Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: Novel Response

It seems to be quite amusing the way that so many people get so bent out of shape about a movie not following a book exactly. That is the beauty of prose, and the wonder of cinema. Why should there be a word for word visualization of something that already exists quite happily? Lolita is a compelling novel, a fascination read; is it wrong for an artist such as kubrick, or anyone else to succeed in creating that awesome world of humbert and the hayes ladies?

Is it immoral for yet another artist to come along and want to do it again, his way? Of course not. And if, for instance, a student longed to adapt lolita to a thesis, would he be criticized? Well, in the last instance, probably, because there isnt enough faith to go around for all students to take on a project such as that. But thats just the point, isnt it? Why shouldnt that student go on with his ideas and make the film he wants to? Who has the absolute authority to say that he wont be able to pull it off, or that its not something he should be focusing on right now?

Its a recognized story that will guarantee at least a little bit of attention. There are infinite possibilities in art. Cinema, painting, writing, photography, they yield such an incredible amount of focus, and talent, and decision; none repeats itself. When interpretations are brainstormed, and finally realized, that is somebodys achievement, however perfect or imperfect in relation to the original. There are critics who believe that masterpieces are meant to be what they are, and that remakes are not worthy of their titles. But how can this be, when there are so many things new, and so many ideas still unproduced?

Time, eras, our personal evolution, give us so much to look back on, to ponder and question. Young adults today will read lolita, and watch the first movie, and then the second, and they will be most apt to honestly enjoy the latest release over kubricks version. This is because of what people are accustomed to, of course. If a vhs copy of lolita with jeremy irons on the sleeve was screened in a geriatric hospital, the conclusion would be much different than it would be among young adults. Reproductions give us wonderful opportunities. Lolita is a shining example of this.

Nobakov wrote a novel, the infamous lolita. Some time later a film was made by the same name. That film was not nearly as explicit as the original because of the time and place it was made. The public didnt want to see things like pedophelia on a giant screen in a dark room. Today, the act is still illegal, fortunately, but as a group of personalities and minds, the public has grown into a mass that can handle this subject maturely, and respectfully. There is a pride that goes along with finally reaching a point in culture where lolita can be seen on showtime, and although there will always be some controversy, over anything, the outcome has never been clearer, and a freedom of mentionable intensity has been earned.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Nabokov’s Lolita is a book that deals with obsessive lust and bloody violence, the real horrors of which are often masked by the beautiful, clever language of the novel. Indeed, Humbert’s early job as a perfume salesman mimics and evokes this masking and sweetening aspect of language. Sudden, horrible death occurs frequently in Lolita, but the book is better served if we study it as an experiment in language and the way words are used to treat the book’s horrific subjects.

Identifying the sudden deaths of the work is not difficult. Beginning with Humbert’s mother, whose famous death by “(picnic, lightning)” is mentioned in Part One, we learn of the sudden if not unexpected deaths of Annabel, Charlotte, and Quilty, and even those of Humbert and Lolita. We also see lots of sudden loss in the novel, with Valeria’s surprising announcement that she is having an affair and Lolita’s sudden disappearance on the second road trip. Usually, the deaths are treated casually, as seen most poignantly in the parenthetical mention of his mother’s death. Humbert seems emotionally dissociated from many events in his life.

The sudden moments of great interest in the novel all indicate the strong presence of fate and random chance. Charlotte is struck by pure accident when a car swerves to avoid hitting a dog that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Humbert’s loss of his mother to lightning is nothing more than a random act of bad luck. The general tendency of the novel is to indicate that, as Humbert himself points out, chance is a major factor in life and in death; in some ways, this truth diminishes the tragedy that accompanies loss, because we know that nature is fickle and random.

Lolita can be viewed as a novel about sex and murder, but better as a novel about the liberation of desire. Humbert is a man who essentially gets what he wants in this book. He wants to get married at the beginning, so he marries Valeria. He wants to make love to Lolita, so he marries Charlotte to get near her and eventually succeeds. He wants revenge on Quilty, so he murders him.

In each part of the book, we see what Humbert wants and how he goes about getting it. We learn in exquisite detail his inner drives and motivations. He has a clear vision of what his body craves and will do virtually anything to get it, short of physically raping Lolita. The book takes us through all his inner desires, both echoing and manipulating Freudian theories regarding psychological exploration. But it is also a narrative written by a frustrated murderer in his jail cell, reflecting back on how he found freedom in satisfying his urges, be they to have sex or to do harm to others, two of the most basic human instincts.

