Misreading Lolita

// 24 February 2010

I posted an earlier version of this as a Facebook note last September, when Polanski was arrested, but given the award he’s just won and a renewed spate of celebrity support for him, I thought I might revisit it.

I am a core team member of a volunteer-led campaign to abolish marital immunity for rape in Singapore. We received some flak for calling it No To Rape. Isn’t it so obvious? Aren’t you caricaturing disagreement with you? Who on earth would say “Yes To Rape”? It wouldn’t – giggle, chortle, how clever I am – be “rape” then anymore, would it?

Apparently our name was self-evidently silly. Except that, you know, during our petition drive, lots of famous and influential people signed another petition saying, in effect, “Yes To Rape”.

As others have noted, the list is staggering and in some cases heartbreaking. Special dishonourable mention must go to Bernard-Henri Lévy, a “moral” philosopher, for initiating the petition when his latest book is subtitled “A Stand Against the New Barbarism”. Some stand, that.

Roman Polanski fed alcohol and drugs to a 13-year-old girl before vaginally and anally penetrating her while she cried and said “no”. He then left the jurisdiction to escape punishment for an act he had acknowledged committing. If those aren’t “rape” and a “flight from justice”, how do you avoid the conclusion that both of those are null sets?


These events had me thinking of a longstanding complaint of mine about (of all things) a book. “Lolita” has become a byword for the idea that some little girls can quite ethically be the target of sexual advances by adults because their essential nature is one of “promiscuity” and they are therefore unrapeable. This is ironic in a particularly sickening way, because Nabokov’s novel is about the monstrous connections that may exist between acts of genius, or creations or experiences of sublime beauty, and the infliction of cruelty. The central question is whether – to borrow from Richard Rorty – “ecstasy” and “iridescence” are fundamentally detached from curiosity about and empathy for the pain of others, and what that means for those of us who pursue these things, like the paedophile Humbert Humbert, and the complicit readers (all of us) who thrill to the irresistible splendour of his language.

In other words, Lolita is about, precisely, the evil of refusing to hold someone like Polanski accountable for his crime on account of his “genius”. The common perversion of this insight struck me with especial force in the face of this phalanx of famous folks closing ranks behind their own, to protect a “great” man from any consequences for the piteous and irrelevant fact that he caused real human suffering.

Unless it can be proven to me – to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction – that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

From Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, emphasis mine.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 24 February 2010 at 11:01 pm

Of course men who rape their wives cannot possibly be committing marital rape – what next will men be held accountable for? Committing rape against female children? No surely not – unless of course the men who commit such crimes are perceived by our male supremacist society as ‘perverts’ not well-respected victimised (sic) men such as rapist Roman Polanski.

Remember Lolita is a male-centered myth commonly used to excuse and exonerate adult men who believe it is their inalienable right to have unlimited sexual access to any female irrespective of age. This is why the myth of the ‘promiscuous female child’ was created, it works to absolve men of their accountability. It also works to put the blame on the female child who does not have the social and economic power adult men such as rapist Polanski have.

Likewise marital rape cannot possibly be criminalised because common sense informs us that women once married to men become men’s sexual property. Not until the late 1990’s after a very hard and long struggle did our UK male-dominated government decide that ‘yes in fact married and/or women in long-term heterosexual relationships with men do have the right of ownership of their bodies.’ However, the numbers of men successfully convicted of raping their wives and/or long-term female partners are miniscule because common sense (sic) still tells us that it is a woman’s duty to make herself sexually available to the man as and when he demands.

Do I still hear claims that feminism is dead and women have supposedly achieved full human rights status – I wish oh I wish, because as Joelene shows women’s and girls’ ownership of their bodies is a long way from reality.

Challenging men’s long, long pseudo sexual right of unlimited access to women and female children is one of the central tenets of male domination and male control over all women and girls.

Of course powerful men are closing ranks and claiming rapist Polanski is the real victim – that is not new, neither is it new that many women too believe it is far easier to agree with these powerful men than dare to challenge male supremacy. After all these very powerful men ‘still hold the purse strings’ and the women who have signed the petition claiming rapist Polanski ‘has suffered enough’ are more concerned about their financial futures than that rapist Polanski considers he is fully entitled to rape any woman or female child he chooses.

