Lolita is old enough and infamous enough to be known as a story of unhinged peadophilia. But it’s also a beautiful and depressing love story, with a tortured antagonist who despite his crimes, and due to the skill of the book’s author Vladimir Nabokov, we can eventually empathise with.
The plot focuses on peadophile Humbert Humbert—a handsome, French-born intellectual on the one hand, and unapologetic sexual predator on the other. His double name reflects his double life. He lies so much that you can’t tell front from back, allowing him to disguise his perversion behind a robust facade that few people penetrate. His sociopathic behaviour might be traced back to a sexual experience when he was 13, when he meets his “first love” Annabel—a 12-year old girl who is travelling with her parents. They lust for each other fervently, never quite managing to have sex, but groping and clawing at each other with an intensity that leaves a permanent impression on Humbert. He describes his passion with a cannibalistic “frenzy of mutual possession [that] might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh.” Their failure to complete the dirty deed leaves an indelible, unresolved tension in Humbert—an impoverished thirst for early-pubescent girls that carries through to adulthood, which he is forced to lie about.
Humbert loves and hates his lust for early-pubescent “nymphets.” He feels like a round peg trying to squeeze into a square hole, and to douse his hebephilic lust, gets married to a woman who he physically abuses to get his own way. He constantly admits himself to sanatoriums, but finds the doctors ridiculous and uses his intelligence to mislead them. He swings from “ashamed and frightened” to “recklessly optimistic,” craving hedonistic sex with 11 to 14 year-old girls, but living in the wrong country and century. He tries to justify his urges by recounting accepted peadophilia throughout history, but even his vindications are half-hearted and remorseless—he’s a grown man who wants to have sex with children, and there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s an “artist and a madman, with a bubble of hot poison in his loins.” His anguish is illustrated beautifully by Russian-born Nabokov, whose mastery of English is mindblowing. The animalistic language that he uses is both shocking and enthralling, and some sentences are appalling in their vividness. Humbert describes his fantasies as “just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup.” When his lolita Dolores Haze sits next to him on the sofa, he describes it as “squeezing herself in,” and later in the story “gorges on her spicy blood.” Of his failed effort to slay his peadophilic lust by marrying a woman he doesn’t love, Humbert writes:
“But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.”
Humbert understands the precariousness of his attachment to Dolores. She’s a hostage who he appeases with countless and expensive bribes, spawning a crippling jealousy that his nymphet will run away with someone else, especially because of her flirtatious nature. She’s a girl who exhibits a “special languorous glow,” and “wags her tiny tail, her whole behind in fact as little bitches do.” The juvenile sensuality of Dolores Haze makes a peadophile and a green-eyed monster of Humbert, who becomes more and more paranoid as the story unfolds. After suspecting her of cheating on him, he traps her in a hotel room, finding nothing but his own lunacy:
“Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.”
As I relived Humbert’s most dangerous and prohibited moments, I found myself gripped with a disgusted intrigue, which produced a feeling of tension similar to Humbert’s own. As a tormented sociopath, Humbert is a thrilling character to follow, despite the gruesome nature of his actions. I couldn’t wait to find out how the grotesque corruption unfolded, while also feeling a little ashamed about it, which is testament to Nabokov’s skill as a storyteller. He’s taken one of humanity’s most abhorrent crimes and turned it into a tragic love story, written with an expertise that at times, felt enslaving.
Make no mistake, Humbert loves his lolita to the point of obsession, using every available trick to hunt and possess her—violence, manipulation, blackmail, fear, gaslighting, and everything inbetween. He’s bedeviled by the spirit of Dyonisus, living in a frenzy of impulsive hedonism, disregarding all laws of humanity to occupy his pubescent obsession. But the stark reality remains—Dolores is a 12-year old girl whose initial sexual interest in Humbert dissipates after they first have sex, leaving her disinterested in a relationship with a 30-something male, no matter how suave and handsome. She wants “hamburgers, not humbergers,” but Humbert is a man void of principle, and like the “pale spider” that sits in the middle of its “luminous web,” waiting to trap its victim, he ensnares and dominates her.
Despite Humbert’s evil, the fallout from the relationship is heartbreaking. Our empathy for the odious rogue is Nabokov’s greatest achievement in the novel. We both detest and symphathise with him, leaving us feeling confused and perhaps a little guilty—how can we feel pity for someone who rapes a 12-year old? What does that say about me? Humbert’s vile actions and fantasies, in which dreams of painting a mural of “a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sign, a wincing child,” is offset by the regret of his “foul lust,” of memories that snarl at him as “limbless monsters of pain,” and the hopelessness of falling in love with a girl who could never love him back. In Humbert, Nabokov illustrates the complexity of humanity—the motley facets in all of us, even those who have sex with children. Like Humbert’s love for Dolores, Lolita felt like a forbidden fruit, breaking the sturdiest of taboos to illuminate the mind of an infatuated, sociopathic peadophile, which is a mind we rarely get to see.
The writing is gorgeous, the subject hideous, and by the time I closed the book, I knew I’d just finished one of the greatest tragedies ever written.