Betraying Lolita

Spoilers Ahead!
Before I read the book, I had always understood Lolita to be a sexually precocious teenage girl who seduces an older man.

In this scenario, Humbert is technically guilty but it’s still possible to have a little sympathy for him. It’s only our prudish modern society that frowns on sexual relationships between middle aged men and teenage girls. In classical times, they were celebrated as the very pinnacle of erotic love. Humbert was just unlucky enough to be born in the wrong era.

But Nabokov makes it very clear that this interpretation is absolutely mistaken.

Humbert himself, as narrator, describes how he is sexually attracted only to very young girls who have not reached puberty. It’s only in his perverted imagination that Lolita flirts back (she was asking for it, yer honour). Lolita is twelve.

During Lolita’s long imprisonment as Humbert’s sex slave, he rapes her repeatedly while persuading himself (and, in his role as narrator) the reader that Lolita is a willing and equal partner. When she refuses some of his more depraved advances, he bribes her by raising her allowance to two dollars (and later steals it back).

Lolita, the book, is a tale of child abuse, plain and simple and Nabokov makes no apologies for that. The story has no moral value and no moral lessons for the reader. It’s almost as though Nabokov is saying “Look! I am such an awesome writer, I can write this book about paedophilia and you’ll still enjoy it.”

I didn’t enjoy it.

A sucker for punishment, I watched the movie last night.

Jeremy Irons’ Humbert was still a depraved pervert but his Lolita was a more willing partner and much further into puberty than the girl in the book. It was easier to feel a little sympathy for this monster. The movie made it almost seem like a tragic story of forbidden love.

Maybe it’s the difficulty of reproducing the unreliable narrator device on film – or maybe it’s just harder to portray child abuse – but I feel that the movie betrayed the premise of the book in a pervion as depraved as Humbert’s. If the movie Lolita were as young as the book Lolita, there would have been outrage – as, I assume, the author probably intended.

The blog where I snagged the book cover captures the issue succinctly by comparing the various covers that have graced the book over the years.

Which of these books is about a man who preys on little girls?.

I think you’ll agree, it’s this one:

Sting may have struggled to resist the girl who stood too close, but the famous book by Nabokov is about a pervert.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

One thought on “Betraying Lolita”

  1. In the end, the key take-away is that Lolita is *boring* (esp. the road trip nonsense; see also: On The Road). Don’t let it dissuade you from Nabokov’s real masterpieces, esp. Pale Fire, with its vastly superior unreliable narrator.

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