Written by Amy-Leigh Braaf
Deconstructing “Lolita” Through the Eyes of a Disreputable Narrator
“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.”
– Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
The word association for the name “Lolita” has been used to describe a sexually precocious female who is undergoing puberty. When you read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, you are guaranteed to experience a process of guilt as you uncover the sordid actions of the narrator Humbert Humbert as he forms an obsessive desire for his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Lolita.
“Lolita” is a word that has been reproduced and oversaturated in the media through many forms. Japan’s “Lolita culture” is as intriguing and unsettling as the novel itself. This fashion subculture inspired by Victorian and Edwardian clothing seems to be a playful mimicry of it. One might simply think that it is just a new generation’s retake on 20th century fashion; however, for those who have read Lolita, the word association is more likely to trigger themes of pedophilia, which is skillfully written about, however eerily justified, through the eyes of Humbert Humbert.
This book is incredibly well-written as its content causes the reader to question both their own beliefs as well as their environment. The fact that it was published 62 years ago and is perhaps even more pertinent today proves that Nabokov’s work is timeless. The novel follows a European intellectual who has a history of mental illness and a fetish for whom he calls “nymphets,” young preteen girls whom he finds sexually attractive. For a novel with controversial content such as this to be written during the 1950s and to be over-consumed by the public only furthers how it exposes and reveals the human desire for what is forbidden. Taboo subjects have changed over the decades; however, pedophilia has been morphed and repackaged through fashion trends that promote sexualizing the “Lolita girl” instead of chastising it.
We see it in the music industry with Lana Del Rey’s song Carmen, in which she describes her love affair with her “old man” and quotes Nabokov’s words, “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” which is among the most famous lines from the novel Lolita. In cinema, there have been adaptations of the novel by directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Adrian Lyne, and South Africa’s Jahmil XT Qubeka, whose film Of Good Report, portraying themes from Lolita, was banned by the Film and Publication Board based on the fear of promoting pornographic content. However, he did receive an award for artistic bravery from the Durban International Film Festival. An incredibly talented lecturer, Professor Imraan Covaadia, previously gave a lecture on this novel and also received a backlash from some students who deemed it inappropriate. His 2010 talk “How to Read Lolita” explains that it is a complex novel that should not simply be discredited because of its content but rather analyzed through scrutiny and deconstruction.
It is evident that this novel has had a global effect on how the media and the public interact when faced with taboo subjects. How can a novel that follows the life of a pedophile, who justifies his calculated manipulation of a young girl over many years, be deemed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between the years 1923 to 2005? It is a question for the reader to sit on. The reader must evaluate their beliefs and their understanding of the novel by using their perception of the world that they live in and the effects that come with fetishizing and appropriating specific cultures and demographics to benefit one’s own desires, whether personal or for mass consumption.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel may be an extremely complex one, perhaps not in his writing style but in the context through which he tells this story; it is a timeless masterpiece that forces us to question one very important thing: who are the people that feed