'Lolita' at 62: Is the Vladimir Nabokov novel as scandalous as it was when first released in America in 1958?

More than 60 years later, Nabokov's 'Lolita' is considered a masterpiece for the author's writing yet is widely derided for its content


                            'Lolita' at 62: Is the Vladimir Nabokov novel as scandalous as it was when first released in America in 1958?
A still from Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, 'Lolita' (Getty Images)

When Vladimir Nabokov wrote 'Lolita' he was a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, having reached the United States after fleeing both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The seedling of 'Lolita' was first created nearly two decades before the novel was published in America, in a Russian short story about a man who marries a woman to get to her daughter. Though it was received poorly, the idea never left Nabokov. Nabokov had difficulty procuring publishers for the novel and was rejected by five American publishers. The novel was first published in France in 1955 and there years later, it was published in American to become an immediate success.

Part of its success can be attributed to the book's early reviews and how much scandal the name of the novel had associated with it. Elizabeth Janeway wrote for The New York Times in August 1958, "This is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year. As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences." TIME Magazine's September 1958 review stated, "As far as erotic detail is concerned, the book tells little that has not been dealt with in a lot of bestselling fiction; but where the sexy bestsellers talk about the sordid or tragic facts of life in staccato sociology, couch jargon or four-letter words, Lolita is the more shocking because it is both intensely lyrical and wildly funny."

Vladimir Nabokov (Getty Images)

More than 60 years later, Nabokov's 'Lolita' is considered a masterpiece for the author's writing yet is widely derided for its content -- the middle-aged Humbert Humbert who goes on to begin a sexual relationship with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Nabokov's writing is considered brilliant because Humbert Humbert has succeeded -- with respect to some readers -- in making his audience question whether he was the victim of a seductress or not. As long as the answer is dubious and the debate everlasting, Humbert Humbert continues to sow the seeds of his defense in every reader.

Poster for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, 'Lolita' (Getty Images)

In 2020, in the post #MeToo world that is filled with the news and exploits of those abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, 'Lolita' becomes even more incredulous. Discussions of Nabokov's novel often bring about that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator and why that is important in discerning the message within 'Lolita'. Humbert Humbert often claims that it was Lolita who seduced him -- but readers ought to remember that Lolita is just 12 years old when he meets her, and at most, 14 years old when they part ways after a two-year cross country journey where Lolita is kept captive. We say captive because Lolita does not have any other option -- she is an orphan and she is terrified of the foster system; Humbert Humbert presents himself to her as a savior. By virtue of Lolita's age, there is already a power imbalance in their relationship. Humbert Humbert is the adult and clearly, the one in power.

Humbert Humbert's unreliability and defense is also a tactic used by sexual predators. When those accused of rape or sexual assault defend themselves, they often say that "she wanted it," or "she came on to me," to signify that they really had no power in the encounter when rarely that is the case. Humber Humbert frequently interprets the laughter, eye flutters, twitches and fidgets of his young victim as gestures of consent. The power of 'Lolita' is in the language Nabokov writes, often making the reader empathetic to Humbert Humbert rather than to realize that he is, after all, just a predator. He is more concerned with his self-preservation and sexual pleasure, stunting Lolita's mental growth. He sees her as nothing more than a possession, despite waxing poetic soliloquies about her, he writes, "how sweet it was to bring that coffee to her,and then deny it until she had done her morning duty.

Even Nabokov warns the reader that Humbert Humbert is no more than a predator. In the preface, he writes as the fictional psychologist John Ray Jr, that "parents, social workers, [and] educators" should be more vigilant to bring up a "better generation in a safer world." You may interpret the usage of "better generation" as an attack against Lolita, but just before this statement, the preface says on Humbert Humberts that "he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy." It continues, "Many of his casual opinions on the people and the scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning."

If anything, 'Lolita' has become important in that it sheds a clear picture of the tactics that are often used by predators and abusers. For instance, Humbert Humbert writes, "From the very beginning of our concourse, I was clever enough to realize that I must secure her complete cooperation in keeping our relations a secret, that it should become second nature with her." This is, again, something that is often done where victims are silenced, either through blackmail or through manipulation, to keep their abuse a secret. 'Lolita' may read as a love story, but as often as is the case with imbalanced relationships, there is more to it than is presented to the reader, perhaps threaded through the book cleverly by Nabokov and thereby proving his writing prowess. 

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