In Lolita, Nabokov was able to humanize a villain and give him qualities normally reserved for the conventional moral protagonist. Humbert Humbert’s knack for weaving beautiful words, invoking distinguished allusions, and expressing popular commentary on undesirable aspects of society are qualities that the average reader can admire.
The reader finds himself sucked into Humbert Humbert’s deceptive charm, just like the characters in the book were. The reader cannot help himself from being swayed by Humbert’s passionate defense of his pedophilia. Humbert was clever to present his obsession with prepubescent girls as not only natural and precipitated by a heartbreaking event during his childhood, but as a legitimate predisposition shared by many renowned artists and held back from legalization by the backwardness of human society.
Humbert Humbert distracts our attention from the stark horrors of his evils by obscuring the details in clever and poetic innuendos and metaphors. But the careful reader can see beyond Humbert’s flowery prose to detect an uncomfortable reality. This duality of perception contributes to making Lolita a worthy read.
An Enjoyable Read
Lolita is also an enjoyable reading experience. The prose is some of the most beautiful ever written in English. The sentences are well constructed and flow smoothly, aided by rhythmical sound plays. The ideas are communicated with vivid imageries. The world is brought to life with powerful descriptions that evoke an intended mood.
The story is not only tightly patterned, but imaginatively constructed to maintain a connection with the larger literary world with rich, wide-ranging allusions and parodies. These connections not only expose Humbert’s predispositions and function to advance his narrative, but they also serve as a mechanism by which Nabokov interferes with his narration and advance his own narrative or judgment on wider societal constructs or the literary world as the case may be.
Nabokov did not just set out to tell a story. He left out several important details throughout much of the novel but left just enough clues for the perceptive and hardworking reader to find. For example, although Quilty’s presence throughout much of the novel was never openly declared, several hints pointed at this fact.
Nabokov also splattered several clever puns and allusions throughout the book. Their discovery and unmasking make reading or rereading Lolita an exciting experience.
A Second-Hand Character View
In creating the sophistication beast that is Humbert Humbert, Nabokov lays out a warning that we should not rule out evil in the most seemingly sophisticated or learned. The talent for weaving words and conducting oneself in a high manner is not always linked to a pure soul.
Here Humbert Humbert’s character is true to life. His contradictions are realistic. Humbert is driven by selfishness and arrogance, but he can understand that others are going through pain and that he had done evil. But he is simply too selfish to stop himself. We see other characters through Humbert’s unreliable and biased lens, and their characteristics and personality go through a sort of “Humbertification”- a solipsizing treatment of otherwise authentic individuals.
Humbert’s account is often one-dimensional and reflects his biases. Charlotte is dismissed as pretentious and incapable. Humbert has few good words to say about her physical appearance too and it is clear that his description of the woman is influenced by his disgust and silent animosity at her for trying to claim him and remove Lolita from his grasp.
Lolita is presented as a sex object, a human more remarkable for her physical features than the constitution of her character, or her hopes and aspirations. But Nabokov can redeem these character’s unfair treatment at the hands of Humbert by having him reveal aspects of their behavior that contradict Humbert’s own hasty, summary dismissals.
A Challenge Well Met
Nabokov could have easily written a book that preaches against pedophilia by creating a simple and uncomplicated villain that would instantly be recognized as evil and would inspire disgust. But he sets himself the challenge of creating a more humanized version endowed with Nabokov’s own rhetorical powers. This is a villain that appears harmless, funny, and can be sympathized with.
But Nabokov leaves just enough evidence of Humbert’s evil for the reader to see. As a result, how the reader approaches the paradox of Humbert’s endearing and beastly aspects would reveal more about the reader. With this book, Nabokov aims to expose the enchanting power of language and to provoke readers to be more perceptive.
A Critical Gold-mine
Nabokov’s Lolita has inspired and continued to inspire debates about certain aspects of literature and society ranging from the sexualization of little girls and women to the role or purpose of the author in a work of literature. Critical readers have debated for decades the validity of Humbert’s point of view. They have offered varying interpretations of who characters like Lolita and Charlotte really were, and these interpretations have been used in their turn to make deductions about the nature of the critics themselves.
Feminist readings have seen in people’s readiness to accept Humbert’s negative portrayal of Lolita’s personality as a symptom of a problematic masculinist worldview. Nabokov’s revolutionary stylistic prose, unconstrained by contemporary expectations around literature, impacts with its sheer freedom and ambition and has spurred discussions about literary aesthetics. The literary branch of the post-modernist trail that Lolita has been followed by a number of writers.
Lolita is an enduring masterpiece because the admirable and enchanting capacity for beauty, as seen in Humbert’s evocative narrative, is cojoined in a twisted but deceptive way with the phenomenon of evil. Humbert’s talents for words help to mask Nabokov’s subtle moral intentions, challenging the reader to be more careful and perceptive and to fight away the cognitive dissonance that Humbert’s charm was sure to produce.
Lasting effect on reader
Lolita Review: An Enduring Masterpiece
‘Lolita’ is the account of a middle-aged man’s obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter whom he forces into a lengthy cross-country trip so he can have sex with her uninterrupted. ‘Lolita’ is remarkable because of the paradox of a humanized, persuasive, and immensely talented villain who uses his prodigious rhetorical skills to distract from and obscure his evil. The book is not just enjoyable for this story as its prose style, a labyrinth of puzzles, rich literary allusions, and delightful puns, make for a great reading experience.
- Excellent prose.
- Free, innovative style.
- Authentic, well-developed characters.
- Obscure and distracting puns and allusions
- Needs re-reading to fully understand and enjoy.
- A lot of character behaviors and motivations remain ambiguous