Novel loses appeal once shock value wears out

Posted on April 13, 2010

By Melinda Truelsen

Melinda Truelsen is a graduate student in literature and a Mustang Daily book columnist. Her column, “Reading Between the Lines,” appears every Wednesday.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in 1955. Immediately it became infamous for its highly controversial content: a middle-aged man’s sexual infatuation with a twelve-year-old girl. This novel certainly possessed the shock factor to bring it to the attention of many readers at the time of its publication, and it has continued to stay in the limelight. Today, over fifty years since its publication, Lolita has become what many would call a classic.
With such a reputation behind it, I began this novel with high expectations. For years I’ve heard about this tale, its innovative form, its captivating subject matter and its ability to capture the reader. I was sadly disappointed. Yes, the novel certainly is shocking, but that alone wasn’t enough to win me over.
The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is the key figure of this novel, but he isn’t a reliable source. Throughout the novel he gives the reader cause to question his retelling of events. By doing this, Nabakov allows the reader to take a step back from the narrator, a separation which makes judging his actions much easier.
Humbert Humbert retells the sad events of his youth, and specifically, of his first love, Annabel Leigh. Although he loved this girl passionately, while he too was also little more than a child, their love was never consummated. A turn of events eliminates that possibility, and the lost chance is something that seriously affects our narrator. He does continue on with his life though; he becomes a literature teacher and even marries, but he is unable to make these things last. His marriage fails, he ends up going through a series of odd jobs and we witness him wandering aimlessly through life until he meets Dolores Haze.
Dolores is the twelve-year-old daughter of the woman whom owns the house in which Humbert is renting a room. While he cannot stand her mother, the insipid Charlotte, he is powerfully drawn to Dolores. Soon we understand that this connection is stemming from his lost love as a young boy and is manifesting it in this unrealistic and pedophiliac attraction to this young girl.
Humbert relishes in his attraction to the young Dolores, Lolita, as her calls her. He loves everything about the young “nymphet” from the peach fuzz on her legs to the androgynous form of her developing chest, everything about her young body attracts him. As we follow Humbert’s account of his attraction to his Lolita, we witness him following her about the house, making excuses to brush against her, hoping for chance encounters.
What is interesting about this novel is Nabakov’s ability to create a character whose actions are so despicable, so corrupt, but whom we also feel compelled to follow. Although we know that we can’t trust this narrator, it is as though we want to be led by the hand through his twisted thoughts. Certainly I can understand how this can be perceived as quite the controversial novel, however, what I cannot understand is why this is placed so often on classics lists. Yes, Nabakov has created an interesting dichotomy for his reader, but is the narrator and the language so developed that it should be placed among the likes of Steinbeck, Austen, and Woolfe? No, I wouldn’t say so. In terms of literary achievement I wouldn’t say that this is an outstanding success. Interesting? Yes. Incredible? Well, that’s debatable. While this is definitely a book worth reading, I don’t personally think it would be on any of my top ten lists
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