James R. Kincaid, The Chronicle of Higher Education,  The Chronicle Review, October 17, 2008

  • "JUST look at the text, damn it! 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.' See that? Not just 'fire of my loins,' which you respond to clearly enough; but also, which you don't see at all, 'light of my life'! See that?"

Echoing Leslie A. Fiedler's famous argument from Love and Death in the American Novel, Trilling defined that rapturous, consuming love as the sort otherwise peculiarly absent from American fiction, contemporary or classic. At last, albeit coming from a Russian immigrant, here was an American love story to take its place alongside that great European tradition it had, until then, been barred from joining.

Not all commentators and readers have lined up behind Trilling on this point, many finding themselves agreeing with the fire-of-my-loins student that the novel is clearly about pedophilia, rape, and the destruction of innocence by a vile, if fancy-talking, Humbert of a monster.

The most prominent recent example is Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran:

  • "Ironically, (Humbert's) ability as a poet, his own fancy prose style, exposes him for what he is."

And what he is is not a device or a literary character but a real and true criminal:

  • "What bothers us most, of course ... is not just the utter helplessness of Lolita but the fact that Humbert robs her of her childhood."

We used to call that leaping from word to world. Humbert has a core being, is something; and the novel, yes sir, records his actions, clear enough, to those with hearts to feel and eyes to see, those willing to read with forthright, unapologetic mimetic clarity (representational faithfulness).

It is just such a practice - detecting the presence of the molester - that has caused a Lolita firestorm, one that now and then still blazes. Why, just a few years ago, the issue arose in Florida, where a citizen demanded the book be sequestered in the "adults only" part of the library. The request was denied. But we all know that this novel heads every prude's list and has had to fight for its life from the very beginning.

But some readers and writers, Nabokov chief among them, feel that novels are not necessarily about anything, nor that they must be read thematically (or morally). In a 1962 BBC interview, Nabokov seemed anxious to distance himself from any sort of personal involvement with what might seem to be the book's subject matter:

  • "It was my most difficult book: the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real."

Once talking about "themes", the stylist Nabokov becomes the jargon-clogged nincompoop, everybody's dean: "combinational talent" indeed. Usually, he avoided theme altogether: of all his novels, he told an interviewer, Lolita "is the purest of all, the most abstract". In his famous "Essay", appended to all editions, he states that the book is not written with an end in mind (no themes or morals here) but has as its goal "aesthetic bliss".

Literary, critical, and pedagogical practice has, since the 1970s, found itself suspicious of theme, of subject matter, of naive mimesis. That practice has offered one way to avoid what could be the embarrassment of touching thematic material.

Another way has been spotted by Stanley Kubrick, in a playful film that begins with Nabokov's absurdist ending: the murder of Quilty. "I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us." No thinking of subject matter here, right?

But there's a last possibility that this novel helps give form to, as it joins a dark central current in our culture that eroticises children relentlessly, wishing it had done no such thing, and eagerly looking for others to blame it on.

Trilling's extraordinary essay boldly said

  • "we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting".

Not for nothing does Humbert often invite us into his life, into his head: "I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay," the scene where he first engages Lolita sexually.

John Hollander, in Partisan Review, wrote, "Lolita ... flames with a tremendous perversity".

Possibly, but there's no doubt that the public does. We have, for the past 200 or so years, progressively eroticised, put at the heart of our constructions of the desirable, the young body, the innocent, the unspoiled.

Rather than facing this head-on, we have manufactured a variety of scapegoats:

  • daycare centre operators,
  • Catholic priests,
  • kiddie-porn rings,
  • internet predators.

Meanwhile, we go right along, parading before us

  • Shirley Temple,
  • Brooke Shields,
  • Drew Barrymore,
  • the Olsen twins.

Nabokov joked that he was

  • "probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more".

That shows, perhaps, that we have some shame. But not much. Try Googling the following list and noting the number of hits:

  • Lolita,
  • George Washington,
  • the Bible,
  • Hamlet,
  • Babe Ruth,
  •  the pope,
  •  the Koran,
  • Queen Elizabeth,
  • Marilyn Monroe,
  • Mary Mother of God ...

You'll find that Lolita follows the Bible, and none of the others come close. You'll also find that the term Lolita on those millions of hits does not always refer to the novel. Surprise.

  • James R. Kincaid is a professor of English at the University of Southern California. Among his books is Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Duke University Press, 1998).