Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, an intelligent, educated, charming man with one terrible flaw - He is obsessed with pre-pubescent girls, which he refers to as "nymphets". When Humbert encounters 12-year-old Dolores Haze (whom he dubs "Lolita"), he becomes so infatuated that he marries her mother to be with her. After the mother's death, he kidnaps the girl and takes her across the country for two years, violating her repeatedly.
This book disturbed me much more on this reading than on my first encounter 35 years ago. Maybe it was because I didn't have children at that time; or maybe it was because Nabokov did such a good job making me feel Humbert's panic and guilt; or maybe because I was naive enough back then to swallow Humbert's rationalizations. But on this more mature reading, it is clear to me that Humbert is a monster. Through begging, bribes, and bluffs, he coerces his stepdaughter into sexual relations. He terrorizes Lolita into believing she will be institutionalized if their secret is ever revealed. With no family and no support system, Lo has no choice but to acquiesce to her stepfather's pedophilia.
You may be seduced into thinking this is a love story; and you may be lured into believing it is an erotic novel. It is neither. Most of the sex is not related directly or in detail, reducing any possible eroticism; and this is, above all else, the story of systematic child abuse and exploitation. Humbert the sexual predator steals the childhood of a young girl.
Ironically, it is also a beautifully told story, thanks to Nabokov's gift for wordplay and linguistics.
Humbert's obsession stems from an incident in his boyhood when he fell in love with young Annabel Leigh, who died before they could consummate their passion. Their seaside rendezvous mirrors Edgar Allen Poe's tragic poem "Annabel Lee”, and the first-person prose repeatedly returns to echo Poe's words.
Why is it a classic? Because Nabokov persuades the reader to feel some of Humbert's pain and shame and panic and guilt and regret; he humanizes the monster without excusing him. His seduction of the reader is almost as complete as his seduction of his stepdaughter.
We experience his scheming to control this girl he should be protecting. We see Lolita only through the eyes of Humbert, but we know that she cries herself to sleep every night. There is neither love nor tenderness in Humbert's actions; only sexual objectification and a feeling of ownership.
There is a murder at the end. But this is far less shocking than the exploitation throughout the novel.
Lolita endures because it grabs our emotions – both positive and negative.