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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Lolita - Novel - Adults Only

Let’s face it here. Every time we check into a movie, a book, or whatever we decide to settle with simply for recreational entertainment, more often than not, we launch into it expecting ourselves to be completely satisfied with what we decided to engage ourselves with. But tell me this: Do you recall the last time you did so only to immerse yourself with something that evoked so many different emotions, so many conflicting impressions and left you completely floored by the craftsmanship of what you just witnessed?

I ask you this because one of the most exhilarating books I ever engaged with recently that evoked that kind of reaction from me was Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita.

Told from the memory of a European-American sophisticate named Humbert Humbert, he reflected on the story of his rehabilitation in the United States after spending his childhood in Europe. In Europe, he recalled a childhood romance he once had and his anxieties concerning his relative, who was a detective. After having the misfortune of experiencing a failed romance while residing in Paris, a different one from what he experienced earlier, he decided to relocate himself to the United States, starting with negotiating with a homeowner who would’ve let him nestle in. He got his start when he settled in the New England town of Ramsdale and with a young woman named Charlotte Haze. But his world turned upside down when he got acquainted with Charlotte’s 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, or, as Humbert described her, Lolita. As Humbert’s settlement into America, as well as his occasional gripes with it, started to take hold, Humbert recounted her presence with romantic adorations and self-indulgent affairs as he took whatever slightest chance he had in making his moves on her. Later, he settled in, to a point where he eventually married Charlotte Haze, assimilating himself into the family and becoming Dolores Haze’s stepfather. After some time had passed, of course, Charlotte caught on to his sexual escapades and set out to rat on him, only to end up in a nasty accident that killed her. In light of this, Humbert decided to bring Dolores with him into a year-long car trip around America and enroll her afterwards into a rehabilitation school for girls called Beardsley, as Charlotte originally intended with her.

It’s stomach-churning enough to have someone lusting over a young girl, but there’s almost nothing more frightening than the idea of being forced to settle for a sexual predator such as Humbert for a sole legal guardian.

At the same time, however, Humbert slowly got into a more panicky mood when he caught on to the sneaky expeditions of a man called Clare Quilty, who he suspected may have been his detective cousin from Europe. As it seemed, he, too, started having affairs with Dolores Haze without him knowing it.

Now let me start with this: anyone who may have complained about this book for its subject matter was not wrong. Whenever I hear someone mention the name, Lolita, either the title or the character, one of only two things spring into mind: pedophilia and child prostitution. And usually, as far as topics go, these subjects were considered taboo in general discussion or acknowledgment. If anything, it left this novel to be regarded as untouchable as the subjects it highlighted.

Me? I became too curious about this book to let it slide, so I decided to dive in with the preparations necessary to brave my way through this novel with a clear conscience. It left me feeling sickened, remorseful, conflicted, and through it all, I was utterly bewildered by how Humbert recounted this story.

Humbert Humbert, for all his articulacy, was the definition of deranged. His lustful elaborations of Dolores Haze as he settled himself into the Haze household established him as an unworldly, unwell human being who had warped ideas of what constituted fair reasoning and decent romantic affairs. At some points in the story, as I said, Humbert elaborated on his past childhood experiences. They included an affair with another girl, Annabelle, who was the same age as Humbert before he lost her not long after. Humbert also recalled some unnerved responses he had regarding his cousin, a Swiss detective named Trapp. And once he saw Dolores, Humbert felt enraptured by her appearance and essence as if he found himself reunited with his long-lost love, or, rather, that he found the absolute perfect girl to whom he considered himself entitled. But his actions and moves with her were such that even his most poetic recollections and defenses would not have saved his hide from the sneering condemnations the generally common-sensical reader would’ve expressed onto him. For example, he attempted to make his sensual moves onto Dolores when he and she were alone, and Humbert attempted to subject Charlotte and Dolores to sleeping pills so that he would’ve had her to himself in her sleep. He even expressed contempt over Dolores’ instinctive habits to engage herself with boys, including who he feared may have been Clare Quilty. Now, Humbert did have some slight justifications for some of his more troubling matters, but it’s clear that his past experiences manifested themselves into warped viewpoints that formed most of Humbert’s views on life. And, being a European immigrant, there were plenty of occasional remarks he made about his experiences and general statistics in Europe compared to those he experienced for himself in America. So, this comparison conjured up some intriguing and occasionally humorous complaints about what America may have devoted herself to for the wrong reasons compared to what Europe had devoted itself to for the right reasons. Other times, of course, Humbert was not without a couple of sly remarks within his admirations of the quainter aspects of American life, and they contributed to the closest thing to admirable aspects he ever had.

