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Lolita: Inside The Mind Of A Pedophile

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My first thought when I read about the subject matter in Lolita–Man, Vladamir Nabokov had to be one creepy pervert to write about that.

But after a little research (I stress “little”), I haven’t found much that would indicate Nabokov was a pedophile or anything like that. Perhaps he was a fan of baked goods, though.

In 1962, Nabokov said this in an interview with BBC:

Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.

At first, that quote may seem almost impossible–how can someone write with the type of detail and intimacy of this subject, without having first-hand knowledge? Research can only take you so far, right?

I mean, to say someone does these types of things and to describe them on the external level is one thing. But Nabokov actually puts you inside Humbert Humbert’s head—he’s the narrator. You’re not only reading about Humbert’s filthiness, you’re also seeing how he justifies his actions in his own delusional way.

To be honest, it’s almost more than I can take. It’s not so much the subject matter—although that’s uncomfortable enough—it’s being inside this guy’s head, seeing his twisted thoughts about a 12-year-old girl.

Sure, an author doesn’t have to be a psychopath murderer to write a book about a psychopath murderer. I understand that. But, more than anything, Lolita seems to be a study in the psychology of a pedophile–what drives him, how he justifies his actions, how he views love.

How does Nabokov write this with such painstakingly elaborate detail? Did he conduct interviews with dozens of pedophiles? Did he read other stories of psychopath pedophiles? I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong, Nabokov is a brilliant, beautiful writer, but I guess I don’t understand how someone takes up a book of this nature without being drawn to this topic in some weird way.

Do you disagree?

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37 Comments Post a comment
  1. kmesa #

    I’ve never read Lolita and have to admit, don’t plan on it. In no way are the thoughts or emotions of a pedophile justifiable. Beautiful writing or not, this is one work that would make me drop the number to 99 if I ever take on the challenge of reading Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels. I sympathize with your feelings as you read the novel so you can reach your goal. And, yeah, I agree that regardless of how creative a work is, in some way, not matter how minute, it has some connection with its creator.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • L.Twinkle #

      I think it is very presumptuous of you to say that. This is exactly what a GOOD writer does – to put himself inside the head of someone completely different from himself. Try – if you have an active imagination and are very empathetic, it is absolutely possible to find yourself thinking some very very disturbing thoughts. Not every writer is accused of what you accuse Nabokov of, despite there being many many examples of writers inhabiting the minds of far more evil characters than HH. Does Thomas Harris have cannibalistic and murderous tendencies because he invented Hannibal Lector? If you had actually read the book then you would know that HH feels much remorse at the end when he realises what he has stolen from the young girl, something that few real paedophiles(or more accurately,ehebephiles) ever feel. Lolita is a wonderful book and an important book. It reminds us that art needs as little censorship as possible, because it is NOT here to teach us morals…but just to be art.

      Like

      July 6, 2014
      • Art is in the eye of the beholder. I would never tell others not to read the book. The subject matter is just not something that appeals to me.

        Like

        July 9, 2014
  2. Lotus Flower #

    I remember reading that Lolita is a Social Worker’s nightmare or a great book for a graduate of psychology for a more in depth look into the mind of a psychopathic pedophile. When I read (didn’t finish yet, but working on it; lost my copy!) I was intrigued and bothered by the book. I was like this is sick, but from a psychological perspective I took it in many ways that helped me looked at it from a more holistic standpoint and I am moved by it.

    I agree that he had to have some sort of close relativity to it, because like you stated it is impossible, but possible however, to have these sort of thoughts without some intrinsic appeal. This is my first book that I’ve been reading by this author… (also a fresh psychology graduate; master’s in Social Work student) lol

    Like

    December 15, 2011
  3. homec #

    Maybe it’s because we have heard so many times “write what you know”. I’ve not read it and after hearing your struggles with it, don’t intend to. I don’t watch Law and Order SVU for the same reason. There are some things I don’t want my mind opened to.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • Even if he didn’t “know” this subject, how did he get into a place to write about it so vividly? I guess that’s the question.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
      • homec #

        Agreed. I know for me, there is no way I could go there. But I guess the same could be wondered about books about serial killers (Dexter comes to mind) and other criminals. My mind just does not work that way. I think the especially terrible subject matter of this book just takes it to another level. I remember an interview with another author where she talked about how much a part of her life her characters were. Makes you wonder.