Perhaps just perhaps given the massive exposure concerning rapist Polanski (and yes terming Polanski a rapist cannot be said enough times) just might ensure he is imprisoned – but if that happens I am certain the term will be minimal.

By the way Vladimir Nabokov was not only a misogynist he was also a rape apologist and no claiming Lolita is a work of art does not excuse or justify his portraying a female child as ‘sexually promiscuous’ whilst simultaneously portraying the adult male rapist as ‘victim of his sexual desires.’

Patriarchy consistently tells lies and whilst we are led to believe men but not women are victims of their emotions when it concerns male sexuality suddenly men’s rationality and objectivity goes out of the window and it becomes women’s and female children’s responsibility to gatekeep sexually predatory males.

Men are not victims of their sexual organs but this excuse is commonly used to minimalise male accountability. And feminists are supposed to be ones who are essentalist!!

Jolene Tan // Posted 24 February 2010 at 11:13 pm

While not wanting to dilute the more important point – which is that violence against women and girls remains heavily invisibilised and legitimised – I don’t personally think Lolita was a misogynist work. In my opinion (heavily drawn from the Rorty essay I linked), we’re not meant to sympathise with Humbert Humbert, or think him justified; rather I think the book reveals how easily we ignore the suffering of others in pursuit of our own ends, especially but not only sexual ends. But the fact that the word “Lolita” has spun into something else entirely in common cultural parlance, quite contrary to the spirit of the novel, to me is very revealing.

round.crow // Posted 25 February 2010 at 3:44 am

I feel like Lolita is one of the best arguments I’ve ever read against its subject matter…

gadgetgal // Posted 25 February 2010 at 7:51 am

This is the problem I’ve always had with Lolita, and I’ve had it with a few other artistic works as well – it’s other peoples’ misinterpretations of them. It seemed obvious to me that this was a story of a paedophile, told from his perspective of self-justification, but it’s been misinterpreted by not only the film makers who put it to screen, but also by people who’ve never even read it! I didn’t like either film, which both not only raised the age of the child involved but also focused heavily on the sexual aspect of the girl rather than showing how skewed Humbert’s viewpoint actually was, thereby completely missing the point! It’s been done time and again (A Clockwork Orange is screaming out here to me, book = genius, film = one guy’s rape fantasy) and every time it disappoints me that people who just don’t seem to get it are the ones who are left to make these judgements for the rest of us.

And you’re right, the Polanski apologists are doing the same – they’re so swept away by the beauty of the prose they’ve also completely missed the point!! I’m just glad they’re not in charge of the justice system (although they can throw a lot of money and influence at it and probably still make a dent in the case).

Jessica // Posted 25 February 2010 at 9:11 am

@Jennifer Drew

I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. I don’t know anything about Nabokov’s life, but I did not feel that his book portrayed Dolores Haze as sexually promiscous. My interpretation was that the book invited us to see (and then to be horified by) our own ability to sympathise with Humbert Humbert. Therefore, we started off seeing Lolita through Humbert’s eyes and ended up condeming him for it. I felt that Nabokov asks us to see through Humbert’s efforts to portray himself as the vitim. By the end of the book we feel nothing but hatred for him and empathy for Lolita.

Laura // Posted 25 February 2010 at 9:12 am

Great post, Jolene.

I have to strongly disagree with Jennifer Drew. Lolita is not a misogynist work: Nabokov presents us with an unreliable narrator who seeks to make us complicit in his abuse and sympathetic towards his beautifully narrated “plight”. Every time we snap out of the spell he casts, we’re doubly appalled with Humbert’s actions: both because of the abuse itself and his alarming ability to justify it. The novel draws attention to the terrible effectiveness of victim blaming; it is not in itself victim blaming.

sianmarie // Posted 25 February 2010 at 9:23 am

totally agree. i worked on Lolita for A-level and degree and i love the book, i love nabokov’s writing, and i love the way it subtly tricks you into sympathisng with this monster of a man, and then suddenly waking up and realising what you have done.

there is a horrendous moment in the book when he writes that Lolita comes into his bed because:

‘you see, she had no where else to go’

and you realise that what you are reading is an awful and terrible description of rape.

