About a month ago, I was at the library checking out books (hey, that reminds me of an errand I have to run tomorrow). I didn't really know what to get and came across Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It was one of those books I'd been meaning to read in a non-specific way, or perhaps felt as though I should read. After all, it's a huge cultural touchstone. "Lolita" has kind of become a generic term for what we less elegantly called "jailbait" in college, and those of you who remember the whole Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuco thing will remember the nickname the press gave Fisher: Long Island Lolita.
I'm not really sure what I expected from this book, but I was surprised anyway. The basic plotline runs like this: Humbert Humbert, a European man who realizes early on that he's sexually attracted only to prepubescent girls, comes to America and rents a room in Lolita's house. He becomes obsessed with her and marries her mother, who dies one month after their wedding. He ferries Lolita around the country for a year, then they settle, then they pick up and move again. He ultimately loses her (I am not spoiling much; it becomes clear early on that he is writing from prison and Lolita is no longer in the picture).
Humbert Humbert is a thoroughly unlikeable character. All the creepiness aside, he is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. He really hates women, and doesn't even really like Lolita that much. He wants the reader to pity him, but can't even cast himself in a sympathetic light. It's telling that you never get a sense of Lolita as a person. His characterization of her utterly fails the Maxwell Perkins test: you would never know her should you meet her on the street. Often, when you see this, it's a sign of poor writing. In this case, it's another clue to Humbert Humbert's character. He wrecked his life (pathetic as it was) over Lolita, permitted himself to break laws and violate social standards, yet his desire for her is similar to one's desire for an SUV or a Prada bag. He just wants, wants, wants, and schemes to have. And when he gets it, he's not satisfied: he either worries it will slip away (he controls every aspect of Lolita's life very tightly) or he picks it apart, looking for flaws (he and Lolita fight constantly).
What we do get of Lolita does not come off very well, either. She's moody and bratty, and she's also extremely manipulative. Her story does not have a fabulous ending, and one can only speculate what kind of effect her strange teenage years had on her. She's certainly not entirely innocent, though: she seduced Humbert Humbert, and he was not her first, although she was only 12 at the time.
What we have here is basically two unlikeable individuals trapped in a relationship that is destructive, sickening, and unhealthy, even if you were to imagine it as a relationship between two people of the same age -- and yet, you can't look away. Over 50 years after its initial publication, Lolita still has the ability to fascinate, to shock, and to raise questions.
I was at the beach this evening and saw some girls, about the same age as Lolita is at the start of the book, wearing short shorts and tight-fitting tank tops. It made me think about this book, and about the current hysteria surrounding internet predators and child molestation. There's a great outcry to preserve the "innocence" of children, but how innocent are they -- then, or now? What kind of message do you send when you dress young girls up in clothes that would make a barfly blush, and yet expect men not to even think about looking? How, and why, do people become pedophiles anyway? There are no easy answers to these questions, either now or when Lolita was first published, but if we as a society are serious about preventing child molestation, it would behoove us to start thinking about them.