An appreciation of the printed word (hopefully even printed on paper and bound together with a decorative cover) is a dying concept. We hope to, slowly but surely, rectify this tragic situation by introducing and discussing works, both fiction and nonfiction, modern and classic, that we feel warrant purchasing/ checking out from your local library. In other words, You Gotta Read This! This new, regular feature will be mainly spoiler-free. I will simply be providing a plot synopsis and the reasons this work warrants reading.
“A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lungs, rely.”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Published in English in 1955, Lolita and controversy are rarely separated from one another. The novel, told from the first-person perspective of Humbert Humbert, revolves around the narrator’s illicit, not consensual, pedophilia-based relationship between our narrator and the twelve-year-old, object of his desire, Dolores Haze, nicknamed Lolita. Most of the controversy stems from the way in which Humbert is presented. Is Nabokov condoning his actions, condemning them, simply presenting them without judgement? The answer you provide to that question will tell you how outraged you are by the novel.
I think he simply presents the events without judgement. The novel is told from Humbert’s perspective, but the readers never find themselves on Humbert’s side. He presents himself as the victim, but he emerges from the novel as the wolf who crept into the henhouse when watchful eyes were turned elsewhere. He’s manipulative and maladjusted, and the novel does very little to conceal that fact. Humbert’s rationale is that he attempts to present himself as a really pretty harmless wolf, surrounded by other, more aggressive, far more corrupting wolves, but the reader never fully trusts his version of events, because he is clearly mad as a hatter, unable to understand the damage his actions have wrought.
The novel has been adapted for the big screen twice: Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic, nearly sexless 1962 version, and the lush, excessively romantic 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne.
The novel presents Humbert, the scheming, intellectual pedophile, who manipulates Dolores’s mother into marrying him in order to be closer to the 12-year old source of his desire: her daughter, Dolores. When he learns his new wife plans to send Lolita off to boarding school, he makes plans to murder his newly acquired wife. However, before he carry out his plans, she discovers his interest in her daughter, flees the house, and is killed by an oncoming car. Humbert, now functioning as Lolita’s guardian, picks her up from her summer camp, consumates his relationship with her, and begins a cross-country trek with her in tow.
The rest of the novel’s focus is on their “relationship.” Humbert now finds himself both drawn towards and frightened of a girl who can send him to prison with a few key words to an authority figure. Meanwhile, Lolita finds herself walking a fine line between manipulating Humbert through constantly threatening to expose his true nature to the general public (which would surely ruin his chances of continuing to acquire teaching/ lecturing positions) and attempting to escape her confines. Maneuvering around the novel’s edges, we, also, catch glimpses of an enigmatic figure, forever hovering and observing Humbert and Dolores from afar. Is is the police, finally aware of what is occurring between Humbert and his Lolita, or someone far more insidious? Throughout the novel, many references are made regarding his exploits and lifestyle, but he remains unknowable until the novel’s final chapters: the mysterious Clare Quilty. The novel’s climax explodes in a shocking, absurd act of violence, as well as confessions and confrontations between Humbert and this unexpected character.
Lolita is considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest novels of the English language. I read it this past summer– one of those summer literary goals I was happy to accomplish. Reading it, I was struck by how modern the novel’s style seems. Humbert’s narration, as despicable a character as he is, is incredibly funny to read. It’s wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and articulate without being irritatingly clever. Despite the decades that have spanned between its publication and the present day, it feels shockingly modern, in both its style and content. Yes, Humbert may be completely insane, and at the very least he is the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator, but the novel never becomes difficult to tolerate because his narrative voice is so enjoyable. Dolores may me the hero of the work, but Humbert’s voice gives her life, because he also sees her as the hero of his story. For all his terrible deeds, he believes he loves her. It is only the reader who sees the despicable nature at the heart of his behavior. When he claims it was “love at first sight, at last sight, and ever and ever sight,” he is sincere. Only the reader sees the dysfunction of his emotions. It’s a brilliant, sharp, modern novel that feels as fresh and daring as it must have on the day it was published, and it has not lost it power to shock and enrapture.
Here are the trailers for both the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation and the Adrian Lyne, showing two very, very different approaches (some differences dictated by the decades in which they were made, others by directorial choice) to the source material:
Lolita is available to purchase at bookstores or through the Kindle and Nook online stores.
So, what do you think of Lolita? Do you find the book reprehensible? Do you think it’s amazing? Is there another book you think we should cover? Let us know in the comments.