but lolita has been horribly misinterpreted. by film makers, by literary critics, by porn mags…I remember reading an essay when revising for my finals where a male critic said that lolita was the seductress and humbert the victim and other students had scribbled all over the page ‘way to miss the point’ and ‘bullshit’ etc!

one thing i have found curious in the lolita films is how in the book she is portrayed as a normal 12 year old girl, not beautiful, a bit smelly, rude, unhygienic – a child. this makes humbert’s delusions and perversion more real/horrific to the reader. but in the films she is always a pretty, older, seductive actress which completely destroys the very point nabokov is making – that she is not a seductress, it is humbert’s illusion of her. the films excuse humbert’s paedophilia in a way that nabokov strongly refuses to do.

it is one of the great tragedies of literature i think, the way lolita has been effectively ruined by people’s deliberate misinterpretation of it. lolita has become a by-word for barely legal porn, and terrible jermey irons films (!!) rather than the exquisite, measured and heartbreaking novels that it is. a novel that exposes the darkness of human nature and sympathy.

Kristin // Posted 25 February 2010 at 11:32 am

Jolene, thank you for a fantastic post.

Elmo // Posted 25 February 2010 at 12:04 pm

Joelene, Im so glad youve touched on the subject of Lolita! It was always obvious to me that it was NOT a pro-paedo work (or however you want to phrase that). Nabokov’s portrayal of Humbert as a despicable and pathetic man shows that the author obviously does not want us to support his action, yet it has so often been misread as a story of a man who “couldnt help himself”. The films didnt really help, i dont think- I havnt seen them, but the posters suggest Lolita being portrayed as something of a “prick tease”, older and seductive. I think its a great and important book, thanks for bringing it up!

janiek // Posted 25 February 2010 at 2:14 pm

Some people wonder had it been a boy Polanski raped, how many celebrities would have stood up for him than?

Lara // Posted 25 February 2010 at 2:49 pm

I’ve always read Lolita as I suppose, quite a feminist piece of fiction. Humbert completely deludes himself in his abuse of Lolita, and we’re supposed to be in on this. The fact that he’s so charming and strangely likeable I always thought served the argument that ‘real men rape’. We’re drawn in by his charm and his prose, but still find him abhorrent. I think the fact the term Lolita is applied to this fallacy of ‘jailbait’ girls is an absolute bastardisation of the book’s purpose and intention.

Julie K // Posted 25 February 2010 at 3:28 pm

Agree with everyone here except Jennifer Drew (sorry Jennifer Drew).

I would be interested to know though why you say Nabokov was a misogynist? I don’t know anything much about his life so I’m not going to argue with you but am just wondering what evidence you have for the claim.

I do think personally that the book has been horribly misinterpreted, as various people have said above.

Jolene Tan // Posted 25 February 2010 at 3:39 pm


Thanks for lots of interesting comments! It intrigues me that it is so obvious to feminists what the real spirit of Lolita is, while it apparently remains so confusing for so many others. I suppose this is true of most pro-feminist material though – and is part of the power of what Nabokov has created.


I think there’s plenty of victim-blaming when men and boys are sexually assaulted as well, partly because being the victim of assault is regarded by many people as thereby “feminised”. I’ve certainly seen “Lolita” type excuses made for the rape of boys, including in one case (not in the UK) involving a 9-year-old boy, who was described in court as “hyper-sexualised” (!) When adult women victimise boys, this is also sometimes written off on the grounds that a boy is always “up for it”. But a case involving a man and a boy would I think also play differently in a crowd susceptible to homophobic stereotypes about “pederasty”.

Elmo // Posted 25 February 2010 at 4:19 pm

Julie K, Nabokov describes Hubert as “a vain and cruel wretch” and “a hateful person” according to wikipedia (sources cited as Levine, 1967), so im guessing he didnt sympathise with peadophiles.

Janiek, I think sometimes victim blaming of boys and men is worse-they are often expected to “be a man” about it, and are scorned if they cant defend themselves. Thats why 99% of prison jokes are about same sex rape.

