By: Cindy Chen
The following article contains mentions of sexual abuse and may be triggering for some audiences. The article also contains spoilers for the events of the novel.
Written on the 50th anniversary edition of Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita is the blurb, “The only convincing love story of our century” — Vanity Fair.
Since its original publication in 1955, Lolita has been criticized for “romaticizing” pedophilia. The novel is told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, a suave European intellectual who develops an obsession for his landlady’s twelve year old daughter, Dolores (or Dolly) Haze. Humbert Humbert eventually abducts Dolores after the death of her mother and takes her on a year-long road trip. During this period, he repeatedly rapes her.
Despite the sickening abuse Dolores suffers at the hands of Humbert Humbert, Lolita has somehow been twisted into the story of an erotic love affair. According to Merriam Webster, the word Lolita means “a precariously seductive girl.” Although Webster’s definition of Lolita originates from Nabokov’s novel, Lolita is not to blame.
In the first part of the novel, the reader learns that Humbert Humbert believes Lolita to be a young seductress impersonating a child, and therefore at fault for his sexual desires.
Lolita is Dolores Haze, except she isn’t. Throughout the course of the novel, Dolly is only referred to as Lolita by Humbert Humbert. Along with the absurdity of a twelve year old seducing an adult, it is clear that Lolita does not exist outside of Humbert Humbert’s fantasy.
Nabokov’s decision to write Lolita in the first person perspective signals to readers that the events of the novel are based in Humbert Humbert’s interpretation rather than reality. The truth is that we don’t know who Dolores Haze is. We only know her as the person Humbert Humbert wants her to be, and by depicting Dolly as the initiator of their relationship, Humbert Humbert rationalizes his pedophilic obsession and absolves himself of any blame. In the words of Nabokov himself, Humbert Humbert is “a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’”
If the writer of Lolita has condemned Humbert Humbert for his actions, then why is the novel still considered a “love story?” To answer this question, one must look beyond the contents of the novel and examine the structure of the society in which we live.
The warping of Lolita’s narrative is the result of releasing it into a misogynistic world that is quick to blame the victim. Critics will point to the instances where Lolita flirts with and sexually teases Humbert Humbert as evidence of the novel being a tragic romance.
However, it should be noted that sexualizing Dolores for her affection toward Humbert Humbert fits in neatly with the “asking for it” narrative that pervades patriarchal societies. Even if we can trust Humbert Humbert’s account, Dolores Haze is a child who is allowed to have a crush on an adult. It was Humbert Humbert’s responsibility to keep the relationship platonic, and his failure to do so puts him entirely at fault for what he did to Dolores. While victim blaming has not lost its place in American culture today, it was worse in the 1950s when Lolita was released, undoubtedly playing a role in the mislabeling of Dolores as a temptress.
In addition to its controversial subject matter, Lolita has faced backlash over the characterization of Humbert Humbert, who is widely agreed to be one of the most sympathetic villains in literary history. According to a journal article published in JSTOR, what enraged readers and critics the most about the novel “was the fact that they found themselves unwittingly accepting, even sharing, the feelings of Humbert Humbert…Instead of passing moral judgement on this man who violated a deep-rooted sexual and social taboo, they caught themselves identifying with him.” Similarly, Sparknotes, a popular platform for study guides, claims that “Humbert Humbert uses language to seduce the readers of his memoir, and he almost succeeds in making himself a sympathetic pedophile.”
Although Lolita is told from Humbert Humbert’s perspective, I do not believe that it is possible for anyone who is not a pedophile to feel sorry for him. Nabokov’s genius is not that he managed to create a likable sexual predator, it’s that he manged to tell an ugly story in a beautiful way. Readers should not associate the lyricism of Lolita with the actions of Humbert Humbert as the way something is told does not change what it is.
While it’s true that the language of Lolita can be considered “seductive,” Nabokov never intended to write Humbert Humbert as a charming man. This is clear in the novel: Humbert Humbert is a pompous, elitist narcissist who lusts after young children. He admits to drugging Dolores, bribing her for sexual favors, and abusing his position as the only caretaker she has in her life. There are many adjectives to describe him, but if Lolita is read the way that Nabokov intended, “sympathetic” would not be one.
Nabokov’s Lolita is the most beautiful novel, at least in terms of language, that I have ever read. However, at no point in Humbert Humbert’s narrative did I think I was reading a “love story.” To call Lolita that would be to miss the entire point of the novel. Despite the sheer musicality of the language, it was impossible to forget that I was witnessing the sexual assault of a child through the eyes of her abuser. Dolores Haze is twelve years old; Humbert Humbert is thirty five. Romance is impossible.
If you or anyone you know is in an abusive situation, do not hesitate to reach out to our student assistance counselor Mary Cunningham. Her office is located in the library (first door on your right when you enter).
Essex County Sexual Assault Hotline: 973-759-2154
NJ Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-601-7200
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network: https://www.rainn.org
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/survivors
NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault: https://njcasa.org/find-help/