“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
There are plenty of stories about the romantic relations between men and women, but because they are all so similar we tend to forget about them unless they bring something remarkable to the table. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, is not likely to be forgotten any time soon. The story of an older man who becomes infatuated with a young girl, the title character, Lolita was deemed filthy and obscene when first published in Europe (ban in France for two years) and, surprisingly, a major success when published in the United States three years later. The novel explores many taboos, most specifically incest and hebephilia. While these entities are important players in the book, perhaps a deeper analysis of Lolita can show us Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of women as supplements to men, Lolita as both a culprit and a victim of the heart, and the relationship between Lolita and her admirer, Humbert Humbert, as a radical one.
Lolita is told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, a European man in his late thirties with a penchant for what he refers to as “nymphets,” or girls in their early adolescence, who has come to the United States to teach at a college in the fall. For the summer, he rents a room in a house in New England, occupied by a widowed mother, Charlotte Haze, and her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores “Lolita” Haze. Falling in love with Lolita at first sight, Humbert drives himself mad trying to get close to her. He keeps a diary of every detail about how much he loathes Charlotte and how much he adores the beautiful but childish Lolita. Humbert marries Charlotte to stay in Lolita's life and when she dies shortly afterward he becomes Lolita's guardian and lover. Finally able to possess Lolita, Humbert puts a stranglehold on all of her actions until she runs away.
We can tell from the text that Humbert is very controlling of Lolita and that the line between guardian and infatuate is blurred. While she has such a dizzying affect on him, he still treats her like a typical man before the women’s movement. Although it is clear to us, the reader, that they do not have a father/daughter relationship, they must pretend as though they do to conceal the truth from everyone else. While Humbert is her step-father, Lolita is very clearly a possession to him and it is not his intention to treat her badly, but he simply has to own her. After learning of her mother’s death, Lolita has no other option than to cry in Humbert’s arms. She needs him and he uses this to his advantage. In Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction to The Second Sex titled, “Woman as Other” she explains it best: “To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal- this would be for woman to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste.” Lolita falls into this debacle because she needs Humbert and, while he covets her, she needs to be coveted in order to be provided for. While Lolita is still a child during her romance with Humbert, we can see in her relationships with other men that she needs them perhaps just as much as they need her, but in different ways because, “she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her.” (de Beauvoir)
Although Lolita may be an accessory to Humbert in his eyes, she holds an incredible amount of power over him. In Chris Barker’s Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, Diana Meehan’s analysis of women on U.S. television is mentioned. It is a list of typical female characters which were seen on television, but expands far beyond that medium. The ones that we can define Lolita as may be the “bitch” and the “siren.” (307-308) Lolita is perhaps a bitch because she is “manipulative”, but she has to be in order to make the best of a bad situation (after all, her step-father does constantly solicit her for sex). The siren is perhaps a more accurate description of our heroine, although she probably falls somewhere in between. The siren, like in Homer’s Odyssey, “sexually lures men to a bad end.” While Lolita does sexually lure men, it is not her intention. Once she realizes she can do this, she uses it to her advantage. Lolita drove Humbert into madness. However, we must remember that Lolita was only a child and that she had to grow up very quickly only because she was robbed of her childhood. Even if she broke Humbert’s heart, it can be argued that she is the real victim.
This story has been called many things(the terms “pornographic” and “ground-breaking” come to mind), but it can definitely be argued that this it is a radical romance. Firstly, there is the concept of some sort of incest. Perhaps this is the more minor issue, seeing as Humbert and Lolita’s sexual relations are not technically incestuous because he is her step-father. Although this concept did turn publishers away, the biggest concern is the age disparity in and the hebephilia of the relationship. Hebephilia is a sexual taste for someone in their early adolescence; Lolita is the median of this “philia” at 12-years-old. It is important to note that due to the regulations on motion pictures, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of this novel, the title character was 15, and therefore more reasonable for a grown man to be attracted to, as it is past the onset of puberty and when young women start to look like grown women. In the book, Humbert muses to himself whether Lolita has, “already been initiated by mother nature to the Mystery of the Menarche” (49), cherishing the youth that she had left. Another reason this could be considered a radical romance is that, although Lolita’s physicality was a major draw for Humbert, he really did love her even if she was childish and tactless most of the time. But Lolita did not love him. She may have enjoyed being pursued by an older man at first, but the restraints that the relationship put on her and the abuse she suffered never let her fall in love with him.
While some have seen it as obscene and some have rendered it genius, there is no doubt that the romance portrayed in Lolita is radical. Lolita is a combination of a victimized female, as profiled by de Beauvoir, and a siren, as analyzed by Meehan, and is part of a relationship where she holds both all of the cards and none of the cards, pursued by a lecherous but tender step-father. In Lolita, the story of a nymphet Venus, normalcy is hard to come by.
Lolita makes my heart go, "Humbert, Humbert."
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2008. Print.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex, Woman as Other.1949. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Paris: The Olympia Press. 1955. Print.