Smashing One’s Face Against a Mirror: Lolita

I did it.  I finally read Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov.  If you’ve been aware of or following my attempts to read all of the books on the so-called BBC book list, then you know that I said I would read them all with the possible exception of Lolita, because the subject matter is so objectionable to me.  However, many of you encouraged me to do it anyway and changed my initial impressions of the book based simply on hearsay, so I gave it a try.  Lolita is number 62 on the BBC book list.

Lolita cover 2

I have to admit that I almost didn’t make it past the first section.  There is a truly disgusting scene in which the pedophile, Humbert Humbert, molests Lolita, without her knowledge, but the description was so vivid, although carefully implicit, that I felt very uncomfortable.  I did not feel uplifted for having read it, but I pushed on and found that the rest of the book has little in the way of sexual descriptions and escapades and more to do with the almost comical complications of trying to have a romantic relationship with a teenage girl while pretending to be her father.

Yes, it was comical.  Be careful what you wish for.  Humbert Humbert gets what he wants: sole custody of his dead landlady’s daughter.  He married the landlady for access to the daughter, then tries to plot her murder in order to have Lolita to himself.  Yet fate intervenes before he can carry out the murder, and his wife is accidentally killed by a recklessly driving neighbor.  He begins life on the road with Lolita and describes their relationship as mutual.  She’s 12.

Yeah, it isn’t mutual.  I mean, maybe in his narrating head he believes that and he wants us to believe that Lolita initiated their relationship, but I don’t buy it.  He’s an unreliable narrator.  I do buy that Lolita was a young, immature, and lonely girl with no real father figure in her life.  I do buy that she confused sexual attraction with love.  But her so-called compliance doesn’t make the relationship right or okay, as Humbert tries to convince us that it does.

The hilarity of the situation becomes apparent because Lolita is a teenager.  She’s moody, difficult, and mean.  She would rather hang out with her friends, participate in school plays, and date than be tied to Humbert, her lover/father.  He claims to love and adore her, but he must control her in order to keep him to himself.  He describes some of her actions as smashing her nose to the mirror, yet his life is a clear example of this sort of behavior.

Interestingly, this image of smashing one’s nose against a mirror was the form of a self-portrait/sculpture that I saw at the Louvre in Paris in 2008.  Contemporary artist Jan Fabre’s work was being featured among the work of the old masters.  At the entrance to the exhibit was a life-sized wax figure of Fabre with his face smashed against a mirror on the wall, and blood sprayed down as a result.  I never before understood this self-portrait.  I have often thought of it as strange and that perhaps the artist had some major psychological problems.  Now I realize that he may have been alluding to Lolita, or he may have been making the same point that Nabokov was, that our own behavior and justifications for it are our worst enemies and flaws.

Jan Fabre, self portrait, Louvre April 2008
Jan Fabre, self portrait, Louvre April 2008

Humbert eventually loses Lolita when she runs away at 15 or 16 with another man.  He spends some years adrift, hoping to find her.  He eventually does.  She’s a married woman who is pregnant, ordinary, and happy.  He gives her the inheritance money due her from her mother and begs her to run away with him again.  It turns out that he still loves her, even though she is older and pregnant.  But she refuses. And this is where the lesson of the book comes into play for him.

He realizes his error in stealing her childhood from her.  He realizes his own part in taking advantage and in robbing her of youth.  He feels some remorse, and in this, I can believe that maybe he really does love her and not just lust after her.  He contemplates how it must have actually been for Lolita (his Dolly), and he can see that from her perspective, he was not a lover or an equal, but a thief and an abuser.  Most poignantly, he wishes for her baby to be a boy.

What a commentary that is on life, that it would be best for her baby to be a boy.  It certainly reflects an entire system of privilege and power for men, and the fact that girls have it harder when it comes to love and being preyed upon by men.  I see in Humbert’s reflections a remorse but also a deep reflection on Nabokov’s part of the real problems with pedophilia, and not just an indulgent novel about lusting after children.  In this, I see value in having written the novel.

The writing is beautiful, smooth, and enchanting.  I am impressed with the prose, and it prompts me to want to read more Nabokov, perhaps without the same disturbing subject matter.  There is value in Lolita because Nabokov seemed to have been commenting on the problems with relationships, lust, and taking advantage of another, especially one who is vulnerable.

52 thoughts on “Smashing One’s Face Against a Mirror: Lolita

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  1. I never wanted to read this novel, for fear of some of the subject matter but your review has inspired me to get past the first few chapters and finally read the whole damn book!

