CW: Sexual assault, abuse
It can be hard to love “Lolita.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel tells the story of middle-aged Humbert’s sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl.
The first-person perspective of the novel — which is presented as if Humbert himself is the author — thrusts the reader into the mind of a monster. He kidnaps Lolita. He claims she seduced him. He repeatedly rapes her.
It’s no surprise, then, that I oftentimes find myself on the defense when I (sheepishly) admit that I can’t put the book down, that I’ve read it 10 times, that I have the first page memorized. I’ve repeatedly asked myself, “Am I betraying women and sexual assault victims everywhere by loving ‘Lolita’?”
To borrow Humbert’s words, I present to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this “tangle of thorns.”
Since its 1955 publication, “Lolita” has become an international bestseller. The novel’s influence continues to ripple through modern culture, from film adaptions to ballets to pop stars touting heart-shaped glasses and wet, cherry lips.
That being said, “Lolita” has walked a rocky path. Mainstream publishers like Simon & Schuster refused to publish it at first, forcing Nabokov to turn to the french Olympia Press, “three quarters of [whose] list was pornographic trash,” according to Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov. The backlash continues today, with its critics citing the novel as pornographic at best, and a glorification of sexual abuse at worst.
This age-old critique of “Lolita” fits in with the current debate in Hollywood. As more and more directors and actors are accused of heinous crimes, one is left wondering what to do about the art they leave behind. Netflix canceled House of Cards after actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual advances against a teenage boy, producer Harvey Weinstein was forced out of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences after repeated claims of sexual assault, and HBO canceled a comedy special from comedian Louis C.K due to sexual harassment allegations.
The question remains whether there is value in art that is morally ambiguous, either due to its content (as in the case of “Lolita”) or the crimes of its creator (i.e. the controversial media in Hollywood).
Lolita, standing “four foot ten in one sock,” patiently waits with the answer: yes.
Exhibit A: Writing itself can be appreciated purely on an aesthetic level. There is no denying that the “fancy prose style” pops and sizzles and burns in its beauty. The sheer skill of Nabokov in his ability to make readers feel sympathy for such a horrifying protagonist is impressive in its own right. I can admire the words without condoning the actions of the monstrous man at their center.
Exhibit B: I firmly believe good books make you uncomfortable. I am made uncomfortable by how easily I fall under the sway of Humbert’s silky justifications and erudite elucidations, to the point where I forget what he has done, and the traumatized girl he has left behind.
In modern society, too many times the siren song of the attacker seduces, which leads to placing blame on the victim or protecting Hollywood stars, such as Weinstein, because of their stardom. “Lolita” forces one to reckon with this impulsive desire to ignore certain truths that are painful, but vital, to face.
I’m not arguing that “Lolita” should be required reading for elementary schools, and I’m not arguing that one should forgive the actions of Humbert or the men mentioned above. One shouldn’t.
What I am arguing is that these books and films are important not just because art is valuable in and of itself, but because they spark conversation. Ignoring, boycotting, or banning art like “Lolita” is akin to ignoring the societal ills they grapple with in the first place.
More than that, it represents a refusal to entertain the conversation.
I first read “Lolita” in a high school English class. That class became the first time I had ever discussed the topics of sexual assault and consent in an academic setting. “Lolita” made those vital dialogues happen.
So, yes — “Lolita” is my favorite book. And no, I don’t (and won’t ever) find Humbert’s actions morally acceptable. But art, once created, becomes more than just the artist or its subject.
Works such as Nabokov’s novel force us to question our own complicit cooperation in a society where Lolita is not just a fictional character.
Samantha Resnick is a linguistics major at Pomona College. She likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.