She's really the tease, you know. It's not that Humbert is a totally innocent party or anything, but she's the one who seduces him, lies to him, and sleeps around. And what about that annoying temper? Really, what a little brat, not to mention a precocious minx. She doesn't seem all that pretty, either, and is overall kind of average, nothing to write home about. How are we supposed to sympathize with her when she actively sought out sex with her stepfather, had it coming, and we don't even like her?
And thus the majority of opinions out there concerning 12-17-year old Dolores Haze, also known as Dolly, Lo, Lola, Carmen, Carmencita, but every so often she's called Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov's nymphannical anti-protagonist, Humbert Humbert.
Lolita is not only my favorite novel. Yes, it has the greatest prose I've ever read, with phrases that sort of come at me in my eerie, spectral day-to-day life. Yes, it has a little bit of everything--satire, suspense, mystery, depravity, comedy, abstraction, tragedy, violence, beauty, and oh, yeah, romance. But it also hosts my favorite heroine in brave Dolly Haze, for all the terrible press she gets.
Some feminists defending her character may be tempted to blame Nabokov for choosing not to include her side of the story, and to paint her at times as the most excruciating of teeny-bopper harpies, out of some misplaced, misogynistic sympathy for his antihero, Humbert Humbert. I call, "nope." Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing. He fully realized he was creating the world's most unreliable narrator in Humbert Humbert. But more than that, Nabokov understood that Lolita's actions are only treacherous in the eyes of a child molester desperate to keep her by his side at all times. Nabokov placed us so skillfully in Humbert "the pentapod monster's" shoes that we unwillingly and unconsciously start relating to him, and start seeing his world through his own filtered, cynical lens.
What Nabokov does to Lolita, without explicitly outlining it for the reader, is make her a precocious, courageous, tragic child who loses control of her life, but struggles to regain that control even after repeatedly being broken and abused. And although she ultimately fails in her efforts to rebuild a healthy life for herself, she still triumphs by keeping intact a small, careworn, but still faintly, faintly throbbing store of empathy, compassion, and childlike optimism inside of her.
I don't want to go too far in the other direction of her critics by idealizing her. No, it certainly isn't normal for a preteen to put the sexy moves on her stepfather. And yes, by novel's end, she most definitely is emotionally stunted. But the fact that she is picking herself up and moving on at all, with a minimum amount of bitterness, is inspiring when you consider that no one would expect that from a child who'd been through what she endures--losing a father, losing a brother, losing her verbally abusive, unstable mother who always resented and demeaned her, getting repeatedly raped and entrapped by the one adult figure she believed valued her, then falling in love with a wretched pedophile who abandons her when she refuses to "souffler his beastly boys."
And no, she isn't insane after all this. She maintains a personal dignity and unflappable will, which readers insist on chalking up to cut-and-dried snottiness. Some of her actions are indeed snotty, sure. She is a teenage girl, after all. But why, if she's nothing but a shallow slut who beds her stepfather and then quickly tires of him, won't she participate in that porno? Why, when at the end of the book when she's living in poverty and Humbert asks her "to leave [her] incidental Dick, and this awful hole," does she stay, and not just play along with Humbert and then abandon him when she has enough money? And why, after the way Humbert has mangled her life, does she pat his hand and call him honey?
Because underneath all the "awful juvenile cliches" and the various temper tantrums and changeful attitudes, Dolores is a good person. Tarnished, yes. Super nice? Not all the time, no. But she's good, and she's strong, otherwise there's no way she would adorably chant, "Good by-aye!" from her doorway when Humbert forces himself to leave her that last time, a wide, hopeful smile on her face as she waves to him enthusiastically.
I don't think any of us can judge Lo until we've been raised by Charlotte Haze. She might not beat Dolly with a wire hanger (that we know of), but when your mother has an insidious and unshakable jealousy and distrust of you, that's really gonna mess you up some. Imagine yourself, an impressionable, cheerful kid of twelve, overhearing your mother airily telling your crush that she sees you as "a sturdy, healthy, but decidedly homely kid." (There's no proof Lo actually overhears this, but Charlotte's never delicate about when and where she says shit). Oh, and she suspects you of ruining her back by spitefully throwing toys out of your crib when you were an infant, forcing her to bend over and pick them up. You basically feel like she hates you, and that she's competing with you. That last one especially, without an understanding paternal figure to help counterbalance Charlotte's influence, will most likely sexualize a girl before she's mentally and physically ready.
Now imagine having that mentality and then a handsome stranger enters. Because--and going by the evidence, I think we can trust Humbert's self-assessment here--Humbert is a handsome man. Movie star, dashingly handsome. And he's charming, and he shows an interest in Lolita that isn't centered around highlighting her faults or putting her down. He flirts with her. Lolita responds. How many of us at age twelve wouldn't if a magical Johnny Depp figure actively engaged us and teased us gently? And add that to the age-inappropriate, hostile environment she's grown up in, and the peer pressure she experiences at camp, then yes, it's a little logical that she might play the wayward temptress. She truly doesn't have a better model or life experience to base her behavior on.
