Rejecting Uniformity in Lolita

In 1937, J. Edgar Hoover declared a “War on the Sex Criminal,” arguing that “the sex fiend, most loathsome of all the vast army of crime, has become a sinister threat to the safety of American childhood and womanhood.” Ten years later, in a

"How Safe is Your Daughter?" accompanied Hoover's claim about sex offenders. From American Magazine, 144 (July 1947).

“How Safe is Your Daughter?” From American Magazine, Issue 144 (July, 1947).

popular magazine, he reiterated this fear, claiming “the most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders” and implying that they posted a threat to the whole social order, saying “Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove American almost at will” (Freedman, 1987 p. 94). Accompanying these claims was the image to the right, depicting three happy, young and innocent looking girls – the daughters of America – being unknowingly pursued by the dark, massive hand of the American sex offender. In the years surrounding Hoover’s calls to arms over the issue of the sex offender in America, the media became increasingly sensitive to stories of sexual violence and crime, often sensationalizing them, and ultimately creating a “sex crime panic,” which in turn led to the rounding up of “perverts”  in the name of children’s safety, leading to the detainment of many men, including minor offenders and homosexuals.

These are the cultural understandings of the pedophile and sex offender that persist when Nabokov writes Lolita (published 1955). He is, above all, violent, a “wild beast,” “more savage than beasts,” shadowy and always on the prowl. And, indeed, John Ray, Jr., PhD conjured up precisely this image for me when he describes H.H. in the foreword:

No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. he is abnormal. He is not a gentleman (p. 5).

And yet… the Humbert Humbert of the novel – or, at least the early Humbert Humbert whom Lolita has not yet seduced – seems a particularly moral and gentlemanly pedophile (if such a thing can exist at all). Before his description of the scene in which he is utterly blissful as Lolita puts her legs across his lap, he explains:

I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to reply; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, “impartial sympathy” (p. 57).

Here, as in other places, H.H. explicitly understands himself as “chaste.” Fearing for the moral integrity and psychological development  of Lolita, he navigates the situation in a discreet, “careful” way in an attempt to protect her from knowing about or consciously participating in his sexual gratification. In the early part of the novel, the balance he creates (or at least attempts to create) between preserving Lolita’s sexual purity and satisfying his own sexual desires sets him apart from Hoover’s sex offender, who is brutally violent and understands his victims as disposable objects designed to satisfy his perverse desires. It can at least be said that Humbert denies this terrifying psychology, instead seeking to achieve outlets for his pedophilic desires that cause no damage by their being unobserved.

In this way, Nabokov seems to reject the requirement of moral degeneracy in pathologized pedophiles. In perhaps a less severe example, Nabokov rejects the physicality of the pedophile. Humbert constantly describes himself as beautiful and “virile,” and, moreover, he considers his virility helpful in passing as a normal man (i.e., not a pedophile). He sees his

Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert in the 1997 adaptation of Lolita

Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert in the 1997 adaptation of Lolita

virility and beauty as seducing Charlotte Haze and Jean Farlow, and both of these seductions help him to distract the women from his interest in Lolita. The significance of his good looks, for me, was lost in reading the book, as the way I evaluated his actions and self-admittedly pathetic speeches informed the image I had of him. However, comparing the Humbert Humbert of Adrian Lyne’s film version of Lolita (1997) to the depiction of the pedophile in, say, Boys, Beware! (1961, just five years after the publication of Lolita), I find the physical appearance of H.H. an especially important rejection of the standardized image of the pedophile that was culturally relevant as Nabokov wrote.

With these examples, I want to emphasize the way Nabokov denies the sweeping generalizations of modern American psychiatry. From dream symbols that he mocks to the ridiculous pseudo-psychological speech given by Mrs. Pratt (p. 194-195), Nabokov rejects the uniformity that American psychiatry fabricates. Neither H.H. nor Lolita are mass-produced characters, but instead are intentionally difficult to understand. Lolita, through the eyes of Humbert, is an utterly enigmatic nymphet, while Humbert, though often a sympathetic character, has desires and motivations that throughout the novel are difficult to relate to both for the way they affront the reader’s sense of morality. By creating characters that resist mainstream, recognizable “diagnoses,” Nabokov undermines the legitimacy of psychiatric institutions that tend to apply blanket terms and definitions to the unique situations of individuals.


Freedman, Estelle B. “Uncontrolled Desires: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960.” The Journal of American History, 74.1 (Jun. 1987): 88-106. Print.

Lolita. Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. Pathé, 1997. DVD.

Nabokov, Vladimir, and Alfred Appel. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.

Youtube user shaggylocks. “Boys Beware (1961).” Youtube, 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 May 2014.

Posted by ER [word count: 969]


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May 13, 2014 · 10:41 PM

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