Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. So open these infamous pages. I first read them when I was sixteen. I was just starting on serious literature: I had read Gatsby for the first time, and was mesmerized. A friend – deeper and edgier than I – recommended Lolita next, and off I went with a paperback from my local library.
Fourteen years later, I am thirty. We are here again because I know that much of what I had read or seen as a child had gone far over my head. I was always too analytical to see the forest for the trees: I wrote movie reviews about cinematography but couldn’t speak about the plot. I dissected poems by meter and imagery, but had no idea what they meant. Even for Gatsby, I appreciated the beautifully crafted prose, but the human essence of the story had passed me by. I expected that Lolita too had key parts that I had missed.1
When I was sixteen, I finished the text knowing that I had witnessed a work of great, haunting beauty. The prose was second to none; lyrical and evocative in its wordplay, steeped in staggering creativity and cleverness. On a second read, this holds entirely. Humbert Humbert’s narration remains vivid and engrossing, sometimes so much so that you cannot help but feel depraved Humbert tugging at your heartstrings.
As a teen, moral judgment came with caveats. Obviously Humbert was despicable. But, ever so eloquent and pathetic, he could capture grains of sympathy. I grappled with the question posed by Robertson Davies: is Lolita about the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, or about the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child? As an adult, this question is easily answered. Humbert is a monster, monster, monster, through and through. He turns an innocent child into his sex slave. Moral condemnation could not be more clear-cut.2
Why was it hard for me to pass absolute judgment on Humbert on my first read? First, as a teenage boy with a reasonably stable home life, it was hard to truly understand the pain and suffering of sexual abuse. I understood that it was wrong and worthy of condemnation, but I was just too young to understand or feel the sheer magnitude of that wrongness. With no frame of reference,3 it remained abstract and somewhat inaccessible to true empathy.
Second, as a teenager it was difficult to understand the power imbalance between a child and an adult. You can’t know what it’s like to be an adult without having been one. You figure that adults are bigger, older versions of you, but you don’t really know what that means beyond drinking or voting. As an adult, you know exactly how much you’ve grown and how your sixteen-year-old self was all kinds of naive and immature.4 As an adult reader, Humbert’s manipulation, coercion, and exploitation of a helpless orphan is clear as day, leaving not a shadow of nuance.
Humbert’s depravity comes out of his self-absorption: he is boundlessly arrogant, and does not see the humanity of anyone else, least of all Lolita. This is a solipsist novel: told by self-obsessed Humbert, he views only himself and his feelings as real, even his “love” for Lolita is not love for her as a person but obsession with an idea of a Lolita in his mind. There was a thread of solipsist-existentialist fiction in the early 20th century, and Lolita fits in with them.
Lolita is also a surrealist novel. Surrealism was the premier force in the arts for decades prior, and Lolita nods to them: it is full of outrageously unlikely coincidences, and Humbert’s vaudevillian descriptions leave an undercurrent of mad distortion throughout. The final scenes, with Humbert at his most deranged, may well be a dream sequence. It wouldn’t be surprising, since Lolita is full of references to psychoanalysis. Nabokov was catching the end of the mania Freud and Jung had kicked off, and it’s clear that Nabokov held none of it in high esteem. The psychoanalytic commentary throughout the novel ranges from dubious to farcical. It is interesting to see Lolita not just as a novel unto itself, but placed precisely at the end of the solipsist, surrealist, and psychoanalytic movements, like punctuation.
Finally, Lolita is a story about no closure. Humbert blames his acts on the non-consummation of his childhood relationship. He seeks that closure in Lolita – even trying to recreate that exact same moment with her – but his efforts are futile. Lolita too denied him catharsis; the relationship ends abruptly, but his hopes remain open. When he finally kills his rival Quilty,5 there is no satisfaction either. Quilty, intoxicated out of his mind, can’t even listen to Humbert’s grand monologue of justice, and won’t submit to Humbert’s dreams of glorious execution. From his cell, Humbert hopes that his Lolita will live on long after him and be commemorated in his work, but she dies promptly, and his work – the novel – does not commemorate her. Given Humbert’s dehumanization of Lolita, the novel provides no view into her life, feeling, hopes, or dreams – it only commemorates Humbert’s depravity. So crumble even his final hopes at posthumous closure. Nothing wraps up cleanly in this story; all ends are left frayed by humans, and fixed only by fate’s hand of time.
On my not-particularly-difficult quest to see all of Kubrick’s films, I also watched the 1962 film rendition of Lolita when I was nineteen, in an airport lounge of all places. Beside dim memories of a few scenes, I don’t remember the film. ↩
And Robertson Davies seems like one hell of a creep with his Humbert-apologist thesis. ↩
There are also details in the book, iceberg-style suggestions that hint at the horrid extent of the abuse that I did not pick up on as a teen. The novel has very few scenes that are explicitly sexual, and I think you have to be an adult to read into what’s implied. ↩
This is a little like when you were in high school, and one of your very cool friends was in fact so cool and mature and grown up that they were dating someone in their 20s. As an adult, of course, you know that the people in their 20s dating high schoolers are walking, talking, red flags. ↩
I wasn’t sure whether Humbert or Quilty is the greater villain of the story. Perhaps that’s the point: both are utterly reprehensible, and such monsters are not unique but rather crawling in the woodwork everywhere. Lolita finally tells us that she would rather go back to live with Quilty, a child pornographer who broke her heart, than Humbert. This tells us all we need to know to hammer the final nail of judgment into Humbert’s coffin. ↩