Vladimir Nabokov was a naturist at heart; he escaped from Europe to explore the open roads of America; to catch butterflies and to write novels. His love of nature is reflected in his prose; they’re beautiful, enchanting and seem to captivate the reader; despite one of his most infamous protagonists, Humbert Humbert being attracted to ‘nymphets’ a.k.a little girls.
On its publication, in 1953, Lolita was considered obscene; it was filthy and it was dangerous to the average white American. How could Nabokov possibly write about something as unthinkable as peaodophilia? However, I suggest – no, I demand – that such a delicate subject must certainly be discussed within the literary world.
Most literature students have studied Lolita, time and time again. It still causes controversy, some asking if it should even be studied at all. But it is not just the subject matter of the novel that is important; it reflects societies most deepest fears and I think it is as prevalent today as it ever was.
For those of you who don’t know it, Lolita is about the seduction of a twelve year old, American girl by the white, self-aware European, Humbert Humbert. The story follows Humbert’s confession as he tells it to a jury. He does not mean to justify his wickedness but only wishes to prove that he is normal, like the rest of the world; he cannot help the way he feels. Under any other circumstance one might be predisposed to despise him, however, Nabokov’s charm makes the reader almost inclined to feel pity for him. Humbert recalls the death of his first love when he was a child: . ‘… we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.’ It his tragic and unfulfilled past that beings to break-down Humbert’s complicated character.
Humbert meets Lolita after the end of his marriage with a woman whom he married at an attempt to bypass his feelings towards ‘nymphets’. On his move to New England, he meets Charlotte Haze who accommodates him after his new apartment burns down. Thus Humbert is able to pursue what is first a rather one-sided relationship with her twelve year old daughter, Lolita.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Nabokov’s rich and complex style is guilty of making Humbert appear as nothing other than charming -if not, a little absurd. His prose is beautiful and heavily contradicts with its subject matter. After the death of Charlotte Haze, Humbert Humbert takes Lolita out of summer camp and becomes her unofficial guardian. They travel the states together; the same journey Nabokov was taking himself. The theme of time is forever plaguing Humbert’s very soul; how long before he is caught? How long before Lolita grows up? He wants their journey to last forever.
In fighting to get Lolita published – of which it was rejected by four major publishers- Nabokov recalls the following ‘…one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, “realistic” sentences…’
It is evident that it wasn’t just the content of the book that they found offensive, but the idea that such things might be happening in their white-American homeland was unthinkable. Those sorts of thing just did not happen to happy, white, suburban, middle-class kids! This novel reflects the fears of society; the fact that such effort was gone to to stop the wider public reading it, only confirms those fears.