        Like

        December 15, 2011
      • cordelia #

        yeah yeah, and Shakespeare was a murdering mad man.

        Like

        June 9, 2014
  4. Teresa #

    I also wondered if he was writing from experience or at least from that mindset and so also checked out the interviews. It’s impossible to know — but he was certainly obsessed with it. He kept going back to this story to rewrite it and republish it (other languages) over a many-years period.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • I’m interested to read Pale Fire and see how it compares to this one.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
  5. It seems like it’s hard to avoid the temptation to link an author closely with his subject matter – not unlike when we read a novel (harry potter! easiest example i can think of), then wonder – kind of awed – just HOW the author managed to come up with that world. It seems unfair and false to really look for a link between the author and subject, though; Nabokov wrote many other books and short stories, about many other types of people, yet this is the only work you ever see people trying to connect him to in this way.

    That said, if you look at Humbert Humbert for something other than the pedophilia, it’s easier to see how Nabokov was able to get into his mind. Humbert devotes a huge amount of his time to constructing the narrative and to constructing the world around him; you can see that early in the narrative when he describes himself as a spider weaving his web throughout the house. A lot of what Humbert Humbert does with the narrative (and I’m trying to draw a clear line here between Nabokov and Humbert; because it’s clear, when you’re reading, that you’re reading HUMBERT’S construction of the narrative, not Nabokov’s authorial construction) is devoted to this sort of construction, to pulling the reader along with him, to encouraging the reader to shift back and forth through the narrative to uncover the “clues” Humbert leaves throughout. When you look at Humbert this way (when you look at the novel for anything other than that “pedophilia” label) it’s easier to see how Nabokov made the character so vivid.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • That all sounds interesting, and I’m not saying you are wrong. But I guess I’m just not to the point of seeing it that way.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
      • Sure, and of course it takes time to rework the way you view a piece of literature – sometimes you can’t, if your expectations are too solid going into the reading. Lolita is the one novel by Nabokov that people always want to read, and I also think it’s one of his “easier” works to absorb – but I think it would be better if people would first read a few other things. It would hugely shift their perspective as they began reading Humbert’s narrative. I worry that too many people come into Lolita with very set expectations for the novel, and when the novel fulfills what they expected it to – what they’ve been looking for from the very start of the reading – they make a judgement on Nabokov’s works as a whole.

        That said! I’ve always appreciated your devotion to looking at works over an extended period of time and number of post, even when I don’t agree with your thoughts, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of Pale Fire. That’s a book you could devote years to and still not fully understand.

        (Also, thanks for the back-up, Alison!)

        Like

        December 16, 2011
    • Ellen’s right. Humbert has a lot in common with Charles Kinbote, the narrator in Pale Fire. Nabokov loves to write about deluded egomaniacs. But he isn’t one, nor is he in any way a pedophile. If you read more of his writing, you can see that he is able to write in this way because he has a keen grasp of psychology. In “Speak, Memory,” he writes of his childhood in a way that clearly shows he has been astutely observing psychoses since a young age. While it seems hard to understand how he could write that way without any knowledge, all it takes is an understanding of obsession. Nabokov had a really interesting life, and certainly went through his own obsessions. When it came to Lolita, he just knew how to combine his own obsessive experiences with his observations of the workings of the mind. It seems impossible, but he writes with such authority merely because he is a brilliantly imaginative author.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
    • It is skillfully done. I watched it as a movie, at an early age, maybe ten years old or so and I was so drawn into the movie that I thought this was how grown up men were supposed to view young women. As a ten year old girl, I felt the world of grown ups was for the most part quite confusing. Why would anyone wrap themelves up inside a three piece suit and go off to work every day in a stuffy office? So it wasn;t till I was in college and taking a women’s lib class that i realized how Nabokov’s hracter was beyond the pale.