Lolita is divided into two parts. The first deals with Humbert’s growing lust for his stepdaughter and ends with the beginning of their affair; its fundamental action is the sex between Humbert and Lolita. The second deals with the loss of Lolita and the hunt for Quilty; its fundamental action is his murder. Thus, we have the act of creation in part one juxtaposed with the ultimate act of destruction in part two. Between these two great and intensely personal acts lies a flowery narrative studded with some of the best puns, word plays, allusions, and some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any English novel.

In these middle sections the book’s fun, clever tone overshadows the more distressing events, and reveals perhaps the most fundamental theme of Lolita: language, and the ability of language to reveal and conceal simultaneously, to be beautiful and hide the truth within the folds of its beauty. Humbert, the first-person narrator, presents the action of the novel, bloody or lovely, through a glowing, magnificent prose that allows him to talk his way out of almost any situation. At times, he can even convince the reader that his lust for Lolita, a young girl, should not be abhorred.

Humbert drops all sorts of ideas and clues (including false clues) everywhere, some of which have meaning and some of which just cannot be understood in any definite way. His language is designed to tell his story while presenting himself in the best possible light. Any reader will do best not to ask what every incident in Lolita means, but rather how those images, characters, and situations are created. As much as it is a story about the events that make up its plot, Lolita is also a story about how that plot is related through language.

Child Abuse and Lolita – The Movie

Imagine for one moment that you are not yourself any longer. Visualize instead that you are a young girl; old enough to know right from wrong yet still young enough to be terrified by the dark shadows in your room. It is a cool autumn night and your parents have opted to attend a party, which you are not allowed at. It will be fine, they say. Although you already know what is to come.

Your uncle comes over to watch you for the evening, and your parents are so pleased by the fact that they do not have to find a sitter. As soon as he arrives, your mother kisses you on the cheek and scurries out the door to join your father already waiting in the car outside. The nightmare begins. You can feel his eyes worming through your clothes every time that he looks at you. You feel dirty and violated every time you think about what he does to you when you are alone. He walks over to the couch and sits down next to you. His hand slithers it way onto your knee and you cringe in repulsion.

Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you, he says. Your mind feels panicky as you fell his touch
in more intimate places and you scream involuntarily. His grip tightens as he places his hand over your mouth. We’ll have to do this the hard way! he whispers intensely. You try to fight him off, but it doesn’t help. His massive body is on top of yours, and you feel so powerless. Eventually, you sink into a sobbing heap and simply wait for his passions to stop. You wait for the nightmare to end. When he is done, you limp to the laundry room and try to remove the bloodstains from your clothes. It is all your fault…

What you have just experienced is one type of abuse that occurs millions of times every year across America. Estimates of abuse range wildly depending on the source of ones information. Anywhere from one to two million children per year are victims of child abuse (Dolan). All sources agree on the simple truth that not nearly all cases of child abuse are reported or even estimated. Man cases go unreported, less than 50% by current estimates (Dolan). The amount of child abuse is staggering to think about, let alone deal with. By the age of eighteen one in three girls will have been sexually molested and one in six boys will have been molested in that same time frame. So how has child abuse changed over the last 100 years and what effects has this had on the family?

It is clear that families are undergoing a number of important structural changes. Families are smaller than in the past, with fewer children and sometimes with only one parent; parents have children at a later age; more couples live together without the bonds of matrimony, which was accepted as a sacred bond. This degradation of society is unknown throughout all areas of research. It is a question that one person needs to answer for himself and solve for himself. Something a young child is not capable of doing.

Sexual abuse of children is a grim fact of life in our society. It is more common than most people realize. Sexual abuse is described as those activities by an older person for his or her sexual gratification without consideration for the child’s psychosocial sexual development. Also, as contacts or interactions between a child and an individual of higher power when the child is being used for the sexual stimulation of that adult or another (Ruth). There are many categories of sexual abuse; these include incest, pedophilia, exhibitionism, molestation, sex (statutory rape), sexual sadism, and child pornography. It is estimated that approximately three hundred thousand children are involved in child prostitution and pornography (Kempe ).

Many times men or woman who abuse children were abused when they were young. In this way, abuse is very much a self fulfilling prophecy, or circle problem. Historically, sexual abuse was not as much of a problem as it is in modern times. Incidences of sexual abuse are highest in urbanized technologically advanced societies. This is evident because the basic need of the sexual drive is denied a constructive outlet in modern society. In other cultures and times, prostitution was a valid form of employment, and this niche provided an integral outlet for connoisseurs of sex.

Without this vent men with sexual frustration may turn to the less reactive child as sexual prey. Due to the black market prostitution of children, a twelve-year-old boy can earn upwards of a thousand dollars per day selling himself on the streets of Los Angeles. Sexual abuse can have severe consequences on the mental development of children.

