Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
Nabokov's Lolita was originally published in 1955 and immediately became embroiled in its own censorship battles. The story is admittedly, purposefully, a shocking one: Humbert Humbert, an emigré academic, has a thing for young girls. Nymphets, he calls them, prepubescent girls who betray some precocious awareness of their own sensuality. Upon accepting a position at a new college, Humbert rents a room in town and falls madly, passionately, horrifyingly in love with his landlady's 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, the Lolita of the novel's title. He marries Dolores's mother in order to maintain proximity to Dolores herself, and his relationship with her very quickly exceeds the bounds of stepfatherly affection.
There are several upsetting things about this story, not the least of which is that, it appears, Lolita herself is the seducer, and Humbert the seducee. Hence the ubiquitous comparisons of any precociously sexual, slightly dangerous girl to this character (for example, the "Long Island Lolita"). These comparisons—and the moral censorship to which the novel has been subject—are, however, based on a most superficial reading of the book, one that overlooks a basic literary concept: the unreliable narrator.
Humbert Humbert is the one who tells us the story. From an insane asylum. He's a child molester and, ultimately, a murderer. Why on earth should we take his word for how it happened?
This, in fact, is the real story of Lolita. The novel is about the ways in which a reader can be manipulated to feel sympathy for—even to identify with—the most horrifying person imaginable. That early readers of the novel were so shocked by Dolores's behavior—so shocked, in fact, that governments moved to ban the book—is precisely Nabokov's point: Rather than acknowledge the ultimate evil that lies under the otherwise charming persona, we as a culture are more inclined to turn him into a tragic hero, a victim. (From the editors at Barnes and Noble.)
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