I got tired of hearing references to this book by Vladimir Nabokov and not knowing what people were talking about so I decided to order it from the library. I read the synopsis and was like “Really?” But if everyone was raving about it, there had to be something to it, so I decided, “OK why not? It’s only 300 pages.”
I totally get it.
It’s about a pedophile obsessing over a girl named Dolores/Dolly, but for some reason the narrator calls her Lolita (he never explains why). The narrator goes by the pseudonym of “Humbert Humbert” so we never get to know his real name. The idea is he’s gone to jail and is writing this memoir to justify what he’s done to Lolita. As such, you should read the story with all the skepticism you would read any self-defense of a convicted criminal.
Humbert knows what he did was wrong. He clearly says so in the beginning of the book when he describes this fascination he has always had with girls of a certain age (he calls them “nymphets”). He describes his early attempts to avoid temptation by taking his sexual frustrations out on hookers and a wife who leaves him for another man after a short marriage.
Then he meets Lolita and everything changed, except not really. The only thing that changed was that Humbert became so obsessed by this twelve-year-old girl that he started plotting how he could have his way with her. Humbert takes advantage of Lolita’s mother who has fallen in love with him. He marries her in order to gain access to Lolita, then plots to drug both of them so he can secretly have his way with Lolita. Shortly after Lolita’s mother discovers Humbert’s disgusting secret she conveniently dies in a freak accident. Humbert claims he was inside at the time of the accident (which happened outside, where she was hit by a car) and wasn’t even aware his wife had left so of course he must have been totally innocent in the whole affair. On the other hand, Humbert admits several times throughout the book that he’s an unreliable narrator, so there’s just no telling whether or not his account of her untimely death is true. Everyone else (including Lolita) appear to be convinced Humbert had a hand in it.
Lolita is away at summer camp at the time of the accident. Her natural father has been dead for years so she is now an orphan and completely at Humbert’s mercy. Humbert goes to pick her up from camp, telling her only that her mother is very sick and making up a hospital she is allegedly being treated in. When he finally tells her the truth, the reader doesn’t get to see any of Lolita’s reaction to this news. It’s not clear if this is because Lolita had such a terrible relationship with her mother that she’s really not affected by it, or if it’s merely because the narrator had no feelings (other than extreme luck) about her death.
In their first sexual encounter, Lolita seems to be a willing participant. Humbert even claims she seduced him, but there are several problems with that: 1) Even if she did seduce him, she’s 12 and Humbert is the adult, so he’s still the one responsible; 2) she has just suffered a traumatic loss and that can make anyone do stupid things; 3) as previously mentioned, Humbert himself admits he’s an unreliable narrator so it’s entirely possible that the truth is he pinned her to the bed while she screamed in protest.
Humbert continues this extremely inappropriate relationship with his “beloved” Lolita for two years. He keeps her in submission by manipulating her. He convinces her if she tells anyone about their relationship she’ll be seen as just as guilty as he. She’s an orphan, so she literally has nowhere else to go. If Humbert went to jail, Lolita would end up a ward of the state, a notoriously unpleasant prospect. He also bribes her with money and pretty objects for sexual favors, which makes her his whore. He manages to make it sound like she was the one manipulating him by extorting all this money from him, which I think is just further proof of Nabokov’s brilliant writing.
The bad guys never think they’re the bad guys. The power of human justification is truly awesome and that is never more evident than in this book. Humbert is completely taking advantage of this twelve-year-old orphan and manages to convince himself that he’s the victim. Throughout their relationship he describes his advances on Lolita usually being greeted with exasperation (“Not again” and “Oh no.”). He gets all wounded when she doesn’t respond to his “tenderness” in kind, which, again, allows him to play the victim.
At one point, Humbert wonders if he broke something inside Lolita. If, without him, she would have had ambition and gone on to become an incredibly successful champion. But even in that fantasy he has to insert himself as her “humble husband.” I think this was a crack in his carefully constructed defense and I think these cracks are part of the genius of the book. Humbert obviously wants us to sympathize with him, but I don’t think Nabokov wants us to sympathize with Humbert. Not to mention the whole story was just incredibly well crafted. The writing was superb and I think this book deserves multiple readings … if I can stomach more than one reading.
Lolita finally manages to escape and, a few years later, writes to Humbert requesting money. He tracks her down (she is now married and pregnant) and tries to convince her to run away with him. She refuses, but does so gently, even calling him “honey” (don’t forget the unreliable narrator). Humbert then gives her exponentially more money than she asked for and leaves peacefully. He claims he loved her too much to hurt her, but then he reminisces about something she had said a couple years earlier and how it made him realize that he really had no idea what she was thinking or feeling. This is another crack in his defense in that it proved he didn’t love her, he merely lusted after her.
What about you guys? What did you read this week? Any other classics that surprised you? I want to hear all about it!