Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” (Chapter 1, paragraph 1-2)

At last I close the cover on a novel I’ve half longed to read ever since I first heard about it over twenty years ago. On one hand, how can one consider oneself “well-read” without having read Lolita? On the other, how can one bear to read a memoir through a pedophile’s point of view? It is only because I believe that Nabokov does not condone his character Humbert Humbert that I can even bear to review this book.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with Annabel Leigh (sound familiar, Poe fans?) when they are but youths themselves. However, before anything can come of their relationship she dies of typhoid; apparently, he seeks to replace her in his quest for future love.

Appearing at a house where he can rent a room, he finds an overly attentive landlady who has an alluring twelve year old daughter, and thus we are introduced to Lolita. In many ways she is typical of an adolescent girl: manipulative, whining, rebellious and charming. Her beauty captivates Humbert Humbert, and he agrees to stay.

The landlady professes her love for him; he marries her convincing himself it will bring him that much closer to her daughter. When his adoration/lust for Lolita becomes clear to her mother she runs into the street in order to deliver letters which divulge the situation and is killed by an automobile.

I will not go into details for the rest of the plot, except to say that Humbert takes Lolita for his own while impersonating a father figure.

There are so many points of tragedy here. To name a few:

  • Lolita is far too young to be Humbert’s lover, yet she was not a virgin when she met him at age 12.
  • Humbert is absolutely conflicted in his love and desire for her, which is only briefly overshadowed by his shame and guilt, in a continuous circle.
  • Humbert is all she has for a family, and vice versa; they are both caught in manipulating the other to get what each wants.

As the reader is trying to grasp the emotional complexity of so many issues he is completely wrapped in beautiful, poetic, and often humourous writing. It took me over four days to read a book of only 309 pages because I wanted to unravel both Nabakov’s ideas and phrases.

I am left almost as conflicted as one of Nabakov’s characters. Who is to blame for such tragedy? Who is exonerated? What can we learn from such beautiful writing on so controversial a theme? Perhaps the answer is found in the forward, written by a fictional lawyer: “Lolita” should make all of us–parents, social workers, educators–apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

But, I don’t think this is at all the only point Lolita is trying to make.

*Nymeth has an excellent review of Lolita, in which she reminds us that this novel is a masterpiece of literary art, and it doesn’t necessarily need to mean anything more than that. Can’t you see the teacher in me, trying to analyze everything? Goodness sakes!