The movie Lolita has been controversial in all its incarnation. The original movie caused a storm with its portrayal of a middle-aged man Humbert Humbert. He is so obsessed with a pre-teen nymphet that he marries her irritating mother just to be near Lolita. In many ways Humbert is also a classic pedophile, because he persuades himself that this is not a perverse desire but love. He tells us that he is this way because of the tragic death of his first love at 13. He has sought her ever since. So he is not an exploiter of a young girl but a respectful worship at a shrine (O’Brien). Quilty, by contrast, is portrayed as a monstrous pedophile.

In conclusion, we have gone over the most important points and facts about child sexual abuse and what their affects are on children. We have tried to shed some light on this unspoken and shunned subject. The answer to the question which was posed at the beginning of this paper is vague at best and unanswerable at worst. Child abuse has always been around, and it always will be around as long as other people care more about themselves, than about others. The last hundred years have only brought about changes in the discussion, description, and definition of child abuse. These things have helped do away with child abuse significantly, but the eradication of this most cursed of diseases is not in the sight of those who look to the future.

Lolita: Movie Analysis

Lolita is one of the most unconventional literary classics of the century. Lolita is a twelve-year-old girl, who is desired by the European intellectual Humbert Humbert. As the narrator of the story, Humbert chronicles his abnormal childhood, adolescent experiences, and an adventure in a booming American as a European tourist and pedophile. But it is key to realize his first heartbreak as a boy manifests into his desires for nymphets. This point is made clear in both the novel and movie. I will show that the movie Lolita, is a solid rendition of the novel of the same name.

Now some critics might see the novel as something more than I took it, like a contrast between the modernistic character of Humbert Humbert against the post-modern Americans that he encounters. Forget all that, I honestly thought the movie to be a convincing love story. On the surface level it was about an obsessive man and his love for nymphets, who met Lolita, the object of his desires. There were differences between the movie and the novel, yet I felt some scenes were left out of the movie that did not hurt the story at all. Also, some scenes were added which actually strengthened the story line in the movie.

I bet professional critics say the new version of Lolita did not measure up, well I loved it. Dominique Swain was awesome (a little hottie as well) and she perfectly played the character of Lolita. She may have even been more manipulative in the film version. An example of this was when Lolita was toying with Humbert as she rubbed her foot all over him in order to get a raise in her allowance and be able to be part of the play. You could not be much more sexual, manipulative girl than Lolita was! On minor change was that Lolita was twelve in the novel and fourteen in the movie. This was simply done to make the relationship a bit more accepting in the viewer’s eyes. I don’t believe it harshly affected the story at all.

In both works, Lolita was just a manipulative girl who had no idea what life was about. She was almost sucked into the porn business by a pathetic man who she worshipped as a Hollywood star. Plus, she handled Humbert perfectly in setting her escape to live with Quilty.	Humbert was also played brilliantly, yet I felt there was more longing in the novel Humbert, though we were still able to see his burning desire for nymphets and Lolita in general. It was intriguing to see how far he would go just to be with his love, and what was priceless was his reaction and facial expression as Lolita would play with his emotions. To me, Humbert was far more trashy a character in the novel, than he was in the movie. In the movie, he kept his distinguished professor demeanor, while in the movie I lost all respect for him.

Charlotte was yet another strongly played character, but really all we needed from her was to be an annoying and intrusive mother. Just like the novel we realized how much she disgusted Humbert. She was just an obstacle She was just an obstacle for Humbert to overcome in his quest for Lolita. It was better that I felt more of a jealousy from Charlotte toward Dolores in the movie, which added fire to the story. Quilty was really too much of a main character in the story. He just had to be the typical famous scumbag that tried to use Lolita as a toy. He was also as pathetic as in the movie as he was in the novel, and I was glad to see him get it in both. I believe he was introduced earlier in the move, in the scene where Lolita ran into him as she pet his dog. This was done to strengthen the story because we got to see and realize that Lolita was growing a desire for the Hollywood star.

The scenes that were removed from the novel had little effect on the feel of the story. For example, there is a long drawn out scene where Charlotte is returning from camp and Humbert is panicking in his decision to stay or leave as the car approaches. You didn’t need this because you knew he was going to stay and pursue his Lolita. So in the movie it was simply just Charlotte returning and the next thing you know they are married. That’s just cutting out the crap, and when you’re a director who want to make a good movie from a novel, you must realize what is crap and what is important subject matter.

