Humbert Humbert is a Jerk: Reading Lolita for Banned Book Week
[Slight divergence from my normal blogging. Feel free to move along...]
In honor of Banned Book Week I decided to read a book I hadn't read that was on the list. I listened to the audiobook version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, as read by Jeremy Irons. Irons also played the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, in the 1997 film adaptation of the novel.
Lolita deals with some pretty dreadful people, none more dreadful in my opinion than it's protagonist, Humbert Humbert - a self-made pseudonym developed by the protagonist while in prison for the memoir he wrote. The fact he is in prison is revealed at the very start - I'm not giving away anything as the fact he is incarcerated is revealed at the very start.
Humbert Humbert is clearly an unreliable narrator. He is certainly an interesting one, full of odd asides, observations, and even the occasional poem. The Jeremy Irons unabridged reading is phenomenal - though I've never seen the 1997 film, I've no doubt he did a phenomenal job. While I find Humbert Humbert to be a despicable character whom I'd like to punch in the teeth, listening to Irons portray him was an absolute joy.
Humbert Humbert is in many ways defined by the untimely death of his childhood "love", Annabel Leigh (a rather obvious reference to an Edgar Allan Poe poem...) He develops an unhealthy sexual obsession with "nymphets" - prepubescent and early pubescent girls, aged 9 to 14 or so.
The bulk of the novel deals with his relationship with Dolores Haze whom he nicknames "Lolita". She is aged 12 when he meets her and is immediately obsessed with her. Without going into major details, he eventually enters into a sexual relationship with her. Interestingly, while the novel is rather frank in the nature of their relationship, it is not particularly graphic.
So what can I say about this relationship? Humbert Humbert portrays it as one in which the sexual consummation was initiated by her. I don't fully believe him in that - it strikes me as a self-justifying narrative, though even were he to be telling the truth, I'm unable to come close to morally excusing him. Even if I didn't have daughters whose ages bracket Lolita's I'd feel that way. Lolita calls him out on that later on in the novel, referring to it as the first time he raped her.
On occasion, Humbert Humbert acknowledges he stole Lolita's childhood. And we never really get to see her as a fully realized person - as the narrative is Humbert's, Nabokov shows Lolita as Humbert sees her. Even referring to her as Lolita is taking on Humbert's perspective. We do see glimpses of a real person even within Humbert's narrative which I think is a genius of the story. It's not much and I find myself aching for more clues as to who she really is. In many ways, she too seems to be a bit on the unpleasant side, though her unpleasantness is much easier to forgive, given what she lives through.
Going to the title of this post. I do see Humbert Humbert as a jerk. A self-justifying jerk. He may adore "his" nymphets but what he does to Lolita is rape and the clear corruption of a minor. He can couch it in all the poetry he wants. We can accept he may have some genuine feelings for her but that doesn't make him any less the rapist.
With all that, it's a difficult book to put down while at the same time being a difficult book to pick up (I took a break while reading it to read HP Lovecraft's "Herbert West-Reanimator" for some lighter material.) I found myself hating Humbert Humbert while at the same time enjoying his way of expressing things, his witty asides. He can be quite charming while remaining a child predator who deserves our contempt.
As a banned book... I find it difficult to see how one could see Lolita as glorifying Humbert Humbert. As a parent, I don't think I'd allow my 11-year old to read it but I believe my 14-year old would be mature enough to read it.