Why Is Everyone Reading Lolita?
By GINA PIERSANTI
I haven’t read Lolita. Not because I am opposed to ever reading it—I simply haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m currently working on Anna Karenina. Like most people, however, I feel like I’m familiar with the narrative. Teenage girls seem especially fascinated with Lolita, posting stills from the film adaptations, and copying the actress’s girlish clothes and her heart-shaped sunglasses. People bring a copy of Lolita to college and place it proudly on their bookshelf. Despite the cultural presence of this icon, our collective familiarity with the story of Lolita’s sexualization, I haven’t come in contact with a lot of actual discussion about the text. No criticism, no unpacking. I only ever see the book around, on shelves, in photos. I only see it quoted without context, or represented in photos or film stills, but I know people are also reading it. In this age of the #MeToo movement, does the existence of this text remain a relevant tool in the conversation about sexual abuse, about the sexualization of young women? Or does it take us a step back, culturally? Is the book leading to meaningful discussions, or is its appeal mostly in its aesthetic, its provoking subject matter?
Lolita can easily be mistaken for some kind of feminist icon by someone who, though familiar with the myth and legend of the novel, has not read it. This is especially true for young women who have not yet become comfortable with their bodies or who have not yet found any source of power in their sexuality—perhaps Lolita can come across as a role model, a girl in touch with these parts of herself. It is radical to write a story about the sexuality of a woman, the sexuality of a young woman. But Lolita is not a woman. She is a child, and the story is not about her but her abuser, our famously unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert.
Reading a piece of literature, especially one as well-known and respected as Lolita, is a safe way to engage with a taboo topic that might spark genuine curiosity and rage.
The problem is not the reading of the text—it is important to have these tricky conversations. I am not trying to advocate for literary censorship. The problem is the romanticization of a story about the sexualization and abuse of a child. The problem is sharing images from the movies for their aesthetic or sexual appeal without any kind of discussion or criticism, without any context.
I haven’t read Lolita, but my freshman English teacher brought it up in class a lot. She always paraphrased one of the lines from the narrator, Humbert, who says to the reader, “Imagine me. I do not exist unless you imagine me.” She used this line to talk about how a writer, a narrator, could make the reader complicit in the narrative that follows. It did stick with me, and it did spark my curiosity. How could you read the terrible things that followed that line knowing that you were bringing them to life by reading them and painting the pictures in your mind? Author Vladimir Nabokov obviously wanted to make his reader uncomfortable, make them feel responsible. The number of times my professor brought up Lolita made me think that maybe the book is worth reading. Maybe there’s more to Lolita than a gratuitous sexual fantasy, an anti-woman daydream. But I don’t know, maybe that all it is. It’s not like I’ve read it.