Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Why is Lolita so often misunderstood?

with 7 comments

Humbert H’s narrative is mindbending. He’s writing Lolita (so he claims)  from jail before execution, and he’s writing it because ‘I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted’. (He’s describing her at 17, pregnant and well past the age at which he usually stops finding girls attractive.)

But that declaration comes close to the end, and given his  lyrical raptures over Dolores Haze’s beauty, and the beauty of the nine to fourteen year old ‘nymphets’, a reader can’t help but to try to figure out whether he’s repentant, or is recommending paedophilia. Nabokov keeps us guessing while he plays plenty of word games: ‘…breakfast in the township of Soda, pop 1001’.

Many readers (including Martin Amis, if my edition’s blurb is anything to go by – though I assume he was quoted out of context) do take it as the latter, an enconium to sex with young girls.


(Added bit, April 9th):

I couldn’t return the book to my # 1 Book Club convenor (it was a Book Discussion Scheme book; amazingly, they’re still operating out of their Christchurch offices) without transcribing Martin Amis’s blurb, because the more I thought about it, the more inexcusable it seems:

Lolita is comedy, subversive yet divine…You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent.’

From an article in the Observer, apparently.

I’d like to shackle Amis to a chair and repeatedly read him that quotation alternating with all the sentences in the book that describe Dolores’s suffering. Am I a naive reader? Maybe, if that means seeing the character of Dolores as an intended representation of a ‘real’ person, and so worthy of being read as if she had all the sensibility of a real person.

According to Robert Brissenden, the author of the notes sent out by the Book Discussion Scheme along with the book, ‘Lolita is…shallow, corrupt, sentimental…no depth of character and no desire to develop what she has’. Why does Brissenden take Humbert’s word for what she is? And if Nabokov did intend us to see her as such (and now, having read that N himself used the word ‘nymphet’ to describe the kind of character he wanted to create, I’m not sure that he didn’t), why choose an almost willing girl? Did he want to make Humbert’s paedophilia not too obviously an obnoxious act? Did he, like Humbert, want us to see it primarily as a love story?

Brissenden also reports that in Nabokov’s earlier novel, Laughter in the Dark, he charts the

…obsessive love of a responsible married man for a young woman who is little better than a prostitute: she lacks the depth, complexity and integrity of character to respond to the intensity of his passion.

Oh, poor man. Again, why would Nabokov choose to create such a female character to play opposite a seductive male? Why not make his female characters stronger? And how could Brissenden just go along with these constructs? His ‘notes’ were taken from writings made in 1983, when he was 53:  maybe that has something to do with it.

And now back to my earlier post, where I was still hoping that Nabokov intended us to interrogate Humbert’s narrative more than many readers (including Brissenden) have done.


You’d have to read the book more than once to pick up all of Nabokov’s games (for example, what’s the significance of the amnesiac who turns up one morning in the hotel room of Humbert and his third wife Rita?). I’m too drenched with Nabokovness to return to it any time soon.

From the start Humbert comes off as a manipulative, self-indulgent, unbelievable narrator. For example, we’re given to believe that due to his unresolved grief for childhood love Annabel, he has no choice but to fall for twelve-year-old Dolores Haze.

For most of the book I felt we could not know the ‘real’ Dolores at all, such was his bias. By his description, she’s whiny, shallow and materialistic, has ‘vacant eyes’, an ‘eerie vulgarity’, and a ‘nymphean evil breathing through [her] every pore’. (In his afterword, Nabokov himself refers to ‘nymphets’.)

After her camp experience she is ‘hopelessly depraved’, with ‘not a trace of modesty’. She has ‘the body of some immortal daemon disguised as a female child’. (The cover of this edition upholds the idea that she was a precociously experienced and willing child. Sensationalist marketing, anyone?)

But Humbert / Nabokov also gives us plenty of evidence to stack against his claims. Again and again, Humbert describes his violence against Dolores, and her misery and reluctance (‘…her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep’). Relatively early in the book, after he first rapes her, he begins to develop a conscience: ‘an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed’. In perhaps the saddest scene, he makes it clear that she only goes with him because ‘she had absolutely nowhere else to go’.

As the book continues, Humbert often does not weave into the narrative retrospective regret for his actions and intentions. (Nabokov would never want to make it easy for us.) Therefore (for example) the not-too-discerning reader may believe that the narrator Humbert holds the same values as the earlier Humbert, who considered the virtue of marrying Dolores so she could produce another girl child for him, even resulting in a third-generation Lolita to play around with, or that the narrator Humbert thinks its fine that his earlier self forced a feverish Dolores to have sex with him, and had her masturbate him in her classroom while he ogled a schoolmate. (She must have had a very unobservant teacher.)

After the balance of power changes a little, his references to his conscience increase: ‘I…hurt her rather badly for which I hope my heart may rot…’. Towards the end of the book he is explicit about his regret:

Unless it can be proven to me…that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven…I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

I believe him, I think.

This book reminds me of seeing Toni Morrison on Oprah a few years ago. Oprah said to Morrison that she loves her books but sometimes has  to go back and reread a paragraph to figure it out. Morrison leaned forward and said ‘Oprah, that’s called reading’.  Nabokov’s sentences are pretty straightforward, but the contorted layers of consciousness in his narrative have consumed me for the last week. Reading as extreme sport.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Fiction

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. Hi, I just wanted to say thank you for this entry about Lolita. Having just finished reading the book, I couldn’t understand how the quotes on the blurb came to be… “Comedy, subversive yet divine” and “laugh-aloud black humour”?

    I also felt that Lolita was only ever portrayed through Humbert’s biased perception, and that there was depth to the character that we were never explicitly told about. To me, there was nothing comic about the torture that she went through and Humbert’s later regret, and his torture in understanding what he had done to the girl he loved.

    And so thank you again for reassuring me that I didn’t miss something that everyone else seemed to get from the book.


    December 29, 2011 at 2:21 am

    • guys, it’s only funny if you appreciate the irony, the pomposity, the folly.

      …but no, i didn’t find it that funny either. i mean, it had it’s moment, there is definite humour, but certainly not “laugh out loud”. but then, who said that anyway? oh, that’s right it was martin amis! go figure.


      December 19, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    • Ksenia, thanks for this comment. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I too am glad not to be alone with my interpretation.

      And Kai, yes to all the irony, pomposity and folly: one of the reasons I’ll keep returning to Nabokov is that he’s not so easily pinned down or tossed away. What provoked me was the simplistic interpretation by others of the nature of the novel and of Dolores herself. Thanks for commenting.

      Susan Pearce

      March 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm

  2. I’ve read Lolita so many times and i can’t get over how brave she really is. Humbert interprets Lolita as shallow and vacant for what is really lonely suffering and the struggle to enjoy life as much as possible. I think if i were in her shoes i’d be catatonically depressed. She’s incredibly resilient and brave in spite of the damage he’s caused. The way she pities him in the end . . .


    December 6, 2013 at 4:12 am

    • Yes, very good point about the bravery! Thanks for your comment, Jen, and for visiting my blog.

      Susan Pearce

      March 19, 2014 at 1:51 pm

  3. Great post about Lolita. I have just finished reading it for the first time and I agree with you – this one was certain an extreme read. So many complexities, my head is still spinning!

    Lucy B

    May 2, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    • Thanks Lucy, and thanks for visiting my currently very inactive blog (two deaths & one surprise baby in the last year)… There’s a fantastic interview with Nabokov in the Paris Review Archives. I’d love to reread Lolita and other Nabokov with that interview in mind.

      Susan Pearce

      May 2, 2014 at 7:15 pm

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