Vladimir Nabokov’s revolutionary novel, Lolita, follows the abduction and sexual abuse of 12 year old Dolores Haze, better known as Lolita, by her pedophilic stepfather – and crucially, narrator – Humbert Humbert. Yet, Dolores Haze has been filtered and reduced down to the derogatory and misleading definition of “Lolita” in the English dictionary as a “a precociously, seductive girl”. This widely accepted unsympathetic reading of one of the most controversial protagonists in existence, dictated by the manipulative verbal tricks of Humbert’s narration, has eclipsed what is for me, the essence of Dolores Haze; a tragic and exploited child, a captive, a rape victim.
The Latin origins of Dolores – “dolor” – means pain or suffering and hence, Lolita’s character is inherently a tragic victim to abuse. However, it may also be read as a representation of Lolita’s toxic effect on Humbert; the subjectivity of Lolita runs straight to its very core. From the very outset, Humbert is heavy-handed in providing an apathetic filter with which the audience is encouraged to view Dolores. As well as being, “antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey” to her teachers, fellow pupils,and to her mentally abusive mother, Dolores’ premature sexuality is difficult to ignore.
Seamlessly complying to the newfound connotations of her name, Lolita initiates each sexual element of her relationship with Humbert; from the first kiss as she teases Humbert that, “[he] hasn’t kissed [her] yet, has [he]?”, to their first act of intercourse, “it was she who seduced [Humbert]”. Lolita is clearly desensitised to “the stark act” of sex. Instead of attributing this to the persona of a glamorised dominatrix, it is perhaps more linked to her lack of sexual guidance from her detached mother. A young girl who deems “all caresses except kisses on the mouth or the stark act of love either “romantic slosh” or “abnormal” is clearly subject to a warped understanding of sex and a depraved childhood – something Humbert, and society, are all too willing to exploit.
Throughout the novel, Nabokov tracks the progressions of Humbert’s paranoid determination to “protect the purity of that twelve year old” to, “a system of monetary bribes,” and “hours of blandishments, threats and promises”. Humbert’s obsession with his self-preservation and sexual pleasure clearly stunts Dolores emotional development. He degrades her: “how sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty” and she becomes his possession, his sex slave. Whilst Dolores is criticised for abusing Humbert’s infatuation with her by using sex as her own bargaining chip, it is clearly a method of survival. Perhaps most poignantly, Humbert prides himself in being, “clever enough to realise that [he] must secure her completely co-operation in keeping [their] relations secret, that it should become a second nature with her”. Humbert’s success in this matter is so entrenched within her, that Lolita is unable to perceive the abnormality of paedophilia itself. She escapes from the clutches of Humbert by seeking shelter with another paedophile, Clare Quilty. Yet his desires are perhaps even more perverted than Humbert’s – “[his] idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures”. Lolita “refused to take part because she loved him, and he threw her out”.
Dolores falls victim to a cycle of toxicity in the paedophilia that indeed “become[s] a second nature with her”. However, she eventually marries and bears the child of Dick, a seemingly honourable working man; in Lolita’s relentless struggle for survival, she eventually emerges victorious with a content and stable, albeit far from prosperous, marriage. What is potentially most striking about Lolita’s fate is the youthful throb of compassion and optimism that refuses to dull despite the turmoil she meets. Dolores even finds it fitting to apologise to Humbert, “I’m so sorry I cheated so much,” and still commends Quilty as, “a great guy. Full of fun”. She blatantly lacks any self-pity, in contrast to Humbert’s self-pity which forms the foundations for Lolita itself. Lolita dies during childbirth, perhaps suggesting she is never able to really escape her childhood and by starving her own child of the mother Lolita so clearly needed, Nabokov embellishes Lolita with its final tragedy. Thus, however we perceive her character, Lolita must continue to exist in our minds as a child, because whilst “[Quilty] broke [her] heart,” it cannot be forgotten that, “[Humbert] broke [her life]”.
Despite this, under the high-profile endorsers of the overtly erotic perception of Dolores Haze, such as Marc Jacobs and Lana del Rey, it seems as though the image of a sexually manipulative twelve-year old has been glorified and widely accepted. However, we would not ordinarily lend sympathy to a pedophile, so why should we compromise our morals simply due to the “fancy prose style” Humbert boasts? And furthermore, how is it possible for a pedophile to be labelled as the victim of the wiles and charms of his own captive? To me, Dolores is a victim not only emotionally and physically, but a victim because her own story of events has been quashed by an adored pedophile, rapist and murderer.