When I was about twelve years old, I found myself on a Greyhound bus fending off the advances of a middle-aged letch. His hand moving evermore aggressively up my leg and me, just as aggressively prying his claw from my thigh. I was a relatively young twelve, and so had no real understanding of what was going on. I wasn’t particularly impressed one way or another. Until I told my mother about the incident and she came unglued. As travel by Greyhound between my parents’ homes was a necessity, many angry calls and letters were placed to the Greyhound Corporation. Knowing my mother there were probably even threats of lawsuits. In the end, my sister and I were permanently awarded the front seat of every Greyhound bus until the end of time. Not exactly sexual abuse or exploitation, the event did still leave a mark.
So I find myself wondering how anyone could read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and accept its narrator, Humbert Humbert, at face value. Humbert tells the story of being seduced by a twelve-year old girl and how the resulting “relationship” destroys them both. From Humbert’s point of view, Lolita is a knowing temptress with all of the power in the relationship, and Humbert portrays himself as a helpless love slave, victim to Lolita’s every whim. It doesn’t take an experience with a sweaty, handsy ogre on a Greyhound, much less the #metoo movement to call bullshit.
And yet, contemporary reviews and two cinematic adaptations take Humbert at his word and go along with the casting of twelve-year-old Dolores Haze as an equal romantic partner to a forty-year-old college professor. It honestly doesn’t take a very close reading of the text to see that Humbert is the definition of an unreliable narrator and that throughout he only tells stories that feature him a heroic light. Yet, the brilliance of Nabokov is his ability to let us into the pain and desperation of Dolores Haze without spelling it out. It’s there if you simply open your eyes.
It took me a couple of weeks to get through the first half of the novel. More than any Stephen King novel, I dreaded what I would find on each succeeding page. Thankfully there are no soft-porn descriptions of sexual episodes, but there is enough there to be repulsed. I wasn’t sure I could finish the novel. But then, one rainy Saturday, I steeled myself to finish it. Lolita is considered to be one of the great American novels for a reason. I curled up to find what that reason might be.
Determination is rewarded.
Lolita is an expertly written story of a young girl trapped in a sexual relationship with a middle-aged predator as told from the predator’s point of view. It is tragic and awful and heartbreaking and masterfully told, skating up to the very edges of the grotesque. Only part of its brilliance is its endless threat of making the reader a witness to actual activity. Yet, Nabokov creates a powerful girl who refuses to be a victim. As what little agency she has is stripped away from her, Dolores still finds power. Dolores Haze is smarter than her college professor. Humbert knows and we know it. Dolores uses her antagonist's weaknesses against him and survives. Even through Humbert's self-serving telling, and maybe because of it, the reader is rooting for Dolores. This is her story. The most we can feel for Humbert are flashes of pity. His final act is designed to attain redemption. It is incomplete and therefore just another self-serving act.
As with almost everything I see or read, once I’ve finished I like to check out what other people’s opinions of it might have been. It won’t be a shock to discover that most if not all of the contemporary discussion was conducted by men. And it certainly isn’t a surprise that the two movies derived from the book were created by men.
Full disclosure – I’ve never seen the 1962 – Stanley Kubrick film version. Unless by accident, I never will. In 1997 there was much angst over an Adrian Lyne version having difficulty finding a distributor which ultimately led to a broadcast on Showtime that was successful enough for a general theatrical release. I don’t have any specific recollections of seeing the movie, but upon re-watching it, a number of scenes and images seemed familiar.
But of all the men in all of Hollywood history, Adrian Lyne is the last man – excluding Woody Allen – who should be telling the story of Dolores Haze and her rapist. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lyne made misogynistic soft-core porn “with a message,” with a career that caps out with Fatal Attraction. If you don’t think too hard, his films do hold some entertainment value; but scratch the surface and you find Lyne has a deep, roiling resentment for women in general and goes a very long way to strip them of any agency in his films. His film Indecent Proposal goes so far as to reduce a woman to a tradeable commodity. These are films that should have never been made, much less would they be made today.
Lyne’s telling of Lolita is enraging. I’ll accept without agreement an argument for the soft lighting and gauzy texture of images of Dolores. Up to her final scene. After her escape, it takes Humbert three years to track her down and he finally finds her at the age of seventeen, married and pregnant. In the book, Nabokov has stripped Dolores of all her innocence. There’s no doubt she’s had to make some difficult, awful choices in order to survive. Nabokov doesn’t leave Dolores without some hope, though. Her husband is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he seems to be decent. Their life isn’t what Dolores was being groomed for before Humbert happened, but she seems content enough. Given all that she’s been through it’s the best one could hope for at that moment. Nabokov makes it plain that life has taken its toll and that though the child is gone and has been replaced by a woman who’s seen some things, she has hope. Dolores is down. She’s older. Wiser. And infinitely more mature than any other character in the book. But she is not out. Even Humbert can see she’s no longer his nymphet. Dolores Haze is a woman and that Humber will never be worthy of her.
Yet Lyne, apparently could not see any of this. For him, Dolores is Lolita with a baby bump. Yes, her house is a squalor and her clothes right out of a Depression-era Steinbeck film. But Lyne's Lolita's cheeks still glow with the promise of unexploited sexual wonder. No matter where she stands in her shanty, there’s diffused lighting behind her. Her hair is artfully disheveled. She’s still prepubescent sex, quivering in anticipation and promise. And she's nothing more. It’s the most offensive moment in the film riddled with them. Nabokov very subtly implies Dolores's fate at the end of the novel. But as with everything else, there's room for interpretation. Should the reader want it, or need it, there's hope for Dolores. Lyne, being the literal beast that he is, crushes those implications and destroys any possible interpretations with onscreen text that definitively casts the story as a midcentury Romeo & Juliet. This is a complex relationship. It is not a love story.
What strikes me now, more than twenty years after the latest film version, is just how…gross it is. I think that we must now all agree that there are stories that can no longer be told by men: Hedda Gabler, Streetcar, Medea, The Wizard of Oz. There are an endless list of others. Yes, these stories were created by men, and as a writer I have joined and will continue to be among the ranks of male writers who create strong female protagonists. But I will never do so and then hand the story over to another man to tell upon the stage. These stories belong to women and must be told by them, if for no other reason than characters like Dolores Haze deserve to be known by their true names and not as sexualized caricatures.
Her name is Dolores Haze.