Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the first novels that I remember reading that made me so confused. The book itself is known for its unsettling qualities of sexual nature between a step father and a pre-teen/teenager seductress, Lolita. In society today, when a lady is tempting men by her dress or manner, she is often referred to as a Lolita. So, if Lolita is the cause of such bad press then why is Humbert Humbert often referred to as the evil antagonist?
The lead character of Lolita, Humbert Humbert has had a variety of responses from readers of the novel. After reading a story about pedophilia, the audience can either be disgusted by the subject matter within the novel or, as I do, feel sorry for him. Humbert sets up this setting of allowing the audience to form their own opinion of him by writing his manuscript addressed to a jury. We, the reader and the jury, are forced to dig into the mind of the defendant and make a verdict on his behalf deciding if he is a disgusting character or a man to be pitied.
It is not stretching to say that those audience members with the biggest problem with Lolita are disturbed by the incestual relationship between Humbert and Lolita. However, when actually examining the case, Humbert and Lolita are not related at all. They have no blood bond and therefore, cannot be truly insestual. The novel tests what is considered taboo by social standards. Although Humbert is not blood related to Lolita, he tells her “For all practical purposes, I am your father.” (119) He is then opening up the door to allow the reader to view his and Lolita’s relationship as a father and daughter relationship not a girl and mothers-husband relationship. The closeness associated with a father and daughter makes the sexual relationship even more uncomfortable to the audience. When Lolita and Humbert share a room for the first time and she states, “the word is incest.” (119) By stating this, she is opening up the idea that the sexual relationship between the two as inbreeding. Humbert holds Lolita as his sexual prisoner by threatening to shatter the familial bonds that they have established. By telling her that if she leaves, she will have no family and end up in a foster home, he is forcing her to make a choice: stay with him and in turn be his sexual partner or leave him and enter a future of uncertainty. Even with all of this in mind, the fact still exists that she is not his daughter and this cannot be classified as incest.
Humbert is still a pedophile, which is deplorable, but he seems to justify to us, the reader and jury, his rational for thinking in such a way. The thought that a first love never escapes one’s mind is an idea that Vladimir Nabokov uses in order to allow the reader to sympathize with Humbert. Humbert talks of his first love, Annabel, and the young age at which they first loved one another. This was his first sexual experience and the memory of Annabel has stayed with him even up until the day he wrote this transcript. Humbert states that Lolita is the only person he has ever loved more than Annabel. Any reader that has had more than one love can recognize that although the love may not always exist, the remembrance of that first time prevails in one’s mind. The audience is able to connect with Humbert in this case and realize where he gets his fascination with nymphets.
Humbert continually uses animal characterizes within the novel to describe himself and Lolita. When one acts upon something considered wild or unusual, it is not uncommon to say that it is the animalistic state within. Humbert is using this same idea when describing himself as having “tentacles,” “ape paws” (258) or “ray-like” (50). By continually describing himself as having animal body parts, he is acknowleging that part of him is animalistic. The things that he does are natural and should be accepted as they are in nature.
Audience members that feel sorry for Lolita and therefore, are angry with Humbert, feel this way because a grown man has taken advantage of a young child. Something that needs to be recognized is that Lolita is not all that innocent herself. She, in fact, is the one that seduces Humbert in the hotel room when she asks him if she wants to play a game that she learned. Within the movie scene especially, Lolita has a look upon her face that shows she knows that she is seducing her stepfather. Lolita should be blamed just as much as Humbert. Yes, Lolita is young, but she has the capability to seduce a grown man and he even states that she was anything but innocent.
I am not arguing that Humbert is completely free of guilt. He, of course, committed a crime that is unbelievable yet I still feel that he is a character to be pitied. He starts to write at the end of the novel that he fears for his soul and the afterlife. He knows that what he has done is wrong and his fear shows that he knows that in a religious and moral sense, he is at fault. Instead of looking at Humbert as a pedophile, I see him as a man that fell prey to loving a young girl and not being able to control himself. He, of course, shows that he did love her. It was not just a sexual relationship with Lolita, Humbert truly loved her. Now am I saying that it is right that Humbert had sex with an underage girl just because he loves her? Of course not. Am I saying that Lolita isn’t a victim? Yes, absolutely.
When reading this book, it causes the reader to look past their own ideas of proper love and examine with a free mind, just who is the victim and who is the villain.