Another deleted scene was when Humbert leaves the room after killing Quilty and all his guests are there. To be honest with you, this scene confused me in the novel and I’m glad it was left out. The scene made no sense, and the dialogue between the character was a waste of time. The movie ending was better, just him in his depressed and tormented emotional state as he drives down the road to absolutely nowhere. One last deleted scene was that of the stranger (Quilty) coming in to play tennis as Humbert was away. This scene was meant only to get Humbert nervous about losing Lolita, and without it in the movie we still realized he was overprotective of his treasure.

I want to discuss some more ways that I thought the movie was an improvement to the novel and also discuss some scenes that were added that strengthened the story. One of these was the scene where Lolita ran up the stairs to give Humbert a goodbye kiss before she went to camp. This scene was excellent because you began to see Lolita toying with poor Hum and that kiss could have killed in because he wanted so much more. The visual aspect of Lolita touching Humbert as the camera zoomed in on the them touching just added more to the entire story.

It gave you more of a sense of how that felt to Humbert as his desires for Lolita grew. Then we had the part with the swing outside as Charlotte and Humbert are sitting and he is making the swing glide past the door so he can see the dancing Lolita. This was funny because it made you see Humbert kind of trying to get away from Charlotte on the other end of the swing in order to catch a glimpse of his desire singing and dancing. Dolores’s retainer was a nice touch that added to the immaturity of Lolita. The retainer made us see her as nothing but a brace-faced retainer wearing kid. The scenes when she took it out to either kiss him or eat were quite funny.

Other imagery that was excellent was when the cigarette was still burning after Charlotte was hit and killed. This made me realize how fast the ordeal had happened. The smoke was not even gone, and poor Charlotte was dead. On the other hand, one funny scene was when Humbert was driving down the camp road and he was in ecstasy as the director kind of blurred the background to make it appear as kind of a nymphet land of his dreams as little girls run everywhere. One quick scene that made me laugh was when Humbert was in the hotel and he walked by a bunch of priests as they looked at him. It was ironic because I knew what he was about to do with Lolita that next morning. These are just some of the visual experiences that I thought strengthened the movie.

Like I said, there were many scenes added and deleted, yet I think this movie was a wonderful visual experience. I loved watching it and would without a doubt see it again. The director did a sweet job in turning the novel into an excellent movie. I’m sure you can tell I thought Lolita the movie was without a doubt in the spirit of Nabokov’s novel. I’m not sure he would like the changes but I did.

Lolita: Movie Review

How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita? The tagline for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Lolita said it all. Films and books “inspire, but may provoke”. They thrill but sometimes offend. And often the same artwork attracts both acclaim and condemnation. In modern times, censorship refers to the examination of media including books, periodicals, plays, motion pictures, and television and radio programs for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be offensive.

The offensive material may be considered immoral or obscene, heretical or blasphemous, seditious or treasonable, or injurious to the national security.” But should one medium be more censored than another? Films are visual creations, whereas novels incorporate the imagination. In the 1930’s, film industry executives formed a strict set of guidelines, the Production Code that governed movie content for twenty years. It stated that nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.

Criminal activity could not be presented in a way that led viewers to sympathize with criminals. Murder scenes had to avoid inspiring imitation, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. The sanctity of the marriage and the home had to be upheld. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.” So how did Kubrick film a movie based on a story with all of the above?

Movies are rated and restricted to certain viewers whereas books are not. The American Library Association’s guidelines state that “materials should not be excluded because of their origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation…libraries should challenge censorship.” This compared to the $25,000 fines in the 1930’s for theatres that ran films without a PCA seal of approval. This means, libraries are able to carry any book they like, whereas theatres are restricted to which movies are allowed to be shown. The film versions of Lolita were censored more strictly than the book due to ratings that restricted viewers, they were edited, and because of the greater awareness of child abuse in the 1990s.

The 50s was a time when “the raciest sex manual available to the panting adolescent was ‘Love Without Fear’…and even Norman Mailer, in the ‘Naked and the Dead’ had to write ‘fug’ instead of you-know-what.” (Jong) Vladimir Nabakov had just finished writing Lolita in the spring of 1954 and immediately began looking for a publisher. It was first issued in 1955 in Paris after several American rejections.

Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, “condemned by some as a porn king, praised by others as the ‘Lenin of the sexual revolution,’ took on the book when others were too afraid of censorship to try.” (Jong) Lolita was later banned by the French government for two years and retained by U.S. customs, but when it was brought to America three years later it became a “publishing phenomenon, eventually selling some 14 million copies.” (von Busack). Eventually Lolita became a rival for Ulysses as the masterpiece of the 20th Century. “Like most famous literary books, Lolita seduced the world for the wrong reasons. It was thought to be dirty…it won its first passionate proponents by being banned.” (Jong).

