Be careful if you type “Lolita” into a Google search box, especially if you’re inclined to click on the image results. The name, which provides the title for Nabokov’s magnum opus, has become synonymous with young girls being overly sexualized. It is for that reason that this book makes me so queasy. This is not an unearned reputation. When Sigmund Freud projected his perversion onto the human race and declared the Oedipus Complex to be nearly universal, he did a great injustice to Sophocles’ play and Greece’s legendary character. But to suggest that Lolita is about an unhealthy attraction between a middle-aged man and an under-aged girl, an attraction that expresses itself in kidnapping and rape, is simply to suggest the truth.
Nabokov protested accusations of pornography in his essay “On a Novel Called Lolita,” and, I would agree, made a solid argument that his work, whatever it is, should not be lumped with the simply prurient, single-minded works that populate that genre. This book is a long way from what Robert Browning’s Spanish monk calls “my scrofulous French novel, on grey paper with blunt type.” As the author points out, the novel can scarcely be called obscene when it contains none of the words traditionally held to be obscene.
Lolita the book, just like the many-named character behind the title, defies easy categorization. Clearly it is not “mere” pornography, yet it contains passages that powerfully evoke erotic response. Perhaps that is why this book makes me queasy. Although I utterly reject its subject matter, I have to admit that Nabokov’s non-pornography gets to me.
What are we to make of Nabokov? On the one hand, he paints Humbert as a a figure of near ridicule, a figure who is dangerous to children in various ways. Yet this is no morality play. Is he trying to show us just how sick this whole arrangement is? If so, he accomplishes that end perhaps too well. Is he trying implicate the reader in Humbert’s crimes? At least for many male readers, I believe he succeeds in that attempt.
As a child of modernism, Nabokov brings the ideal of the artistic creation as a self-contained, self-justifying entity into his work. Yet the creations of the story–the played-out lust of Humbert for Dolores, the childhood of the girl, among others–wind up shattered and discarded. Even the story’s heroine, we learn, dies in childbirth. The creative product exists for its own sake, yet it appears as a corrosive and deadly force.
Not for a moment do I believe that Nabokov would take a socially conservative view of his novel, but I would like to offer one nonetheless. Lolita is a novel about creation, yet this creation is damaged and destroyed at various turns. Biological creation, manifested in childhood, seems particularly at risk in these pages. Biology of any school will confirm that a species that destroys its own young is on a perilous and unsustainable path. It is for just this reason that cultures have traditionally imposed various protections for and limits on sexual interaction. In the pages of Lolita, we see a case in which those protections and limits are transgressed. In the single case, they produce a tragic story. Writ large on the society, they spell the self-destruction of a people.
Should Lolita be censored? I would argue against that sort of an action, but it should not be thrown into the hands of readers unprepared to deal with its complexities and challenges. Just as the typical children’s Sunday School class does not cover the Judah and Tamar story, the typical high school student, who struggles at times with the complexities of Of Mice and Men, who believes Holden Caulfield to be intended as a heroic figure, should not be asked to deal with the profundities that Nabokov placed on these pages.