I don’t know why I haven’t done this sooner- as in, I don’t know why I haven’t done this my entire life. I’ve been reading since before I knew how to read (there are videos of me becoming so frustrated that I couldn’t read that I’d chew on the book cover and then cry out of fear I’d hurt a book). I read constantly. Literature keeps me sane. And although I’ve doubted myself on the writing front, I have never doubted myself on reading. I read quickly, diving in and out of different philosophies and fantasies daily. But my memory goes. Sometimes I don’t remember certain characters’ names, certain instances in plot. But I want to start remembering in a more concrete way. I want to refer to something that will jog my memory, to fulfill my love I had when I first closed the pages of a certain book. So, I’m going to start writing about books/stories/any kind of literature once I finish them/it; how I feel after finishing, my favorite lines, my opinions on the writing, what insights the piece gave me, what I disagreed with, etc. And I encourage others to get in on these conversations as well- what did you think when you read this book? Do we feel the same? Has anything made you feel similar?
Again, I’m frustrated with myself that I haven’t done this sooner because there are (literally) probably thousands of books I’ve read that I haven’t cataloged in such a way. But, I suppose this is inspiration to re-read. So I’ll begin this procedure with Lolita, the infamous novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s a novel I’ve been flirting with for years, always on the verge of reading but always putting it back on the shelf when I got near the checkout line. I don’t know what exactly has kept me waiting- I think it might have been a mixture of fear, disgust, and luxurious mystery. Perversion and pedophilia have kept me nervous to read this novel in the fear that I might feel a tinge of lust at what’s written about a 12-14 year old girl being the object of one (sick) man’s sexual and emotional obsessions. Not knowing exactly what Lolita was about keeps the content mysterious enough for it to be interesting without crossing the line of actually being interested and (slightly) aroused. But I’ve finally done it. I’ve crossed the line, and the mysteries of Lolita have finally revealed themselves to me.
Humbert Humbert is a strange narrator. He’s speaking to the ‘gentlemen/women of the jury’ throughout, admitting his story as he sees fit while in the confines of prison. Nabokov has done something interesting here with a narrator the reader is not meant to like or find particularly worthy. Within the first few chapters Humbert reveals himself to be a bit disillusioned: ‘Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child…’ Here, Humbert claims that the ‘nymphet,’ a girl of the age 10-14 who is especially concerned with enticing men, is separate from that of an ordinary child. He asserts that he would have never messed with a child who was truly innocent but that nymphets are a separate unit (at one time he even calls them a separate human being), and therefore are not to be saved from his tabooed yearnings. What he doesn’t realize is that the idea of a ‘nymphet’ is something his perverted and diabolical mind has created- he himself has created this ‘third sex’ in order to free himself from the social constructions making him unable to love a child. He may not believe that girls such as Lolita are innocent- at times the reader doesn’t believe in Lolita’s innocence either- but nonetheless, Lolita is a mere 12 years old when Humbert labels her a ‘nymphet.’ Was she given a chance to be innocent?
The opening of this book is tremendous- ‘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 the 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.’ It’s beautiful and sadistic, and it gives away a very important piece of the plot: Humbert’s desire for nymphets (especially Lolita) is fulfilled. The beginning of the book is an entrance, a welcome of sorts made by Humbert; he reaches out, unashamed, and says to the readers ‘look what I’ve accomplished. You may have doubted this would happen, but I’m telling you now, I reached what I desired. Do you want to know how it happened?’ And we, as readers, can try and say no, can try and deny that we felt no current of electricity floating through us when Humbert called her ‘fire of my loins,’ but the reality is we are entranced already. We need to know how he seduced this child, how she is managing already to seduce us.
Humbert rents a room in the house of Charlotte Haze, a widowed woman living in a small town with her daughter. Upon arrival, Humbert feels horrified at the nothingness of the area and decides almost immediately to leave. When he walks out into the garden, however, the world shifts, for there is Lolita, chewing gum and reading a silly movie magazine. ‘The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.’ Humbert’s obsession is sudden and tenacious.
Although there are some slight instances of flirting, Humbert’s assertion of Lolita being a ‘nymphet’ seems inaccurate. Instead, Lolita seems to be a pubescent girl who runs from the friendship of her mother, a child who is annoyed by childhood things, a girl who wants to grow up but will not let her mother help her do so. She’s caught between wanting to be an adult and wanting to remain in the garden reading her silly magazines, forever. And she blames her mother for her swinging and unpredictable adolescence, as most of us do. Humbert represents an outsider for whom she can run to when her mother ‘just won’t understand.’ He lets her be a child (wiggling her chin as a talent) while not doubting her established adulthood (red lipstick pasted on her lips as her chin dances). For Lolita, Humbert is the good adult, the one who lets her be just as she wants. When she flirts with him, when she kisses him on the mouth, the girl is saying thank you. She finds solace in Humbert and wants to respond in the way she thinks a woman has to respond: physical attentiveness. She’s a girl playing at what she thinks womanhood is. And Humbert, delusional, defines this as a ‘nymphet.’ He doesn’t see her confusion, only her confidence.
When Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, confesses her love for Humbert, we beg him to leave. Our hearts break at the infatuation Mrs. Haze has for Humbert, at his total disregard for it. While you were falling in in love with him, Mrs. Haze, he was watching your daughter, molding her into whatever personality he had to to excuse his obsession. And when Humbert decides to marry Charlotte for no other reason than to be close, always, to Lolita, our dislike for him heightens. ‘You’re a monster,’ Charlotte tells him after finding his disturbing written meditations on Lolita. Yes he is, Charlotte, and we are so sorry, but the monster will win this battle. Humbert stands near Charlotte’s dead body only paragraphs later- she’s been hit by a car in her angered and crazed run to the mailbox. Fate for some reason decided to stop her message, her reveal of who Humbert really was. Fate has worked for the monster, and fate has given Humbert another illogical reason to believe his obsession with Lolita is right. The world seems to be working to force the two of them together, Humbert and Lolita- despite the cringe we feel at the thought, it is something we cannot deny or run from. The two of them are getting nearer. We are soon to see Lolita in his arms.
Later, when Humbert drugs Lolita, she sleepily admits ‘oh, I’ve been so disgusting, I’ve been such a disgusting girl.’ Again, the world seems to be solidifying Humbert’s assertion of Lolita being a ‘nymphet,’ giving Humbert another reason to believe that what he’s wanting to do with ferocity is not such an unwarranted or evil thing. But what is disgusting to a 13 year old? Anything. The shame one feels at that age for realizing the gravity of sexuality is profound and sterilizing. She could have touched herself and therefore defined herself as disgusting. She is once again flirting on the edge of womanhood; she knows she is attractive, knows there is a hunger in Humbert’s eyes, but she does not know how predatory he is, how willing he is to take her. And when the moment comes, when she exists sexually in his arms, Humbert explains ‘it was she who seduced me,’ trying to alleviate himself once again. Yes, the girl kissed him, and yes, she crawled on top of him. But what of Humbert’s lie? Lolita admits that she lost her virginity at camp in an unpleasant and unexciting way, and Humbert asserts that he had never. Being the unreliable narrator he is, we do not know if he means he never had sex at that age or at camp, or if he is claiming to have never had sex (which we know is a lie). Either way, Lolita feels empowered that she has done something that he has (supposedly) not. ‘Okay. Here is where we start,’ Lolita says. But Humbert refuses to provide us with any more specific details; rather, he claims he doesn’t want to bore the reader with what happened next. Lolita again felt the need to assert her womanhood over her childhood, to make herself more of a woman for the next time she’d see her enemy: her mother. And let’s not forget that her mother is a week dead, that Humbert hasn’t told Lolita, that he is pretending Charlotte is still alive in a hospital so that Lolita is more apt to travel with him. Lolita rebels against her mother, against her mother’s womanhood that somehow impedes on her own, without knowing she’s lost her mother for eternity. I typed ‘she’s also lost her innocence’ but my argument is quite the opposite. Sex does not relinquish a child of innocence. It does not take away a child’s gaiety or lackadaisical moods. Lolita is a sexual being and still remains innocent, something Humbert nor society today can really understand. Lolita has sex with Humbert as a spiteful act against her mother as well as an affirmation to herself that she is a woman, not because she is a ‘nymphet.’
On the cover of this edition of Lolita, someone claims ‘you read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent.’ This is accurate. The first instance of sex in the novel is not explicit (in fact, hardly any sex scene is in the novel, and truthfully, there isn’t much sex in the book at all), but for some reason, it shakes you with arousal. It’s wrong, and if you think too much about it, you feel guilty. But we’re not nodding along in agreeing with Humbert- we’re not ourselves turned on by this ‘nymphet’ notion, but rather by the absolute hunger Humbert feels, his inability to concentrate, his feeling that he may die if he does not fulfill his desire. Lust is a funny thing, and Nabokov mocks human beings’ weakness for sex throughout the entire novel. Arousal is a key theme of the novel- don’t be ashamed when you feel it.
Humbert goes on pretending not to notice that Lolita feels lonely, unhappy, and disgusted. He changes location when he notices the darkness come over Lolita, hoping to spoil her with a fancy hotel in the hopes of seeing her childhood come out again, in the hopes of fucking her in the form of a child rather than the form of a child with experience, with sadness, with stretches toward womanhood. He ignores when Lolita calls him a ‘disgusting old man,’ attributes the comments to her odd sense of humor. But Lolita mourns the death of her mother and takes on a new identity: a woman seasoned by death and the oppression of a man, the oppression that is not only sexual but which controls her entire life. Humbert only allows Lolita to go to school, to contribute to the school play, when she acts enthused about sleeping with him. At 13 she feels the oppression of man and she becomes aware of the freedoms she obtains when she uses her sexuality. And thus begins the relations she has with other men, with boys in school (these relations also may be the paranoid imaginations of Humbert, but I think Lolita definitely had some other lovers throughout her younger years)- she believes her sexuality is the only way to freedom, and thus sleeps with men in the hopes to be free from them, to show them that she is a woman on her own and that she has power.
