BY NINA LARBI ’22
The cultural impact of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel “Lolita” is widespread, inspiring fashion movements and film adaptations alike. Public understanding of “Lolita” is nebulous; most know of the classic novel involving a young girl and an older man. However, many people who have not read the book tend to associate the word “Lolita” with romanticism or sexuality. I personally did not know that “Lolita” was the name of a book; I just knew it was the name of a lipstick. For a novel about a pedophile and his victim, this perception of the title is concerning. The current view that anything “Lolita” is romantic or sexual sends a message to young girls that pedophilia can be artistic, that grown men manipulating and coercing little girls is excusable for reasons of love and passion.
“Lolita” is about a middle-aged professor named Humbert and his obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze. The author’s purpose is to show the twisted and illogical nature of a pedophile’s mind, as the protagonist feels fully justified in his actions. Humbert confesses that he has always been attracted to pubescent girls, whom he calls “nymphets,” attributing his interest to the fact that he never consummated his first love, who was 13 when she died. He portrays his agenda as a romantic tale of a hero blindly following love.
However, it is clear to the reader that he is grooming Dolores, cementing himself as someone trustworthy in her mind. Then, he kidnaps her, holding her hostage for three years. Prohibited from having a social life or going to school, except for a brief interlude at a girls’ school in New England, she is forced instead to travel with a manipulative middle-aged man. Humbert injures her arm, drugs her with the intention of rape, stops her from using phones and hides her mother’s death from her, threatening that she would most likely be in an orphanage if it were not for him.
The contradictions between cultural perceptions of the word “Lolita” and Nabokov’s novel conflict with the purpose of the story. Nabokov intended to explore moral ambiguity and clearly show the irrationality of pedophiles and those who defend them. But the book has spawned a slew of on-screen and theatrical adaptations, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 and Adrian Lyn’s 1997 adaptations of “Lolita,” all of which deviate from Nabokov’s clear message about the immorality of pedophilia and turn Dolores into an icon of precocious sexuality. She has been changed from a rape victim to a symbol representing the allure of young girls, complete with a schoolgirl outfit. No one thinks twice when they see “Lolita” under a pair of glossy lips in an advertisement or on the tag of a short skirt; it is just another item on the rack, or another page in a magazine. Dolores has been warped into a sex symbol by men who believed Humbert’s narrative, who believed that he was justified in his pedophilia because he was in love.
As a novel, I maintain that “Lolita” is significant. Nevertheless, its cultural impact has been tailored to the exact group of people that the novel warns against: pedophilic men.
“Lolita” has been banned in France, England, Argentina and New Zealand in the past, and denounced for explicit content since its publication. Although “Lolita” has had a negative cultural impact, I don’t believe it should be banned, considering the crucial message Nabokov intends: that pedophilia is criminal. Instead, we should change the conversation around it.
Last week, Mount Holyoke’s Library Information Technology Services (LITS) celebrated such novels during “Banned Books Week,” in which various banned books were displayed alongside the reasons behind why they were considered inappropriate. Students also had the opportunity to check these works of fiction out, including “Lolita.” Despite the fact that “Lolita” is quite sexual, it provides insight into the mind of a pedophile, rendering it unique. It also opens discussions around moral ambiguity and unreliable speakers — as Nabokov tries to make the reader sympathize with Humbert through his narration — but also question him, due to the clear irrationality of his thoughts. I believe that through better education and discourse about the novel, “Lolita’s” cultural impact can be changed from supporting the sexualization of young girls to the condemnation of it.