In my last post, I began reviewing three of the works of author Vladimir Nabokov, starting with Pale Fire. Today I’ll be reviewing the author’s best-known and most controversial work, Lolita. Grab a cup of something caffeinated and buckle up, because this is going to be a long one.
Content warning for pedophilia, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic abuse/domestic violence, gaslighting, misogyny, and racism. This review pulls no punches, and I’m not going to gloss over any of the ugliness espoused within this book.
It’s not surprising to me that despite his pedigree, writing career, and status in society, Vladimir Nabokov initially had a hard time finding a publisher willing to print this story. What does surprise me is the literary acclaim it garnered later, and the starry-eyed praise it received. Take this quote from the back cover of the copy I borrowed, for example:
“The only convincing love story of our century.” –Vanity Fair
I’d like to have a word with whoever approved using this quote to describe Nabokov’s ode to pedophilia– because, out of all the things Lolita is and isn’t, the thing it absolutely isn’t the most is a love story.
Perhaps the best lesson that can be taken from the accolades this story has received is just how deeply entrenched and socially normalized pedophilia is– and how badly that needs to change.
The Plot, Plus Some Context
Lolita is the story of a French-born school teacher who has a sexual obsession with children, usually girls between ages of eight and fourteen. Humbert’s story starts in France, where he teaches English and covertly ogles his students and other girl children. To stay out of trouble, he decides to marry a woman who, despite being in her twenties, reminds him of a child. This marriage soon dissolves into verbal abuse and physical violence.
Humbert’s violence toward his first wife is alluded to more than once, including during his time with his second wife, as described here:
Had Charlotte been Valeria, I would have known how to handle the situation; and “handle” is the word I want. In the good old days, by merely twisting fat Valechka’s brittle wrist (the one she had fallen upon from a bicycle) I could make her change her mind instantly… –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
Unsurprisingly, Valeria files for a divorce. Humbert immigrates to the United States and settles in New York.
Since there’s little need for French-speaking English teachers in the US, the protagonist takes a job writing ads and working on a book of French literature for English-speaking students. Humbert, like his author, is a writer.
A “dreadful breakdown” lands Humbert in a sanatorium for a year, and one of his doctors assigns him a job as a “recorder of psychic reactions” on an expedition into the Canadian Arctic.
This largely pointless part of the pedophile’s journey serves to illustrate one thing very clearly: Nabokov led a charmed life even after his family fled the Russian revolution, and he never came close to experiencing the horrors felt by the working class.
Humbert’s treatment in the sanatorium is amazingly kind and lenient– although, historically, the treatment of patients in American sanatoria was generally anything but. In Invitation to a Beheading, incarcerated Cincinnatus receives a similarly gentle treatment. In both cases, the characters are treated like equals and well-cared-for guests.
Apparently a good part of Humbert’s mental troubles arise from his obsession with children, and his inability to stop stoking that sick interest. During his stay in the Arctic, isolated from so-called “nymphets” and media containing their images, he experiences a measure of peace –and the reader gets a completely unwanted look at Humbert’s view of indigenous people.
No temptations maddened me. The plump, glossy little Eskimo girls with their fish smell, hideous raven hair and guinea pig faces, evoked even less desire in me than Dr. Johnson had. Nymphets do not occur in polar regions. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
This excerpt, while probably the mostly overtly racist thing in the Nabokov works I read, is only one of many short, casual remarks on the simpleness and inferiority the author’s protagonists perceived in indigenous peoples and people of color. These prejudices do not paint a flattering picture of the author.
After some pointless meandering, Humbert decides to move to the New England countryside, lured by the promise of being able to stay with a family with a young girl. When this plan falls through, he comes across Mrs. Haze. He takes an instant dislike to her, and plans to reject her offer of a room for rent– until he sees her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores.
At this point that the romanticizing of pedophilia really kicks into full gear. The author devotes page after page to Humbert’s obsession with Dolores –or, as he likes to refer to her, Lolita. We hear about her skin, her hair, her physical attributes, what she eats and how she eats it, what she says and how she says it, and what she wears and how she wears it.
