An Essay on Moralistic Readings of Lolita
Mr. Nabokov … does not write cheap pornography. He writes highbrow pornography. … Nevertheless, “Lolita” is disgusting—ORVILLE PRESCOTT, The New York Times, August 18, 1958
Dumbledore dies. Bruce Willis is a ghost. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Spoilers: There is no quicker way to anger readers who have not yet finished a book or a film than to tell them the ending against their will. No one could deny that certain foreknowledge about works of fiction can be detrimental to the enjoyment of the viewer. But, as this opening review from Mr. Prescott will expose, spoilers may not be limited to plot twists.
As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a 1945 letter to scholar George Noyes,
I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written (Nabokov 56).
With every morally questionable work of art or fiction, such as Nabokov’s Lolita, there are those who become obsessed with, as Nabokov puts it, “deliberate moralizing.” Because a particular work of art raises questions about moral ideas, they find the work itself unacceptable; these “moralizers” condemn the moral message of the work and make their condemnation known to those who may be exposed to such art. One of the most exciting experiences when viewing or reading a work of art is the discovery of one’s own moral beliefs and how these beliefs may be questioned or challenged by the work. But when the art has already been deemed morally atrocious, or if the viewer comes to the work intent on “moralizing,” the viewer is denied the chance to discover this moral dilemma on their own and instead enters the work with a guard that indeed “kills” their artistic experience. It seems that Nabokov realized this problem, and with Lolita, created a novel that appears to be a perfect work to “moralize” but actually renders readers incapable of doing so, whether they planned to do so or not. In Lolita, Nabokov cleverly exposes the idea that it is not, as some previous philosophers have asserted, a moral assertion in a work of art differing from the viewer that negatively affects the viewers experience, but instead preconceived notions about the negative moral nature of the work which causes the viewer to enter into a work with a mental guard that negates her ability to enjoy it artistically before she has even begun.
Why does giving away the ending of a good book cause so much anger in the reader? The story is exactly the same whether or not one knows how it is going to end. But this knowledge has a huge effect on the reader’s enjoyment. This is because one of the most powerful experiences of a work of fiction frequently hinges on suspense and discovering the plot as one goes along. With foreknowledge of how the story will end, the reader cannot help but think of this ending while reading. They feel cheated out of the experience of the work, and in many cases, they are unable to enjoy the work at all because of this mental state. Another type of spoiler that happens frequently in society, but may not be recognized as a spoiler, is what one might call a “moral spoiler.” This occurs when, before one reads or views a work of fiction, the reader receives the idea from someone or something that the work is morally dangerous and reprehensible. This idea usually comes from the “deliberate moralizers” that Nabokov wrote of. In the same way that a spoiler causes a mindset that made it impossible for the reader to enjoy the work, this “moralizing” has a similar effect, even if the reader is not aware.
First, when a reader is given the idea that a work is morally flawed, she loses the experience of analyzing and questioning her own moral beliefs in relationship to those of the novel while reading. This can be a very rewarding part of reading a work of fiction that has some morally questionable elements. One may interpret the message of Lolita in myriad ways, but the discovery of what the book might be saying morally is part of the experience that contributes to almost all great art.
Second, when readers enter a novel in a morally defensive state, they are unable to enjoy any of the other aspects of the work because they are too busy guarding their moral stance. Just as a viewer who has had the ending of a work spoiled for her cannot enjoy other aspects of the work because her mind is fixated on this spoiled ending; a reader who has been warned of a morally atrocious story will have this at the forefront of her mind as she experiences the work. However, this moral mental block is even more detrimental than a plot spoiler, because many readers will place their moral convictions before any attempt to enjoy a work on other grounds. It is as if the readers have put on a set of “moral blinders” and they are from then on only able to see the moral implications of the work. Sometimes, it may be possible to look past a plot spoiler and still enjoy some excellent writing in a novel. It is much more difficult for a reader to let down her moral guard once it is up. But Nabokov outsmarted the moralizers. He coaxes readers to put their moral guards up, only to make them utterly aware as he smashes these guards to bits.
Nabokov sets up the reader to put up her moral guard in two ways. First, the central theme of Lolita is one of the most taboo subjects in the modern world: pedophilia. He had to have known this novel would become the subject of huge moral controversy, which it did. Mr. Prescott, opened his negative review of Lolita with this observation:
Certain books achieve a sort of underground reputation before they are published. Gossip arouses expectations that they are even nastier than the last succès de scandale. College students returning from visits to Paris demonstrate their newly acquired sophistication by brandishing paperbound copies. College professors write solemn critical analyses in scholarly publications. And if their authors are really lucky, some act of official censorship publicizes their work to the masses. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is such a book (Prescott).
Beyond the publicity that this sort of controversy provides, Nabokov was surely aware that this would be pivotal in preparing readers to attempt to moralize the novel. After being exposed to reviews such as Mr. Prescott’s which emphasize the “disgusting” and “pornographic” nature of Lolita, many readers must have began the novel with the expectation of discarding it as filth based on moral grounds. Little did they know, they were falling right into Nabokov’s delicately constructed trap.
