On Reading Nabokov’s Lolita

I finished reading Nabokov’s Lolita again after many years, and this time it was strange reading it as the mother of an eleven-year old daughter. There are some books that will make you squirm with disgust and shudder with repulsion, yet they will persuade, almost demand, a kind of compulsive attention that few others will – not an aesthetic appeal to senses but a sort of convoluted jarring of the psyche, that nevertheless makes you sit up and drives you restless.

Lolita, a 1955 novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, is based on the broad theme of incest between a step-father and a daughter. In fact, the protagonist became a step-father by marrying her mother with the sole purpose of gaining access to her daughter Lolita, when Lolita was about thirteen. The mother somehow dies soon afterwards and so basically Lolita is helplessly trapped into this incestuous relation with her step-father.


As the novel progresses, at some point, after some years, in spite of her step-father’s strictest vigil and monitoring, Lolita is able to escape from him, with someone who abandons her later. She then marries someone else and is pregnant with his baby at seventeen. When the step-father finally meets Lolita again he finds out who had helped her to escape from him and he goes and murders him, so obsessed was he with Lolita even after about four years, and knowing fully well that he would probably spend the rest of his years in prison and in vain.

The narration is in first person by the step-father, the perpetrator of sin and incest. So it’s really like a ride through the alleys and lanes of the psyche of a pervert, though one finds much more than just perversion in the tapestry – there are flashes of understanding and sympathy about conventional family values, there’s a sense of duty towards his ‘daughter’, and there’s brutal honesty in disclosing his innermost sensations, often bordering on wry humour and jocularity. The Nabokovian world leaves one grappling with dark secrets of human emotions, with sparks of sanity shining like silver linings bordering dark clouds of immorality. 

The novel was originally written in English, but due to censorship in the U.S. (where Nabokov lived) and Britain, it was first published in Paris, France, in 1955, by Olympia Press. The book was hugely controversial and stirred public opinion like never before but at the same time it received critical acclaim  – it has been included in many lists of best books, such as Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels, Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century, Bokklubben World Library, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, and The Big Read.

The novel is prefaced by a fictitious foreword by one John Ray Jr., an editor of psychology books, which states that an unfulfilled childhood love causes Humbert (the protagonist and step-father) to become sexually obsessed with a specific type of girl, aged between 9 to 14, whom he refers to as “nymphets”.

Humbert’s ignoble inclinations lead to debasement and gradual erosion of the last shred of trust that’s inherent in a filial relationship. He unabashedly narrates outright violation of familial norms, so that Lolita is never able to perceive any father-daughter relation normally ever again. At some deeper level, the novel is so tragic – it spells the death knell of normalcy in the experiences of growing up that Lolita has.

Humbert’s shameful deliberations expose the darkest urges in the human mind. But at the same time, they sound so real, so passionate, so true, that it’s hard to deny their existence. And the novel really emphasises an oft overlooked and much less discussed truism – there is no vice and virtue in feelings – there are no gods and devils amongst us – we’re all humans.

“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 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.”

So begins Lolita. Though the overarching theme is the controversial topic of Hebephilia  (Wikipedia defines Hebephilia as the strong, persistent sexual interest by adults in pubescent children, typically ages 11–14), there are underlying layers of finer human sentiments that have been deftly brought out by the author. 

Humbert is not just a quagmire of depravity and perversion. For example, much later in the novel, once when Humbert, Lolita and one of her friends  were walking together, Humbert overhears Lolita remarking to her friend, “You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own’,“ which leads Humbert to ruminate how the physical relation between him and his step-daughter has completely deprived the relation of any other more aesthetic or cultural dimension.

“… it struck me… that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate-dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions; for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart… Lolita and a sub-lime, purified, analyzed, deified Harold Haze, might have discussed – an abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind. Good will! She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my poor, bruised child.”

Despite all the ethical ruggedness that Humbert displayed, he vouched for his love for Lolita.

“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, je t’aimais [In my own way, but I loved you]!

At times, the tone of the protagonist would almost be wistful to the point of being repentant, though no matter how understanding and aware he was of his sin, he couldn’t help himself out of it. And he kept walloping in pleasure in his sinful paradise knowingly. His insatiable lust, his unending appetite for Lolita’s body crushed the budding flower in Lolita – and Humbert knew that only too well.

“I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her – after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred – I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever — for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) – and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure-all would be shattered.”

At other times, he confessed of his abominable and hideous conduct. He knew that he was utmost perversion personified, he was immoral and heinous, and his obsession with young girls was despicable, yet when it came down to reality, he would rather die than give up his Lolita.

“Mid-twentieth century ideas concerning child-parent relationship have been considerably tainted by the scholastic rigmarole and standardized symbols of the psychoanalytic racket, but I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers. … But I admit that a man of my power of imagination cannot plead personal ignorance of universal emotions. I may also have relied too much on the abnormally chill relations between Charlotte [Lolita’s mother, whom Humbert had married] and her daughter. But the awful point of the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.”

The protagonist often described his meticulous efforts at keeping Lolita happy, yet at the same time realising that the only way she could be happy was if he just left her alone – give the space that a thirteen-year old teenager needs to grow up into a healthy young lady. Yet he denied it to her – clung on to her body with the last breath of an insane maniac, in the guise of a well-wishing guardian.

“How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette’s body! My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys. On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a news-paper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove. Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters …

She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion. Never did she vibrate under my touch, and a strident “what d’you think you are doing?” was all I got for my pains. To the wonderland I had to offer, my fool preferred the corniest movies, the most cloying fudge. To think that between a Hamburger and a Humburger, she would – invariably, with icy precision – plump for the former. There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.

Oh, do not scowl at me, reader, I do not intend to convey the impression that I did not manage to be happy. Reader must understand that in the possession and thralldom of a nymphet the enchanted traveler stands, as it were, beyond happiness. For there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet. It is hors concours, that bliss, it belongs to another class, another plane of sensitivity. Despite our tiffs, despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made, and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all, I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames but still a paradise.”

Coming back to the fictitious foreword by John Ray, who succinctly summarises the main message of the novel, almost pedagogically.

“This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that “offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual”; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

As a case history, “Lolita” will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting mama so dangerous via characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us parents, social workers, educators apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

As a mother of an eleven-year old, no amount of protection from such perverse elements seems enough, no amount of caution against intimacy to such people seems sufficient and no amount of advice to my daughter lets me rest in peace. And, like after reading the novel, one is gasping and left wondering, ‘can this be true?’… ’is it true?’ And one leaves the Nabokovian world, only to return to its dazzling unrealism, only to be confused once again between outrageous villainy and compromised heroism, and only to have a hard time distinguishing between the despicably offensive and ludicrously unusual. 

Soumyanetra Munshi, Associate Professor, Economic Research Unit (ERU) Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata.

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