Lolita was called pornography by critics who hadn’t even read the book. During its time, Lolita was ” a genuinely new creation and genuinely new creations do not usually fare well…American Puritanism is more comfortable with sex when it stays in the gutter than when it rises to the level of art.” (Jong). But, it was read in all its unedited glory. There were no holes, and it was published just the way Nabakov had written it. The only censorship for novels is in the lack of publishing support. So, overall, the book version of Lolita fared far better than what was to come for its film counterparts.

Like the book, the movie is not especially sexy. Some of the most significant scenes from the book were left out of the 1962 film version because director, Stanley Kubrick feared a denial of a Seal of Approval from the Production Code. In the book, after being picked up from camp, Lolita asks her stepfather, Well, you havent kissed me yet have you? which is followed by Humbert and Los first real kiss, a kiss that, like her goodbye kiss before she left for camp, was induced by her. In Kubricks version, the dialogue of this scene mirrors the text, but the kiss is missing.

Its a small scene, but it should have had a bigger impact. It should be recognized that it was Lolita herself that flowed into Humberts arms and that it was she who pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva. But for those people in the audience who had not read the book, this was not made clear. Not surprisingly, the scene in which Lolita seduces Humbert for the first time at the Enchanted Hunters is reduced to a game, followed by nothing more than a fade out.

It can be argued that “the fact that Humbert and Lolita don’t really do it in this version, except in a fade out, is part of the film’s appeal.” (von Busack) Its classier and it keeps you guessing. But one can also argue that whats left to the imagination can oftentimes be worse than what actually happened. The power of an audiences imagination is in whats left unshown. By watching only this film, the audience does not realize that Lolita was just as much a seducer as a seduce.

A few lines of Lolitas such as I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what youve done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them youve raped me. and the word is incest, were also left out, because of the implications of sex with not only a minor, but a relative minor. They had to be left out due to PCA regulations. You see, in the 1962 version, it is never truly let known that sex between the two had occurred. You know it happened, you know that it is the entire plot of the book and film, you know it because of all the controversy surrounding it, but its never really verbalized. None of the lines like, we made it up very gently were mentioned in the movie, nor was the fact that Humbert began to pay Lolita for her favors ever touched on.

Lolita can be bought in any book store. I got my copy at Barnes and Noble for $13.00. But when I went to check out Kubricks non rated film version at Blockbuster, the video rental equivalent to books Barnes and Noble, it wasnt there. Instead I had to call around, finally finding it at a smaller, more artsy video store around the corner from my house. This is a perfect example of censorship at its best. One can easily read the book in its explicit detail, but you must search for a copy of a film that lacks the nudity, the violence, and the illicit sex.

The 1990s brought another director, Adrian Lyne, a shot at turning the famous novel into a visual masterpiece. Lyne tackled the film beginning in 1996, but could not find an American distributor, just like Nabakov, and just like Kubrick before him. For his part Lyne believes the failure of Lolita to get U.S. distribution is based on fear. (Butler). The first American screening was finally shown for the first time two years later in Los Angeles. A couple of days before the screening, the press had reported that Lolita’s backers were discussing a straight-to-cable release of their $50 million product with Showtime.

It should be said, flat out, that Lyne’s Lolita is not a movie we need to be protected from. (Butler). So why all the fuss? Its the 90s, isnt it? Havent we been liberated from our past and arent we now strong backers for freedom of speech? The United States has always strongly pretended to back free speech, but when it comes down to it, there are still certain words you cant say on the radio or television, among other issues. So we finally got to read the book, we finally saw the first film version in the 60s, why should there be any problems with Lolita today? Because we now live in a time when six year olds are sent home from school for kissing their classmates.

It is the era of Jon Benet Ramsey and a greater awareness of child abuse. Many distributors have passed on this Lolita, using as a primary excuse the constitutionally dubious 1996 federal law that prohibits showing sexually suggestive acts with children. (Butler) This Child Pornography Act prohibits “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video image or picture” that is or even “appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” And Lynes version does in fact have scenes where, Lolita is seen naked in bed with Humbert scrambling to get the money he has just paid her. Yes, it is a body double, but as an audience, we dont know that.

There is no Body double : over 18 flashing across the screen. Their kisses are shown to be passionate. Lolita does stand at the top of the staircase, slowly and seductively unbuttoning her shirt. And there is the rocking chair scene where Lolita is visibly excited while sitting on Humberts lap. But this should all be OK because the people that see this film should be mature enough to distinguish the storyline from the sexuality. As mentioned earlier, the book, which oftentimes goes into more explicit detail is readily available to whomever. But movies have ratings, limiting their viewers.

