Lolita: Is It Time to Admit This Novel is Appalling?
What many consider a literary masterpiece is nothing short of a glamorization for pedophilia from the perspective of a narcissist
On most any list of must-read novels you will find the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov ranked high among the classics. It’s what many consider a literary masterpiece, written by a genius. Having finally read it this week, I must say, this assessment is highly suspect.
I found this book to easily be the most disturbing and offensive novel I have ever encountered in my life. This in itself is an accomplishment I suppose, as I am not someone easy to offend. I have myself been accused of crossing lines with my writing, so I do not take this accusation lightly. But in Lolita, the subject matter that is tackled is done so in a way that gravely disrespects the victims of sexual abuse.
For those unaware, the basic plot of Lolita is as follows: the main character is a man named Humbert Humbert, who admits straight off that he has always been attracted to young girls. He goes in to some detail about the ages of girls he finds attractive, mostly being between the ages of 9 and 14. This attraction he has is explained away by him as a leftover symptom of losing his first child love Anabel Leigh, whom he knew when also a child.
Humbert goes on to explain how he finds adult women boring and repulsive, and how he previously satisfied his urges for young girls (nymphets) through prostitutes who he knew lied about their age and who he visited at brothels. He also explains the many ways that this type of attraction is pursued in other cultures and only frowned upon as taboo in more westernized society. Then, he meets Lolita, the daughter of a landlady of a property he is about to rent, and she reminds him of Anabel Leigh.
Instantly in love with Lolita, or Dolores Haze, Humbert rents the property to be near her, and eventually marries her mother. Then, her mother dies just as she discovers Humbert’s unnatural fixation for Lolita, and thus begins the real horror of this tale. Humbert takes Lolita on a cross-country voyage, drugging her and raping her repeatedly, and manipulating her with money and possessions to keep his lurid game going for as long as he wants. This continues for two years. Lolita was 12 when we met her, and after she turns 14 she runs away from him and escapes.
When Lolita turns 17, she contacts Humbert and asks for money. She is now married and pregnant with her first child. Humbert tracks her down. As the story is nearing its end, he is becoming progressively more possessed by his madness. He finds out who helped her escape from him and goes to the house of that man, another pedophile named Quilty that he once met at a party. He confronts Quilty and kills him, and then we learn that this entire story is being written by Humbert in a mental health hospital.
It’s no wonder that this book is controversial. Released in 1955, a time that was much more stringent with its morality than today’s world, it was a work that found itself on multiple banned book lists. It’s highly unlikely that this novel would have reached such notoriety without being attached to the scandal of its content.
It seems as though Nabokov knowingly invited this scandal, betting on it to produce the free publicity needed to propel his work into the public eye, even though he said otherwise. He relied on his abilities to craft an utterly outrageous narrative through prose that could be considered so artful the actual content of the story would come second to the style with which it was told.
But even Nabokov was not fully convinced he had successfully walked the tightrope of taboo. He initially was afraid to put his own name on the work for fear of losing his job as a professor. I’d say this fear was well-founded, but since the reception to the book was mostly positive, Nabokov’s wager with his talents seems to have paid off.
Nabokov, seemingly successfully managed to tell the story of a pedophile rapist, from the perspective of the rapist, using poetic prose and humor to disguise the monstrosity of the mind being exposed to the reader. The character of Humbert has a charming voice and a wit that often makes us laugh, even as he is doing repulsive things. This is the literary equivalent of a car crash that you just can’t stop rubbernecking at.
While the grotesque actions of the molestation and rape are never explicitly detailed, they are often alluded to in frank innuendos that are somehow even worse. And since the story is all told from Humbert’s POV, the subject matter often feels like a fetishized daydream being relayed to the reader by a helpless romantic. This prose is emotive, sensual, erotic, which just makes the events being narrated all that more disgusting.
The thing that makes this novel truly indefensible, is the fact that it is based loosely on actual events. Nabokov, taking inspiration from an actual child rape, decided to write a novel from the perspective of the rapist, and in a way that can be construed as glamorizing the sexual abuse. There’s no way around understanding that this decision is a great slap in the face to not only the girl upon which the character of Lolita was based, but also to every survivor of child sexual abuse.
It’s not very difficult to further imagine the ways in which this book can easily be used to justify the sexual exploitation of children. All you have to do to see it is look at the way the term Lolita is now used to describe younger girls who seduce older men. If it’s even remotely possible that your work that you claim is meant to critique pedophilia, actually ends up encouraging it by appealing to pedophiles, then perhaps you’ve missed the mark creatively.
In fact, this term was used by Jeffrey Epstein to name his famous Lolita Express, a plane that he notoriously used to traffick girls to his private island, that has come to be known as “Pedophile Island.” Going a step further down this rabbit hole brings you to the knowledge that the QAnon cult derives its name from the Lolita novel, and its character Quilty, who also went by Q and was a child pornographer. Part of the appeal of the novel is after the antagonist of Q is revealed, going back through the work and finding the subtle clues that he has been following Humbert and Lolita from the very beginning. Sound familiar?