  2. When I read your post about refusing to read Nabokov’s Lolita, I was quite… something: baffled, annoyed, disappointed (and other things) that someone who professes to love reading would take such a position. I hung around to see whether you would or wouldn’t, knowing that if you wouldn’t then I wouldn’t be following you much longer. Tell me something: are you glad you read it, now? Do you think of the insights and possibilities of reflection you would have missed if you hadn’t?

    What distinguishes us from animals is, I believe, our capacity for critical perspective. To claim that we’d never touch a book because someone said someone said someone said it is a cesspit, is a forfeit of out critical reasoning. It is not knowledge, the world outside, or books, that soil or degrade us, neither does any of it enlighten or better us: it is what we do with it, them, that makes a difference – to us, and to others.

    From your perspective, so different of mine and yet exactly the same in this one point, life is, needs to be, a path of learning, and I don’t think there should be any either way it should be lived.


    1. Well said! It is a path of learning, and yes I am glad I read it. I just find pedophilia so objectionable, yet I’ve never refused to read another book because of subject. I don’t believe in censorship and I am a book lover and a lover of learning, so you are right. My position was a little staunch and strange even for me. Glad I got encouragement to read it, and now it is over and not hanging over my head anymore as the obstacle to my own proclamation of loving to read anything and everything!

  3. I want to read Lolita someday, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Now that I have read your review, it seems like an interesting book to read.

  4. I own this — an annotated version — but haven’t worked up the courage to read it. Should I?

    Two articles that just recently popped up in my news feed — not sure if they’d be of interest — but one is about the ‘likeability’ of characters (‘would you be friends with Humbert Humbert‘, in response to a woman writer being irritated that a reporter asked her if she liked her unlikable character) and the other is a brainier (almost unreadable, for me!) New Yorker article abt whether HH is Jewish.

  5. I’m glad you decided to give it a try. Through many discussions and reviews I’ve read on Lolita, I’ve always wondered that this story didn’t bother me like it did others. Perhaps I’ve forgotten or blocked out the uncomfortable parts, or perhaps H.H.’s behavior was a little too “normal” in the context of my upbringing, for me to realize how abnormal it is to others. I had never heard of this book until I read Reading Lolita in Tehran and decided to read all the books those ladies read in their secret lit class. Perhaps their suppression informed my reading of Lolita also, reading a “Western” book was naughty, so the subject matter, being naughty itself, was less naughty than just the act of reading it and in secret and only with other women. There are layers upon layers of wrongness here, and they are all true in society. Nabakov’s fiction is Tehran’s reality, and partly, my own (to degrees) and I was never bothered by it, but rather pleased by the blatant outing of society’s failings against women.

    I’ll need to reread this book again and look for the comedy in the escapade as well. I’m sure it’s there, as the whole thing, from a evil mastermind perspective, is just ridiculous with mistakes and messy ol’ life, and the free will of a teenage girl.

    1. Perhaps I should point out, I’ve never been kidnapped by a pedophile, nor has every girl in Tehran. What I meant was that women’s lives are informed less by their own thoughts and decisions than by the decisions of men who wish to control them, and are allowed to control them by the societies in which they (we) live.

      1. Yes, exactly. That is the point I loved most about your comment. That his fiction is reality in Tehran but not in a literal sense, and even more literally in other corners of the world or in other situations. What a fantastic observation. I do hope you see the comedy that I did if you decide to reread.

        Did the book I sent you arrive yet? 🙂

        1. Yes, it did! I was so excited you read Lolita, I forgot to mention it. I’m super excited to start reading, but I’ll have to wait until after this term to do it justice, so probably late June I’ll have a chance to start on The World’s Strongest Librarian. Thanks again!

  6. Emily, I am glad you liked the writing. Unfortunately, I am in the middle of “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about maltreatment of women around the globe. Many of the women are taken from their homes at Lolita’s age and made into prostitutes in different cities. This is truly a very tough book to read (but is a must read for all of us) given the horrific treatment, so I am not too prime on reading about Mr. Humbert right now, no matter how well worded. Take care, BTG

    1. I completely understand. It is horrific how very real this situation is, both through trafficking and messed up families. It isn’t just a fiction, which is why it was so hard for me to want to pick up in the first place.

  7. Is a pedophile one who lusts after only one other who happens–for a time–to be young, or is it one who lusts after only youth?

    Very good review, but I still won’t be reading the book. I saw the move by accident and found it quite disturbing. Of course, the movie reminded me of watching evil in black and white through a peephole, without the advantage of anything beautiful, smooth or enchanting.