In turn, a movie should be able to show whatever they want in accordance to what rating they wish to receive and who they wish their audience to be. Lolita received an R: for aberrant sexuality, a strong scene of violence, nudity and some language. Lyne wanted a mature audience, that of seventeen and older, to view his film. And as long as the scenes do not visually show the act of sex between a 14 year old girl and an older man, the other scenes leading up to that should not be purposely left out for those old enough to buy a ticket and mature enough to understand the plot.

Funny how Boogie Nights, a movie about the California porn industry, was released the same year, with the same rating, R, for strong sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language and violence and it was actually nominated for, and won, several prestigious awards. This, a film that features high school students, possibly under the age of 18, having sex with an older woman, who has become like a mother to them.

The laws regarding what can and cannot be shown in movies have changed since 1962 and they will continue to do so throughout time. Eventually, its possible that Lynes Lolita, which most closely resembles the novel, will be re-released in theatres without the controversy surrounding it. People will go in and watch the movie, and come out asking themselves what the fuss was all about for so long. They will realize for themselves that it should not be left up to movie distributors to decide what they can see.

Bibliography

Dirks, Tim. Lolita (1962). 1996.
<http://www.filmsite.org/loli.html>

Edmunds, Jeff. Lolita: Complex, often tricky and a hard sell. CNN. 9 April 1999.
<http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/books/1999/nabakov/lolita.sociological.essay/

Jong, Erica. Summer Reading; Time Has Been Kind To The Nymphet: Lolita 30 Years Later. NY Times. 5 June 1988.
<http://www.nytimes.com/books/07/07/20/reviews/16009.html

Rolo, Charles. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov. The Atlantic. 1958 September.
<http://www.theatlantic.com//unbound/classrev/lolita.htm

Schickel, Richard. Taking a Peek at Lolita. Time.
<http://www.time.com/magazine/articles/0,3266,22367,00.html

von Busack, Richard. Lingering Lolita. MetroActive Movies. 27 March 1997.
<http://www.metrocactive.com/papers/metro/03.27.97/lolita-9713.html

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, is a highly aesthetic writer. Most of his work shows an amazing interest in and talent for language. He deceptively uses language in Lolita to mask and make the forbidden divine. Contextually, Lolita may be viewed as a novel about explicit sexual desire. However, it is the illicit desire of a stepfather for his 12-year old stepdaughter. The novel’s subject inevitably conjures up expectations of pornography, but there in not a single obscene term in Lolita.

Nabokov portrays erotic scenes and sensual images with a poetic sensibility that belies the underlying meaning of the words. The beautiful manipulation of language coerces one to understand Humbert’s interdict act of pedophilia. By combining erotic and poetic desire in the context of the forbidden, Nabokov challenges the immorality of pornography, as illicit desire becomes masked in sensuous language. Nabokov carefully tailors the language Humbert Humbert uses to tell the world of his love for the forbidden nymphet, urging sympathy and innocence from the reader. However, the deeper meaning of the forbidden sexual desire is clearly seen in the use of only slightly veiled metaphor alluding to Humbert’s own obsession.

The very first words of the novel set the stage for Nabokov’s masterful use of poetic and erotic allusion. The poetic and romantic lyricism become the foundation for allusion from the deviancy of Humbert’s sexual desires:

“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”.

From the first, he juxtaposes the ordinary with the sexual in his descriptive odes to love as well as simple statement reflecting her youth. The juxtaposition of youth and sexual desire is the driving force behind the novel and the controversy. The wording, however, is a mixture of romantic lyricism and obscene allusion. The tension is derived through the sensuous beauty of the words rather than the image of the young girl, just “four feet ten”.

“The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps” refers to Humbert’s tongue and the palate he wishes to “tap at three on the teeth” is Lolita’s. Evidently, Humbert’s clever choice of words masks the interdict aspect of his sexual desires for Lolita. Poetic lines such as “light of my life, fire of my loins” become fundamental in understanding the contextual allusion from immorality in Humbert’s deviant sexual desires and behavior.

The deviancy of Humbert’s sexual encounters with Annable Leigh, his first love, at age 13 is masked by beautiful, erotic language, making their sexual act natural and decent. Humbert asserts that his love for and memory of his first love provided the basis for his affair with Lolita. Humbert’s sexual experience with Annabel takes place one summer night in a garden on the French Riviera. His description of their act contains no sign of trepidation or self-censorship; it is highly poetic from beginning to end. The narrator is not so much trying to describe the erotic games of two youngsters as to make us intimately feel their erotic excitement:

“She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.”

