Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita chronicles the sexual relationship between a 12 year old girl, Dolores Haze, otherwise known as Lolita, and her 38 year old step-father, Humbert Humbert. For many already familiar with the story or being introduced to it now, I would hope that your response to that synopsis would be disgust. Nabokov’s classic tale is a masterclass in manipulation and victim blaming at the expense of a young girl. Yet still, commonly today many interpret Lolita as a love story. Indeed, the very term ‘Lolita’ is now synonymous with sexual promiscuity. Rightfully, some may enquire as to how any-one could ever view Lolita as the basis for a good relationship or at the very least a desirable one. My suggestion would be that its because we’ve grown to covet concepts, not realities and this is a very dangerous mentality to dwell in.
It is very difficult to deny that Lolita, with its status as one of the greatest 20th century novels, is beautiful. However, the inherently romantic and delicate prose that Nabokov employs is full of hyperbole and driven by a carefully calculated aesthetic not intended to inspire love, but rather to create the illusion of it: an illusion that has proved too strong for many readers to break. There is a mythical quality to Nabokov’s writing, evident in his reference to young girls as ‘nymphets,’ and that mysticism appears to have had an entrancing effect on those who encounter it. It is thus, the concept of Lolita, that people fall for time and time again – the idea of being enshrined in someone’s love. A love that places oneself on a restrictive pedestal or, in Lolita’s case, entrapped with ‘absolutely nowhere else to go’ by Humbert’s perverse attraction. However, seeing as the notion of unconditional love is still revered by many, Lolita fails to be seen as girl being slowly edged into a coffin by a man in a position of power, and rather is viewed as lucky to find herself the centre of affection and indeed complicit in it. Thus, the narration of Humbert Humbert leads many a reader to view their relationship as a romance, for how could this man’s absolute adoration be anything but pure. Oh, wait… because it’s morally reprehensible and utterly deplorable!
Aesthetics and romanticism are not just issues within the novel in terms of Nabokov’s writing style intended to make the reader sympathise with Humbert, but certainly not condone his actions. They are also problematic in terms of how the readership of the novel have come to view them as more important than the abuse of a young girl. Sexual relationships with a minor are deemed unlawful in the UK and most democratic nations, because it is deemed not possible for a minor to give their consent to a sexual relationship due to the immensely disproportionate power dynamics involved. Hence Lolita, whilst perhaps wanting to become sexually aware, is not capable of making such a decision herself. Yet, once more this line of argument is disregarded and the attention diverted towards the aestheticism of Lolita herself; her iconic heart shaped sunglasses (made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of the book), the tennis skirts, the lollipops. Many a Tumblr page I have stumbled across contains references to such features, but they usually fail to also recognise that they are also marks of the sexualisation and fetishisation of youth.
Lolita has become iconic in the sense that she represents a sexualised youth market to whom ‘all the ads are dedicated too’. But, in focusing on her appearance and her actions, her circumstances and context are too often neglected. Romantic ideals, romantic prose and romantic actions do not connote romance itself. Rather, Lolita as a novel can be viewed as romantic in terms of style but certainly not substance, and it’s about time people started dividing their attention equally between the two.
Words by Issy Marcantonio