“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” — Lolita
If you have read the 1955 novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov you’ve experienced the feeling of reading a book both enthralling and disturbing all at the same time. In Lolita, a book described as controversial erotic fiction, Humbert becomes sexually interested in young girls after the death of his one true love, Annabel who succumbs to her death from a fatal case of lupus.
Humbert, an English teacher eventually settles in a small town in New England in 1947 where he begins writing his novel. The house is soon destroyed by a raging fire. Following the unfortunate incident, Humbert meets a widow named Charlotte and decides to take her up on her offer of moving into her house when he sees her daughter, Dolores.
Humbert is immediately sexually drawn towards twelve-year-old Dolly, or ‘Lolita.’ Soon after, Humbert marries Charlotte in order to be a stepfather to Dolly, and to remain close to her at all times. It’s not long before Charlotte finds out about Humbert’s perverted views towards her young daughter from his diary. She immediately pens several letters exposing Humbert to be sent to several of her friends. As she runs out onto the street to deliver the letters, she is hit by a car and is killed.
Humbert realizes this is his one chance, and so he retrieves Dolly from summer camp. He explains to Dolly her mother is in the hospital, gravely ill. He takes Dolly to a motel where he drugs her and the two begin a sexual relationship — or to put it more accurately, Humbert grooms the young girl and repeatedly rapes her, as the two travel across the country, moving from motel to motel.
Humbert assumes the role of Dolly’s stepfather and enrolls her in school. In Colorado, Humbert brings Dolly to a hospital when she falls ill. She is later retrieved by a friend of her mother's without Humbert’s knowledge. Humbert falls into a deep depression for the next two years, unable to find Dolly, he is barely able to function.
When Dolly is seventeen she sends a letter to Humbert explaining she is pregnant, married and in dire need of financial help. Humbert travels to Dolly’s home with a loaded pistol to give her money. He then goes to the mansion owned by her second abductor, and shoots him multiple times, killing him.
Humbert is quickly arrested and the only words he has for authorities is the reaffirmation of his love for Dolly, who ultimately dies during childbirth.
One can only wonder if Nabokov was inspired by the story of the real Lolita; Florence Sally Horner.
The real Lolita
In 1948, eleven-year-old Sally entered a five and dime store with some girls from her school. Sally wanted nothing more than to be accepted into their clique, but first, she had to pass the initiation. She was ordered to steal a notebook. While committing the theft, Sally was confronted by a man who claimed to work for the FBI. He threatened to send Sally to an all-girls reform school for her transgression.
In reality, the man was Frank La Salle, a fifty-year-old sex offender with a long history of sexually assaulting young girls and this time would be no different. Frank told Sally he would need to monitor her for the time being to ensure she didn’t commit any more crimes.
A frightened and vulnerable Sally, of course, believed the man.
Sally was forced to tell her mother she would be going on a family vacation with her friend and her friend's father, Frank. Sally’s mother, a widow whose husband committed suicide when Sally was six, could not afford to take her daughter on a summer vacation herself, so she quickly gave her approval.
Frank whisked Sally away to the New Jersey Shore where Sally made regular calls to her mother. However, when Sally did not return home by the end of July, her mother became suspicious and phoned the authorities. A missing child alert was issued.
Frank fled and took Sally with him, settling in a boarding house in Atlantic City, where, akin to the story of Lolita, Frank enrolled Sally into multiple schools pretending to be her father. He also raped Sally multiple times.
Frank successfully groomed Sally into playing the part of his housewife. She cooked, cleaned and succumbed to his every demand. She was intimidated by Frank who threatened to turn her in to the police for shoplifting if she did not grant his every wish, sexual or otherwise.
While hiding out in Texas, Frank and Sally’s neighbour Ruth Janisch grew suspicious of the true relationship between the two. It was her Sally would later confide the truth to while Frank was away searching for employment.
Ruth contacted the authorities. Frank was promptly arrested and Sally was reunited with her mother after twenty-one-months in captivity. Frank pled guilty to all of the charges and was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.
Unfortunately, Sally’s life would still be cut short as she died in a car wreck only a short two years later.
Over the years, many have alleged Nabokov was inspired by Sally’s story when he wrote Lolita and it is highly likely that is the case. In Lolita, Humbert contemplates whether he had, “Done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948.”
Nabokov has been heavily criticized for his writings of a middle-aged professor who sexually grooms a child; some call him sick and disgusting while others view the story of Lolita as a spectacular and disturbing masterpiece.
Fighting between his love for a story he had created and the inevitable controversy which would arise following its release, Vladimir tried twice to rid himself of the manuscript, thwarted only by his wife who dug it out of the trash and had it sent to a European publishing company.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, Lolita was labelled an advocation for pedophilia. In reality, Lolita intends for readers to truly understand the depths and horrors of such a psychiatric disorder. In the 1950s, Lolita was banned in several countries including New Zealand, France, and Argentina. Today, it is one of the top 100 books to read in a lifetime.
Whether inspired by Sally’s story or not, Lolita is an arguably alluring novel, one that should not be passed over. It is important to note that although the novel contains subject matter that may be gut-wrenching and difficult for some to read, it does not take away from its brilliance.
“Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or “starlet”.
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling).” — Lolita
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