Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil: Humbert vs. Lolita

Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) has to be the only time I've considered a pedophile's actions and thought, "Hey, I'm okay with that!" In fact, I wasn't just okay with Humbert Humbert and his quest to seduce Lolita, I was gunning for him.

I know I'm not alone when I say this--others have confessed, with guilty, delighted smiles on their faces, that they too were in some measure on Humbert's "side".

Lionel Trilling, an American literary critic, puts it rather eloquently when he writes "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."

From the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita

The question is, how does Nabokov make us "condone the violation"?

After a Pooh-like ponder, I'm going to put it down to this:
  • Humbert Humbert is narrating the story. We're intimate with his history and inner workings, therefore can't immediately write him off as inhuman.
  • He's just so damned honest with the reader.
  • Then there's the trauma of losing his childhood friend. Trauma = sympathy.
  • The trauma also explains his attachment to little girlies, making it rational and somehow understandable.
  • Lolita is just so damned annoying. And spoilt. And manipulative. And I rather think she's quite sadistic.
This said, I don't think Lolita deserved what happened to her. Neither to I think Humbert was justified in his actions--in fact he is totally reprehensible. He's right to feel guilty when he realises he robbed Lo of her childhood. What I'm fascinated with is Nabokov's seemingly impossible feat of making rational, sympathetic, law-abiding citizens--even momentarily--"condone the violation".

I'm trying to remember other works of literature in which we end up sympathising with the devil, so to speak. Hannibal Lecter's rather honourable and gentlemanly as far as serial killers go. After all, he chops off his own hand rather than Clarice's when they are cuffed together, a moment I find to be supremely romantic for some reason. (I never read the second book but I'm assuming it happens there as well as in the movie.)

There must be more examples than this but I'm mental blanking right now. Basically, I'm in awe of any writer who can pull of the my-character-is-heinous-but-you'll-love-them-anyway trick.


  1. Hello Rhiannon,

    Mr Trilling's comment is rather prudent, but I'd say true of many novels and films. I have also noticed this in others' responses to the novel I am writing about a relationship which is somewhat peculiar and perhaps too intimate.

    Lolita is my favourite book, I have the audio book read by Jeremy Irons and he really imports a wolfish sleeze that I find is absent from my personal readings.

  2. I just finished reading The End of Alice by A.M. Homes, but that's another kettle of fish entirely. You never sympathise with the narrator, yet you're enthralled throughout. It's really a masterful display of writing, for an author to create a character you don't want to spend time with but feel like you have to.

    I bought Lolita in the same trip to Borders as The End of Alice, so any employees in the know must have thought me a sicko.

  3. I like the book Lolita, and the 1997 film too. I think it's a great book, too. :)

  4. Anyone who sympathizes with Humbert should be kept far from children and decent people. Lolita is 12 in the book.