Sexuality and Genre in Vladmimir Nabokov’s [Lolita]

First edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (Volumes I and II)

First edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (Volumes I and II)

Disclaimer: I hope it is clear that I, in no way, endorse or condone pedophilia or hebephilia. The following post aims to discuss highly controversial topics in a sensible and academic fashion, and furthermore, it intends to problematize the child/adult divide and the controversial portrayal of childhood sexuality in literature. 

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (published in 1955 in Paris and 1958 in New York) is a beautifully written novel that delves into the sexual relationship between an English, middle-aged man and a twelve-year-old American girl. It is perhaps the most well-known artistic work that delves into the highly controversial and vexed taboo known as hebephilia–which entails a sexual interest in prepubescent individuals, usually between the ages of 11 to 14 (many regard the novel to be a depiction of pedophilia, although technically speaking, this latter term is usually applied to individuals who are sexually attracted to people who are 13 years-old or younger). Regardless of this technicality, Lolita is known for expressing highly charged material in a form that not only exudes literary merit, but that is also capable of ensnaring the reader’s thoughts and senses. It’s so easy to get lost within the beauty and pathos of the prose that it is sometimes easy to forget that this novel is dealing with a highly problematic relationship.

Lolita is presented as a manuscript for a novel written by the fictional protagonist named Humbert Humbert (not a typo), a professor and literary critic who becomes infatuated with the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze (who he affectionately refers to as Lolita). This manuscript discusses Humbert Humbert’s life in detail, in an attempt to prove his innocence and to convince the reader that he is not as guilty for his crimes as he seems. The first chapters open with Humbert describing his childhood and his first love, Annabel Leigh (an overt reference to Poe’s poem Annabel Lee), and how they fell in love with each other when they were teenagers. Annabel Leigh dies before she and Humbert ever consummate their relationship, sexually speaking, and thus, Humbert traces this as the root for his infatuation with prepubescent girls. However, Humbert is not infatuated with all prepubescent girls, but rather, he is drawn to a specific type of girl he dubs a “nymphet.” He describes nymphets as follows: “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac)” (location 220).

Humbert constantly tries to justify his actions and his attitudes, going as far as to allude to historical figures who also sustained sexual relationships with prepubescent individuals in an effort to make his actions seem more logical. To some extent, he tries to justify that his actions are not necessarily wrong, but that the society he lives in creates the illusion of wrongness in these relationships: “I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve” (location 243). Now, most sensible readers would react in a horrified fashion when reading statements such as these, but in essence, Humbert is trying to make a case for the constructed nature of childhood sexuality and the somewhat arbitrary laws that are sometimes devised when it comes to relationships. Don’t get me wrong–there is absolutely something twisted about a twenty-five year old man pursuing a relationship with a prepubescent girl, especially when it comes to dynamics of power and control. We do live in a society in which it is just as illegal for a nineteen-year-old to date a seventeen year old as it is for a forty-year-old to date a seventeen-year-old. But the age difference between Humbert and Lolita is significant, and furthermore, the novel makes it quite clear that there is a revolting play of power taking place among the two central characters.

As I pointed out elsewhere, it becomes increasingly difficult to approach children as sexual individuals, not only because they haven’t reached puberty, but also because the very ties of childhood with notions such as innocence help to further cement the constructed divide between childhood and adulthood. When exactly does a child become an adult? Do all children become adults at the same age? Are eighteen and twenty-one magical years that are capable of instantaneously bestowing adulthood? Can a child be sexual? These notions become extremely important when approaching the novelfor the narrator not only approaches Lolita as a sexual being, but he goes as far as to imply that the first sexual act between her and Humbert was initiated by the twelve-year-old girl after she finds out that he never had sex as a kid:

“You mean,” she persisted, now kneeling above me, “you never did it when you were a kid?”

“Never,” I answered quite truthfully.

“Okay,” said Lolita, “here is where we start.” (Location 2076)

It is revealed that Humbert is not Lolita’s first sexual experience, and that she previously had a sexual encounter with one of her peers at a summer camp. We see here that Lolita is presented as a sexual being, a notion that certainly strikes a nerve because it contradicts the habitual understanding of the child as pure and innocent. Now, at first, it can be understood that Humbert is doing his best to portray his relationship with Lolita as consensual, and furthermore, he uses beautiful descriptions and commanding rhetoric in an effort to show readers that Lolita was previously “corrupted” by another person–that he hasn’t entirely robbed her of her innocence. While a more nuanced discussion of the constructed nature of childhood and childhood sexuality is beyond the scope of this post, we must keep in mind that at the end of the day, Humbert is deliberately trying to seduce the reader into believing that he is not guilty. However, it becomes difficult to buy into the fact that Lolita has fully developed sexual agency (or plain agency for that matter), not only because Humbert is the only figure of authority in Lolita’s life (which might make Lolita feel like she has to obey Humbert), but also because of her emotional reaction after she has sexual intercourse and later determines that her mother has died: “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (location 2207).

The complexity of these matters increases in voltage when recalling that what we are reading is a written account that was intentionally crafted to win over a reader’s sympathies. Our belief in Humbert and the words that he has written are, in due course, matters of faith: do we actually believe him when he states that Lolita initiated sexual intercourse? Do we think that he is lying? Do we think he’s lying because it is shown many times that Humbert is a habitual liar? Or, do we think he’s lying because we don’t think that children are capable of being sexual? There are no clear answers to these questions, but I do think that it is worth contemplating them for a moment.

As I final note to this post, something that really intrigued me about this novel was its interesting conflation of multiple genres, modes of writing, and poetic devices. Part of this has to do with “Humbert’s” style, which is anything but stable and consistent. For instance, in the chapter when Lolita sits on his lap for the first time, the novel takes on a disjointed, incoherent prose with a touch of stream-of-consciousness. This particular scene is introduced by Humbert in a fashion that resembles the opening scene of a playtext, in which elements are described in a meta-like fashion:

Main character: Humbert the Hummer. Time: Sunday morning in June. Place: sunlit living room. Props: old, candy-striped davenport, magazines, phonograph, Mexican knickknaks […]. She worse 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. (location 859)

However, the conflation of genres/modes does not stop here. The novel first opens with a foreword that gives the reader the impression that he or she is reading a testimonial meant to prove the author’s “innocence.” Thus, the reader feels as if Lolita were crafted as a memoir. The first couple of chapters actually read as a Bildungsroman or novel of development, in which Humbert describes his family, his upbringing, his early childhood, and even his first attempt at marriage. After meeting Lolita, the novel then becomes a parody of a novel of manners and a romance novel, focusing greatly on matters of appropriate behavior and the insatiable lust that Lolita ignites in Humbert. Part Two of the novel represents the greatest shift in genre and tone, in which picaresque elements (especially travel) are instilled in that the characters’ journey across America, yet all of this travel and all of these new experiences are unable to alter the characters or affect them in a significant manner.

It’s rather hard to pinpoint what effects this conflation of genres achieves. However, it can be said that the inability to place Lolita in a categorical box is a testament to its literariness, its complexity, its elusiveness, and its brilliance. True, the book does discuss some highly controversial and problematic topics, however, this book is well worth a read.

Comments? Other thoughts on the novel? Please feel free to add to the conversation!

You can purchase a copy of Nabokov’s novel here.

Work Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita (50th Anniversary Edition). Vintage, 2010. Ebook.

Cover image courtesy of the 2011 Penguin edition of Lolita. Click here to purchase a copy of this version.

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