Why I Teach 'Lolita'

Anne Dwyer's students questioned the idea of reading the novel, even in a course on Nabokov. Here is her explanation of why the work should be taught.

May 14, 2018
 
 
Cover of "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on Vladimir Nabokov since 2008. In each iteration I’ve addressed the challenges of reading Lolita -- a novel whose plot (the fabula, to speak in Russian formalist terms) is about the abduction and ongoing sexual abuse of a child, but whose structures and devices (the siuzhet) point everywhere else. In 2016, students debated whether I should have included a “trigger warning” on the syllabus. This year I added a few words asking students to inform themselves about the plot of Lolita and to consider what it means that Nabokov treats “a range of human experience in a highly artful, and even artificial, way.”

This semester, about one week into discussing Lolita, I assigned feminist readings of the novel, including Elizabeth Patnoe’s 2002 essay on trauma. After some uncomfortable discussion, my students issued a polite but concerted challenge. How could I justify teaching a book that inflicted trauma and even perpetuated rape culture? Could I not convey the essence of Nabokov’s art without teaching Lolita? Was I not excluding some students simply by teaching the text? While I was more or less prepared to talk about rape, I wasn’t at all ready to talk about the possibility of not teaching a book I love.

The next class I gave a lecture entitled “Why I Teach Lolita.” What follows is an abridged version of my lecture.

Why I Teach Lolita

I was surprised by your suggestion that I not teach Lolita in a college seminar on the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, whose fame -- at least as an American writer -- rests largely on this novel.

I was not surprised by the vehemence of your response to the book, but by the suggestion that we should perhaps not read it at all. That by assigning Lolita I am perpetuating trauma and may even be perpetuating rape culture. This last suggestion runs so counter to my own beliefs about what literature does that I found it hard to parry your challenges.

Let me try to explain myself now and make a case for why I will continue to teach the novel. I'd also like to suggest that what happened in class -- if we are able now to process our discussion -- is learning at its best.

The Ubiquity of Sexual Assault

Before I launch my defense, I wish to acknowledge where I went amiss. When I teach this book, I always keep in mind that, in all likelihood, several people in this room have experienced sexual assault. The numbers are staggeringly high; some studies suggest that as many as one in five children experience sexual abuse.

I accept your point from yesterday that I might have started our discussion of this book differently. Earlier in the semester, I nodded to the emotional and intellectual challenges of reading Lolita. However, I never addressed that the act of reading 300-plus pages is different than knowing the subject matter. The next time I teach Lolita I will make sure to address the emotional and intellectual challenges of reading from the outset.

I will also announce loudly and clearly that students may choose not to read the book.

That said, I would urge you -- in this class and in other classes -- to opt out only when you are experiencing emotions or reliving events that are detrimental to your health and not because you are feeling queasy, disgusted or morally offended. Your health needs to be protected. But these other responses are ones we should learn to inhabit and process, including by discussing books like Lolita.

No Lolita in a Course on Nabokov?

Could I do justice to Nabokov’s art without teaching Lolita? The answer is no.

To my mind, not teaching Lolita would amount to a breach of contract. If I don’t teach Lolita, I am denying you the opportunity to read -- in the hopefully productive environment of the classroom -- the book that established Nabokov's reputation as an English-language author. I would not be doing my professional duty as a professor and literary scholar if I sidestepped this novel. You agreed to this contract when you stayed in this course after reading my syllabus.

The world of Lolita, though related to Nabokov’s other novelistic worlds, marks a significant shift in Nabokov’s oeuvre. He wrote -- after the book was published in Paris but before it came out in the United States -- “It has taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by the task of inventing America.” The Russian novels we’ve read remain at a distance that allows for safe intellectual contemplation. Lolita is likely the first Nabokov novel that touches you -- young people living in America who are not much older than Lolita -- in a visceral way.

Lolita is not the first novel where Nabokov turns horrific events into linguistic play. But it’s the first time he does it in a deeply American book that touches us today at such a deep core of, yes, trauma. Lolita captures something that is wrong with the time and place in which we live. Without Lolita, we lose a sense of the provocative nature of Nabokov’s writing and lose an opportunity to reflect on the transition from Nabokov the Russian writer to Nabokov the American writer.

Nabokov’s Poetics

In class we’ve discussed the relationship between author, reader and characters in Nabokov.

The essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” helps us think through the impasse at which we find ourselves when thinking about Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Nabokov orders us not to identify with a book’s hero or heroine. Look what happens in Lolita if you don’t follow the rule! Either you slip into identification with Humbert Humbert and find yourself in the subject position of a child molester. Or, if you identify with Lolita, you feel abused and traumatized!