Humbert Humbert may have been a depraved man, but in all honesty, Dolores Haze herself was no saint, either. Whenever Humbert was not busy expressing his fawning over her, Dolores was shown on occasion as being a bratty girl. She usually talked back to her mother, she didn’t quite converse in the most orthodox of ways, and her behavior got to a point where Charlotte told Humbert of her plans to send her off to Beardsley College just out of discipline. Charlotte thought that by doing it this way, someone else would’ve tolerated her and knocked some sense into her, and not her. And, in some occasions, Dolores herself went as far as to make moves of her own on Humbert, whether it was out of playfulness or sarcasm. By the time she became Humbert’s stepdaughter, however, Dolores had maintained her defensive attitudes as she had to put up with Humbert’s unpredictable demands and attempts with her. According to Humbert’s recollections of their trips together throughout America, he said that the only thing that didn’t impress him about them, besides the bills that stacked up from all those expeditions, was that they were:

…no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour hooks, old tires, and her sobs in the night–every night, every night–the moment I feigned sleep.

In other words, as bratty and almost unreasonable as Dolores was, ever since her mother’s death, she was still an innocent and unfortunate victim of circumstance. And her defense mechanism that started as a nuisance, slowly developed into a survival mantra to help Dolores maintain her sanity and humanity under the knowledge that she was putting up with a sexual predator. When you look at this from her perspective, down to the many times she was uprooted because of Humbert’s motivations, it’s kind of hard not to sympathize with her plight.

But again, what does this say about her moves on Humbert Humbert?

This leads to probably the most fascinating and curious part of the novel. Most critics and readers always considered Lolita as the ramblings of a distinguished European sophisticate who complained about the American way and how he thought it was different from his preferred European tactics and viewed Lolita as the embodiment of everything he desired in a woman or girl. To others, however, they thought that Lolita was instead the analysis of American ideals infringing upon the European standards and that, of all things, Lolita was the one making the moves, not Humbert. And nowhere was the so-called passion between Humbert and Dolores more fiery, suspenseful, or even ambiguous than when they rested in the hotel room at The Enchanted Hunter shortly after Charlotte Haze’s accident.

Here’s what happened: after drugging her with one of his sleeping pills, Humbert took Dolores back into their room, where she got drowsier and drowsier until she fell asleep. Once Humbert came back into the room after walking around a bit in the hotel’s front lobby, he knew that there’s nobody around to bother them because they had the room to themselves, just him and Dolores. Yet, even though Humbert was ready to have sex with Dolores, he only went as far as to touch her in several places because of her not being 100% asleep, or so he said. Was Humbert more afraid of the wavering effects of the pill, which would have allowed Lolita to catch on to his intentions, or was his conscience restraining him from victimizing someone so innocent and so vulnerable?

And later, the following morning, when Dolores snapped at Humbert, she said she was raped by him after all. So, was it just the frustrated ramblings of a bossy girl, or was she relaying the truth about the horrors she experienced the previous night?

At this point, it left you uncertain whether everything Humbert was narrating throughout the story was real and how it happened or if he was romanticizing bits and pieces of it with a torrent of excuses as he went along. No matter what you conclude of it, you can still tell that you’re listening to the ramblings of a deranged madman.

Whenever I look at this novel, I usually looked at it as an analysis of a man whose viewpoint and actions were influenced by the lingering effects of his expeditions and affairs throughout his life. But to see such conflicting points of view between Humbert and Dolores, as well as between European and American ideals, is nothing short of a testament to the many interpretations this novel invited among so many people. And I believe I can sum up all these interpretations in just three words—and one question—and ask you:

Who’s seducing who?

And to those of you who say that this is a romantic novel, you clearly may not have been paying attention. So give it another go and decide for yourself. Nabakov noted that this was his idea of mastering the English language, anyway, not the love story.

