What is love?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s first definition states,
“strong affection for another rising out of kinship or personal ties.”
Another definition is,
“unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita has been called by Vanity Fair,
“The only convincing love story of our century.”
Nabokov’s novel is not about true love; it is about a sick man who obsesses over a young girl as if she is a drug. Humbert Humbert is addicted to Lolita, and the novel portrays just how destructive a deepening addiction can go.
The first line of Lolita is,
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
Straight away, Humbert Humbert displays his possession over little Lolita. She is portrayed not as another human being, but an object that Humbert Humbert chooses to do as he pleases to, even if this means destroying the young girl’s life. Does this sound like love?
Humbert begins his addiction slowly. First he simply watches Lolita and fantasizes about the twelve year old:
“Every movement she made in the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and sensitive chord of my abject body.”
It is clear that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile that has found his prey. It is dangerous to call sick obsession “love”—even if Lolita was an adult, Humbert is still stalking another human being for his own personal gain. Labeling this type of behavior as love downplays the repugnant, despicable way that Humbert treats Lolita. He claims true love in his writings, but this is only a madman’s attempt to cover up the fact that he kidnapped and raped a young girl, and ultimately destroyed her life.
Humbert loved Lolita as if she was his possession, quite literally the object of his obsessive desire. The Ukrainian language has two different words for love. Liubov is love for objects and things, such as, “I love apples.” Kokhannia is the word for romantic and passionate love of another person.
Humbert has liubov love for Lolita—he loves her the way an addict loves heroin. He rarely thinks about her emotions or wellbeing, and if he does, he does not care enough to stop the actions that he is very aware are deeply hurting her physically and emotionally.
Humbert shows how selfish and cold he is to Lolita in one sentence:
“I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.”
In Humbert’s mind, Lolita’s sobs are comparable to tattered maps, ruined books and old tires—they do not matter substantially in his mind. Humbert folded and ripped up the maps, he ruined the tour books, he wore down the tires, and he caused Lolita to sob every night, every night, without thinking twice.
Clearly he views Lolita as another object, a possession, to be used as roughly and carelessly as the maps and tires that get him where he is going. His focus on his own obsession and pleasure not only outweigh any consideration for his charge, they are his exclusive focus. She is purely object, not subject, no matter how he may rationalize this in his twisted mind.
Chillingly, after this sentence that reduces her to the level of a tattered map or old tire, he abruptly changes to a new chapter, cheerily describing the house he recently rented.
It is easy to forget how perverse Nabokov’s novel is as one reads it. Humbert is extremely persuasive and it is not difficult to fall under his spell with the beautiful and elegant prose he spins. One must work past its exquisiteness to recognize how shocking it is.
A perfect example is when Humbert is called into Lolita’s private school for a parent-teacher conference, where he is told that she is “antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey” and “obsessed with sexual thoughts for which she finds no outlet.”
In essence, Humbert is being offered an inventory of the damage he has wrought on his stepdaughter, but all he can do is sneer inwardly at the messenger, a psychobabbling woman named Pratt. What happens next when Humbert finds Lolita sitting in a study hall is so shocking, and yet so calmly and economically detailed, it is easy to miss what is going on.
He finds her in a room:
“…with a sepia print of Reynolds’ ‘The Age of Innocence’ above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.”
Even after being told outright by Lolita’s school that she is suffering emotional issues that Humbert is aware he caused, he still manages to ignore these facts and selfishly abuse her immediately after the conference is over. This is not love.
William Shakespeare once said,
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
However, Humbert Humbert seems to love Lolita with only his eyes. He spends passage after passage carefully and meticulously describing every detail of the girl, yet detests both how she treats him and how she acts in general. He delicately illustrates a scene of watching her play in a swimming pool and exclaims,
“How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine, and revise the recent matitudinal swoon to the moan of the mourning doves, and devise the late afternoon one, and slitting my sun-speared eyes, compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious chance collected around her for my anthological delectation and judgment.”
In a single sentence, Humbert deviates from marveling at his one and only stepdaughter to hungrily evaluating the other young girls around her. It is not Lolita the person he loves, but Lolita the helpless girl that he can use to carry out his revolting fantasies with. Had Humbert met Lolita a few years later when she was older, the entire story would not exist.
The poignant irony of this novel is that Humbert Humbert is fully aware of his own depravity and indifference for her as a human being. We are invited inside his head, without the veneer of excuses. We see the snakes of his perverse abuse writhing and causing him agony, along with the obliterating pleasure he takes in plundering this child. The prose in this novel reads like poetry. The language sweeps the reader up and drags them along in its wake, leaving them breathless in the process.
Nabokov uses the English language in a way most English speakers would not think to use it, with a playful, original syntax that evokes imagery of a babbling brook or a girl sitting in a garden singing to herself. It is like music, instead of just words.
From that opening line, Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, we are pulled into the cadence of rhythm of his very unique use of language. There is a stark honesty that pulses through his horrendous confession, and he never tries to absolve himself of his sins. Yet, how compellingly his musical language draws the reader in, so that, while one abhors the man, one cannot help but be entranced with the sheer poetry and audacity of the novel itself.
Nabokov himself states,
“After Olympia Press, in Paris, published the book, an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution of “English language” for “romantic novel” would make this elegant formula more correct.”
The prose in Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel is undeniably superb. However, readers of Lolita must constantly keep in their minds that this novel is not a love story, but the narrative of a sick man tumbling down his pit of addiction to an unfortunate girl. It is one man’s living poem to his own demonic perversity.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.
Ottenheimer, Harriet. The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009. Print.