The dissonance of the book’s narrative in amplified by Nabokov’s portrayal of Humbert. The pedophile is not portrayed as a predator; instead, he’s poor, handsome, awkward, misunderstood Humbert. He’s a relatable everyman just trying to make his way in a harsh and unjust world. The reader is plied with a barrage of excuses to justify the pedophile’s behavior.
Eventually Mrs. Haze confesses her love for Humbert. Although he still finds her unpleasant, he decides to marry her due to how easy it would be to molest Dolores if he were her parental figure.
Humbert schemes to drug both mother and daughter so that he can have his way with the child. Instead, the former Mrs. Haze eventually figures out what Humbert is up to, begins making plans to divorce him and escape with Dolores, and is fortuitously (in Humbert’s eyes) struck and killed by a speeding driver.
Humbert drives to Dolores’ summer camp and picks her up, taking her on a road trip and only telling her that her mother is dead after he has sexually assaulted her. They continue to travel around the country, with Humbert “forced to” (in his words) spend more and more money on gifts and treats to secure the child’s silence and compliance. A strange man seems to be following them, although it’s never clear whether he’s real or a figment of the pedophile’s often-paranoid imagination.
Eventually Humbert settles in a small New England town and enrolls Dolores in a local private school. She falls ill, and while staying at the hospital, escapes or is abducted. Humbert searches for her furiously, but is unable to find her.
Some years later he receives a letter from 17-year-old Dolores saying that she is pregnant, married, and desperately in need of money. He visits, meets her husband, and finally hands over the money she should have inherited from her mother. Dolores reveals that she was taken from the hospital by one of her mother’s friends, another pedophile by the name of Clare Quilty. Humbert tracks Quilty down and shoots him.
The Conversation We Need To Have About Lolita
As much as I loathe this book and as much as I think its message is extremely harmful, I’m not in favor of removing it from bookstores and public libraries. I think that the average person who stumbles across this story will be just as horrified by it as I was.
What I do think should change is the book’s portrayal by educators and reviewers. Lolita isn’t some great work of literature, and it certainly isn’t a love story. It is an excellent tool for teaching people how to recognize a pedophile, rapist, or abuser… or someone on his way to becoming one of these. It shows how these people choose and groom their victims, how they justify their actions, and how they manipulate everyone around them.
Choosing & Grooming A Victim
Although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the novel, part of Dolores’ appeal to Humbert is the fact that she isn’t close to her mother. She’s also at a stage in life when children become more independent. This makes her easier to approach, and easier to groom without as much fear of discovery.
Humbert begins grooming Dolores by befriending her (or, to be more accurate, offering a presence a child might interpret as friendship.) He gets her used to being touched by an adult other than her parent by starting with small touches on her back, arms, and legs. He buys her gifts and candy, despite her mother’s objections.
This is all pretty classic grooming behavior. It sets the child up to trust an adult other than their parent, and makes it much easier for the predator to grossly overstep boundaries later on.
It’s far easier to prey on someone society views as “less than,” than to prey on someone who can be easily empathized with. People are more likely to believe the testimony of someone like themselves.
Othering is defined as “a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group… Othering is a way of negating another person’s individual humanity and, consequently, those that are have been othered are seen as less worthy of dignity and respect.”
Abusers commonly use this method to paint their victims as lesser creatures whose testimony cannot be trusted, and who are somehow deserving of or inviting their abuse. In Humbert’s case, the children he is attracted to are not “normal” children; instead, they are what he refers to as “nymphets.”
Between the limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
According to the narrator, the children which Humbert finds himself sexually attracted to are not victims; instead, they are “demonic entities” which have chosen to reveal themselves to him. Throughout Lolita, the narrator often reinforces the differences between nymphets and so-called normal children.
Justifications & Excuses – Pseudoscience & Historical Precedents
Chances are that if you stumble across people seeking to justify pedophilia, child marriage, and related predatory practices, you’ll also stumble across a boatload of pseudoscience and whataboutisms. For example, dubiously-scientific studies about the alleged benefits of older men marrying teenagers. Or “what about this great ancient culture that regularly married children to adult men?”
