Vladamir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is well known around the literary world as one of the most controversial and provocative novels of the twentieth century. It is also one of the Russian writer’s finest works despite its many negative criticisms and widespread banning. The book published in 1955, pushed the boundaries of what was deemed as socially acceptable in a post war America and took a frightening look inside the mind of a pedophile. Many readers turned away from the book entirely because of its dark subject matter while others struggled finding any sort of meaning or literary value for the same reason. I would argue that this is an unfortunate occurrence primarily due to American Cultures inability to suspend their own moral convictions, even when it is necessary to do so. Lolita is a masterful work of literature that requires this suspension in order to fully appreciate its literary value.
Throughout the novel we are taken inside the mind of Humbert Humbert an outwardly rather plain man who internally and physically lusts after a young girl of around twelve years of age. It is indeed a horrific subject that people have every right to be appalled at. Especially as Americans in the modern era, the fear of pedophilia is always present and this is in part due to this very novel. Lolita was published in America in 1958 and sold over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks alone. Never before in America had the subject of pedophilia been addressed on such a wide scale and the daunting reality of its existence came into stark contrast with the traditional American dream type society of the 1950s. In the same way that the 1975 thriller “Jaws” made Americans afraid of sharks, Lolita made Americans afraid of pedophiles and rightly so. As writer Heather Jones says in Nabokov's Dark American Dream,
“…what does unite us, those within our prison walls and those without, is our horror and absolute disgust with the pedophile. These people are those for whom we reserve the most venom and our deepest antipathy.”
It is in fact this very feeling of disgust that people use to justify the decrying of Lolita with in this modern era. It is so easy to say this book is so horrible that I refuse to read it or for others it is nearly impossible to see past the unforgivable crimes of Humbert Humbert. However to read Lolita and come to the simplest of conclusions that Humbert is the villain and Lolita the victim is almost a crime itself to the literary value of the novel. There is so much more to the work than meets the eye and it is a shame that some cannot see the forest from the trees. Yet still Americans all over the country get up in arms about the book. This inability and unwillingness of Americans to subjugate their minds to images of discomfort is spot lighted no better than in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adoption of Lolita. In it Lolita is portrayed as a sexually appealing girl closer to the age of 17 than 12. It is likely that no one would have gone to see the movie if Lolita was portrayed more accurately which sheds light on the fact that people, especially Americans of the time, do not want to hear or watch a story that will make them feel uncomfortable regardless of its overall merit or underlying message. For it to be appealing it had to be made less threatening and more viewable.
Some would argue that it is nearly impossible to simply forgo ones moral convictions in any situation as they are essential to our character. However I would argue that this process is not only possible, but necessary for honest and complete literary analysis. Given this is not always easy especially in cases such as Lolita where we are presented appalling scenes of the rape of a young child. I believe Nabokov intentionally makes this challenging for the reader. He challenges us to look past the surface level disgust we feel and look for deeper meaning and literary value. If we are capable of doing this we become aware that Humbert and Lolita are much more complex than we may like to admit.