On Lolita and the Power of Literature

By Tiffany Klinger

e75a1e6fad254fb4b1d7afb431131a88“If there’s anywhere I can read Lolita and not feel like people are judging me,” I told my sister as I packed my bag for Paris, “it’s here.” A few months ago, when I got on the subway in Times Square, early on New Years Eve, and I pulled out my small copy of Lolita – chosen for the easiness in which in fit in my handbag – and cracked open the book for the first time. I quickly realized I wasn’t sure if I was up for the piece of literature, perhaps I was not quite so worldly and literary as I thought. Everyone tells me its “must read.” But my “must read” list is increasingly long – I wasn’t sure if I should spend precious reading time on a book that seemed more likely to corrupt my mind and cause me to lose hope in the human race more than anything else. When I arrived, finally, down at Wall St., I closed the book and didn’t open it again till I was packing for Europe, rummaging through my half-started books, trying to decide which were both small and interesting. I picked up Lolita again, determined to try it another try – a fresh start.

While I was on a train to Rome, as the Italian countryside passed me by, I found myself immersed in this world of Humbert’s– flinching all along the way, wishing myself to read the pages faster, but getting caught up in Nabokov’s vivid and strange descriptions. But halfway through the novel, I put the book down knowing I would have to pick it back up again. I knew that Humbert and I– we would continue this journey together, even if I was kicking and screaming the whole way.

When asked a few months ago what my favorite books were, I promptly replied with the usual: Gone With the Wind, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Anna Karenina. Following my response, it was quickly pointed out to me that I must enjoy the “hated protagonist.” I laughed, as I had never made the connection myself, but I started wondering why I was so attracted to these characters. They were strong and brave – but mostly strong when they should have backed down, and brave when they should have been timid. They are manipulative, admired from afar, but respected by no one.

This past summer, Gary Saul Morson, professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, wrote a lengthy article in Commentary, “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature” and put my jumbled thoughts into precise wording. As Morson explains why the study of literature is so important, he points out how reading great literature teaches us to empathize like few other disciplines:

“When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while…And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place.”

Perhaps we all have experienced what Morson is talking about, I have this feeling that we do – but I think we forget the lesson when we forget the importance of the lesson. Literature – great literature – has the power to transform our minds., and stretch us beyond our own personal worlds, where we worry about who understands us, rather than how we understand others – and therefore, how we choose to react to others.

Lolita was teaching me just that – empathy. Here was a truly despicable protagonist that somehow, I didn’t hate. Suddenly, I could see Humbert’s side of things, the way you see everyone’s side of the story in Anna Karenina – the misunderstandings, longings, and desires. Humbert knows society does not allow him to have what he wants, such as Anna and Vronsky know this also but they fight anyway. And as humans, as champions, we cheer for them all the way, even though, perhaps we see their foreboding demise (does society always win?). Perhaps we also know, if Humbert has been born centuries earlier and Anna lived in today’s society, both of their sins would easily be forgiven – or not considered sins at all (how easy morality is shaped!) Perhaps it is empathy that allows us to realize these truths.

In his afterword, Nabokov teases the reader a little, imagining that most people wouldn’t make it to Part II, citing those who were hoping Lolita to be a lewd book, would suddenly be bored. Stories of controlled obsession rarely entice readers for too long (“Anna, just sleep with Vronsky already”, we might say, or “Scarlett, do whatever you have to do”). We want there to be a breaking point, a satisfactory destruction, a moment where the passion fully overtakes the individual. But Lolita hardly allows us that satisfaction. I found myself wishing Humbert to get caught, or perhaps he’d lock Lolita in the basement, or maybe she’d shoot him in a moment of rage. Instead, we are subjected to Humbert’s witty and paranoid world. We join him as they stop at different hotels, and travels across barren America, descriptions of ugly classmates, play dates with random friends, monstrous fears of Humberts, and details of Lolita playing tennis or dancing or theater-acting. These are only details of everyday life; the maddening details of a love struck obsessed man (you became convinced it isn’t simply lust).

Only towards the end of the book do we sense some action is coming, some change, some grand destruction. But within the grand destruction – the climax of sinning against society – is a confession that I think surprises Humbert himself. Even seeing Lo married to someone else, pregnant, dirty, old (ish), and unkempt, Humbert still loves her (“my Lolita!”), and pleads her to go with him (she refuses, though doesn’t seem to mind his presence). Is Humbert a reliable narrator? Of course not. After all, he claims in the beginning that Lolita seduced him (unlikely). But even if Humbert is not reliable, to imagine he loves Lolita beyond the perfection of youth, that he is not simply “criminally attracted to young girls”, not simply a pedophile, is to imagine that society might forgive his transgressions if they are wrapped up with a pretty bow in the name of love (“I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais!”).

And perhaps we will, we do – somewhere deep inside, it makes things better. Because love means you think about something or someone beyond yourself. You put yourself aside, love means being at the mercy of someone else, being vulnerable, being open, being completely “not in control.” We understand how hard it is to allow yourself to be in that state. But this isn’t the sort of feeling we get from Humbert. In the end, Humbert realizes (to his credit) that he does not even know Lolita at all. He was in love with an illusion, an idea, a fantasy he thought he could project on Lolita. But she never quite fits the mold, she always weasels her way out of it somehow. The fantasy Lo seduces Humbert, she gives him sly glances, she acts older than her age, but looks younger than her years, and she is a vixen, a starlet, yet pure and tantalizing, enjoys the relations between her and Humbert. But the real Lo, the girl, is dirty and unkempt, creative and daring, confused and forgiving, starving for attention and a sense of normalcy, detests her so-called father’s touch.

But we, the reader, we don’t get off too easily either. We have to make a choice right around page five. Humbert knows we will judge him and find him guilty. Humbert knows he sounds crazy and deprived (can he really be crazy then?). He is not a character lacking self-awareness. He is not a character easily dismissed into the Disney graveyard for villains. Perhaps Scarlett O’hara is forgivable because she completely lacks self-awareness. Perhaps Anna is forgivable because she simply doesn’t realize her mistake till its too late. But Humbert knows. He knows from the beginning what he will try to do, he knows his own passions, his sins, everything is premeditated, thought-out, fabricated. Does that make it easier or harder for us to pass judgment?

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

For certain, it makes us uncomfortable. But in that moment, in the interim of neither guilty nor not guilty, we find ourselves out on the limb, standing with Humbert as he awaits his verdict, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…look at this tangle of thorns.” And so we must decide, not whether Humbert is guilty or not guilty (after all, he is guilty), but whether or not we choose to learn, and be empathic – not for an end purpose, but for the purpose of being able to say, “I understand, I feel what you feel, I believe you.” We have to decide if we can, for 200+ pages, put aside our social constructions, expand our worldview, and simply listen.

It’s an art form lost, but nevertheless it’s an art form necessary. Literature affords us such a practice. It asks nothing of its reader but the opportunity to tell a story, to share an experience, to describe an emotion. It simply asks us, for a short moment in time, to be an unbiased witness.

I am not such a good listener as I would like to be. I find myself pointing out discrepancies, flaws, and lack of sound logic or reasoning, and I often think of arguments I would make against an author’s claims. And though I do believe critical thinking is likewise a necessary art form, in a world where we often judge and forget what it’s like to be judged, it doesn’t take much for the lesson to hit home.


Tiffany holds her B.A. in Media, Culture, and the Arts, and attempts to pursue all those things simultaneously. She currently resides in the D.C. area.
Follow her on Instagram: @tiff_kling
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