In Lolita, Humbert cites this bit of pseudoscientific trash during his grooming of Dolores:
I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl: clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
(My reaction: “You think you have what?!”)
There’s some key wording in the origin of this so-called science: writers on the sex interests of children. I have never encountered anyone obsessed with that subject who wasn’t a pedophile. Likewise with those who feel the need to cite such studies.
Predators are expert at camouflaging themselves. If they’re among the religious, it’s God’s will and there are biblical precedents. If they’re among those who are swayed by science, they’ll cite studies claiming that their predatory practice of choice is “natural” and “beneficial.” If historic precedent seems likely to win hearts and change minds, they’ll attempt to show that their favorite deviance has been practiced for eons.
The thing is, if you ignore a complete and total lack of peer review, you can find studies supporting just about anything. Know what a lot of so-called “great” cultures of ages past also had in common? Slavery, and the genocide of the peoples they conquered. “It’s so great that it’s been practiced for ages” …so has cannibalism and human sacrifice. None of these are the shining justifications they’re presented as.
Then there are the excuses and whataboutisms. For example, in Part One, Chapter 31, Humbert comes up with this exceptionally dubious justification:
The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
In Part Two, Chapter 1, Humbert justifies his sexual assault of Dolores with a barrage of excuses, including this one.
Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and his daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is a part. I’m a great admirer of Sicilians, fine athletes, fine musicians, fine upright people… –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
I didn’t bother to research whether this claim is true. Regardless of the veracity of the practices of past or present Sicilians, incest and sexual assault of a minor are both illegal in the US, and Humbert’s behavior was still that of a pedophile.
Unfortunately, undermining that understanding of right and wrong is the abuser’s goal. Whether they’re speaking to their critics, their victims, or fledgling abusers who still feel some moral hesitancy, their method is to serve up example after example allegedly supporting their deviant practices. The goal is to persuade the listener to distrust their own judgement. To make the listener think, Maybe these people had a point. Maybe these practices aren’t so bad after all.
This quote from Chapter 31 has it all: what about the Romans? What about the (horrifically abusive) practices sanctioned by the Church? What about this outright lie? What about this pseudoscientific article I read in some magazine? But it’s nature! And she wasn’t even a virgin anyway, so checkmate, society!
The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States. And fifteen is lawful everywhere.* … “In such stimulating temperate climates [says an old magazine in this prison library] as St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, girls mature about the end of their twelfth year.” Dolores Haze was born less than 300 miles from stimulating Cincinnati. I have but followed nature. I am nature’s faithful hound. Why then this horror that I cannot shake off? Did I deprive her of her flower? Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
*“…fifteen is lawful everywhere.” No, actually it’s not.
The Weaponization of Victims’ Sexuality
Another common excuse for sexual abuse, especially sexual abuse of women and girls, is that she may have had sexual interest in or intercourse with someone at some point. Somehow that’s supposed to negate the seriousness of assault.
Think of it like this: let’s say you consensually gave someone $20. A bystander noticed, and took another $20 from your wallet by stealth, force, or coercion, without your consent. When you accused him of theft, his excuse was that you were just giving it away anyway– therefore he hadn’t committed any crime.
Humbert uses exactly that excuse here:
Why then this horror that I cannot shake off? Did I deprive her of her flower? Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
There’s a lot to unpack behind this statement and the biases that lead to those beliefs, but I’m not here to go into that here. “I wasn’t even her first” is a non-excuse. Past sexual experience or interest does not ever excuse sexual assault– not any more than having spent money in the past excuses theft.
Abdication of Adult Responsibilities
Even if everything Humbert says about Dolores having a crush on him is true, he had a clear responsibility to say no and distance himself from the child. He deliberately chose to do the opposite.
I’m not saying that children don’t go through puberty and start thinking about sex. Most of us have been there, and most of us had a least a few crushes who were in their late teens or twenties. But– and this is a big but– adults that find themselves the object of a childish crush have a clear and obvious responsibility to say no and remove themselves from the situation. An adult in this situation has no excuse.
Power Dynamics: Why Do We Believe The Narrator?
