April's Reviews > Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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's review
Mar 08, 2008

it was amazing
Read in March, 2008

** spoiler alert ** A very intense read, this book required nearly all of my attention. I don't know what I was expecting; I had already seen the film, and I wanted to make a comparison between it and the book and to see just how much of the film was sanitized for the '60s audience. The author got to write the screenplay, so it's no surprise that the movie stays true to the book ... that is, mostly true to the book. Aside from a few minor scenes and characters the one glaring difference between the two is the absolute certainty the reader has while reading the book that Humbert Humbert regularly forces himself on Dolores "Lolita" Haze.

In the first half of the book, Lolita is much like a typical preteen girl, still fairly innocent, budding into a young teenage woman, learning to flirt, and experimenting with her sexuality. This is not uncommon; a lot of modern teenage girls tease and torment teenage boys with their wiles, testing their feminine powers of attraction. But most adult males see that for what it is; statutory rape laws aside, they don't take advantage of it, and they don't assume it means the girls are ready to give as much as they appear to be or as much as the boys might be ready to take from them.

Humbert, on the other hand, seems to justify his lust for Lolita with her "apparent" desire for him. He starts off wanting to maintain her innocence, and in a sense, even after their first encounter together after her mother's death, she IS still innocent and untouched, less a victim and more an experimenting preteen ... because in a weird sense, she still wields the power in their relationship. In other words, she is not dependent on Humbert at this point because she believes her mother is alive and well and because (perhaps the following is only in Humbert's mind, I wasn't sure) she is the one who initiates the intimacy. It wasn't until she found out her mother was dead that I really got the sense she lost her innocence because at that point she is not only entirely at the whim of her stepfather -- this time she knows it.

This is not to let Humbert off the hook for that first night, however. As I've mentioned before, most adult males know to keep preteen girls at a distance when they insist on an intimacy for which they are NOT ready, while in the throes of a crush or a hormonal desire for experimentation. What's more, a father-daughter relationship makes that even more taboo. It's not only statutory rape; it's incest, and it crosses state lines, which makes a federal case out of it. He knew it; in an abstract way, she knew it. Humbert was in the wrong for allowing that first time to happen in the first place, just as he was wrong (and creepy) to find his own pleasure when she had her legs on his lap in an even earlier scene. He has this highly literate way of painting his base urges into something beautiful and natural, when they are not. Thus he paints her girlish flirting as a demon temptress's seductive ways, and they are not. It's like the narrow blindness of an otherwise intelligent man, the kind you see as a common denominator in many of the predators caught in those "To Catch a Predator" shows on MSNBC. Be they school teacher, religious leader, or military man, they rationalize the sexual nature of the relationship with their victims by the very fact that the victims did not "seem" to object, ignoring entirely that kids at that age don't really know what it is they are talking about or "asking" for. When they are at that age, there is no such thing as "consent".

But I felt that Lolita's innocence was truly and completely lost in the second half of the book. By this time, Humbert has removed her entirely from everyone she knows and everything that is familiar to her, and then he terrorizes her with what he views as a calm explanation of what would happen to them if she were to say anything about the true nature of their relationship to anyone. So she has nowhere else to turn but to him, and since he is both father and lover to her, there is really no black and white way for her to say no, to refuse his advances, or to object to his treatment of her. The very person she should in other circumstances trust is also the very person she can't trust because of the abuse itself. Such a situation completely messes with a person and their sense of trust.

Plus, it becomes clear at this point that Humbert is a monster to her. He mentions in an offhand way that she cries every night after he beds her or that she's often moody or angry. Again, he rationalizes this as a general personality defect she has, as though she were the difficult child of which her mother had always complained, and like her mother, he blames the victim and accuses the abused. All this while, he continues to describe their relationship as a good one because he refuses to think that he may be doing her any harm. He is engrossed in his own emotion, in his own sense of turmoil, and he fails to empathize with her at all.

