that literally conned the masses into thinking he was in the right. A fictional character who had a way with words readers across the globe marked him up as just a man that was in love. A taboo relationship of sorts. I think that is equally the most charming yet sickening part of it. Humbert is a vile man but he is painted in such a thin veil it’s shockingly easy to miss as many people did. Honestly, if it wasn’t for this one thing I’d likely have missed it too.
There is a 10-episode podcast titled just Lolita by Jamie Loftus in which she breaks down the book and its cultural impact of it in a way that really changed how I took the book once I started reading it. It was with this added perspective I was able to fight off Humbert’s words and get through the fantasy he painted and honestly, it made me enjoy it that much more.
Lolita is a complicated book in a lot of ways. It is a book about pain, manipulation, and an innocent girl swept up in the direst situation possible. It is an elegantly written story that should be read and respected by the masses but in the same breath should be understood. It is a book that should not be picked up without context and I think takes a lot of understanding beforehand. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone because of that, yes it is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read but with the effort to understand it, I cannot expect anyone else to labor.
Well, that was a lot. I just hope I am doing some grain of justice equally for the book and for helping those understand the context. But for now, It is my time to step away from Lolita, and as always thanks for reading what I had to say about it.
Lolita Podcast: Here
One thought on “Lolita”
It’s strange how many people misunderstand this novel. It’s definitely a complex work, but the fact that the foreword lays out directly what Humbert Humbert is — basically “this guy was a total asshole and you can’t really trust what he’s written” — should tip people off to what Nabokov was going for here. I haven’t seen either of the big film adaptations and don’t really care to, though it might be interesting to compare with the novel.
Lolita is absolutely a great novel, beautifully written about a horrible subject. Definitely agree that it shouldn’t just be picked up without the proper context.
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