Therefore, Nabokov’s highly erotic, beautiful description becomes a justification for Humbert’s adolescent sexual deviance. Since pornography is usually the one-sided attempt at gaining sexual pleasure from another object or person, the author of a pornographic novel would have endeavored to describe the boy’s exploratory gestures in great detail, focusing the description upon him.

Instead Nabokov reverses the situation, making Annabel the focal point of the text, though not its reflector. The scene begins with an alliterative evocation of her legs (“Her legs, her lovely live legs”) through which one can picture, as in a mirror, young Humbert’s erotic pleasure while he is caressing them and adult Humbert’s excitement as he remembers the event. These legs are hospitable but not wanton, Annabel’s (frayed) modesty being necessary to contain young Humbert’s ardor and to allow the poetic unfolding of the scene.

In this marvelous passage from Lolita, one feels that Nabokov not only meant to mimic as closely as possible the voluptuousness experienced by the two adolescents and to make us feel it intensely in sympathy. But also to cast aside the vulgar clichs used in literature to represent sex, and, step by step, to prepare us for the blossoming of the final metaphor which bears little trace of trepidation and self-censorship. The tailored elements are not meant to turn the girl into a “tumescent” object nor as a euphemism representing the girl’s genitals, under cover of the fetish.

They are not even referred to as a forbidden nook, as the phrase “my hand located what it sought,” in which there is hardly any trace of self-censorship, confirms. The girl’s genitals are neither named nor described; they are simply designated deictically as the sublime goal of a quest. Here, the anatomic word or the exaggerated metaphor would inevitably mar the poetic beauty of the passage and betray the inadequacy between the words and the idealized referent. Humbert, as a narrator, does not insist on his gesture as a protagonist; on the other hand, he extensively, poetically, evokes the effects of his caresses on Annabel who seems to be teetering between pleasure and pain.

The scene is all the more exciting as the girl’s gestures, which are described in such voluptuous detail, inevitably reflect the caresses lavished on her by the boy; they mirror the rhythm and configurations of his caresses. The protagonist and the narrator betray the same fascination in front of Annabel’s voluptuous contortions, drawing their excitement from the spectacle, so that the final gesture is hardly indecent: it is the ultimate gift made by the young boy to the ecstatic virgin.

There is no trace of vulgarity in the phrase, which is both a metaphor and a metonymy and constitutes a kind of poetic climax. After the implied evocation of the girl’s genitals, the narrator had no choice but to invent a beautiful poetic formula which would sound at once natural and relevant. Unlike the explicit description of his sexual encounter in adolescence, Humbert avoids extensive detail of the sexual act itself with Lolita.

To Humbert, Lolita allows the deviancy of sexual union because she represents both deviancy from the norm and the sexual freedom of his youth. Although there is no real sexual act, the description of the Sunday morning scene on the divan is one of the most erotic and poetic passages, showing the extreme deviancy of Humbert’s sexual desires. (57-61) Despite the highly poetic language Humbert uses to mask the magnitude of his interdict desires, and make the reader sympathetic, the narrator realizes that his sexual hunger for nymphets is not moral in the eyes of society.

Here, the narrator takes endless precautions, begging us to sympathize with him as a protagonist and to participate in the scene: “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, ‘impartial sympathy.” This is a somewhat ambiguous request: Humbert the narrator says that he is aware of the reader’s desire as a voyeur, and he thinks he can depend on his freedom from prejudice, nay on his erotic complicity.

The signs of embarrassment and self-censorship are obvious here; yet, it is neither the author, nor even the protagonist who is supposed to experience such feelings, but the narrator while he is writing and imagining his reader’s reactions. Naturally, there is a big difference between this sexual scene between a thirty-seven-year-old man and a twelve-year-old girl, and the sexual games indulged in by young and inexperienced Humbert and Annabel Leigh on the French Riviera.

Humbert the narrator is aware that the scene he is about to replay is going to hurt many readers’ feelings and offend their moral sense, so he dissociates himself from Humbert the protagonist by presenting him as a somewhat grotesque theatrical character: “Main character: Humbert the Hummer.” The dissociation of Humbert the narrator from Humbert the protagonist is another verbal allusion to innocence in spite of his sexual deviancy.

Humbert portrays Lolita in a somewhat vulgar fashion in this particular scene in order to establish the unoffensiveness of his behavior. The portrayal of a child gone bad, offering the ultimate sin to man is no mistake. Humbert describes her appearance:

“She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple.”

Lolita is a young American flirt who flaunts countless erotic signs in an attempt to make herself desirable. Hence the three adjectives used by Humbert to describe the apple which is objectively beautiful, artistically vulgar and superfluous in this context, but marvelously appropriate and functional in this scene. Lolita is no longer a vulgar little flirt but the archetypal seductress and temptress, Eve in the Garden of Eden. Humbert, the protagonist, mocked by Humbert the narrator, is too excited sexually to be distracted by such clichs.