Knowing these things, it becomes clear that the content of the novel Lolita has been repeatedly used as justification for hurting others, by people who have no trouble relating to Humbert’s plight. There are even those who claim this is a true “love story.” A blurb used on the back flap of the novel from Vanity Fair claimed it was “the only convincing love story of our century.”
But in reality, it is impossible to view this as a love story unless you yourself are a pedophile. This is not a love story. It is a horror story. The character of Lolita is shamelessly abused throughout the course of this book. The reader never gains insight into the mind of Lolita, what the abuse is doing to her, or how much it is hurting her, other than one line when she asks Humbert the name of the hotel where he first raped her. Other than that, all we see is Humbert calling her a demon, blaming her for his madness, and mocking her as a petulant child whom he has spoiled.
And in the end, her abuser is given the free pass of admitting his mental illness, and claiming his helplessness to fight it. Yes, pedophilia is a mental illness, but this is not a justification for harming others. To assert such only serves to embolden the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world.
It makes one wonder, what purpose does the pedophilia serve to the overall story of Lolita? Nabokov could have just as easily written this novel without it. He could have made Dolores older, and played on different taboos. Instead, he chose the most taboo of the taboo. The result is a story that is in many ways irredeemable.
We live in a time when books are getting pulled from publication because they cannot pass their screenings with “sensitivity readers.” We live in a time when poems like “Scholl’s Ferry Rd.” are removed from the archives of the POETRY Foundation over one racial slur deemed too offensive for consumption when written by white male poets, a slur that coincidentally also appears in Lolita. We live in a time when several Dr. Seuss books have been indefinitely halted from being published, due to racially sensitive content.
And yet, Lolita remains as popular as ever. One must ask why. As well written as it may be, stylish prose can no longer hide the fact that this book is fetishized by the people it purports to critique.
While I would never advocate for censorship or the banning of books, there does seem to be a question of moral responsibility. An author cannot control how their work is perceived. Stephen King realized that his novel Rage may inspire others to take out their anger with guns, and he decided to stop it from being published. Likewise, the work that I published that earned me the most criticism for being perceived as too violent toward women, a satirical book of misogynist poetry, I removed from publication at Amazon.
At a certain point, it just becomes a matter of doing the right thing. While art itself obviously doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s the people who use that art to justify their own terrible agendas or actions that can ultimately be traced back to how they perceived artwork that, to them, encouraged their own perspectives. In cases such as that, the less those people are encouraged, the better.
Is it too late for the Nabokov estate to admit their error here? The implications of how Lolita has effected modern society are vast. It took the subject of pedophilia, of attraction to young girls (and boys), and put it in the limelight. Yes, it shows us how these type of predators can live with us in plain view. But did we need a work of literature to explain that to us? This isn’t a public service announcement, it is instead something that works as a normalization of this taboo. The term “The Lolita Effect” is now even used to describe the sexualization of young girls.
When a single book can be traced as the inspiration behind one of the largest sex trafficking rings on the planet, openly advertised as such by using a plane called “The Lolita Express,” and then also inspiring a group of cultists who are conspiracy theorists who claim they want to expose such trafficking rings, you might have missed the mark. When that same conspiracy theory cult that loves to say “Q sent me” shows up in droves and decides to start threatening democracy by raiding the Washington Capitol, we might have a problem.
Again, I stand ardently against the notion of banning books. I stand firmly in the camp that freedom of speech and non-censorship are essential to a free society. Free societies should not be banning books from consumption, calling the media the enemy, or policing their inhabitants for “thought crime.” All of these types of moral policing can quickly become slippery slopes toward fascism, and tools of propaganda for the state.
So, the responsibility for recognizing when work is damaging to society lies on the artist. The estate of Nabokov is under no threat of losing stature by admitting this error. Vladimir Nabokov is a literary legend at this point no matter what. His work has had measurable impact upon the world. It’s undeniable. But at this point, Lolita is not his only claim to fame. He has many other notable works, and his command of the written language is unrivaled. He is considered among many to be the best writer who ever lived.
The work in Lolita is not the only example of the unreliable narrator. It’s not the only example of Nabokov’s amazing prose, and arguably not even the best example of his prose, which many claim to be the novel Pale Fire. You might say it’s too late for the Nabokov estate to do anything about the impact of Lolita, that in effect the cat is already out of the bag. But I think admitting to the mistake of publishing it would go a long way toward course correcting the error.
Lolita has been consumed by the public for over sixty years. I think it’s safe to say by now that the negatives of its availability outweigh the positives. Perhaps the Nabokov estate should do something about it. In many ways, they’re the only ones who can.
It’s definitely a testament to the power of art and the power of language that something can be so beautifully crafted the audience mostly doesn’t care that it is poisoning their brain. My advice, however, is that when you’re handed a cup of poison, no matter how gold the goblet that contains it… don’t drink.