Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita has remained a popular and critically acclaimed novel in our modern day due to Nabokov’s eloquent prose and his enchanting description of the ‘nymphet’ Lolita. Nabokov is successful in portraying Humbert in an empathetic as well as a shocking way. The reader sympathises, yet is equally disgusted by, his sexual preferences.
The question one must ask is how has the detailed narration of a middle-aged paedophilic stalker become a critically acclaimed novel appearing on many of the top 100 must-read novel lists? Nabokov’s plot, involving Humbert Humbert fantasising over a twelve year old girl and imagining their sexual encounters, would understandably result in a disgusted reader response. Surely this is a book that would be deemed inappropriate and would most probably continue to be banned in the literary world? However, this is not the case, thus the question is: how has this book survived and become so highly critically acclaimed?
Upon reading the novel, Nabokov’s narrative style is enchanting and entices the reader into Humbert’s lonely world. His existence is shown to be one of loneliness - he admits ‘I was ashamed and frightened’ - he lacks the solid, female partnership that many middle aged men have, and is left with little but academia. However, as the book unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that Humbert is not an ordinary man - he is sexually attracted to ‘nymphets’ as he would call them. These ‘nymphets’ represent pre-pubescent children. The first few chapters reveal his disturbing fancy, shown when he pretends to read in children’s playgrounds, but actually looks at the young girls and imagines possessing them.
This outward confession shocks the reader, yet one is equally as surprised by the fact Humbert has faith enough in his readers to confide in them. Nabokov does something very interesting with Humbert as he allows the readers to tap into his mind and attempt to understand his thought processes. Although few would condone his behaviour, Nabokov does create an interesting narrative which is original and thought-provoking for the reader. Humbert grows frustrated: ‘Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!’ This suggests that he cannot control her physically; he can only articulate his love for her in words which demonstrates to the reader his deep attachment to her.
Part of what fascinates the reader in Lolita is Humbert’s own self-acknowledgement of what he is doing. He has a strong, functioning moral compass. He is fully aware of what he is doing with Lolita - ‘I was not quite prepared for the reality of my dual role. On the one hand, the willing corruptor of an innocent, and on the other, Humbert the happy housewife.’ He refers to himself as the ‘willing corruptor’, which establishes his acknowledgement of his actions. When he considers killing Lolita’s mother Charlotte to get closer to her, and also when he drugs Lolita in the hotel room, one is shocked at the extent of his obsession. Equally, when Humbert takes Lolita on the road to prevent her from getting attached to anyone except him, the reader is made aware of the lengths he is willing to go to.
As the novel progresses, external influences interrupt Humbert’s plans for domination. Lolita matures and wants to go to school, neighbours interfere, and Claire Quilty then takes Lolita from hospital. This external interference may symbolise Nabokov’s reluctance as an author to allow Humbert’s fantasies to become a reality as it would be too disturbing and would lead to Lolita not being a recognised work. Many argue that the novel diminishes in its attentive power as it continues as Humbert’s fantasies are not fully realised.
Nabokov’s Lolita is a novel demanding close and continued attention as it challenges our views on sexuality and moral relativism. Would many cultures view Humbert’s sexual preferences as disturbing as the Western 21st century view would? Nabokov provokes his readers to consider the sexual maturation of children and at what age they become accountable for their sexual encounters. Humbert surprisingly evokes sympathy as he is lonely and unfulfilled, yet it is due to Nabokov’s eloquent and captivating prose that the reader feels this way. Actually, all Humbert is is a lonely, sexually frustrated, and perverted man.