The apple serves as a prop in a first erotic exchange: Lolita tosses it up as if she were juggling with it, he catches it, and she begs him to give it back: “I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin.” “Delicious” does not only designate a species of apples but also, metaphorically, the penis which, in the present scene will be turned into a poetic object.

It is remarkable how Nabokov gradually replaces the clichs lavishly displayed by Lolita on herself and around her by a subtle play of superimposed images, thereby showing the difference between the vulgar yet “fey” nymphet and the refined connoisseur. Here the narrator does not dissociate himself from his protagonist self: he unambiguously brings his personal contribution to the staging of this poetic and erotic scene in which the reader finds it increasingly difficult to dissociate his aesthetic from his erotic pleasure.

The scene becomes more and more writerly as Humbert’s excitement increases: “Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs.” There is no trace of embarrassment in the phrase “masked lust.” Nabokov is not attempting to compose luxuriant, exaggerated, or paradoxical metaphors as pornographers did to depict the tumescent penis. He prefers to use an abstract word, “lust”, which evokes a highly concrete experience and alliterates with “Delicious. Humbert’s elevating sexual excitation is accompanied by heightened poetic language, making his deviant sexual desire romantic and endearing.

There are elements of pornography present throughout Lolita, including the concept of sexual possession and consumption; however, these pornographic factors are masked in poetic language making his forbidden desire understandable. His language is reflective of sexual acts while maintaining the lilting quality of romantic allusion:

“She was musical and apple-sweet … Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice … and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty–between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock”.

The poetic language is a concealment of the escalating interdict sexual desire Humbert is experiencing at the moment. The allusion to sexual activity through the act of ‘devouring’ becomes a veiled metaphor for his possession of both the girl and the ‘forbidden fruit’. Humbert’s “consumption” of Lolita is indicative of his ability to solipsize the forbidden. However, the strength of the sexual metaphor is veiled by the reference to youth in its innocence. He refers to childhood tales (Beauty and the Beast) in conjunction with sexual innuendo.

The double meaning of the ‘gagged beast’ (triple if one infers that Nabokov is also referring to the trappings of clothing) is set in opposition, once again, with the innocence of youth as it applies to physical attributes. Nevertheless, by indirectly associating himself with the legendary Beast from the fairy tale, Humbert is justifying his sexual attraction and establishing his innocence from the interdict.

The poetic escalation accompanying Humbert’s increasing excitement continues, as his “masked lust” becomes “the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.” At the moment of orgasm, the narrator vanishes behind his protagonist self who addresses the members of the jury as follows: “and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.” Humbert does not simply apostrophize the members of the jury who will have to try him for murdering Quilty, but another court of justice, which he begs to render its verdict against him for depraving Lolita.

Later on, he will be very hard on himself; here, though, he neither accuses himself nor makes amends but jubilantly glorifies his sexual experience which he claims had no precedent in nature and therefore can not be judged by any human court of law. The word “monster” does not imply that Humbert the narrator is beginning to feel remorse, rather at that particularly moment, Humbert the protagonist feels as if he has totally freed himself from the law of men and performed the ultimate erotic act, an act at once ugly and sumptuous.

To be sure, Humbert tries to vindicate himself morally after that: “I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor,” and he tries to fool himself into believing that he has not soiled the “lady’s new white purse.” Yet, he knows as a narrator that the intensity of his pleasure at the time owes a great deal to his conviction that he was actually defiling Lolita. In comparison, his first actual lovemaking with her will be very disappointing, both erotically and poetically.

The poetic, erotic, and romantic language Humbert Humbert uses to describe his passionate sexual attraction to Lolita is an attempt at redeeming the sins of his protagonist self. It is no longer the portrayal of a love that is defined by law and by society as deviant. Nabokov’s writing unambiguously seeks to transmute Humbert’s erotic experience into a work of art, and to induce us to relive it intensely in our imagination and with our senses. He does not want us simply to identify with his protagonist as a crude pornographer would, but to bring us to adhere totally to this beautiful text in which the gradual eroticization of the language eventually creates a poerotic ecstasy.

There is no longer any separation between signifier and signified, between the pretext and the present text; the obstacle that prevented novelistic language from representing the sexual act is magically abolished, even though sex still remains a powerful source of anxiety. It is not the sexual interdict, no matter what its true nature is, which is transgressed, but the aesthetic one. As Humbert later acknowledges “sex is but the ancilla of art,” it cannot be its main subject.