TRAGIC LOVE MONTH #12: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

WARNING: The following post contains mention of child sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Type of Media: Novel

Lolita is a tricky thing to talk about. On the surface it's a novel that paints a sympathetic portrait of a pedophile. It presents a lot more moral ambiguity than you would expect from a story about a grown man who wants to have sex with children. However, as time has gone on I think Lolita has become more important than ever. In an age where people argue for mass sterilization, segregation, and genocide on the internet by hiding their horrifying beliefs behind sophisticated language, a novel where a man tries to do the same thing for his pedophilic urges is quite relevant.

Lolita is told via a memoir the main character Humbert Humbert is writing from his prison cell. He admits that from a young age he's been sexually attracted to "nymphets", young waifish girls between 10 and 14 years old. After his marriage falls apart he moves to America, where he eventually winds up living with single mother Lotte Haze and her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores. Humbert immediately develops an intense sexual fixation on Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita, and eventually they begin a sexual relationship.

The main characters of Lolita defy expectations associated with their roles. Humbert, a pedophilic abuser, is cultured, poetic, and not physically violent toward Lolita. Similarly, Dolores doesn't act like the typical idea of a victim. She started being sexually active at a young age and often bargains with Humbert to trade sex for presents or privileges. But this is just Nabokov playing with the reader. He uses a variety of tricks to make the audience sympathize with Humbert, the most effective being to narrate the story through Humbert's own writing. Think of the story from an outside perspective, though, and you will realize how villainous Humbert really is.

Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Humbert is more in love with his idea of Lolita than with Dolores herself. The bribes and trips he takes her on are not only used to make her pliable to his whim, but also to convince himself and the reader that he cares about her. Really all he cares about are his nymphets, evidenced by his dream of marrying Lolita, having a daughter with her, and grooming that daughter into another victim. 

The brilliance of Lolita is in how Nabokov delivers his story. He forces you to inhabit Humbert's mind, and it's surprising how easily you slip into feeling for him. He expresses himself like a romantic, with a mind for art, wordplay, and wry observation. He rationalizes and qualifies his actions in ways that are disturbingly logical for how awful the end result will be. Even though he often thinks about sex it's never in a traditionally dirty way, but instead focused on being close to someone else. The actions he describes are, to put it bluntly, kidnapping, murder, and the rape of an adolescent girl, but the way he writes undercuts the heinousness of his crimes.

This recommendation is different from the others I've made this month. In most cases, tragic love refers to love that gets snuffed out by circumstance, or brings pain in addition to warmth. In the case of Lolita, though, it refers to a relationship that is tragic to have existed at all. Humbert may want you to think of his feelings toward Lolita as loving, but they are actually a corrupted shadow of love. If you want to read one of the most controversial books ever written, with one of the most interesting villains in literature, seek out a copy of Lolita.