Aside from the fictional foreword, Humbert the pedophile is the narrator of this story. Many analyses of Lolita take Humbert’s version of events, including Dolores’ alleged crush on him and her alleged participation in many scenes, at face value. Why is this? Is it because we, as a society, assume that the adult white male is, by default, the most reliable narrator in any given situation?
And yet, I’m not the first to point out that Humbert is the definition of an unreliable narrator. He’s a pedophile who admits that he has difficulty controlling his temper and sexual urges. He has been committed to psychiatric care more than once. During the course of the narrative, he admits to a sickening array of crimes including sexual abuse of a minor and murder.
Future analyses should consider that, like many details that shift as the story unfolds, Humbert may not have even been truthful in his recounting of the child’s actions. After all, it certainly seems that it would have been more comfortable for him to think that she was a willing participant– although it certainly wasn’t a necessity.
An excellent example of Humbert’s dishonesty can be seen in Chapter 28:
I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
This comes after he drugged his intended victim and groped her in her sleep, and before she wakes up in bed with him the following morning. Yet, in the pedophile’s mind, she was the instigator of what happened after and he is therefore blameless.
Blame Shifting & Gaslighting
Nabokov is very fond of the narrative of the predator-as-victim. The protagonist is not portrayed as a monster; he’s not Humbert the self-pitying, contemptuous abuser who views women as lesser creatures unless they sexually excite him. No, he’s poor Humbert, victim of modern society and the attentions of demon-children. His sick urges are portrayed as relatable; the society that treats him with scorn, suspicion, and condemnation is the villain.
In Lolita’s fictional foreword (Nabokov seems to have been really fond of fictional forewords), the author had this to say about his work:
…for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistical mother, the panting maniac–these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us–parents, social workers, educators–apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
This is a common theme in Lolita. Instead of placing the blame for Humbert’s actions on the pedophile himself, it’s implied that the parents, social workers, and educators –and even his victims– are just as much if not more to blame. We are told that Dolores knows what she is doing; that she is choosing to tempt and tease Humbert. It’s implied that her mother and American culture are somehow at fault for the situation. Similar statements are made about the other so-called nymphets Humbert stalks.
This shifting of blame from abuser to victim is an extremely common tactic of predators. They attempt to convince their victims and those around them that they did not choose to commit abuse; instead, they were “tempted” and “lead on,” “baited” and “provoked.” No normal human could have been expected to resist.
Likewise, they did not choose to bribe or coerce someone; they were “forced to” do so. This feeds their “woe is me– I’m the real victim here!” narrative, as well as making the victim feel responsible for their own abuse and doubt their own memory of events.
In reality, Humbert was not forced to do anything. He is the adult, and Dolores is a minor. Humbert chose to stay with Dolores and her mother. He chose to cultivate a relationship with a minor. He chose to sexually assault that minor. He chose to continue doing so, and to bribe the child to cover up his crimes. The victim’s behavior never justifies sexual assault or abuse. The fault in this scenario –as always– lies entirely with the abuser.
Lolita is not a love story. It is not a warning for parents to lock up their children, or for society to more tightly restrict women’s sexuality. It’s a truly skin-crawling account of an older man’s sick fetish for children, and of his grooming, kidnapping, and rape of one child in particular. To view it as anything else is to perpetuate the myth that every victim– no matter how young or vulnerable– is at least to some degree to blame for their own abuse.
In his foreword, Vladimir Nabokov says that “Lolita” should make all of us–parents, social workers, educators–apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
I disagree. Lolita should make all of us apply ourselves to identifying predators like Humbert and their sympathizers, and denying them any form of cover or safety. We should apply ourselves to recognizing their tactics, methods, and excuses, and to extending help and comfort to their victims.
A society that continues to romanticize and excuse the behavior of abusers will continue to produce abusers at a phenomenal rate. We cannot address this silent plague by pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that it is harmless.
I’m not in favor of banning Lolita, but the way the contents of this novel are framed and the way we talk about them need to change. Until that happens, this story and the many creative works it has spawned will continue to feed a social discourse where minors are sexualized, abuse is normalized, and predators are all too often given a free pass.
All excerpts used under Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and commentary.