Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Lolita has achieved iconic status as a literary masterpiece, albeit a disturbing one, highly disturbing because of its subject matter—pedophilia. What's worse is that you find yourself taking the side of—rooting for, and identifying with—a pedophile. And you even find yourself laughing because the pedophile is a wickedly funny, sophisticated narrator.
How does Nabokov do it? He uses point of view—and turns it on its head. Point of view (see our free LitCourse 7) is how authors get us to identify with certain characters—we see the book's events through their eyes, and usually they're the good guys.
In this book it's the pedophile, Humbert Humbert, who filters his world for us. We see and feel the way he wants us to (almost). It's hard to resist a controlling narrative voice, especially one so brilliant and witty.
The most egregious example of narrative control (there are so many) is how we wait, breathlessly, for a drugged Lolita to fall asleep so that Humbert can finally—yes, finally!—have sex with her. In our anticipation, we become his accomplices! Oh, Lord. Thankfully, to save our souls, horror and distress eventually settle in.
Is Lolita is satire? Comedy? Tragedy? It's shows us the freedom of America's vast open spaces, while at the same time a heroine enslaved to Humbert (and he to her). It's about lust, hypocrisy, enchantment, language, games, imprisonment of the soul, love, and insanity. Scholars have wondered whether, from Humbert's venue in prison as he tells his story, any of it ever happened, or happened the way he tells us.
I wish I could explicate this novel for you, but I can't. I'd need to enroll in a graduate level seminar on the book to fully understand it. But it's a fabulous read—fabulous in the real sense of the world. You won't find the book easy reading (because of subject matter and density of Nabokov's prose), but when you finish, it's hard to come out from under its spell.
Lolita has spawned two movies: a 1962 one with James Mason, and a 1997 one with Jeremey Irons. Neither can capture the enchantment or the humor.
See our Reading Guide for Lolita.
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