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Voices: The Lolita Problem

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I deliberately avoided Lolita for years. Despite its reputation as a literary masterpiece, I was turned off by the story’s premise: a middle-aged man who kidnaps and rapes his teenage stepdaughter. The cover of a friend’s copy only reinforced my feelings; it showed a girl wearing bobby socks and saddle shoes, her knees awkwardly (childishly) tilted together, with an ominous shadow closing in on her. No thanks.

I finally read it because it just kept coming up – in classes, in pop culture, and when I joined Goodreads.com a few weeks ago it was one of the frequently read books they wanted me to rate. Besides, I’d read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran a few years ago and her discussion of the book made me curious about it. I mentally moved the book from a category I’ll call “Yikes,” to the “I’ll get around to it eventually” category. Last week I finally got around to it.

I had no idea of the creepiness that was in store for me. Unlike the movie, in which Sue Lyons could conceivably pass for 16 or 17, when the book begins Lolita is 12. Humbert, the narrator, repeatedly points out that she’s a child – he takes pleasure in noting Lolita’s half-price admission to parks and museums. Humbert also enjoys pretending that Lolita is his daughter (rather than his stepchild); meaning, the idea of incest sweetens the deal for him. His actions also, for a time, make Lolita into a whore. The two establish a monetary system for sexual favors: a hand-job (while she’s at school!) costs him 65 cents plus permission to act in the school play (p. 198); a “fancy embrace” (we can only imagine what that means) costs him $4 (p. 184). Perhaps the most singularly disturbing passage in the novel is Humbert’s daydream of impregnating Lolita, her giving birth to a daughter, then waiting twelve years to rape and impregnate “Lolita the Second,” and maybe – if he’s lucky – do the same to a third generation (p. 174). This is one of the vilest ideas I’ve ever considered in a story.

Yet, even though I wanted to hate it, I can’t deny that Lolita is a great work of art. I love the way Nabokov plays with language (Quilty lives on “Grimm Road,” Humbert stays at “Insomnia Lodge”), the book’s layers, the theme of artifice and masks, and the book’s symmetry (the novel’s first and last words are “Lolita;” Mrs. Haze, Lolita’s mom / Humbert’s landlady turned wife is mirrored by “Mrs. Hays” the hotel owner, also a widow, later in the book). At the same time, I can’t say that I wholly enjoyed reading the book.

Since I found the events of the story to be so disturbing, I tried reading from Lolita’s perspective – as if she were the story’s heroine. However, doing so is not easy. Although you can cheer on her small acts of defiance (in one scene Humbert describes her “Swearing at me in language that I never dreamed little girls could know, let alone use,” haha), you can’t really know Lolita. As narrator, Humbert has such tight control of the story that it’s impossible to get a sense of her distinct from him. In the same way that Humbert can’t fully grasp or understand Lolita, neither can the reader.

Nabokov’s ability to make the reader sympathize/identify with Humbert is supposedly one of the things that make this novel great. Although the book is brilliantly written, I keep wondering, is Humbert’s perspective really all that unusual? Is it possible that it wasn’t all that difficult to get the reader on Humbert’s side because our culture already encourages us to view girls from the perspective of lecherous old men? There are too many examples (both fictional and real life) from popular culture to count: 12 year old Jodie Foster plays a hooker in Taxi Driver, Elvis dates 14 year old Priscilla, Britney Spears wears her sexy school girl outfit… the list goes on. Even my beloved Beatles sing, “She was just 17 / you know what I mean,” (yes, we know what you mean and it’s creepy). Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for us to identify / sympathize with Humbert – the watching and desiring of teenage girls is already tolerated in our culture with a wink and a smile. In some ways the book is just another depiction of a powerless young girl through the eyes of a desiring older man; it wasn’t the first and it certainly wasn’t the last.

Despite my concerns, I wasn’t entirely immune to Humbert’s charm. In the first third of the book – before he acts on his desire for Lolita – his eloquence has more currency with me. Although awkward and pretentious, Humbert is also charming: he’s well read, he’s sensitive and apparently he’s very handsome. Yet, for me, when Humbert breaks out the roofies (in order to drug and rape Lolita), his charm disappears. Unlike most critics, I just couldn’t forget how horrible Humbert’s actions were. Slate critic Stephen Metcalf writes, “With Lolita, you must work past its beauty to recognize how shocking it is. And for all its beauty, for all its immense ingenuity and humor, one easily forgets how shocking Lolita is.” Somehow, I wasn’t able to forget how shocking the book was. Perhaps the key to enjoying Lolita is allowing yourself to be swept away by Humbert’s prose and forgetting the actual events of the story. Maybe this is why I didn’t fully enjoy it – I just couldn’t forget how horrifying it was.

(Page numbers are from Alfred Appel Jr.’s annotated edition).

— Melanie

Review courtesy mmmetropolis.

Photo: indelible inc

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SheReads: mmmetropolis’ Melanie

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Written by whitney teal

February 18, 2010 at 9:17 am

Posted in Voices

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. I always avoided reading it for many of the same reasons.

    Unfortunately, I’m a bleeder. I would never be able to stop trying to identify with the Lolita character either.

    There is such a tendency in our society to forgive this kind of behavior from men.
    Whether they be Catholic Priests, Roman Polanski or Elvis Prestly.

    Seriously Funny

    February 20, 2010 at 11:19 am


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