Intellectual, erogenous, controversial, and poetic: all inarguable descriptions of Nabokov’s Lolita. But a love story unlike any before or since? If anything, it can be conceded that this book “offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking” (NPR). It is not love in the American sense of equal reciprocation we have come to value and understand and expect in our society. This book is a single “depiction” of love. The idea of love as the majority of civilized cultures display it is not shared by Humbert. His idea of love and is highly reprehensible.
But this is already known to anyone who has read the book or the glowing reviews for Lolita. The issue brought up here is why so many claim it to be “one of the most beautiful love stories you’ll ever read” or go as far to say “it may be one of the only love stories you’ll ever read” (NPR). Through artful prose and detailed descriptions the reader is swayed to empathize with Humbert; it is not hard to do given the small amount of love (better described as “attention”) Lolita gives to him. But no reader walks away from having read this book honestly believing this is a true love story. True love is reciprocated. True love is understood by the parties involved. Not that true love always has a happy ending, but these emotions described by Humbert throughout the text are manipulative, complex accounts given to us by a man with an obsession who had been to mental institutions—nothing more; regardless of his aptitude, cleverness, and scholastic conquests.
True love is reciprocated equally and in the same manner. Let’s suppose that these two characters love each other equally quantitatively, and Lolita simply never wanted to show it or knew how to show it. Though loving each other deeply, these two characters, hypothetically, showed their love in two very different ways. Lolita saw a father and a source of cash; Humbert saw a body after which he lusted, and that was it until near the very end. He never liked how she treated him for the majority of the story, but thought he loved her anyway. Lolita did not have the capacity or interest to reciprocate qualitatively in the same way. Does Lolita have a physical attraction to Humbert like Humbert has an attraction to Lolita? No. Humbert certainly thinks this is love, but true love this is not. This is obsession and infatuation; an unfortunate consequence of unremitted love.
Humbert says “I would hold her against me three times a day, every day” talking about why he would pretend to love and possibly marry a poor woman he finds not attractive at all to be able to touch her daughter (pp 70). He continues: “All my troubles would be expelled, I would be a healthy man.” Most would disagree. There will always be troubles for everyone, even people with lives not as wild as Humbert’s.
The tragedy of the novel is that Humbert, while perhaps really loving Lolita, will never be able to stay with just her. Even if he stayed with her and she was the first nymphet he stayed with even though she grew up and Humbert did not go after another young one, one day Lolita will be old and die. Again, with the provocative language Humbert uses when writing his incredible story to us, it’s not hard to read passages like this and be fooled into having a heart swell of empathy and notions of true love:
“… she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt arm-pits… hopelessly warns at seventeen… and I looked at her and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else (pp 277).”
This passage certainly supports this idea that Humbert must really love her. After all, the majority of the book must have had the forward thinking reader presuming that once Lolita grows out of her current body, Humbert will surely be moving along to the next little girl. But despite all of the pieces to the contrary, and despite her tired, unkempt, worn body, Humbert is willing to give up his life-long infatuation with the body type he was most obsessed with to stay with Lolita who will never look like a 12-year old again.
And there lies the problem with the whole notion of true love given to this text by critics and fans! Do not forget that she never showed him any real sweetness. She only had her hand out for sixty five cents and eventually thousands of dollars throughout the text. This is not true love. Especially considering Humbert said numerous times how difficult it was dealing with her moodiness and attitudes. How can this be anything but physical and psychological attraction? Humbert does not breakdown at the end of the story begging for Lolita to come with him out of lust for her body. That young body is clearly gone. So some would say it was for love. True love. But that is too idealistic and cliché and simple. Humbert—poor, permanently disturbed Humbert—cannot change that quickly. Even though he realizes the error of his ways, the truth is that Lolita is simply that last person that spent a large chunk of time with him and made memories with him. He is in love with the memories of having a sex buddy on a road trip, though he tries to tell us directly that “it was not that echo alone I worshipped” (pp. 278). He is trying to convince both himself and the reader this is the truth, but this is simply lip service by Humbert to appeal to our hearts so we see him as less of a monster and less of a fool. He cries and writes the passage on page 277 because he is lonely, lonely, lonely.
There is no happily ever after here.
Nabokov, Vladmir. Lolita. 1955. 50th Anniversary Edition. Random House, New York.