This is one of my favourite openings, ever. It gives me goosebumps when I read it. Lolita is a well-known and controversial book, discussing sexual desire and caused a scandal due to its paedophilic content. It’s a book that everyone should read and I really enjoyed studying Lolita for my dissertation. Its popularity is recognised in the way it has been adapted into film, and several times for the stage. The term ‘Lolita’ has even been incorporated into modern culture as a term for a sexually promiscuous young girl. You Lolita you.
But the novel wasn’t always a hit. Nabokov’s manuscript was turned down due to its content, resulting in him publishing in France with a publishing house that also published pornography. When Lolita was finally published, there was a huge response. And for a good reason! The novel Lolita is all consuming, just like Humbert’s love for Lolita.
This post is going to take a quick look at love in Lolita and whether the narrator is even capable of love. In Lolita male desire, and perception of love, is the driving force of the novel. This is complicated throughout the novel because we become increasingly aware that Humbert has a distorted perception of love. He struggles to relate to women and detaches himself, and this is seen clearly when he overlooks Lolita’s emotions and needs, only seeking to satiate his own. He claims to idealise Lolita, yet abuses her. He adores her, yet controls her. She is the source of his pleasure and his pain, the object of his infatuation. He calls her his ‘vile and beloved slut’ (Nabokov, 1955, p. 237). And I think it demonstrates how it’s not love, just a powerful infatuation. The way it’s also from Hubert’s perspective means that he can manipulate the reader into thinking that he truly loves Lolita, but like I said, I believe his perception of love is distorted and this is all part of his fantasy.
There are two different presentations of the female figure in Lolita, those of women and nymphets. Women in Lolita are frumpy, dull and are devoid of interest for him in comparison to the nymphets. Nymphets are young girls full of life and according to Humbert, aware of their sexual potential and use this to lure men in. They embody a paradox of ‘tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity’ (Nabokov, 1955, p. 44), and Humbert decides that it is this ‘twofold nature’ that drives men insane (Nabokov, 1955, p.44). Their simultaneous innocence and corruptibility adds erotic tension to the novel and I think this is what lies at the core of Humbert’s attraction to young girls. But how can that be love? In my opinion – it isn’t. Humbert is more in love with the idea of love, the idea of Lolita and the idea that he’s a helpless victim, than the actual realities of the situation.
While Humbert’s feelings, like love, are arguably ‘meaningful’ to him, he never seems genuine in his emotions and conflicts. His deluded emotions can be seen as he always places the blame for any wrongdoings elsewhere. One of the most prominent examples of this misplaced blame is when he discovered that Lolita lost her virginity to Charlie Holmes, a thirteen year old boy. He tells the jury ‘I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child. The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist’ (Nabokov, 1955, p. 149). Here he is shifting the blame and trying to assert that he was beneficial for Lolita after Charlie. However, Lolita and Charlie’s sexual activities do not have the same meaning ascribed to them because they saw it as a ‘game’. He sees himself as her father, her lover, her therapist, her owner and is infiltrating all aspects of her life. Humbert, we must remember is seeking to convince a jury that he’s innocent of a crime. A plea that works much better if Lolita is complicit and his love is genuine.
I think I’ll end my little Lolita rant here, just because I’ll go on forever otherwise. But to me, what Humbert feels for Lolita is not love. It’s lust, obsession and the desire to posses. Despite this, Lolita is a compelling and beautiful read, so next time you’re passing a bookshop – pick up a copy.