Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003409, Fri, 9 Oct 1998 16:39:03 -0700

Re: Lolita and pedophilia (fwd)
EDITOR's NOTE. During September and October there has been a thread on "VN
and Sentiment" which included many substantial and thought-provoking
postings -- among them Galya Korovina's 28 September essay and Tom Bolt
response. Bolt and others took issue with the assertion that LOLITA was
not about pedophilia but tragic passion. Below Brian Boyd adds his
From: Brian Boyd <b.boyd@edunov2.auckland.ac.nz>

Dear List:

I read Galya Korovina's comments about _Lolita_ only after reading about
Tom Bolt's response, and when I read her comments themselves¯which I
thought full of interest ("eerie domesticity" and the like)¯felt I had to
resist her claim that _Lolita_ is "about passionate love doomed to be
unrequited, and not about pedophilia," but saw no point in doing so until
I knew what the state of the discussion was. For some reason Tom Bolt's
comment did not reach me through the list, and has only just been resent
by our obliging listmaster. Tom Bolt responds so superbly, with such
economy and psychological and moral sensitivity, that I hesitate to add
anything. But since I had jotted down a response, here it is, clunky
tabulation rather than elegant analysis.

Aristotle stressed plot as primary in storytelling, and while we might not agree that it's quite as dominant as he does, it still matters even in the most sophisticated fiction. If _Lolita_ is about not pedophilia but unrequited love, why does HH timidly pursue young girls, bought or browsed amongst, in Europe; pursue Ginny McCoo to Ramsdale; entrap Lolita at the Enchanted Hunters with the intention of coupling with her while she is unconscious; have her regularly sit in the car and "caress" him while he admires schoolgirls filing by at school bus time, and grumble about her "childish lack of sympathy for other people's whims"; show a keen interest in "consolation prize nymphets" around Lolita; daydream about having a daughter by Lolita who can herself become a Lolita, and then of having a daughter by her? Why does VN include such details if he wants to define HH's feelings as love but not pedophilia?
True, after the epiphany above the mountain valley and his
abandoning his pursuit of the unknown abductor, HH no longer chases other
"nymphets," but settles down with the prophylactic Rita, and when he meets
Lolita again he loves her in even in her post-nymphancy. By this stage he
has indeed outgrown his pedophilia. On the other hand, he continues to
exploit others to serve his own ends: his attitude of contempt toward Rita
while feigning attachment is much the same as toward Valeria--except that
Humbert now feels less trapped and more circumspect, and hence can be less
brutal--or toward Charlotte; his determination to kill Lolita's "abductor"
as soon as he discovers his identity never wavers, and is pointedly linked
by Nabokov with HH's past unwavering determination to possess Lolita, even
at the cost of killing the child she still is. Once Lolita escapes,
Humbert does change in some respects, both toward Lolita and toward
pedophilia, although he also remains in many other respects horribly the
same. But while he has her in his possession, he is still at least as much
pedophiliac as "lover."

I agree with Galya Diment, too, that Galya Korovina's comment
falls into the same trap as the Stephen Schiff-Adrian Lyne movie: as I
said to Stephen Schiff when I saw the movie for the first time at Cornell,
the movie seems like Humbert's _Lolita_, not Nabokov's. I could have
added, after my question above, "Why does VN include such details?": "Why
does the new movie avoid them, or anything like them?"
Thanks to Galya K especially for eliciting Tom B's resplendent

Brian Boyd
English Department
University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand
FAX + 64 9 373 7429
e-mail: b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz