It’s hard to resist the charm of the narrator. We sometimes forget that he has been in sanatoriums several times, made up stories and manipulated almost everyone, tricked even psychiatrists, married a woman he despises only to be close to her prepubescent daughter, used sleeping pills on Charlotte and then Lo, fantasised about killing people, including both of his wives, and about “being intimate with” little girls, etc. We sometimes sympathise with him and feel sorry for him—a helpless victim of his own paedophilia. The reader easily falls for his trap, seeing Lolita as an unusual love story condemned only because of the legal age of consent and people’s prejudices, and may even think that it’s Lo that seduces and then manipulates Humbert Humbert. But a careful reader would pick up on the small, easily overlooked bits that reveal the abusive nature of the relationship, and Lo’s helplessness and suffering.
“This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.”Chapter 33:
“You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”
“I relied on three other methods to keep my pubescent concubine in submission and passable temper.”
““… I don’t know if you have ever heard of the laws relating to dependent, neglected, incorrigible and delinquent children. While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays. You will go there, Lolita — my Lolita, this Lolita will leave plainer words, if we two are found out, you will be analyzed and institutionalized, my pet, c’est tout. You will dwell, my Lolita will dwell (come here, my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no, allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. This is the situation, this is the choice. Don’t you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?”Chapter 2:
By rubbing all this in, I succeeded in terrorizing Lo, who despite a certain brash alertness of manner and spurts of wit was not as intelligent a child as her I.Q. might suggest…”
“…she asked, à propos de rien, how long did I think we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together and never behaving like ordinary people?”Chapter 3:
“She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.”
“I remember the operation was over, all over, and she was weeping in my arms; — a salutory storm of sobs after one of the fits of moodiness that had become so frequent with her in the course of that otherwise admirable year!”
“Enmeshed in her wild words (swell chance… I’d be a sap if I took your opinion seriously… Stinker… You can’t boss me… I despise you… and so forth), I drove through the slumbering town at a fifty-mile-per-hour pace in continuance of my smooth highway swoosh, and a twosome of patrolmen put their spotlight on the car, and told me to pull over. I shushed Lo who was automatically raving on. The men peered at her and me with malevolent curiosity. Suddenly all dimples, she beamed sweetly at them, as she never did at my orchideous masculinity; for, in a sense, my Lo was even more scared of the law than I — and when the kind officers pardoned us and servilely we crawled on, her eyelids closed and fluttered as she mimicked limp prostration.”
“We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime 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.”Chapter 31:
“Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me — to me as I am now, today, with my heart and by beard, and my putrefaction — that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.”Chapter 32:
“There was the day, during our first trip— our first circle of paradise—when in order to enjoy my phantasms in peace I firmly decided to ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn — to mention only mentionable matters. There was the day when having withdrawn the functional promise I had made her on the eve (whatever she had set her funny little heart on — a roller rink with some special plastic floor or a movie matinee to which she wanted to go alone), I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face… that look I cannot exactly describe… an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration — and every limit presupposes something beyond it — hence the neutral illumination. And when you bear in mind that these were the raised eyebrows and parted lips of a child, you may better appreciate what depths of calculated carnality, what reflected despair, restrained me from falling at her dear feet and dissolving in human tears, and sacrificing my jealousy to whatever pleasure Lolita might hope to derive from mixing with dirty and dangerous children in an outside world that was real to her.”
“Once, in a sunset-ending street of Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton Pinski, some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked:
“You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate — dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions…”
“I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azurebarred — I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever — for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) — and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again — and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure — all would be shattered.”
“Now, squirming and pleading with my own memory, I recall that on this and similar occasions, it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of mind while comforting my own base self.”Last chapter—chapter 36:
“Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.”
I’ve finished my 2nd reading of Lolita. It’s back in my top 10 favourite novels. 5 years later, I got many references missed last time—Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Marlene Dietrich, Marquis de Sade, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…; had learnt more about paedophilia; and now picked up on some motifs earlier I had not seen (besides dogs, butterflies and birds, also mirrors and toilets). But the feeling is pretty much the same—this is a masterpiece, a work of genius, and a heartbreaking story, especially chapter 29 and 32 of part 2.
I feel drained.