Posted by: Nathan | April 7, 2009

What to Make of Lolita

“I am trying to describe these things not to relive them in my present boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world–nymphet love” (135).

Not too long ago, I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita, and I’m still sorting through my reactions to it. Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read, Lolita made a sharp divide between my moral self and my aesthetic self; the former aspect of the book is revolting, while the latter is beautiful. The novel brought the old literary argument back to the forefront of my mind: do books need to be moral to be worthwhile? This question is at the heart of my conflicted feelings toward Lolita.

In case you don’t know, Lolita is a novel about Humbert Humbert’s amorous relationship with the underage title character. Humbert is lolitaattracted to girls between the ages of 9 and 14 who have a certain je ne sais quois, whom he calls “nymphets.” He falls hard for Lolita and through a certain set of circumstances finds himself with sole guardianship over the girl. You can guess what happens next, and they go on a year-long trip around the country. Later on, the plot improves when Lolita escapes from Humbert’s grasp, and the reader tries to assemble the clues as to who her second abductor is. It’s almost a mystery story for that section.

Naturally, the ongoing statutory rape in the novel is repugnant, and several passages are enough to make me nauseous. Nabokov doesn’t write pornography (thankfully), but he is willing to push the boundaries. This puts him in the avant-garde category, but it also tests my willingness to tolerate the book. Sure, I’ve read dozens of books that feature immorality in them—in fact, just about all novels do. We’re human. We make big mistakes. Indeed, literature would be much the worse if sordid material did not exist in it. We need to understand our world, even its seamier side.

That said, Lolita is a lot to stomach. There is something especially heinous about raping an underage, helpless girl. Humbert’s sporadic descriptions of the events make it much worse. I will point out here that the bulk of the text is about what happens surrounding the relationship between Lo and Humbert, so one shouldn’t get the impression that sex is all the novel consists of. However, there are enough passages to make me consider dropping the book altogether, which I never do. It is exceedingly difficult to enjoy a book wherein the narrator is a person like Humbert.

In the midst of this darkness, though, the reader sees dazzling light from time to time. Nabokov provides relief through occasional moments of regret and self-loathing from Humbert. He is aware that this attraction to nymphets is a psychological illness, and that mitigates matters slightly. Of course, he should have fled, which he knows. The main source of enjoyment in the novel is Nabokov’s marvelous style. My back cover quotes Updike describing Nabokov’s writing as ecstatic, and I think that is well-put. In the mind of this twisted narrator, we soar to heights of grandeur and poetry and plummet into darkness and void. Perhaps my favorite passage comes on the penultimate page where Humbert is standing on a precipice hearing the voices of children rising up from the vale: “I stood there listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord” (308). Beautiful.

Now it’s time for some random thoughts. 1) This is yet another novel wherein I wished I knew French. Humbert is always tossing in random sentences en Francais. 2) The back of my edition quotes somebody from Vanity Fair (the magazine, not the book) as saying Lolita is “the only convincing love story of our century.” I’d like to find that person and punch squi in the teeth. That person is either entirely twisted or hasn’t read much. 3) It is important to read the foreword in this novel; it’s part of the story. As usual, I skipped it and read it at the end. That works too, but it isn’t ideal. 4) Don’t worry when Humbert says the reader should have guessed who Lo’s second “kidnapper” is; he hasn’t actually given you enough clues to know yet, but he thinks he has.

I’m not sure I recommend Lolita. It certainly is fascinating and had me pondering it days after I finished it. If that’s the mark of a great work, then Lolita is one. It’s certainly written masterfully. As I said, the child rape aspect of the book is at times unbearable. Decide for yourself whether it’s something you want to imbibe. If I had a daughter (especially in her early teens), this book would be much worse; I’d stay away.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this and your Goodreads review. I’ve wondered about this book ever since I saw it in a list of ten books to read before you die. Obviously, it didn’t deserve to be on there. But it’s good to know more about it without having to read it myself!

  2. I remember seeing this book on a reading, birthday or Christmas list and wondered why you wanted to read it, knowing a bit about its nature. I guess more purely for Nabokov’s style of writing? Is it good enough to read this novel?

    I know any work of art either visual or literary gives context for the era in which it was made and can be further categorized by its thematic content/elements (to put things simply). Understanding the context for a work of art oftentimes gives you more of an appreciation for how time and people have changed, in their ideas and understanding of the world.
    The ideas underlying avant–garde, have sprung up from the modern art era and has definitely had it’s a lasting presents into the now “contemporary era” in the arts, culture and politics. The idea of avant-garde is to push the norm or what is socially acceptable or in other terms going against the grain. Many wonderful things have come out from this thinking of individualism, in certain terms, however many horrible things have equally sprung up from this movement.

    I guess my main question about Lolita is what is its message? Is the author trying to rationalize or justify the behavior of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita? If he is, what Nabokov tell us to do? I know evil is very much a live in the human nature, and like you said not writing about it would leave an incompleteness. However, does this story demonstrate how to rid one self of the evil thoughts, and seek moral absolution through forgiveness or merely how to accept it?

  3. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your excellent comment, Jess. Your questions are very good and important. In fact, I’ve attempted to answer them several times before now, but I was always too short on time.

    Your question about the message of Lolita is a complex one, mainly because I don’t think Nabokov wants there to be one clear message. In the back of my book, he writes that he never set out for this book to be moral. This is to be expected from contemporary authors. Almost no one writes for didactic and/or moral purposes anymore; writers write what they think is good.

    I don’t think Nabokov is justifying Humbert’s behavior, but neither does he have his protagonist begging for forgiveness at the end. Humbert has regrets, but foremost among them is that he lost Lolita. This isn’t a moral book.

    Why did I want to read it? I try to read anything that is 1)literary, 2)well-reputed among people whose opinions I value, and 3) good. Lolita is all of those things. More than any book I’ve read recently, it’s had me thinking about it and literature in general.

    I think I used the epigraph above b/c I am sorting out the heaven and hell in this novel just as Humbert is in his relationship with Lo.

  4. […] I’ve often thought about what a Christian’s relationship to literature should be, reading Lolita really returned the issue to the front of my mind. Just about every novel has characters in […]

  5. Thanks for telling me about it. Actually don’t take this wrong but these are the kind of things I’m interested in. Not child rape but “why people do what they do”. Also if you’ve read “A Child Called It” how would you compare it? Like you said Lolita’s hard to read and many people say A Child Called It is…so is this harder than that or about the same? Can you tell me?


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