The following was submitted as coursework for the MFA program at NYU Paris

If only I had the eloquence of Nabokov’s prose to adequately express how much I loathed his creation of a character, his monster, the oil-tongued snake, this first person narrator: Humbert Humbert. In an astounding achievement of lexicon, the book has the manipulative effect of The Predator convincing girls that they must pander to their admitted vile sickness. In the narration, Nabokov is able to reveal the duality of his narrator and his eponymous character. HH’s duality of disguised doctor/husband/stepfather and predator, and Dolores/Lolita as a young female victim or nymphet uses her small fraction of dialogue to scream the heinous effects of gaslighting and sexual abuse.

If Nabokov’s intent was the create a character whose voice was so slippery with twisted cunning that it leaves his reader with the parallel impressions Dolores’ distress, he was wildly successful. It is to the marked talent of the writer that the effects of his novel are so visceral and parallel to the true effects of a predator. Charming, hiding in plain sight, his good looks and intellect are employed to hide his nature. Confessing guilt at times, then justifying his behavior, and condescending those around him create the same effect of sitting in a room with such a manipulative being simply by sitting in a chair with the book before one’s eyes.

Nabokov is no fool to the effects he creates on his readers. His brilliance is exposed in the delicate awareness he has in creating the narrator to be one who holds his coveted ‘darling’s’ suffering in his peripheral, exposing the anguish of Dolores Haze’s experience of him, whilst maintaining the character, so besot with his own crafty obsession, that he manages to gloss over her tears in the night, “every night, every night - as soon as [he] feigned sleep.”

The forward claims no aim to ‘glorify H.H.’ but suggests there is perhaps something to learn. I believe this. I am not convinced that the writer himself had fondling fantasies of young girls. I have heard other critiques postulate otherwise. Nabokov has too much oversight to create the layers of the character as it is fraught with inconstancies. He has awareness in creating HH to be an unreliable narrator, forgetting or fudging names, admittedly mixing up the timelines of recollections, and feigning ignorance of legalities, and in the end insists that he “cannot plead personal ignorance on universal emotions.” In the selfish nature of the predator, Nabokov shows how HH demands the benefit of the doubt as well as the worship of his intellect. The nuance of his odious nature replicates that of a predator that exists in the world around us, rather than a caricature of a villain. He hides behind guilt and self pity, shedding crocodile tears, indulging his ragged beliefs of entitlement. The insidious hidden nature of the predator coexisting with others and demanding sympathies and justification amidst confessions of sexual encounters even HH admits to be “violent” is what makes the character so horrifying, as he is so recognizable to those who have encountered their own versions of him.

Does Nabokov paint his character hued in tones of remorse and self-disgust? Yes, but in the brilliant mimicries of the Jekyll/Hyde, complimenting/berating, manic/depressive predator, the remorse is flooded with self indulgent tears, and the entitlement to beg a pregnant, married former victim to leave the tiny life she built for herself to return to his lecherous lairs. Dolores’ protests puncture the novel soon after the death of her mother, plainly calling him out for his violations. Nabokov shows cognizance that predators are able to hear the word ‘no’, register that the heard the word ‘no’, account in word and on paper that they heard the word ‘no’, but will not desist in moments of obsessive entitlement.

Nabokov is able to show, through the voice of his unwitting first person narrator, that H.H. had been two years by the side of a stranger in a coveted vessel. It wasn’t until the end of his confessional tale that he remarks on the moment where he considered he “did not know a thing about [his] darling’s mind” before dismissing in the following sentence her compulsions toward “awful juvenile clichés.” He obsesses over her for her youth, then criticizes her for youthful interests. He has an idea as to how he believes she should think, then overlooks the depths of insight Lolita is capable of, despite her blunt language and tacky interests.

Here, Nabokov has also had the omniscient oversight to create the duality of Lolita and Dolores. Where Humbert the narrator believes himself to be a man shrouded in thought and depth, in his narrow descriptions of the girl, Nabokov still shows that the true character of depth and inner life is Dolores. Constructed in condescending word by Humbert and the lamenting of her mother, Dolores is still revealed by the author to have a strength and resolution no amount of HH’s poetic waxing can topple. Through the selfish eyes of the narrator, the girl is still shown to use the word girls have such a complex relationship to in sexual matters, after being raped, coerced, begged, bribed, and prostituted to him, by him; she has the resolution to have ‘no’ a regular appearance in her vocabulary. 

The eponymous character has a sliver of the voice in this book, but her dialogue cuts through the flowery narration with blunt protest and the colloquial lexicon that reinforces her youth, and her non-consent . The juxtaposition between Lo’s language and that of H.H. sets the jarring dynamic. The delicate flow of master crafted language is sliced apart by Dolly’s crude lexicon, and blunt accusations. She uses slang, slumps, whines, it is only in her dialogue that we hear colloquialisms, and it is only in her language that we hear the clear poignance of “rape” and “incestuous.”  

