Age, Consent, and Power: A Reading of My Dark Vanessa

Kate Elizabeth Russell dedicates her exemplary work, My Dark Vanessa to “the real life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood”.

As I begin to read this, I already get a whiff of what I am in for. The existing scholarship around the realm of English Literature has already turned the predatory behavior of Humbert Humbert (ref. Lolita, Nabakov, 1955) into a magnum opus love story. Thereby sidelining every problematic detail that comes with the entire narrative. The spokespersons of literature are too engrossed in the encapsulating prose to even consider the power dynamics and sexual abuse that the novel contains.

My Dark VanessaMy Dark Vanessa is a stark commentary on this very lopsided and problematic reading of Lolita. Revolving around fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye and her affair with her thirty-two-year-old teacher, the novel is highly inspired by the #metoo movement. The novel follows her journey into the realization that her supposed sexual awakening was a subject of abuse.

Reading through the novel, certain sections become so apparently disturbing, due to the sheer truth and relatability of them. Vanessa, when confronted about her ‘great love story’, seventeen years later, claims “All he did was fall in love with me and the world turned him into a monster”. The very fact that the teacher, Mr. Strane uses ‘Lolita’ to familiarize Vanessa with sexuality speaks length about the problematic aspect of it.

The novel touches upon a lot of issues- gaslighting, power dynamics, sexual confusion, nature of consent, and how the school as a system handles such cases. The aspect of consent and nuances attached to it are important to understand the power dynamics of such a relationship.

The sheer age gap between the protagonists in both My Dark Vanessa and Lolita highlights the influence that age brings with it. Both Vanessa and Dolores were still in their early teens hence of impressionable age, which depicts the very fault that lies on the idea of consent. For the people who go by the strict technicality of words, this might be hard to understand. Yes, consent was uttered- but was it coerced, was it enforced, is it really a free consent. Was there consent after all?

This is where the quintessential question of gaslighting comes up and My Dark Vanessa is highly laden with a lot of instances wherein the gaslighting is very apparent to the readers but not to Vanessa. This is what abuse does to such victims when they do not realize they were victims after all. This journey highlights Vanessa’s endeavors to understand what happened to her, by revisiting every memory with Strane. This book is a psychological journey into a victim’s mind- her realization if she was really abused, if she really had the consent.

Adding on to the school’s response to Vanessa’s ‘scandalous incident’, wherein no action was taken against Strane rather than something contrary happened, I couldn’t help but ponder upon numerous Vanessas that I have seen and hear about during my own school life. The very hushed silencing of the incident to ensure that nothing maligns the reputation of the school, the evident protection of the predator, and the shaming of the victim, is still prominent all across the world.

Ever since I have read My Dark Vanessa it has stayed with me, for I resonated on so many levels with the protagonist. I recommend everyone to read this landmark journey. Because in one way or the other, I and a lot many others have gone through such incidents and have been abused more rather than our voice getting heard. This book offers a solace, a journey, a companionship, a sorority that each of us needs to understand our past, present, and future consent and their nature thereof. After all, there are many unheard Vanessas and Dolores out there.

Shriyanshi has completed her postgraduation in English Literature and is now working as a Content Writer. Post Modernism, Power structures, and coming-of-the-age literature are some topics that she finds interest in. You can reach out to her at [email protected]



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