Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reading Lolita in 2009

Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for the first time this year was an appalling, yet fascinating experience. Beautifully and suspensefully written, it is a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent man who reasons away his desire for underage pre-pubescent girls as simply being against the law in this age, where centuries before it was considered normal. Humbert Humbert wishes he had lived during the era when he could freely love and marry a child, recounting that Dante fell in love with Beatrice when she was nine. (Unreliable narrator that he is, HH fails to mention that Dante himself was only a year older than Beatrice when they met. And he got Beatrice’s age wrong – she was eight.) It is still considered normal in parts of the world to marry a young girl to a man many decades older than she, without her consent. Although it is accepted in many countries, it appears that many of these young girls object to the arrangement as evidenced by ten year-old Nujood Ali’s campaign for divorce.

As I read the beginning chapters of Lolita, I could not help but remember a line from Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone, when “she reached the interesting age of nine. . .” one of the sisters is betrothed and quickly married against her will to a monarch of Europe. At nine! As I recall the girl tried her best not to appear attractive to the man sent to decide if she would make a suitable bride for his master. It didn’t work.

But it is easy to be appalled by Humbert. It is easy to lose sight of the girl-child who herself is not truly seen in so much in this novel amid the “fancy prose style” of our madman narrator. Lolita is a creation of Humbert’s imagination, denied a true voice and only glimpsed at in the small details: crying at night when she thinks HH is sleeping, an overheard exchange with friends, and the occasional comments she makes to Humbert. Most of the time she is spoken of and described by others: her mother, her camp counselors, her teachers, her husband and, of course, by Humbert himself. None of these persons truly know Lolita and only the comments on the school report come closest to revealing how Lolita is handling the abuse of her situation. Even her name is his creation for her. Her real name, Dolores, means sorrow. Her true name gives us a sense of her reaction to the fate she endures at such a tender age. After all, this novel is Humbert’s account, written from his jail cell, of his life with Lolita and his depiction of her can not be trusted to be accurate.


  1. Very interesting commentary on Lolita. I haven't read the book in over a decade, but your review has made me want to give it a second look. Reading it in high-school, the possibility of having a relationship with a pre-teen didn't strike me as quite so disturbing as it does now. Reflecting on your review, and how as you point out we don't truly get to see an objective vision of Dolores, causes me to view Humbert in a wholly different way than I once did. As I read this in high-school for class, I wonder now if it is appropriate for that age group. Not so much in its subject matter, but more so in how the reader would interpret and react to the novel. What do you think?

  2. Beautifully written, Jennifer, I especially like how you brought in other sources and added more background on Dante--I wasn't aware of those details. I agree with Henry, this book can't really be fully understood by teenagers. They can see some things, I think, but not the complete picture of exactly how horrible Humbert is and how throughly he destroys Lolita's life. Her path, once relatively happy, is now stuck in poverty.
    Nabokov is a master at creating suspense. I could hardly put the book down! And the subtle, devastating ways that he reveals Lolita's true reactions, even masked in his own self-delusional justifications, allow us to understand her better as a character. This book is an amazing portrayal of how a madman thinks.

  3. You make an interesting point, Henry, about assigning Lolita to high schoolers. The argument for assigning a text in high school is that it is thought to be one that all people should have familiarity with -- a classic or one often referenced in pop culture -- and Lolita certainly fits that requirement. I think that a lot of high schoolers, especially the girls, might identify somewhat with Lolita because older men leer at them. So it can work in high school. The teacher needs to work to make this relevant to the teenagers by explaining that it is like someone their age being attracted to a kindergartener and by asking them to consider themselves in Lolita's place.

    Jess, I don't think that Humbert destroyed Lolita's life, though he certainly stole her childhood and her teen years. One aspect of Lolita that I admire is that she doesn't give up or sink to a debilitating depression. She looks for a way out and makes a successful escape. I saw the ending scene with Lolita, when Humbert gives her the money from her mother's estate, as a new beginning for her. She is married, pregnant -- always a symbol of a successful and loving relationship in novels -- and seems relatively content with her new life. She is making a new start and she now has what is rightfully hers, her mother's property, and Humbert is out of her life forever.