Celia Gardner // Posted 25 February 2010 at 4:34 pm

Personally, I thought Humbert came across as really annoying and full of himself when I read the book. If he was supposed to be sympathetic, I don’t believe I would like to meet Nabakov’s idea of an unsympathetic character. Humbert’s justification for his desires is a lot of “you normal people cannot truly understand my exquisite and artistic passions. Only men with truly creative souls can understand the true nature of these inhuman nymphets” and it seemed to me that he was pretty much a giant emo adolescent stereotype in that way. Perhaps one could say that he’d been stuck mentally at the age of fourteen after he lost his girlfriend at that age. I feel that a number of the men who think this book provides a “justification” for the abuse of young girls are the same way.

janiek // Posted 25 February 2010 at 8:19 pm

Yes, I also think the victim-blaming is the same or even worse in caases of a boy being raped or abused. But I can hardly imagine that the rapist would get the same sort of support that Polanski has got. In Polanski’s case I am afraid many ordinary men in some way are able to identify with Polanski and are therefore prone to minimise his accountibility in some way or other.

Jess McCabe // Posted 26 February 2010 at 9:38 am

By the way Vladimir Nabokov was not only a misogynist he was also a rape apologist and no claiming Lolita is a work of art does not excuse or justify his portraying a female child as ‘sexually promiscuous’ whilst simultaneously portraying the adult male rapist as ‘victim of his sexual desires.’

Jennifer, this makes me wonder if you’ve read the book? Nabokov absolutely does not portray Lolita as ‘promiscuous’, I suggest reading the book.

What’s much more interesting is discussing how it has been twisted and manipulated into the ‘Lolita myth’ subsequently, than mischaracterising Nabokov’s book.

A J // Posted 26 February 2010 at 12:59 pm

I think the key point about Lolita is that it is a superb piece of fiction writing, with all the complexities you’d expect from a great work. In all the controversy around it, that can often get lost.

But I certainly don’t see it as any sort of ‘pro-paedo’ work in any case.

I agree with the comments above that victim-blaming is usually the same or even worse in caases of a boy being raped or abused. This is particularly so when the perpetrator is a woman unfortunately. The situation is not helped by the fact that the law is constructed in such a way that female-on-male rape is not actually classed as ‘rape’ unless the boy is under 13. The way prison rape is treated (particularly in America) as some sort of joke is utterly appalling, especially given its extremely high prevalence (again, especially in America).

I do think the Polanski situation should not be generalised though. Film actors are a notoriously odd, self-obsessed, bunch, and they don’t seem to be able to see past Polanksi’s (admittedly impressive) films to the rather important issue at stake. I suspect they would be just as wilfully stupid about the whole thing regardless of the crime involved, unfortunately.

I don’t think many ordinary men identify much with Polanski as janiek suggests though!

Politicalguineapig // Posted 27 February 2010 at 3:24 pm

I read the book and was squicked out. It made me feel really dirty. Humbert was a creep, pure and simple.

AJ : I suspect Polanski has more supporters among ordinary people than you think. Men are generally not sympathetic toward rape victims.

Cazz Blase // Posted 27 February 2010 at 4:10 pm

A few years ago now I reviewed a book for the F-Word called ‘Roger Fishbite’ by Emily Prager, which is a modern day re-write of ‘Lolita’ from the girls point of view. You might like to have a look at that… the author said in the ‘Authors Note’ at the end that the book was “a reply both to the book and to the icon that the character Lolita has become.” I’ve read Nabokov’s book as well, I remain ambivalent about it…

sianmarie // Posted 28 February 2010 at 5:45 pm

second the recommendation of roger fishbite, it’s excellent.

Jolene Tan // Posted 1 March 2010 at 4:54 pm


I am starting to get off-topic comments to this on the subject of abortion. These will not be published. This originated from comments on whether women or men are more sympathetic to rape victims generally – probably an unproductive conversation in any case – and involved questioning one commentor’s sympathy to rape victims.

Seeing where this is going I am going to interfere a bit with moderating the thread. I think it is fantastic to have a discussion about the reasons **why** women or men in general might be encouraged to be unsympathetic to rape victims, and what we can do about it. But I’m not so sure a back-and-forth “Men do care”, “Men don’t care”, “Women care less”, “No we don’t”, “Oh yeah, but YOU don’t care, I know you don’t” is a good use of a comments thread.

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