Lolita manages to escape the clutches of Humbert via another man, another older man who is no doubt tempted by her seeming ‘sluttiness.’ We don’t know who it is who takes Lolita from the hospital. We, like Humbert, try to make sense of who the man is, who she’d be willing to run away with. But unlike Humbert, we can understand why she’d want to run, why she’d let a near stranger take her rather than fall back into Humbert’s obsessive oppression. Humbert hunts and hunts for Lolita, never passing a day without obsessing over her lips or her legs, her ‘nymphetiness.’ Humbert takes another lover to pass the time, always imagining Lolita’s childhood underneath him rather than the live woman he is fucking. He never finds Lolita- she finds him.
Her letter shocks us along with Humbert. Pregnant? 17? Married? Is this the man that took her from the hospital? Where has she been? How’d she avoid Humbert this long? He travels to Lolita instantly, still convinced she’s lost and in need of him, still under the impression that the two are in love, that she’d been taken from him years ago and would willingly return to him now. Instead, Lolita has grown plain looking, is living under poverty, and is happy with a young husband. The reader wonders what Humbert will do once he realizes his dream has faded, once he comes to acknowledge that womanhood is not always long legs and painted lips, is not always a temptress in the early morning hours. But Humbert comforts us: ‘I could not kill her, of course, as some have thought. You see, I loved her. It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.’ Humbert’s possessiveness is only rivaled by his love for Lolita, his incessant and undeniable love for her. ‘You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child… No matter. Even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delta be tainted and torn- even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.’
Who can argue with this passage? The writing is brilliant, and Humbert’s love for Lolita here seems raw and real. His ramblings on Lolita are no longer for her thighs or her breath or her mouth on his; they’re for the person she was and the person she is now. He recognizes how she has changed, both physically and emotionally. And then another realization comes over Humbert, possibly the most important epiphany this weird and disturbing narrator has: ‘I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind- quite possibly, behind the juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate…’ Humbert finally realizes that he never knew the real Lolita- he only knew the nymphet he himself had created, the intoxicating mixture of child and sexual deviant. And in turn, Lolita knows this is how Humbert looks at her. When Humbert ignorantly asks Lolita to come back to him, to walk to his car and leave together, Lolita misunderstands and thinks Humbert wants to fuck her again in order to give her the money she’s asked him for. Humbert had never seen Lolita as anything but a nymphet, a being that exists only to seduce, please, and tease. When Lolita opens the envelope with 4,000$ in it, given to her without sex, she is shocked at Humbert’s kindness, at his willingness to give when she’s given nothing first. And her utter shock dissolves Humbert into an emotional mess, crying and rocking himself and avoiding Lolita’s face and touch. Humbert leaves her with the money, helpless and unable to rid himself of the love for Lolita.
And perhaps this is why I love this novel so much- although it is disgusting, Humbert’s obsession with the 13 year old, Humbert’s obsession morphs into something else entirely. Humbert created the term ‘nymphet,’ thus creating a type of human being who did not exist except for in his mind. He believed her into being, and convinced himself that Lolita was the incarnation of such a girl. And because she was this for him, Humbert felt free to use her for his unacceptable sexual desires. She was a child, yes, but a different kind of child; thus, kidnapping her and oppressing her were okay. Nymphets were born for this kind of thing. Humbert’s punishment is not the fact that he’s in jail at the end of the novel. It’s not that Lolita is married to another man. It’s that he is in real, hopeless love with a real, plain woman who is unwilling and unable to love him back. Humbert forced Lolita to be the nymphet he lusted over, and in turn, fate pushed him into a real love that would never be reciprocated. Even when Lolita tells him ‘no honey, no,’ Humbert loves her. Even when he kills the man Lolita went to after him, Humbert loves her. Even in prison, dying, Humbert loves her. We know this love is not of artifice anymore because he confronts his sins: ‘I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais. And there were times when I knew how you felt and it was hell to know it.’ And further: ‘I recall certain moments, when after having my fill of her, I would gather her in my arms and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would mutely ask her blessing.’ Humbert, upon seeing Lolita as a woman and a human being rather than a ‘nymphet,’ recalls moments where he felt the weight of his evils, admits his wrongdoings to the reader and to the jury, apologizes indefinitely to the woman he is in love with.
Finally, Humbert gives respect to Lolita by wishing not to publish the memoir until Lolita has died, saving her from the shame she will surely face (ridiculous that a woman oppressed as a teenage girl should be shameful). And Nabokov ends with this beautiful thought: ‘I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.’ Humbert dies with love for Lolita, with a love so strong and undeniable that it forces him to see himself as she must see him. And he recognizes that not only will the two of them never be together, but not even in death will they be together. He is unforgiven, will always be unforgiven, will always be disgusting, to her. He connects with her only in his mind, only in tragic artwork that portrays unrequited love- but he knows, as the reader has known for quite some time, that Lolita will never actually be his Lolita.