Lolita was written in 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov and quickly became a classic. It, perhaps rightfully, is both praised for its writing and disgusted for its subject matter. Even now, more than sixty years after its initial publication, people debate whether something written about so derisive a subject can possibly be celebrated.
The unreliable narrator is an English literary professor named Humbert Humbert who, throughout the novel, marries into a family so that he can molest the twelve year old daughter of his wife. When she discovers his nature, she attempts to leave him and dies, leaving Dolores Haze, whom he nicknames Lolita, alone with only Humbert to look after her.
The terrible details of Humbert and Dolores’ road trip through North America are conveyed in a beautifully musical style. Humbert talks about Lolita tenderly, speaking about how he loves her and describing her vividly. It’s a complex and difficult read with a difficult subject matter. But simply because something is difficult doesn’t subtract from its value. Ignoring the merit of the writing itself, the novel is worthy of its classic status. The main character comes across as terrible. The things he plans and does aren’t celebrated or held up as if they have some sort of inherent rightness. Being written from the pedophiles point of view is disturbing, but that’s the point.
Humbert’s inner thoughts and plans are so outside of what a normal person would feel and do. His every action, his ever manipulation, is shown for what they are: blatant attempts at making the perfect silent partner to feed into his seemingly uncontrollable urges. Everything about Lolita is the creation of a cruel man and a scared girl doing what she has to so that she can survive.
But even from inside the bubble of the unreliable narrator the reader can see the damage being done. Dolores becomes divorced from the real tragedy of her life. She becomes Lolita. She even escapes from Humbert with the help of another pedophile she meets, and she only leaves him because he tries to get her to produce pornography and she only wants to be with him. The lines of what is normal and acceptable for her have been destroyed and remade by her time with Humbert so that she can protect herself.
Even in the end, years after escaping, when she’s in need of money she calls him. She isn’t anxious or scared. Humbert finds he still loves her even at seventeen and tries to get her to leave with him, but she simply denies him. He gives her the money in exchange for the name of the man that took her, just like he had given her things in exchange for sexual favors, and she complies. He gives her more money than she asked for, maybe knowing in some way that what he has done to her is wrong, and when he leaves she smiles and waves him goodbye as if he were her father, not a monster.
Humbert finds the man who took Lolita years before. A man who looks a lot like Humbert. A man who is also a writer. A man who is also a pedophile. And he kills him.
So is Lolita worth the discomfort? It’s worth it for lines like, “And the rest if rust and stardust.” It’s worth it to see the world from a point of view that can hardly be imagined. It’s worth it to understand the damage that ‘love’ can do, especially when that ‘love’ is selfish and cruel.
What are your thoughts on this highly controversial classic?
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