Your Literary Fave is Problematic: Humbert Humbert and Nabokov’s Lolita

After thinking hard about the idea that “books belong to their readers”, I can easily come up with five different examples of how this can end up being horribly disastrous. People can interpret books however they want, but when a harmful interpretation that normalizes violence, sexism, or whatever your favorite Problematic-ism is, gets perpetuated across entire generations as something good or even begins to be unapologetically romanticized—that’s when you’ve got a problem on your hands. From that train of thought and my own tendency to get, as I’ve been told, “way too serious” about books, springs the first episode of what I’ve titled Your Literary Fave Is Problematic. In honor, of course, of the infamous tumblr blogs centred on shedding light and criticism on everything and everyone, from celebrities to pop punk bands and big-name companies.

The honor of being the first Problematic Literary Fave to come under cross-examination falls to Humbert Humbert, the pseudonym-cum-self-appointed name of the narrator and protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s 20th century classic, Lolita. The epitome of the unreliable narrator, he himself even refers to how he’s attempting to persuade any and every spectator of his tragic (*cough*) tale that none of it was really his fault. I mean, she came onto him, and he’s just a manhow could he resist, right?

Doesn’t that sound like an argument for the defense on a rape case?

That’s because, when you get down to the nitty gritty truth, Lolita is essentially about rape, in every sense of the word. Meaning: to sexually assault the body; to despoil, violate, and carry off by force; a forceful, unwilling seizure.

To be honest, before reading Lolita I sincerely thought it was a romantic novel. Or at the very least, an erotic one. I didn’t really understand how, but I assumed at some point the infatuation with the child (I did know there was somehow a child involved) would evolve into an infatuation with the mother. Much to my surprise when I first plowed through the novel in ninth grade, it was the complete opposite. It was never about the mother, or any adult woman. It was always, from the start, about the childDolores Haze, twelve-year-old agent provocateur and object of H.H.’s sexual obsession for most of the novel. Lolita, who never seems satisfied or happy under Humbert’s “tutelage”, but has even so managed to become an icon of erotic passion and sexual hunger through the lens of modern literary analysis and a few misleading and badly cast film adaptations.

This is a curious phenomenon, to be sure. It defies immediate logic how a pre-pubescent girl who in the novel is visibly immature and interested only in “banal trivialities” (H.H. bah-humbugs about Lolita’s lack of a stimulating intellect constantly), could be somehow construed by most readers and even some critics to have been devilishly coquettish and ingenious enough to manipulate Humbert into having sex with her so she could then manipulate him into doing whatever she wanted. If this seems plausible, it’s not. Even if there is an excess of novels with Hermione Grangers and Lisbeth Salanders and other such prodigies who could at age twelve at the very least memorize a couple of books word for word, that’s as far from reality as you can get. Go to your local elementary school (or don’t, if you happen to be a middle aged man with as suspicious a motive as this would appear to be) and interact with a couple of eleven- and twelve-year-olds. Even if they dress like the child stars in those tragically unfunny Disney Channel sitcoms, they’re still tremendously, astoundingly immature. And Lolita is no exception.

I can only—even when facing the peril of being tagged as a nasty woman, let alone an angry lesbian—attribute Lolita’s sexualization and misconstruction to everyone’s favorite scapegoat: the Patriarchy. And I mean it. The most simplistic interpretation for this phenomenon I can think of relies on the unconscious tendency to want to demonize any female perceived as the slightest bit intentionally seductive, even if this is an unconscious characteristic of hers, in order to see the spotlight male’s struggle to resist the condemning female influence as heroic. This instinct is precisely what Nabokov channels by making Humber Humbert constantly apologize for and supposedly rue his actions, which leads to the following: rather than think that Humbert Humbert is an active pedophile, kidnapper, and all-around pervert and terrible guy (which he equally as actively tries to convince you, the reader, he isn’t), the path of least resistance is to buy the shtick he’s selling—meaning, Lolita is a hungry little seductress who, dehumanized by Humbert’s referring to her as an ethereal, seductive nymphet instead of a child, really was “asking for it” (to continue with the rape lingo).

To go beyond this easy interpretation, which is literally fed to us, the readers, on a spoon made of pretty words and unreliable narration, requires effort. It’s unnatural to distrust the narrator of a story, especially one in the first person, and even more so when it’s a novel sold as a contemporary classic. But it can be done, and reading the novel with the firm burr of an idea that (*SPOILER ALERT*) Humber Humbert kidnapped and continously raped a twelve year old girl for a year, suddenly H.H. isn’t nearly as charming as he thinks himself to be. But it does require effort and attention, because instinct makes us root for our protagonist, when in reality every part of his character is preset to make him the antagonist. All that’s left is for us to believe in Lolita: not as a seductress, or a cunning nymphet, but as a little girl who was surely confused and unaware of the implications of her actions, in part because of her mother’s frustration and neglect. Yes, she probably consented to have sex with Humbert numerous times—but that’s what statutory rape was created for. There’s no psychological and emotional way a twelve-year-old is responsible and mature enough to consent to have sex with a fifty-year-old man, even if he makes it out to be so.

So, yeah, Humber Humbert is problematic. Very problematic. But it goes beyond his obviously criminal activities and paedophilia, as the way we readers see him is more a reflection of ourselves than Nabokov’s actual intentions and character-building. Was she asking for it? Or was he looking for the opportunity to get her to say yes, even if it took weeks of persuasion and lying and bribing, until she finally believed it herself? Lolita has her own flaws as a character, but as a child, she should have had the right to sort them out without the psychological and emotional trauma of everything she went through—a side to the story Humbert Humbert conveniently excludes from his narrative. It’s really up to us to decide what we want to believe. And in the end, it really does say more about ourselves than Lolita itself, where we choose to pin the blame.  

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