“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” So opens the second paragraph of Russia-born writer Vladimir Nabokov’s English language novel about middle-aged European professor Humbert Humbert’s sexual relationship with his twelve-year old stepdaughter.
Lolita (1955), which was initially banned in Paris, became a runaway bestseller, catapulting Nabokov, then a professor at Cornell University, to international fame. Sixty-five years later, his seminal novel continues to shock, delight, and inspire readers and re-readers everywhere.
Lolita is written from the perspective of its protagonist Humbert Humbert, who marries his landlady Charlotte Haze as a way to seduce her daughter Dolores. When Charlotte finds Humbert’s diary, which details not only his obsession with Dolores but also his disdain for Charlotte, she runs out of the house and is hit by a car. Humbert takes his new stepdaughter/lover on a cross-country odyssey before settling down in Ohio for his college lectureship. Their clandestine sexual relationship continues for the better part of three years until Dolores arranges for playwright Clare Quilty to kidnap her. When the novel opens, Humbert is sitting in a psychiatric ward following his murder of Quilty.
When the book was first released in the U.S. in 1958, Orville Prescott skewered it in The New York Times. “Mr. Nabokov, whose English vocabulary would astound the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, does not write cheap pornography. He writes highbrow pornography. Perhaps that is not his intention. Perhaps he thinks of his book as a satirical comedy and as an exploration of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, Lolita is disgusting.”
More recently, the #MeToo movement has reignited a pornographic misogynist interpretation of the novel. As E. Ce Miller writes in Bustle, “in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, can Lolita be read as anything but a story of predation, depravity, exploitation—and specifically, rape—no matter how stunning Nabokov’s prose might be?”
Of course, even 65 years later, to call the affair anything but twisted would be straining the boundaries of literary license and reality. While Humbert did not hold a gun to Dolores’ head, he threatened her with the possibility of reform school where she would have been forced to abandon her lipstick, fashionable clothes, and record player. He typically would not even offer her a cup of coffee until after she had “done her daily duty.” Passages like this one were particularly perverted: “with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force d’age…bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on a supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.”
While not whitewashing Humbert’s pedophilia, Lolita is not set up to be a lewd, titillating piece of pornography. Nabokov’s chef d’oeuvre. is a lyrically beautiful novel that blends tragedy with biting social satire. Since its publication, critics and readers across the political-ideological spectrum have recognized this. As Charles J. Rollo wrote in The Atlantic, “It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.”
National Review also praised the novel’s masterful language and satirical properties. As Frank Meyer wrote, “With scarifying wit and masterly descriptive power, he excoriates the materialist monstrosities of our civilization—from progressive education to motel architecture, and back again through the middle-brow culture racket to the incredible vulgarity and moral nihilism in which our children of all classes are raised, and on to psychoanalysis and the literary scene.” National Review founder William F. Buckley also had a long-standing personal relationship with Nabokov, who was an avid reader of his magazine.
Lolita has all the elements of a classical tragedy including a fatally flawed protagonist and the untimely death of the four principal characters. Yet despite its tragic framework, Lolita remains an extremely funny novel with the humor emanating from both Nabokov’s crisp dialogue and his detailed prosaic descriptions. The novel is also in many ways a celebration of America. Nabokov, an expert lepidopterist, wrote large chunks of the Lolita manuscript while crisscrossing America collecting butterflies with his wife Vera and son Dmitri. These journeys are reflected in the book’s panorama of American landscapes, motels, gas stations, and diners.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of Lolita, on which Nabokov consulted, also faithfully depicts the author’s tragic-comic dichotomy. The film, which stars James Mason as Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Peter Sellers as Quilty and Sue Lyon as Lolita, has many humorous scenes. The school dance sequence where Charlotte (Shelley Winters) nudges her way into a private dance with Quilty (Peter Sellers) is a hoot.
I first read Lolita when I was seventeen years old and was enraptured by its beautiful prose and mélange of tragic and comic elements. Re-reading Lolita now as a “femme d’une certain age,” I am also struck by the novel’s nonjudgmental depiction of the erosion of family values. And while Nabokov has repeatedly stated that he had “neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist,” despite his protestations, his novel still projects a subtle pro-family orientation.
Charlotte Haze is paradoxically one of the vessels of this message. Widowed for several years, she desperately wanted to remarry so that she would both regain the social status of a wife and also provide her daughter with a father figure. Unfortunately, her infatuation with Humbert’s European pedigree and her own need for romantic affirmation blinded her to his true intentions. Consequently, she not only marries him within weeks of their first meeting, but also decides to send Dolores to boarding school so that she could be alone with him.
Charlotte was also responsible for introducing Dolores to Clare Quilty, the man who facilitates her escape from Humbert, but later expels her from his home when she refuses to participate in a pornographic movie. Charlotte is not an evil person, just a careless, selfish one. While her actions precipitated disastrous consequences, her original intentions were pure.
The title character’s post-Humbert afterlife is also indicative of a pro-family agenda. In the last part of the novel, Dolores now seventeen, married, and pregnant sends Humbert a letter asking for money stating that she has “gone through much sadness and hardship.” When Humbert arrives at her modest home, he is greeted by a be-speckled, exceedingly pregnant woman, a faded version of the girl she used to be. And while her husband Dick seems kind, her diminished socio-economic status is glaringly obvious.
Yet Dolores still projects an aura of hopefulness and exhibits no lingering bitterness towards either Humbert or Quilty. When Humbert asks her to run away with him, she declines, but also attempts to comfort him, intimating that he was still a pretty good father. She accepts the rental income from her mother’s house, not as restitution, but as a gift saying, “I’m sorry I cheated so much, but that’s just the way things are.”
Not surprisingly, Nabokov has commented that he had repeatedly thought of “burning Humbert Humbert’s little black diary.” The canon of 20th century American literature is embarrassingly richer for his having changed his mind. As Nabokov once said of his infamous nymphet, “I find Lolita to be a delightful presence now that it quietly hangs about the house like a summer day which one knows to be bright behind the haze.” And six decades later, we, his gentle readers, are still basking in its sunlight.