Review: Lolita (novel)

I’m sure most educated people are well aware of this incredibly famous novel, as the term “Lolita” has long been a part of popular culture, giving rise to further derivations such as “Lolita Complex” and “Lolita Fashion”. Perhaps ironically, Lolita Fashion can now be seen as a counterpoint to the overt sexuality that is implied by the word “Lolita”, an implication so deeply engrained in the public consciousness that the popularity of Lolita as a girl’s name in the US has dropped since the 1960s. (Ironically, just one year after the popularity of Lolita as a girl’s name peaked in the US in 1963, Nabokov noted that “people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita anymore.” Surely it hadn’t plunged all that much in just one year…?)

Back to the point, Lolita takes the form of a biography narrated by one Humbert Humphrey, who tells the story of how he become obsessed with a 12-year not yet emerged from puberty, and eventually become sexually involved with her. (Here’s wiki’s summary if you really need to know more…)

Conversation with friends has mostly centered around our unreliable narrator, who repeatedly begs the reader to place the blame fully upon him whilst still depicting his Lolita, whose real name is Dolores, as a spoilt, promiscuous child. What the reader thinks of these two characters depends perhaps on just how much of the narrative they believe. The supposed advances of the capricious Dolores may in fact have all been in his head, an attempt – unconscious or otherwise – by Humphrey to assuage his guilt. One line of interpretation is that this is a condemning attempt by the guilty to gain some sympathy from the readers, and to go to one extreme, Dolores herself may be regarded as having little to no fault at all.

However, I prefer the to absolve neither of them. If there is any truth in what Humphrey says of Lolita’s actions at the camp, then I am inclined to believe that he was simply a tool that figured in her downfall. Nevertheless, Humphrey, who was unable to bury his own immorality, much less attempt to correct hers, is definitely a vile specimen of humankind, a “vain and cruel wretch”, as his creator puts it. Children only learn what they are exposed to, and it is up to the people around them (and/or their environment) to ensure that they are brought up with an appropriate moral code.

Of course, moral codes differ in different communities, hence the distaste that many of us feel for child brides that are common in certain cultures. In fact, history tells us that modern standards of morality in the West are incredibly recent, a result, perhaps, of refined sensibilities that spread as more and more people moved out of poverty, largely during the 19th century. Simply put, Humphrey’s behaviour has been considered completely normal during large periods of humankind’s past. In fact, a few months before Lolita was published in America, it was not unheard of for a girl around her age to be married, as demonstrated by Jerry Lee Lewis’s then 13-year old wife, Myra (also his first cousin, once removed). (1, 2) It may have caused a huge scandal at the time, but perhaps this was a backlash from people trying to spread a more conservative moral code across the USA?

I am not going to look into Lolita any further for now. The heavy language (according to wiki “characterised by word play, double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet”) made it an incredibly difficult read, especially for someone who desperately wanted to read her Japanese light novels instead. Nor did I make it to the meeting, which might have been useful for someone like me. I will probably try to reread it again someday, just not anytime soon.

p.s. There is a highly controversial manga currently in circulation, called Kodomo no Jikan, which was recently pulled from the American market for its content. It’s not something that I’m interested in, but summaries on wikipedia seem to suggest that there is a point that the mangaka is trying to achieve with the character development of the Lolita-esque child and her teacher.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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