Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert - literary scholar, European immigrant to America with an ever derisive view of his new country, and most famously, paedophile. He has an insatiable lust for “nymphets”, girls on the cusp of puberty, girls just like Dolores Haze (Lolita, as she will always be when under his caresses).
The lush writing of Humbert is a stark contrast to the caricatured academic writer of the prologue. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” our narrator and protagonist tells us, leaving us to wonder who his victim was. He contemplates murder and violence several times throughout the novel, and knowing that he does carry out the act from the very beginning leaves the reader with anxiety over who it will be.
In these first few paragraphs he also gives us some sense of the root of his lust for these young girls. His early failed attempts at intimacy seem to have frozen his sexual desires, leaving him unable to have satisfying relations with adults – a situation reminiscent of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. He is, however, willing to resign himself to sexual relations with Lolita’s mother in order to have more free access to her daughter. He sees it as a stroke of luck when she is killed and he is left as sole carer of this pre-pubescent girl. He is often distressed by the thought that he’ll only have a fixed amount of time to enjoy her before she matures and is ruined, and he doesn’t want to risk missing a moment of it. He even considers a potential solution of not merely discarding her once fully developed, but impregnating her in the hopes that he would find their offspring similarly alluring, a truly depraved plan.
One aspect of this novel that many find unsettling is that the way in which the characters are drawn leads you to almost feel for Humbert. He sees Lolita as a temptress and it is all too easy to forget, in part one at least, that she is an innocent twelve year old who he is taking advantage of for his own disturbed pleasure. As the novel progresses, however, you get a real sense of the claustrophobic nature of their life as they travel seemingly endlessly around America. She has nowhere else to go, and with her mother dead and ties with her friends cut, truly she is trapped and at the mercy of her middle aged captor. As her unhappiness begins to reveal itself more obviously Humbert becomes more manipulative and abusive. There are a lot of scenes that are uncomfortable to read. He does seem to feel some compassion and regret at the misery he causes her, but then his lust takes over and she becomes little more than a vehicle for his pleasure again. As time passes he comes to realize that he may have broken something deep within her. It’s telling of what he’s done to her that her eventual rescuer, and the man she loved, was arguably even more depraved than Humbert. He certainly sees himself as morally superior to Quilty in the way he treats his nymphets. Are the levels of moral corruption relative?
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but it seemed an entirely different experience to what I’d imagined. A complex novel of psychologies and morals that is at turns humorous, intelligent, and disturbing in a mix rarely found in fiction. This is a book that will make you think and question your own morals. Deservedly one of the most well-known novels of the twentieth century, don’t rely on hearsay – give the book itself the attention it deserves.
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