The Reader’s Power Dilemma in Lolita

When reading Lolita, many struggle with their enjoyment of the novel.  “Who am I,” thoughtful readers wonder, “that I can take pleasure in a story about a pedophile?”  Just before the initial sex scene that manifests the narrator’s desires, the text’s speaker teases conflicted readers on this point, acknowledging his own iniquity and self-consciously confusing the distinction between perverse protagonist and distant reader.  In doing so, the narrator places himself in a position where he is at once manipulative towards and at the mercy of the reader, much as he portrays himself in relationship to Lolita.

Before the first sex scene, the narrator acknowledges his own perversity, then obscures the boundary between himself and the reader such that the true source of degeneracy becomes unclear.  Having just gotten into bed next to the sleeping Lolita, he pleads, “Please reader, no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages!”  (131). Here, he establishes his awareness of the frustration readers likely feel.  He admits that the next few pages—where it is clear that the sex scene will occur—are the part that the reader has been dreading. In this way, he assumes responsibility for what he knows are immoral actions, but asks the reader for sympathy and patience.  He draws upon the readers’ compassion by describing himself as “tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, [and] infinitely circumspect” with a touch of irony as if to make clear that he knows he is none of those things.  On the basis of his confession, it seems, he asks the reader to continue.  He has firmly established himself as someone worth being exasperated towards, assuming the responsibility for what he knows are immoral actions.

Soon, however, he muddles the distinction between himself and his audience, transferring some of the blame o readers.  When he exhorts, “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me,” he implies that everything he is depends upon the readers’ imaginations (131).  The suggestion here is uncomfortable.  If he would not exist without us, then we are in fact supplying the perversity that gives him life.  If that is so, then we are the guilty ones.  If we judge him as immoral, as many do, yet we keep reading, then we are to blame for keeping something immoral alive.

What the narrator does by befuddling the source of culpability for the perversity of the sex about to come is disorient the locus of power between reader and text.  Typically, stories are thought to exist whether we read them or not, and we cannot therefore be responsible for their content.  However, Lolita’s narrator makes it unclear whether we are controlling him or he us.  On the one hand, he pleads that he would not exist without us, so it seems we readers are in control.  Meanwhile, many readers would like to attribute their enjoyment of a book that is in plain terms immoral to something powerful about the text.  Many would like to say that the story simply whisked them away or that the power of the language was what compelled them to keep reading.  Those appeals locate control within the text.

Later in the same passage, the narrator deepens the confusion of power by putting himself and reader on the same plane, as if both were equally responsible.  Continuing with his plea that the reader imagine him in a particular way, he says, “let’s even smile a little” (131).  In this way, he implies that reader and protagonist-narrator act together.  Though in one sense this is comforting if we had been convinced before that it the animation of the action was entirely our fault, in another this is entirely disturbing.  Does this mean that each time the speaker has a compromising thought about Lolita, we do too?  It is one thing to breathe life into a degenerate and quite another to be one.

The passage leaves the question of power unresolved.  We find here a crystallization of some of the questions that surround the relationship of the protagonist and Lolita.  Who seduces whom?  In one sense, the narrator is at the mercy of Lolita as he is at the behest of the reader.  He certainly feels powerless over his sexual feelings towards her.  At the same time, he controls Lolita’s story.  He is older than she; he drives the car; he rents the hotel room. He declares the conditions of their relationship in the same way that he creates the setting and narrative arc for readers.  In other ways, the two seem equals.  When they ride in the car and Lolita jokes about her experiences at camp, they speak as longtime friends.

The confusion of power in the protagonist’s relationship to Lolita manifests in his relationship to the reader, and this reiteration is part of what makes the novel at once so compelling and so frustrating.

posted by Deviant


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Filed under Nabokov, Lolita

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