There are quite a number of undesirable elements in our world. One element that most people from all races, creeds, religions, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes can agree is flat-out wrong is that of pedophilia and sexual activity with minors. Ironically enough, not only is this heavily-taboo act the focal point of Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, no other work of fiction has ever managed to both blame the victim and coddle the predator, thereby permissively condoning statutory rape and rape culture, quite like this one. Published in 1955, Lolita became an instant classic, a book which, thoughdeeply controversial, became the darling of various (White male) academics, rendering it a must-read, a status which quickly gained it position on a variety of both college and high school required reading lists. In a nutshell, Lolita is one of the most popular works of sexually predatory propaganda ever written.
The first step in weaving the web in what is one of the most manipulative works of fiction I’ve ever read is the foreward by fictitious psychiatrist John Ray, Ph.D. The novel’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, send his journal to this doctor, a man whom he’s never personally met, while awaiting trial for murder. Dr. Ray assures readers that, while Humbert is a sick man, the journal is beautifully-written and persuasive. The invention of an unaffiliated third party, who happens to be a medical expert, was a stroke of brilliance of Nabokov’s part. Right off the bat, he legitimizes Humbert’s depravity and compels the reader to lend him sympathy. The fact that Humbert dies of a coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial only engenders more sympathy.
At the novel’s open, we are made aware that Humbert already has one failed marriage and a couple of stays in a mental institution under his belt. Despite being well-educated, the man is a wanderer, which lends credibility to the probability that Humbert is a serial predator. The fact that Humbert admittedly sleeps with young adult and possibly underage prostitutes confirms this. In fact, the only reason for Humbert’s first marriage was to quell rumours of his hebephilia. After recovering from his divorce, Humbert moves to the United States and seeks to sublet a room from the McCoo family, whose 12 year old daughter he’s lusting after. Upon arrival, Humbert realizes that their house has burned down and when widow Charlotte Haze offers him a room in her home, he goes to see it, fully intending to decline her offer, until he sees her 12 year old daughter, Dolores. The fact that Humbert is very much aware of his sexual predilection and continuously places himself in situations where he can violate them is completely indefensible.
What happens next is, simply put, terribly predictable, predatory behaviour. Our protagonist sees flirtation from Dolores where I’m sure none existed, deluding himself that she wants him and that Charlotte is the only obstacle standing in their way. An obstacle that must be removed. Humbert is so obsessed with Dolores that, when Charlotte leaves a letter confessing that she is in love with him, stating plainly that if he doesn’t love her, she wants him to move out, this man actually marries her simply to remain near her daughter. Humbert is obsessed with a child. Meanwhile, Dolores is portrayed as some sort of hypersexual virgin, and Charlotte, an overbearing cockblock. Lolita, both the novel and the two film adaptations, fuel the dangerously dishonest rumour that some children are just “fast” and actually want to be used as the sexual objects of older men.
When she reads Humbert’s journal, Charlotte discovers both his loathing for her, and gross infatuation with her daughter, which he describes as “love”. The normalcy with which Humbert speaks of fetishizing and sexualizing a child is nauseating. Charlotte then writes letters to friends, telling them about this, and confronts Humbert, but as she leaves the house to mail her letters, Charlotte is hit by a car and instantly killed. Humbert burns the letters and convinces neighbours that he is Dolores’ biological father, from a previous affair with Charlotte. No one but Humbert witnessed Charlotte’s death, as Dolores was at summer camp at the time, but we are to believe that this convenient accident is what truly occurred, and not that a man so desperate for a little girl that he would marry her mother is also capable of the murder he’d routinely fantasized about.
Humbert then picks up Dolores from summer camp, tells her that her mother is in the hospital, takes her to a hotel, drugs her, and waits for the sedative to kick in so that he can rape her. According to our (and I can’t stress this enough) unreliable narrator, he does not rape her that night, but she initiates sex with him the next morning. Anyone who knows anything about predators of children knows that they often claim that these children, even as young as babies and toddlers, flirted and initiated sexual contact with them. We don’t know anything for sure except that this is what Humbert wanted, Charlotte dead and Dolores all to himself, and both these things just conveniently occurred.
Humbert tells on himself as, later, he has to resort to threatens, bribes, and blackmail in order to keep Dolores from running away from him. What is initially portrayed as statutory rape of a “willing” child is very clearly presented as kidnapping and rape of an orphan. Though Dr. John Ray insists that Humbert’s journal is essential to the field of psychiatry, and will motivate parents to raise children in a safer world, even this is a form of both coddling predators and blaming victims, which removes stigma from Humbert’s crimes while laying blame at Charlotte’s feet, a woman whose only “crime” was being too desperate and too busy to realize until it was too late that she had allowed a monster into her home, a woman who died trying to protect her child. The presumption that, although pedophiles like Humbert aren’t announcing it, parents should just know when someone is trying to molest their child is preposterous, and further exonerates pedophiles.