But what I really love about Lo is how she maintains, through all the crap thrown her way, a brilliant sense of individuality. Even Humbert, at the height of his hurt-lover spiteful descriptions of her, can't stifle the unexpectedly delightful traits in Lo's character. Take Chapter 27 in Part I, where she brilliantly and sardonically describes her time at summer camp, displaying a wonderfully intuitive intelligence and wacky sense of humor. Some of that may be Humbert's witty embellishment, but you get the feeling the general opinions and spirit are uniquely hers. And she keeps that fighting spirit, up till the bitter end. Preserving some of her compassion and endurance makes her an admirable character, but also preserving her wit and spunk are what make her a likable character in My Humble O.
So what do I think of the two movin' pikchers? Overall I prefer Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version, starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, and Sue Lyon in the title role. Adrian Lyne's 1997 version is technically the more faithful adaptation of the book, but Kubrick wins on tone. He keeps the manic, comical, and dark edge that Nabokov wrote, and for me, I'll take faithful tone over faithful storyline any day. Besides, it's not like the Kubrick film deviates all that wildly from the set-up, just taking minor liberties in setting. And I'd just like to point out that while Sue Lyon certainly doesn't look twelve, she does pass for 15-17, which accurately depicts part of Lolita's age range. Plus, James Mason and Shelley Winters are Humbert and Charlotte. Straight out of the pages. I haven't seen either actors perform better in any other movie, though they're always great. Meanwhile, I simply cannot stand Melanie Griffith as an actress, and her Charlotte in the 1997 version looks stiff and miserable, instead of loud, phony, and flamboyant as Charlotte should be. And Jeremy Irons's Humbert looks the part, but is so muted and gentle that you feel too much sympathy for Humbert, and you lose his biting contempt, his monstrousness. In fact, that's how I feel about the whole 1997 movie: too delicate, too lyrical. That actually dampens the tragedy and pathos, because we don't get the violent suspense that darkens the beautiful ride.
Except I will give the 1997 movie this: they do the best job at making Lolita's plight poignant. If Lyne hadn't filmed Humbert so sympathetically, I think there'd be no question who the strongest, best character in the story is. There's a scene soon after Humbert abducts her where Lolita's goofing around with him, playing the wisecracking, carefree moll. But then we cut to her in bed alone. She's crying. Not in imitation of a delicate Victorian girl's quiet, long-suffering sniffs, but in childish, panicking, defeated wails, sounding all the world like a baying moose. It's a harrowing scene, and one that's repeated later in the film when Humbert strikes her in the car. Swain (who I think did a wonderful job) stares at him for a split second afterward. Her expression is a strange oxymoron: resigned disbelief. Then she snaps and returns to the moose tears, running clumsily out of the car, Humbert at her heels. He forces her into his embrace, and what does she do? Buries her face in his chest. What other option does she have? "You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go."
Humbert really does love Lolita, I believe. He is a work of fiction, so we can risk romanticizing him just a bit more than we would your average grungy pedophile. But I also believe he truly loves her because he portrays her ugliness, her strident flaws, yet always through the lens of adoring her all the same, and acknowledging that she magnifies this behavior out of necessity, in response to his crushing obsession.
After all, though it is love, it is a terrible, unhealthy, corrosive love, that literally destroys everything and everyone around it. He may be a romanticized pedophile, but the most romanticized love of a pedophile is still detrimental, acidic and awful.
Yet through this acidic narrative, Lolita's small voice is nevertheless heard, lingering even after (A MAJOR SPOILER!) she dies in childbirth.* From her shaky beginnings Lolita manages to become, before she dies, "brave Dolly Schiller": a supportive wife and expectant mother, making ends meet for her and her husband. I, like Azar Nafisi (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran), agree with Vera Nabokov's take on Lolita's character. Vera, of course, was Nabokov's wife, and to whom this book and many others of his were dedicated. She's the likeliest candidate to know what truly went on in that butterfly-obsessed, staggeringly brilliant author's mind, and probably understood his literary intentions better than anyone. Nafisi quotes her diary entry, written in response to the reception not only the book received, but also the eponymous girl herself received:
They all miss the fact that the 'horrid little brat' Lolita is essentially very good indeed--or she would not have straightened out after being crushed so terribly, and found a decent life with poor Dick more to her liking than the other kind.Mrs. Nabokov caught that gleam of goodness immediately, privy as she was to the author's intimate thoughts. The skeptical reader can find that goodness as well, but probably with a bit more digging. The true genius of Lolita is that for all its many intricacies and verbal traps, the most subtle part of the book is the heroine herself, whom the book is allegedly all about. Her goodness and her strength are there, as frank as her pregnant stomach. Unlike Humbert, however, she does not advertise it as a "tangle of thorns" for the "ladies and gentlemen" of the jury to gawk at mercilessly.
*MORE SPOILERS, FOR LOLITA AND DAVID COPPERFIELD: I'm still trying to work out if there's any deep, meaningful connection to why I'm so drawn to two literary ladies who die from complications in childbed, Lolita and Dora Spenlow. I'm guessing they both meet their ends this way because they're spiritually children, and making them successful mothers would undercut their tragedies as characters. They are forever unwilling female variations of Peter Pan, denied adulthood by their creators. Sucks, huh? Either I'm attracted to the pathos of it all because I'm a staunch feminist...or I just like goofy, childlike characters. What that says about my maturity? Uhhhh....never mind. So, what about that Batman? You know what would be neat? Casting a Batman movie with Disney characters. Batman would totally be Beast, Catwoman would be Nala, and....