  8. I love your post and writing. I love your thorough review of the book and Im fascinated by the sculpture you mention at the Louvre. I may have to read this book as well as the BBC book list now. ;o)

    1. Thank you! Fabre is certainly an interesting artist. He had another sculpture of a brain with tiny devils on it picking at it with pitchforks. It was called something like “Devil on the Brain.”

  9. I am sure there was an interpretation that the tale is a metaphor of Nabokov’s relationship with language – I can’t recall if it was with English or Russian. Did your edition contain Nabokov’s afterword “On a Book Entitled Lolita”? The very last paragraph provides (I think) a really important insight into the book.

    … perhaps the afterword should be read first instead of last. It might serve to calm the anxieties (and change the perceptions) of those who have been misled by either the film(s) or the populist views of the work.

    1. I did not see that, but now I want to find it. I would be interested in Nabokov’s own views on why he wrote it and what it means. I can definitely see it as a metaphor for his relationship with language. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Wow. Good job finishing this book! I’m not sure that I would have after learning what it’s about. It has been on my to-read list, but I’m much more hesitant now. I’ll have to give it a think, but it seems that you don’t regret reading it.

    1. I don’t regret it. I feel like it was a good thing, especially for me to stop fearing the book and to realize that it isn’t as “bad” as my imagination made it out to be before reading.

  11. The beginning of this book sounds quite intimidating! Those always seem to be the best though.

  12. What a great review – I’ve not read it either, for much the same reasons that you hadn’t but it’s clear that you gleaned some great lessons from it. I’m encouraged to think other readers might learn from it as well and I’m thinking that perhaps it’s worth the read.

  13. Thank you for writing this review! I have also stayed away from this book because of the gritty topic, but having read your review, I am now tempted to try it. I too would be interested in reading about why Nabokov wrote this book.

    1. If you do, let me know. And yes, author’s motivations are always fascinating, especially if they are still alive and can tell you (or they wrote about it).

  14. Thanks for reviewing this one as I don’t think I can read this. Its too sad in a way. I am amazed Lolita didnt threw the guy out of the door the moment the saw him. I had heard a lot about the book but never delved into actually reading it. Didnt know about BBC Book list. Sounds Interesting.

    1. Yeah, I was surprised that she didn’t react more hysterically when he shows up, but it is written from his perspective. Also, I do know how paralyzing it can be to have to be around somebody who has been abusive. I know that I tend to regress back into the compliant and quiet person I was during that time.

  15. I have seen the movie and thought it was pretty good. I have been wanting to read it for years but never pick it up from my shelf because I don’t want to “glorify pedophilia.” But your amazing review revealed that it doesn’t glorify it at all and it shows compassion for a damaged man and how damaged people all too often damage the next generation, in his case literally. You’ve inspired me to read it. I have read Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading.” You may like that. Again the writing is brilliant and it is just a weird little book.

    I have read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and think it is a very important book. I find it so significant that “Lolita” was one of the teacher’s selections. It says so much about our right to read (or watch) things that are disagreeable or reprehensible to us and to find the value in it. Overall I do not believe in censorship, but there are occasions. For example, I live in Germany and I believe it is right to censor Hitler’s works because of the lingering obsession with anti-Semitism. I know a lot of people disagree an say that his works should be all the more prominent so people know what to fight against. But reading Hitler in an academic, or critically thinking way (which I think is allowed in the proper university setting) is a world away from the masses who may already have ignorant or prejudicial opinions about Jews, or other minorities. I am sure there are other rare cases where I could sanction censorship but that is the only one I can think of.

    1. What an interesting, nuanced discussion of censorship. You are right that there may be localized situations that call for it. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, the book doesn’t glorify pedophilia. If you end up reading it, let me know what you think. And I agree that it says something important about freedom that the book is included on the professor’s list in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Such a great book!

  16. You did it! It’s like Oscar Wilde always said – books aren’t moral or immoral, only well written or badly written. And I think we can all agree: 1. pedophilia is immoral and 2. Nabokov writes beautifully.

  17. I read this years ago and have largely forgotten it except for two things you mentioned: 1) it was disturbing for sure, even the end when he still wanted her… and 2) the writing was beautiful. I’d like to say that I’ll read it again, but I’m not sure life is long enough. Hah! 🙂 But I am glad for your review because it does seem there is some redemption in the book with the lesson learned, which is necessary I think, when such subject matter is explored.

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t read it again! But I do think the fact that he wanted her back in the end will stick with me as well. I was so surprised by that, given the nature of his sickness.

  18. I’m really glad you finally read Lolita. It’s long been on my short list of favorite books, for exactly the reasons you mention. For me, the dog imagery was particularly revealing and poignant. Humbert’s a dog. We all are.

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