For the readers of the novel who would were not aware of the controversy surrounding the book prior to reading it, Nabokov includes a character to serve a similar purpose. That is John Ray Jr., PhD, who is a hilarious caricature of what one can only imagine is the embodiment of the moralizer Nabokov hates the most. Dr. Ray narrates the Foreword, which comprises the only three pages of the novel that are not narrated by Humbert Humbert. With elaborate phrasing and pompous word choices, Dr. Ray lets the reader know, in the most intellectual way, that this novel contains some questionable elements. He declares, “True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov 4). In less ostentatious words: “This is the kind of book that should be full of sexual obscenities, and the readers will be surprised at the flowery language in its place.” The readers’ moral defenses should now be rising. He reveals that Humbert Humbert died in prison. He goes on to make sure the reader knows of Humbert Humbert’s abhorrent character calling him “horrible,” “abject,” and a “shining example of moral leprosy” (Nabokov 5). And he ends his Foreword as any moralizer would: with the classic “think of the children.” He says, “Lolita should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world” (Nabokov 6). Dr. Ray directly asks readers to put on their moral blinders and read Humbert’s narration with only the moral implications in mind and not to trust him as a reliable source. Far from a device to present Nabokov’s own beliefs, Dr. Ray is a trap for the readers who may believe that Nabokov is sincerely attempting to guide the reader along a path to easily moralize the story of an evil pedophile. Nabokov now has his readers precisely where he wants them.
Nabokov then proceeds to destroy any ability the readers thought they possessed to moralize this tale. One important way he achieves this is through narration and perspective. After the prologue from Dr. Ray, the entire narrative is told in first person from the view of Humbert Humbert, the pedophile. This interferes with an ability to moralize in two ways.
First, because the book is told exclusively from a character’s point of view—especially one who is a clearly unreliable narrator, a tricky character with an agenda, such as Humbert—it is next to impossible to judge the point of view of the author. For a reader under the impression that Lolita is a novel promoting pedophilia, it would be frustrating to find that even though Humbert Humbert in some cases may promote and defend his pedophilia, he is still a fictional character. Nabokov’s moral “intention” remains irritatingly inaccessible to the reader, as it seems he intended in order to stump this first type of moralizer.
Other readers may not make this distinction between author and narrator and instead set out to moralize Humbert Humbert, the character. They may not separate Humbert Humbert and Nabokov in their minds, or they may simply be following Dr. Ray’s fictional advice to view him with disgust. Moralizing a pedophile, rapist, and a murderer will be simple, or that is what Nabokov wants the reader to think. But Nabokov makes sure this is not the case.
Positioning Humbert Humbert as the sole narrator of this tale also disarms these moralizers, because he is unreliable. The readers never quite know when to trust him and they have no way to verify his story. The readers only know what he chooses to tell. Without an outside perspective on the narrative, the moralizing reader is put into a tough position. Dr. Ray does a nice job of setting up this frustration as well by warning, “Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous” (Nabokov 5). So, the reader knows that he is unreliable, but is left to wonder just how unreliable. Their moral assessment of the situation is constantly plagued by the idea that they may not even be reading the truth. Although, this would seemingly work for the moralizers and against Humbert Humbert, who is now a pedophile, rapist, murderer, and a liar, this revelation actually makes it more difficult to moralize him because the readers can only guess when he is lying. They are at a loss to condemn him on any specific grounds, as there is no outside source to verify what is truth and what is lie or exaggeration.
But Nabokov does not stop there. His true genius comes near the end of the novel, although there are hints of it throughout. That is Humbert Humbert’s self-deprecation and guilt. This is what will really leave all the moralizers at a loss. Throughout the novel, Humbert switches between defending his actions and calling himself such names as “Humbert the Hound.” The moralizer who agrees with this epithet may find herself agreeing and maybe even beginning to sympathize with Humbert. This may scare the reader, who will then wonder if Humbert is just using these epithets in order to seduce the reader into agreeing self-identification. At this point the reader’s moral guards should be swaying precariously.
But then Nabokov brings a final blow to the moralizers: Humbert’s realization of his guilt and the harm he has caused Lolita. Humbert states in the last few pages of the novel, “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” (Nabokov 283). What is the moralizer to do now? Humbert has admitted that he has harmed Lolita and has deemed himself a maniac. At this point the readers moral defenses should be demolished in their entirety.
Nabokov has crafted a very complex and layered work of art that can be examined in a variety of ways, but the way in which it twists, and ultimitely demolishes, the ability to moralize makes it exceptional. In the end, even the most determined moralizer will find herself twisting and turning with Humbert, abhorring him and then agreeing with him within lines of prose. And through this chaos Nabokov is able to call to the readers attention their own moral walls that have been so carefully built but can be so easily torn down. The reader then has the chance to truly experience this work of art as one should, discovering their morals as they go, constantly questioning what they believe and why they believe it. Nabokov has set up the perfect “moralizer trap.” And although some moralizers such as Mr. Prescott (as some hard-headed individuals will never be), seemed unmoved, many more realized the genius behind Nabakov’s work and found themselves opening up to a new and wonderful artistic experience. To contrast the opening review from Mr. Prescott, here is a review from another more positive (and nuanced) intellectual who seemed to understand Lolita’s transcendence:
Lolita is one of those occasional books which arrive swishing behind them a long tail of opinion and reputation which can knock the unwary reader off his feet. Is it shocking, is it pornographic, is it immoral? Is its reading to be undertaken not as a simple experience but as a conscious action which will place one on this, or that, side of a critical dividing line? What does the Watch and Ward Society say of it? What does Sartre, Graham Greene or Partisan Review? This is hard on any book. Lolita stands up to it wonderfully well. —ELIZABETH JANEWAY, The New York Times, August 17th, 1958
Janeway, Elizabeth. “The Tragedy of Man Driven By Desire.” The New York Times 17 Aug. 1958: n. pag. NYTimes.com. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/02/lifetimes/nab-r-lolita.html>.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989. Print.
Prescott, Orville. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times 18 Aug. 1958: n. pag. NYTimes.com. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/02/lifetimes/nab-r-booksoftimes.html>.