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The low-down on ‘Lolita’: how pop culture rewrote Nabokov’s brilliance | Mad Women

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” 

These three opening lines are from Russian author Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 magnum opus, “Lolita. The novel is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor, and follows his ongoing sexual obsession with the 12-year-old daughter of his housemate and later wife, Dolores Hayes, nicknamed “Lolita,” the Spanish name for Dolores.

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Since its publication, “Lolita” has been translated into French, English, Russian, Swedish, Dutch and so on, reaching a widespread audience. As “Lolita” has become a renowned classic in many literary communities, the debate is a draw: Is “Lolita” a romantic novel or is it a novel filled with disgust? Or is the brilliance and intellect of Nabokov’s work overshadowed by this drawn-out literary discussion?

When Nabokov presented the manuscript to publishing houses, he was rejected by the majority for the raunchy and promiscuous nature of the novel, especially since it was marketed in the ‘50s. One publishing house even went as far to say their employees would have to read the book behind bars. Nabokov finally found success in France where “Lolita” was first published by Olympia Press. Upon its initial release, “Lolita” met the criticisms and praises that it still receives today.

In a 1967 interview, Nabokov said that Humbert Humbert is a cruel man with incredible mental anguish and master manipulation skills. He is a man driven by his own desire and absorbed in his own wicked story. Nabokov’s choice to write the novel from Humbert’s point of view further emphasizes the silencing of Dolores’ own thoughts and feelings. Due to the focus on Humbert’s pride and ego, we cannot make a reasonable conclusion that Dolores ever manipulated him or seduced him as Humbert claims, or whether Dolores even liked him at all. Humbert is an unreliable narrator who has the ability to make the disgusting and disturbing sound beautiful.

“Lolita” was adapted into a film in 1962 and 1997. The 1962 adaptation was directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert and 14-year-old Sue Lyons as Dolores “Lolita” Hayes. Kubrick’s adaptation was the first portrayal of Lolita in the classic heart-shaped sunglasses and plaid bikini with ruffle trim — the painting of a perfect fantasy “nymphet.” The casting of such young actresses in these fantasy film adaptations raised some concerns, but not enough that any recasting was done or that the film was pulled from shelves and platforms. 

The release of “Lolita” in theaters is the origin of the romantic and sultry images of the novel pop culture renders today. According to an essay on the film in The Guardian, Kubrick directed the film so that it’s less of a tragedy and more of a dark comedy. Additionally, Kubrick aged Dolores up from 12 to 14 years old and relied heavily on innuendos to get the sexual nature of the film across rather than include explicit scenes. Although Kubrick kept these precautions, the mistake here was writing “Lolita” as a dark comedy rather than staying true to the source material. The portrayal of “Lolita” as a comedy may affect how readers and viewers interpret the content, mistaking the book for a forbidden romance and building off of the trope to produce the now widely known “Lolita aesthetic.” 

In 2012, singer Lana Del Rey released her magnum opus and debut album, “Born to Die. The deluxe version of the record included the track titled “Lolita.” The song’s chorus echoes, “Hey, Lolita, hey” and includes lyrics like “No more skipping rope, skipping heartbeats with the boys downtown,” and “You make me happy … I never listen to anyone.”

Many music critics and devoted fans of Del Rey have said the song was meant as satire and not to be taken seriously by the young girls who are influenced by her music. However, these sentiments did not stop those girls from taking the song to heart. The song was plastered all over Tumblr, with girls proudly labeling themselves nymphets.

The aesthetic surrounding Lolita today is hardly influenced by the novel. They are bits and pieces in today’s culture that have been tacked on, misunderstanding the plot of the aesthetic’s scripture. “Lolita” is a story about a young girl’s trauma and manipulation through the eyes of her abuser, making the story all the more inappropriate for young girls to curate their lives around. The popularity of “Lolita culture” has created something plaguing modern-day youth culture: infantilization. 

Infantilization is the prolonged treatment of one as a child, although they are not one, whether this is pushed upon someone by another or internalized. In the novel, Dolores is being infantilized by Humbert Humbert. Although she is still a child, as she ages, specifically when she turns 14, Humbert is still clinging onto the 12-year-old girl he once knew, now calling her “bratty” and treating her like she is naive and doesn’t have a clue about the world around her. 

A majority of those in the Lolita aesthetic, however, experience internalized infantilization, when they themselves are pushing the notion that although they aren’t children, they still have childlike tendencies that they market as sultry and desirable. These supposed fans of the novel and franchise believe that Lolita is the fantasy character in Humbert’s mind. This is the epitome of womanly attractiveness and that power is held in relation to a girl’s attractiveness, especially the appeal to older men. Somehow, “Lolita” became synonymous with teacher-student relationships, hitting on father’s friends, and dumbing oneself down to appear younger. None of these appear as canon in “Lolita. 

The problem isn’t that “Lolita” is receiving recognition as the literary marvel it is. The problem is that it’s being misunderstood and now advertised to a new generation under false pretenses. The ribbons and bows that are the theatrical adaptations and songs inspired by the novel are damaging its mark of excellence. 

The story is not defined by Dolores throwing herself at Humbert and toying with his emotions. “Lolita,” as a stand alone novel, is a story of a twisted and dark fantasy created by a wicked man, preying upon a young girl and disposing of her immediately when she’s “aged out” and begins to fight back. It’s about time to settle the discourse on the two popular interpretations of “Lolita” and begin to analyze the novel through the mind of Nabokov. 

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