From a purely literary angle, Lolita may be one of the greatest novels written in the English language. The prose in the first two pages alone is about as good as English gets. As a postmodern novel, it uses the complete toolbox of the avant-garde: opulent word play (often in more than one language), an unreliable narrator, irony, black humor, intertextuality, and so much more. In the very first page the author has the reader sound out the title three times. Nabokov asks the reader do something physically, a rare thing for a novel, and we do it readily. This encapsulated the seductive nature of the novel.
On the surface, it is the story of a man who molests, abducts, and rapes a preteen girl, as well as commits murder and a variety of other crimes. It is the story of a pedophile who lusts after young girls whom he calls “nymphets.” The narrator, Humbert Humbert, readily admits his guilt, then lays out the evidence of how he was helpless to do anything else.
It is a horrible thing, certainly. But why then is it so compelling? And we can’t with a straight face say that it isn’t compelling. It is on most top 100 novels of all times lists. It is read and talked about widely in colleges, coffee shops and bedrooms alike. I personally know many people who consider it their favorite novel. But why?
Like de Sade, or Gaitskill, or Thomas Harris, the darkness in the story taps into a variety of both overt and covert desires in the western conscious. The corruption of innocence. The electric power of youth and budding sexuality. The allure of power imbalance. The attractive aspects of powerlessness, of being overwhelmed by someone older, smarter, bigger. The attraction of an older man. The attraction of younger women and of youth in general. The aesthetic of adolescent femininity. The aesthetic of little girl ephemera. The aesthetic of the father figure, the professor. Objectification. Intimidation. Taboo. Forbidden attraction. Wanting something you can’t have (what’s more American than that?)
Why is it loved and reviled more than books that glorify and depict in detail murder, cannibalism, torture, or worse?
Furthermore there is the problematic fact that the word has entered the English, Japanese, and other lexicons. Not for what it should be; the victim of a pedophile, but for a young woman who dances on the line between being innocent and sexual. A wide eyed, pigtailed, blushing seductress.
The factors that draw people in are as complex as the literary styles the text plays with. It is both a siren seduction, laying out a thick and alluring aesthetic of little girl charms and a repugnant and violent picture of the reality of rape and long term sexual abuse of a minor.
But it is an amazing work of art.
And we have to admit, it fuels the kink some of us engage in. How we play at innocence and the caretaking and/or corruption of that innocence. The fantasy of both the freedom and powerlessness childhood. The allure of power exchange; both giving power over to someone and accepting power from someone. The caretaking, both in a loving and infantilizing way. Service, punishment, and all manner of emotional intimacy that often feels impossible when you are an adult, but is simple when you let go of the trappings of adulthood.
There is sexualizing things that you aren’t supposed to sexualize. That is the depraved and embarrassing and disgusting. Those are big emotions. Big emotions we can subvert and manipulate and turn into hotter sex and hotter fantasies and hotter thinking.
Because things that are wrong on a fundamental level are often hot when you take away the part of them that actually hurts people.
See: Boxing, haunted house rides, scary movies, roller coasters, jumping out of an airplane, consensual non-consent.
A huge part of many kinks is consensually and intentionally playing with things that are often done non-consensually, accidentally, or maliciously. Taking the power back and owning those things, making them safe and our own. Doing something with agency that is usually done to you without your consent.
So what does that all mean? Can we be feminists and like Lolita?
Perhaps it is complicated and complex and there is no black and white answer. Perhaps it is a story, and stories are not inherently good or evil. It shows us inside the mind of a monster and in the end a monster does what it does because it finds that thing compelling. More compelling than respecting the world around it.
Lolita shows the horrors of taking advantage of a little girl, while showing us the very reasons why adults play with those ideas with each other when they are old enough to do so consensually.
We read Lolita because it is beautiful and ugly and complicated and makes us think. We read Lolita because it is a great novel.