the unbearable unfairness of Lolita


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

[Spoiler alert on this post. If you haven’t read Lolita, please do so. It’s a classic for a reason. ]

I read Lolita for the first time in June as part of a classics book club I’ve attended regularly since the beginning of the year. It is definitely a book I wouldn’t have picked up on my own. As much as I love stories of sordid crime, the twisted tale of Humbert Humbert and his child lover always felt too unseemly.

But I’m incredibly glad that I did read Lolita. Not only is this a beautifully written and intriguing novel, it has stuck with me in a way that I never thought it would. It’s been months since I finished reading the book, and yet I’ve thought about it almost every week since. I am not nearly as obsessed as Humbert, but my thoughts wander to little Dolores Haze far more often than I imagined.

For me, the defining point of Lolita is chapter 20. These are some of the most tense and suspenseful pages ever written. Humbert Humbert has wed Charlotte Haze, the titular Lolita’s mother, in a bid to get closer to her daughter. While he and his new wife are swimming at a local lake, Humbert describes how easily he could drown her and make it look like an accident. Ultimately, he does not.

Obviously, I did not want Humbert to murder Charlotte, because of the ramifications for Dolores. However, when I reached the point of Charlotte’s actual death, I felt incredibly cheated by the turn of events. Charlotte is accidentally hit by a car just after learning that her husband lusts after her daughter. Her death is immediate, tidily giving Humbert what he wants without needing to get his hands dirty. This frustrated me to no end, but it took me time to figure out exactly why.

I went into the book knowing that the narrator would eventually possess his nymphette, I realize now that I wanted him to have to “work” for it more than he did. Humbert gets off easy; he’s too lucky. He needs a room to rent, and it just so happens that one is available in the home of his Lolita. Humbert debates killing Charlotte, but auspiciously chickens out, later discovering that a neighbor would have witnessed the murder. Then, when it feels like he will be trapped in a (to him) torturous marriage while Dolores is safely away at boarding school, Charlotte is conveniently removed from the picture. Humbert is now the legal guardian of his obsession. He is free to do with her as he pleases, under the guise of being a doting step-father. At no point is Humbert required to do anything more than marry Charlotte in his efforts to reach Dolores. This is a distasteful move for the narrator, but it is hardly suffering in the way that I desired.

It is unbearably unfair how easy it is for Humbert to have his Lolita. He is demonstrably a twisted individual, but manages to come across as living by a strange moral code. The thought of murder is distasteful. He prides himself in deriving sexual pleasure from Dolores without her knowledge, in his mind preserving her wholesomeness. It’s alarming how easy it is to become hypnotized by his language, to sympathize with his plight in some small way. I wanted him to be more overtly evil, to engage in more than one unforgivable crime. I needed him to take what he wanted by force because he is a terrible human being, not gifted his greatest desire by a quirk of fate.

But isn’t that life? Fate seems to shine on the wicked as often as it does the good. If karma exists, it sometimes takes longer to punish and reward than we prefer. Lolita perfectly embodies the feeling of unfairness that underscores our lives. It’s such an unexpected takeaway from an already unconventional book. Maybe this is why the novel has endured, despite the subject matter. For me this novel has little to do with lust. It’s a meditation on life as it is versus how we think it should be.

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