Lolita Is Not A Love Story

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of my all-time favourite books. And no, not because I long for a “love story” like Lo and Humbert’s because oddly enough child abuse is not what I would call romantic. I love Lolita because it is devious, dark, hilarious and a little bit terrifying all at once. It uses notoriously “hard to pull off” literary tools such as the unreliable narrator, unreliable characters and at times an overly descriptive language. There are a lot of powerful themes at play in this book: A European disdain for the Americana, alienation, psychiatric scepticism and mind games – romance, I’m afraid, isn’t one of them.

I feel like the message of this novel is getting hopelessly lost in the Lolita subculture that stemmed from it which is a damn shame considering what a wickedly clever bit of literature it is. There are a lot of girls who aspire to be like Dolores, who dress like her and who long for that Lola and Hum romance – this frightens me. Make no mistake, role playing is a completely healthy sexual behaviour and as long as you and your partner(s) aren’t hurting each other (…much) or anybody else – you are allowed to enjoy whatever you like sexually. But I think you have to understand the place where the “Lolita” fantasy has come from in order to wear it with pride as so many aspiring “Lolas” do.

People see Lolita as a romantic book, a love story that knew no bounds, they saw themselves in Dolly and wanted to be obsessed over. It’s not so much Humbert’s insatiable need for Dolores that I find unsettling – we all know that paedophiles exist and that they can’t necessarily help who they are attracted to – it’s the way Humbert refers to his victim that is the tricky part for me. Lolita is depicted as a sexually mature tease who manipulates him into chasing after her only to dump him at the first chance she gets. She’s painted as devious and a heartbreaker, even as a promiscuous idiot at times. Instead of noting that this view has come from a sociopath, girls have identified with this minx character more and have decided that that is in fact who Lolita is simply because the saucy, girlish ingénue is who they wish to be. Dolores is 12, she is a child, she has a budding sexual curiosity as most pubescent girls do and this was taken advantage of by a middle aged man. I don’t see anything romantic in that.

People read Lolita and they take it at face value, they choose to ignore that Humbert is a sociopath and a liar, they choose to believe him when he unconvincingly tells us that Dolores played an equal part in their “affair”. The power of this book lies in Nabokov’s ability to make you like Humbert, to make you pity him and to make you forget that Dolores has been kidnapped and repeatedly raped under the guise of a “relationship”. That is the whole point of the book, it’s a headfuck and an enjoyable one at that. To truly believe that Dolores was in some way “playing” Humbert is to dismiss Nabokov’s genius and to play into the victim blaming culture that allows the very real Humberts of the world to continue hurting people.

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10 thoughts on “Lolita Is Not A Love Story

  1. I agree with you! It’s disturbing when people call this a love story. It’s one of my favorites too because of the beautiful writing and how it can make Humbert likable. It plays a trick on us readers. Also, it shows that people who do terrible things are still people. They are not some “monster” but can be anybody we know.

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    1. Yes girl! I completely agree. The media would have us believe that sexual predators are a rare breed of monster that are rarely seen in daylight and unlikely to be anyone we know. I personally believe that a person cannot control what they’re attracted to but it’s what they do about it that’s key.

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  2. Excellent review! I just finished reading the novel today and it was hands down one of the best literature I’ve read in a long long time. As you said, it is dark yet funny. The unreliability of Humbert as a narrator is just mind-boggling (in a positive way) – especially in the last scene between Quilty and Humbert – and it makes you wonder whether or not his accounts of Lolita are true given that the entire novel is Humbert’s own testimony to readers (aka the jury) in a bid to prove that he is not guilty(?). And yes, this novel is in NO WAY a romantic fiction!

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    1. Thanks for reading! It truly is a masterpiece and wickedly clever. I think I also find the representation of Lo too easily accepted – her flirty nature is never once questioned (myself included). Dolores has no personality, thoughts, ambitions outside of Humbert’s desires. This is a huge indicator of how much this book is not romantic and yet I see girls on social media saying things like “I want to be loved like that”. You’ve got a wonderful grasp on the novel and its intended purpose, I’m yet to find another book like it – currently reading Tampa (essentially the reverse Lolita) it’s good but it’s a lot more graphic sexually…where Nabakov didn’t ever need to delve into the eroticism with Lolita.

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      1. YES!! I was going through different blogs to see different interpretations of the novel and I did come across a reviewer who, in my point of view, misunderstood the entire point of the novel as simply dismissed Humbert as a “romantic” character whom every man should aspire to be. You can imagine my shock to reading such an interpretation.
        I’m currently writing a paper on Lolita and I’m discussing how Lolita and Dolores are two different personas in the novel and that the former stems from the latter and is an ideal nymphet projection of Humbert’s desires whereas the latter is an individual with her own identity whom readers aren’t given much information about (except that one line of hers about death and its loneliness). It’s a complicated yet a very, very interesting topic.
        And I’ll be sure to check out Tampa! I wanna explore more of Nabakov’s works 🙂

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  3. Yes! That’s a really interesting theory about Dolores and Lolita being separate characters and you’re absolutely right! One of them is compliant and submissive to him while at the same time maintaining control of him by way of sex and the other is a little harder to work out, which one is real? Are either of them real? For all we know the whole lot was Fight Club style delusion. Tampa is by Alissa Nutting, not Nabakov but certainly worth a read. I’ve not finished it yet but it’s very tense and American Psycho-esque. Horrifiying as it is, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a female character as the unsuspecting predator rather than the victim. I’d love to explore Nabakov’s works but I fear I’ll not come close to Lolita in terms of subject matter, although his beautiful use of language will remain so perhaps I can be swayed by that alone 🙂

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