“I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,” Humbert tells his readers who’ve come along to hear the story of his Lolita. From the beginnings of Nabokov’s masterpiece, the reader is roped into a morally ambiguous journey and Nabokov takes no pains to shield this from his reader. Our emerging anti-hero, Humbert, is a pedophile infatuated with a young girl in his residence: his Dolores Haze, his Lola - Lolita. The premise of the story is shaky ground for a reader to trust the narrator and equally slippery terrain for the publishers who decided to (and the many who decided against) publishing the novel.
Originally published 1955 in Paris, it would be four years before Lolita traveled to the states. The fifties in Paris was debatably a more sexually liberated metropolis, but even European publishers were hesitant to touch Lolita and its cast of doomed characters. Only under Olympia – a publisher that heads the works of Henry Miller and James Joyce among scores of pornography and niche fetish erotica – was the title pushed through. From the book’s publication origins to its initial reception, Lolita was brought into popular culture with a cringe and a fair share of fear – and reasonably so.
We know what were getting into. Humbert eases us into our perilous read with a self-proclamation, his unsettling preface for the vast terrain of narrative just ahead. There’s Annabel, his young love. There’s Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laureen, Poe and Virginia Clemm – all literary aberrations from the ‘norm’ that Humbert relays to us in attempt to justify his desire for Dolores.
He offers a dense confessional with little room for our own judgments to perforate – Humbert so eloquently makes the case for his desire, even from its psychological roots with Annabel. Before we can pose an argument against him, he has beaten us to the punch: we’re denied the ability to argue his pedophilia from our moral frame. What are we to do then, exonerate him? No, he never asks for forgiveness. Are we to suppose he’s reached a moral high ground because we can’t argue with him? Or is it just his blissful euphoria of moral delusion that we’re witness to?
And when, as the book progresses, his lust turns to what appears to be genuine love – he no longer asks for sex; he idolizes Dolores, commits himself to coming clean and turning himself in – are we supposed to accept everything that came prior? Does the deeper love he finds eradicate every instance of rape? We’re left not only unsure how to place his character, but how to place our own moral incongruences.
The problem of comprehending Lolita begins with this moral discrepancy and her literary position as a rape victim. It causes us to unravel with Humbert. We question the book, ourselves, our culture, and in the space between our disgust and Humbert’s desire, we obsess over and recreate the story. Spawning two films, several musical adaptions, ballets, plays, a Russian opera spin-off, fashion subcultures, and endless memorabilia, Lolita is a transcendent literary icon. Her ghost lingers in Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and many a pop icon seen cradling a teddy bear in skimpy lingerie. The hyper-sexualization of young women is Lolita’s legacy, a cast thrown sixty years into the future: a transition from rape victim to sex icon.
A nice illustration of what Lolita means today could involve a glance at the dictionary. Scroll down to L, find the name, and with it find a nod to her cultural resonance: “a precociously seductive girl”. True, she still retains her novel portrayal as a ‘girl’, but ‘girl’ is weighed down by more than age parameters in it’s contemporary frame. Girl suggests helplessness, one subject to male dominance, an object of sorts. When demoted from woman to girl by the wrong audience, the word can feel like an insult. When embraced for yourself, the term can be empowering.
The complicated relationship we have with ‘girl’ is an integral tension in relating to the idea of a Lolita. It’s a term (and she’s a character) in flux: one foot in childhood, one foot in adulthood, wishing to break free of parental chains and explore sexuality and dually resistant toward both. The same dual nature can be claimed by pedophilia: it’s both a great fear and a great obsession, and the amount of practices amassed in its shadow is testimony to both. We teach ‘stranger danger’, collect sex offender registries, and covet the gritty details of horrid news stories. Children are warned and parents are in fear. Terror and infatuation are only faintly separated.
This push pull relationship to ‘girl’ and Lolita, and furthermore pedophilia, makes Lolita a sensational and sinister icon once stripped of her literary husks. Her character becomes a result of what we invest in her name, and her name a proxy for the fears and fantasies surrounding emerging womanhood.
Kubrick’s Lolita distorts Lolita by cropping and adding sexual subtexts. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, a twelve-year-old tomboy “standing four feet ten in one sock,” Kubrick’s is played by the alluring young Sue Lyon, who veers closer to American Beauty’s Angela and further from her literary template. The image we’re given in the film subverts the book’s and propagates a Lolita we associate with heart shaped sunglasses and the young temptress seductively licking a lollypop.
Far from what were given in the text, Kubrick gives us an older, sexier version of our ‘nymphet’, not to mention painting Humbert as less of a monster (than the book does), making the viewer the new host for the burdensome taboo. Shifted from Humbert to viewer, to watch becomes the taboo: to watch is akin to taking part.
But watching the film, we’re also granted safe distance from the real taboo. The film portrayal of Lolita as older and Humbert as comparatively more ‘norm’ than Nabokov’s, keeps us in the safe waters of our social mores. Where the book’s romance is less acceptable, the film toys with moral boundaries, providing the premise of pedophilia, but instead giving us an imaginative pedophilia of sorts – a space in which you’re free to feel the perversity without the dangers of a twelve-year-old girl being harmed. With Kubrick’s version, we get max perversity with minimal moral requirements. When this danger is eradicated, the perversity is enjoyable and even sought after, giving rise to the icons of Lolita we are familiar with today.
So, what are we to make of Lolita, as readers and individuals steeped in our own pop culture? Are we to accept Nabokov’s character, or the character we’ve collectively recreated over the past sixty years? Both representations impact broader ideas of sexuality, and the decision to privilege one Lolita over the other frames how we talk about girls, rape, and sex.