She, in the meantime, is more and more aware of the shame, and although she seems to adapt and accept by adopting a bargaining relationship with Humbert, it is really just her way of trying to create a sense of control for herself. That control, however, is very tenuous because Humbert can and often does override any bargains or promises previously made, and he takes her whenever he gets the urge.

Sexual abuse victims tend to become either promiscuous or asexual; Lolita becomes the latter (or maybe a little bit of both in a sense) from Humbert's abuse, and because the equally perverted Clare Quilty is impotent, she turns to him for help. Another thing sexual abuse victims tend to do? They tend to have chain relationships. That's another reason why she runs to Clare Quilty to get away from Humbert. It's only after she spends time completely on her own that she begins to heal from her abuse.

For me, the pivotal part of the entire book happens after Humbert has lost Lolita and finds her again. This is where he truly sees her for who she is and himself for the horrible things he's done to her. He speaks truth to himself and finally understands the magnitude of her suffering at his hands, and he realizes that he never truly got to know her at all. He only saw her as an object of torment to himself and never really got to know her as someone completely separate, someone with her own emotions, opinions, and turmoil. It's very rare that an abuser, a villain, comes to this point, so it's really poignant when Humbert goes through it. It's also where we see that, in his own twisted way, he really does love her, but he has been nothing but bad for her. He's taken her childhood away and stolen her innocence before she could even discover herself. So he not only cries over his loss, but over hers as well, and he sets out to destroy the one man who, in his mind, took away his only chance at redemption, Clare Quilty.

I'm amazed that anyone could criticize Vladimir Nabokov for writing this book. It does not in any way glorify incest or pedophilia; rather, it presents a true account of what such a relationship is like, where love, shame, and deep betrayal are so deeply entangled that both the abuser and the abused come out of it with a lot of issues and a lot of pain, their sense of what's normal completely skewed. Humbert is not a hero in this; he's the villain, and Nabokov simply presents the story from the villain's point of view. He is in no way endorsing such a lifestyle or such a relationship. He is merely John Milton writing Paradise Lost.

Readers might end up sympathizing with the villain, but that's the seductive power of a story written in the villain's point of view, where he is allowed to rationalize and justify every one of his bad deeds. Lolita herself does this for him a little when, towards the end, she tells him gently, "No, honey. No." Despite all that she's been through at his hands, she pities him because after she has empathized with him a little, she's come to realize that he's a pathetic character, and that is really all we are intended to feel about Humbert -- while we hate and condemn his deeds, we pity him because he is a poor, pathetic pervert; while we are angry with him on behalf of his victims and hope that he meets with the punishment of justice, we feel sorry for him because he can only destroy everything beautiful around him and therefore can never truly live a healthy life.

I think people often confuse the author with the narrator, though, because they can't see past the character's twisted mind. Yet the author and the narrator are two very different creatures. Even the writing style of the narration is very different from the writing style of the author's note at the end. I have yet to read Nabokov's other books, but I imagine that they, too, are different in style from this. Humbert Humbert has his own voice in this story, and it's very clear. Nabokov intended this. He even explains it point blank in his note about the book.

One last thing, another difference that I noted between the book and the movie is that in the book, the murder scene is a lot more comical. The comedy adds to the pathetic character of the pedophiles, the way they grapple with each other, out of shape, corrupt in both mind and body. And when Humbert announces to Quilty's friends that he has killed him, none of them take the announcement seriously. There are so many messages a reader can find in those final scenes alone that I don't think anyone can see them all. I think most people who condemn this book just simply don't get it.

So far, this is the best book I've read all year.

Finished reading March 13, 2008.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Janice Bonczek wow, great review. your words pretty much echo my opinion of the book, which i didn't put to paper nearly as well as you did with my own review, haha.

good job!

Mary Amazing review. I'm about to start reading this tonight.

April Thanks, Mary. I hope you like it as well as I did.

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