I’m not saying that we should avoid identifying with characters. To my mind, that is one of those (slightly bullying) Nabokovian instructions that has to be taken with a grain of salt. Identification is deeply wired in the human psyche. This is how we engage with narrative. But Nabokov is pushing us to read differently. And part of his program means that either possibility for identification in Lolita is very uncomfortable indeed. This dilemma is interesting. Nabokov both tells us not to identify and manipulates us into identifying.

You may be angry and mad about this. Even offended. But I would argue that this manipulation is itself a reason to read this book and not to let it rot on the shelf.

The Specter of Cruelty

Nabokov speaks of the author as a demiurge. He dismisses the notion that a character could ever take on a life of her own outside of the author’s control.

There is a recurring scenario in Nabokov, when characters become aware of their status as characters and try to escape the text.

In Lolita we see, especially in the “authorial” relation to the heroine, both sides of this coin. On the one hand we have the naked level of “plot” where Lolita is abused. But we also intuit authorial empathy. On the level of metafiction (but not in “real” life), Lolita gets her just rewards. Lolita is, the novel suggests, smarter than Humbert Humbert, and plays her cards as well as she can.

Nabokov can also be cruel toward his reader. Recall his interview responding to a critic, ordering him “to remove his belongings.” Eric Naiman has written of the “hermeneutic performance anxiety” Nabokov creates among his readers. Nabokov makes many of us feel stupid. We may experience a Pavlovian reward when we get his erudite references and jokes, and we may even feel bad when we enjoy that reward.

Does Language Trump All Else?

Nabokov called Lolita his "love affair with the English language." But are we willing (and should we be willing) to set the “plot” aside and delve into the novel’s linguistic pyrotechnics? This is an important challenge to the genre of the social novel and to our familiar modes of reading that we need to take on.

“Always Historicize!”

We need to think more historically. At the core of our current difficulty with Lolita -- and at the heart of the book itself -- is a clash of historical and national sensibilities. In Lolita, we are dealing with at least four layers of history. First, we need to think of Nabokov as a member of the turn-of-the-century European elite. Second, Nabokov is an immigrant in 1950s America, offering us an outsider’s perspective on postwar American life in the McCarthy era. Third, Nabokov offers us layers of literary allusion to past centuries: Elizabethan England, 17th- and 18th-century France, 19th-century America. Finally, we need to reflect on our own American moment now, and especially our attitudes towards culture, politics and sex.

We must acknowledge that our attitudes toward sex are historically constructed. In Nabokov’s novels, sex is dangerous, revealing and hilarious. In 1950s America, polite society pretended sex didn’t exist. Today, sex seems to be overtly present in every aspect of American culture. Many of us are now comfortable acknowledging and discussing sex between consenting adults as a healthy and normal part of the human experience. Many of us are invested in the Me Too movement. Gay sex no longer disturbs us (unlike in Oscar Wilde’s England), and BDSM is a term that is a regular part of the public discourse (see Fifty Shades of Grey), even if only some know that the “S” refers to the Marquis de Sade. Every teenager has a device in their pocket, a phone, that can serve as a screen for showing pornography (some of which has appropriated the name Lolita for its own purposes!) and a camera for producing it. But sex between a child and an adult is so taboo we have trouble even starting a conversation about Nabokov’s Lolita.

In “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov wrote that there were three taboos that American publishers refused to tackle. The first concerns Lolita (he never names the exact taboo); the second is “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren.” The third is “the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Let us abstract these concepts: sex, race, religion. Are these not the accursed questions of our lives in America today?

(Self-)Censorship

Finally, there is the question of censorship. Nabokov was not published in the Soviet Union. Soviet proscriptions on ideological form and content prohibited it. One of the commonplaces in Communist Party discussions of forbidden books was, “I haven’t read it, but …” We need not to fall into that same trap of pronouncing judgment on texts we have not read. Nabokov -- a Russian émigré who fled Berlin with his Jewish wife in 1937 -- understood censorship. In writing Lolita, he’s pushing Americans, with their expressed ideology of “freedom,” to notice where they enact censorship, too.

Professors need to assign, and students need to read, difficult books. The challenges we face are not new. Our students are not “coddled” (a discourse which I abhor). But we need to read and discuss and come to our own conclusions. Even if that conclusion is that Nabokov contributed to a “Lolita myth” that has at times had horrific resonance in our culture.

Bio

Anne Dwyer is associate professor of Russian at Pomona College.

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