There are only two central supporting characters in the novel, and they, too, ranged with shades of general unpleasantness. The mother, Charlotte Haze, seemed like a respectable and well-meaning house widow, but her general dismissal and negligence of Dolores didn’t feel any better than the general behavior Dolores retaliated with in their arguments. And her decision to send Dolores off to Beardsley, despite Humbert honoring her word of arranging it for her, implied a half-concealed contempt she expressed on Dolores as well as poor parenting on her end.

If Humbert Humbert was the definition of deranged, then Clare Quilty felt like the definition of stealth. He never even made a flesh-and-blood appearance until the end of the novel, but he was mentioned, referenced, and implied upon throughout the book as Humbert looked back on all the suspicious actions going on with them. And even then, these descriptions of Claire Quilty seemed slightly vague and mysterious. To name a few, he was always referenced as a detective, as Ramsdale’s local dentist Dr. Igor Quilty, and as a local playwright whom Dolores knew very well. Sometimes, he made it sound like he was a separate person from his cousin, Trapp, but still reminded him of such, but other times he made it sound like these two were the same person.

When Quilty made his appearance, he told Humbert that he knew that Humbert was not Dolores’ father and that she was more into him than Humbert. Even then, though, this may not have justified his actions with her, and they were possibly no different from Humbert’s; the way he described it, this was all a matter of competition between the two.

Having concluded my critique on the characters with Clare Quilty, this now leads us to the next, most important topic of this novel.

One of the greatest strengths of Lolita, the book, was its rhetoric and writing. I looked fondly back on it for its sophistication, but at the same time, I acknowledged that the strength of the writing and rhetoric here might be a little too great for others. Take me, for instance. The first time I read this book, I read the regular edition, and I seemed to have forgotten half of the things I read from Lolita long after finishing it. Had I reread the novel in its standard edition, I would have still caught on to some more things I may not have the first time and given the more obvious sections more critical concentration. But I still might not have been able to grasp everything the novel had to say until perhaps the fifth or tenth reread.

Thankfully, my first reread of the story was through The Annotated Lolita. Reading it this way helped me form a firmer, more thorough understanding of Nabokov’s skillful and genius writing that he interweaved throughout the story and novel. What’s even better was that it all complimented the articulacy of Humbert as he recounted his story, including his subtle recollections of Clare Quilty’s intrusions whenever he was even close to being around. And it spiced up specific conversations other characters have had throughout the story and allowed them to add to its surreptitious level of coincidence and interconnected threads. I liked Lolita just fine the first time around, but rereading the story through this edition, the number of layers Nabokov was able to infuse into such a seemingly basic yet supremely uncomfortable tale left me awestruck whenever I wasn’t feeling revolted. I ended up respecting Nabakov as a writer more and more in my reflections on the cleverer little tidbits implanted throughout the story.

Reading a book like Lolita felt equivalent to diving into a psychological study, one where the critical task was to observe everything you had to experience with careful attention. Once you flip through the pages, one, you had to decide for yourself what the conditions of each character in the story were like, whether they’re good or bad, innocent or guilty, normal or insane. Two, chances are, what you might experience from this would invite your subconscious to play a part in your engagement with and judgment of the narrative as you try to decipher everything you take in as you read the story.

Much like how you should know someone with caution before jumping to conclusions, so, too, should you get to know this novel with caution before jumping to conclusions.

My Rating: A

Additional Thoughts

  • While this novel gained an infamous reputation among the general public, I can’t help but suspect that Stanley Kubrick, who went on to adapt the book for film, was no stranger to being shocked by its subject matter. He said that if he knew in advance just how explicit the novel was with its graphic sex scenes, he might not have adapted it for film at all. Of course, part of it might have related more to the Hays Code, which was still in effect at the time, but you can tell just how controversial the novel was from that remark alone.

  • Something else I just remembered as I reflected on Lolita was how, Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-born writer, achieved success with Lolita in the late 50s, early 60s. I say this because America and his home country, Russia, were butting heads in the Cold War at the time. So, this makes me wonder, was Nabokov ever suspected of being a Communist around the time his novel reached America? Or was he treated just as regularly as everyone else, regardless of his origins or Russia's role against America at the time?

Works Cited

Nabokov, V., & Appel, A. (1991). The Annotated Lolita. Vintage Books.

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