My reading of this book was halting and awkward, marked with unhappy understandings of the portrayal of a young female from the perverse male perspective; much like my own growth to womanhood. Repeatedly, I put the book down to clutch my head in my hands. As my rage toward the narrator increased, as did my hostility toward the physical book itself. There are many four letter words scrawled in the margins, and across some of the more loathsome scenes of the explicit abuse inflicted upon her in the damp sheets of motel rooms.

As Humbert grows closer to Dolores, I had to conceal awkward tears in the public places I chose to read this novel. His description of picking her up at camp, as well in the motel room, was met with bursts of emotion in my understanding of the ominous nature of the girl’s fate.

It was difficult for me to wrap my head around was the humor of the narrator. The language is unbearably clever and flowing, marked with absurdist remarks concerning the fellow ‘adults’ whom he is apathetically surrounded by. Laughter causes feelings of goodnatured 

Inner conflict is added the the dark humors of our vile narrator in his blunt cynicism towards the world outside his tenderly guarded fantasy life with Lolita. The other adults of the books are met with blunt contempt which adds beats of comedy to what Humbert appears to regard as the absurd world outside of his secret passions.

And then, to further incite recoil, there is the audacity to police the reader’s reactions (“Oh, do not scowl at me, reader…” “You must understand, reader…”

“I felt quite sorry for him,” says one of my more hot blooded feminist friends. Her comment surprises the both of us in our debate of the level of H.H.’s monstrosity, as I am often the half of our duo making more diplomatic attempts in the conversations of modern era ‘masculine toxicity.’ 

“But when did you last read it? Because I have been aware that I was likely to hold a less inflamed reaction had I read it in my teen years.”

In the political light shed on our experiences as women in our early to mid twenties, we have only just begun to breach our heads over the murky waters of manipulations we experienced as young girls and adolescents, perpetuated into our adult lives. How many of us have unwittingly held on to the warning, echoed by H.H. to Dolores, that speaking of the experiences to anybody would find us in just as much trouble as our perpetrators? 

The sting of gaslighting surfaced in thinly veiled deceit within lofty claims of protecting and preserving her “from all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways.” In the panic of The Predator that spread in the United States throughout the later half of the 20th century, it was a massive error in propaganda, perpetuated by such imagery, that your standard violator lurks in such dark corners. It is more often, we now know statistically, that they live down the hall, or in the house beside us. Indulgent descriptions of the American landscape and living on highways between hotels are punctuated with protests and sullen retreats by the girl. The narrator is able to record them without pause to truly consider the depth of her damage in the moment. Guilt surfaces primarily in retrospect.  There are the familiar sights all across the country, symbolized in the transcontinental road trip on which HH takes Lolita, the perversity spreading throughout the land. I consider that Nabokov may have considered the flight through the land as indicative of the phenomena across the country. Perhaps my rediscovered rage in the streams of a lunatic’s word into my ears reaffirms my fears and disgust of a tale one can’t help but understand with a harrowing drop of the stomach to be non-fantastical. The slithering gaze over fragile frame is all too familiar.

The following techniques of slipping women into subservience were ployed by HH:

Because, oh! If you tell, you’ll be in trouble too.

Beware! Other men might treat you more hideously. 

Be grateful! Your lithe body is reminded that it is disposable, and I will lay gaze to others with passenger in tow, to remind you that as “special” as I claim you to be, your limbs and life are simply the target of my current attraction. 

It hurt to read this book, and shudder to hear that anybody continues to suggest this piece as a “romance.” What I now recognize as gaslighting and manipulation was rife throughout the novel, and Nabokov is cognizant of his creation. The language is stunning, the beauty of it disarming in the red heat of anger toward the subject matter. The pain of enjoying this book was, I imagine, an intended parallel to the pain of wrestling vile desire as experienced by narrator Humbert Humbert, as well as the clear, detrimental manipulations experienced by Dolores Haze. The effect of reading the clever verbatim is confusing and violating, resurfacing uncomfortable memories of pubescent strife of falling into the convincing web of words. ‘Oh, but the language of the man is so convincing and able to play on literary vanities! Oh, but it is my fault, as the humble reader, to fall fool to the treacheries of others’ action.’ These convictions are demonstrative of the ‘it’s your fault that somebody raped you’ sentiment of society that plagues victims of assault and abuse to this day. 

I can see why the book is considered a ‘modern masterpiece.’ The seduction of the language describing the horror story of Lolita has the effect of true grooming. My own qualms against the subject matter cannot overlook that the inciting reaction I received was due to the effect of Humbert Humbert’s voice in my head as I read the book, feeling the tug of their beauty in order to glean trust, persuading me as the reader to fall for him. In the end, as with Dolores Haze, our heads somehow push above the waters of deception, even if only to meet our own dark fates elsewhere.