The hopelessness of Lolita comes in when we realize that not just one, but two men, are pursuing this child. Her mother’s friend, Clare Quilty, has been shadowing Humbert and Dolores since Charlotte’s death, but rather than alert authorities, he takes advantage of the situation to manipulate Dolores and engage in statutory rape with her as well. Eventually, he “steals” her from Humbert when Dolores is hospitalized and Humbert “loses” his prize. Humbert does not reconnect with Dolores until she is 17 years old, pregnant, married, and broke. Out of desperation, she contacts him for money, and so many people cling to this aspect of the novel in order to call the young woman a “gold digger”, callously, selectively, forgetting that Humbert is responsible for her mother’s death, for making her an orphan, for the fact that she never finished school, and for not only sexually violating her himself, but also giving another man the opportunity to do so as well. Humbert owed her every single penny, and so much more than he didn’t and could never repay.
Humbert gives Dolores the money she asks for, and upon learning that Quilty had made her homeless when she refused to star in a pornographic film, he sets out to kill the man, and succeeds. It’s clear that Humbert’s motivations have more to do with his belief that Quilty “stole” something from him than any guilt in the enormous hand he played in how Dolores’ life turned out. From beginning to end, the man takes no accountability for his own actions, which are no better than Quilty’s, and constantly portrays himself as the victim of an unquenchable lust for this child. He describes what he feels as “love”, as if this somehow makes him a better person than Quilty, when it simply makes him more dishonest and dangerous. Humbert gives himself to authorities, which is the only moral decision makes entire novel.
At the novel’s open, Hubert, by his own admission, is a pedophile/hebephile who is consumed with girls between the ages of 9 and 14, or as he calls them, “nymphets”. Humbert claims that, as a young boy, his first love, a girl named Annabel Leigh, who later died of typhus and, as said relationship was unconsummated, he became obsessed with sexual activity with pre-pubescent girls. Being that Humbert is an English literature teacher, and thus familiar with the works of Edgar Allen Poe, I posit that Humbert’s Annabel Leigh is entirely fictitious, and giving Humbert a first love whose name is phonetically identical to Poe’s beloved, Annabel Lee, is imply his way of trying to explain his depravity and garner himself still more sympathy for a lifelong grief. Essentially, I believe that Nabokov appropriated Poe’s tragedy in order to make readers feel sorry for his protagonist. Even if Humbert’s Annabel Leigh had ever existed, mentioning her is one of Humbert’s many attempts to distance himself from accountability.
The popularity of Lolita highlights just how pervasive rape culture and pedophile culture are. Humbert has been labeled a victim, a sick man, and just about everything but a calculating predator by scholars, even though that’s exactly what he is. He made the conscious decision to be around this child, and everything that happened to her after the fact was a direct consequence of his manipulation and selfishness. Our protagonist’s recounting of certain events fluctuates between convenient timing, and inconveniently bad luck. Nothing is ever Humbert’s fault; he can’t help himself. The true victim of Lolita is Dolores herself, whom (despite Humbert’s claims that “she wanted it”) was clearly just trying to stay alive and had her life destroyed by two men who preyed on her beauty, innocence, social isolation, financial insecurity, and absence of family ties. Dolores was the perfect victim because she had no recourse, which both Humbert and Quilty very well well aware and took full advantage of.
Nabokov, as calculating and manipulative as his protagonist, managed to create a first-person narrative which lent sensitivity to a predator, while making his victims afterthoughts. While Dolores was Humbert’s strongest obsession and most effected victim, she certainly wasn’t his first, and we have no evidence whatsoever that she was his last. Giving voice to predators while silencing or ignoring the narratives of victims is insidiously encouraging of predatory behaviour. But from coast to coast, girls like Dolores are being abused by men like Humbert who are well-educated, financially stable, soft-spoken, and “nice”. It stands to reason that, as pedophilia is a global epidemic, Lolita is so terribly popular because it isn’t merely The Confession of a White Widowed Male, as Dr. Ray calls it, but the confessions of predators worldwide. We need to do better by survivors of child abuse than to memorialize the lust, lies, and hypocrisy of predators, fictitious or otherwise. The fact that Lolita is still published in countries where Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are banned is telling. Our society simply doesn’t do enough to protect children. We would rather sympathize with predators and shake our heads as broken children grow into broken adults, contributing to a broken world.
I give this one 4.5 stars.