      And in reading the discussion on this forum, it startles me a little bit that people who are readers (and perhaps even writers) would think that a writer who did this particular book needed to share in the mentality of the character that he portrayed. If a writer writes about an abusive parent, from the viewpoint of that parent, does the writer need to be an abusive parent? It seems to me that Nabokov was stretching his abilities in taking on this project. Since none of us know him personally, I cannot think we an comment on whether he himself had a pedophile’s prediliections. I imagine though that if he had, he wouldn’t have put them out there in the public.

      After all, isn’ t this where imagination come into the picture – that our greatet authors are not only “writing what they know” but also able to go beyond that?

      Like

      December 21, 2011
  6. I think Lolita is a masterpiece and has little to do with pedophilia (although it has always been labelled as a scandalous book. People like de – contextualize and label)
    Who really read the novel knows that Lolita represents a lost love and a promise
    the only chance Humbert has to go back at his adolescence and live a pure, honest, sincere love.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • I’m pretty far into the novel, but you think I’ll change my opinion once I have finished it?

      Sure, the novel might have some deeper meaning and we can look at it on that level. But to say it has “little to do with pedophilia” just isn’t accurate. The entire story is based upon an old guy repeatedly violating a young girl over the course of two years. Open the book to any random page and you’ll like find at least one sentence in which Humbert is lusting over Dolores.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
      • Even so, I choose not to view Lolita as “a book about pedophilia”. A book about obsessiveness, yes, and cruelty, and an inability to see other people with any sort clarity.

        For me, Lolita is about me. When I first read it, I did not see it this way, of course, the whole horrible sexual perversion issue completely eclipsing everything else. But once I got used to it – and I did, because the novelty of all things wears off – the reading got even more painful, because I recognised myself in Humbert. Constructing your own world and expecting others to play pre-defined roles in your story – I definitely do that, and have reasons to believe that others do as well.

        So yes. But anyway. Part of me wishes you WOULD abandon it, so I would no longer be tortured by blog discussion. :)

        Like

        December 15, 2011
    • Pure, honest, sincere child molestation? Seems like an oxymoron to me. I understand that you are taking the narrator’s perspective but I would argue that stepping outside of that perspective is critical for seeing the whole picture. Besides, the premise that this is why he is attracted to Lolita is highly suspicious, since even with Lolita, he wants to have a chance to be near and touch other nymphets.

      Like

      February 13, 2012
  7. Defenders of this book seem to focus on love. The connection between love and abuse (horrific, inhuman, savage abuse) doesn’t make sense to me.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • Thank you!

      I’ve heard this argument before from someone I knew well: that pedophilia is about love, just a *different* kind of love. The narrator himself says that, while he ‘loved’ Lolita, he destroyed her childhood and maybe her life. He also says repeatedly that he is rationalizing and that he is “a madman,” etc. Sorry how can you love someone you can’t actually see as a real person? Lolita’s full, true personality is not ever seen in this story, only hinted at. He says so at the end of the book: he never really knew who she was, she was just a screen to project upon, and he didn’t take her needs into account as a result. Most critiques of the book say at the outset that he is an “unreliable narrator.” So, it’s a portrait of his particular kind of insanity, and masterfully done, but please, not love.

      Like

      February 13, 2012
  8. I haven’t started it, I’m trying to finish Rabbit (talk about a narrator I can’t stand).

    Generally, I find that if you go into something with specific expectations, it’s hard to steer away from them. Honestly? I think you screwed yourself out of any chance at objectivity or a fair chance with this book but that’s ok. Just don’t be surprised you’re so grossed out by this book. You expected to be grossed out by this book. I think you did a better job with Watchmen but even then you were sort of predisposed to something with that one.

    As far as the question goes, how on earth do you know how “well” he is capturing the pedophile? Are you one yourself? Have you been close to one?

    No?

    So basically what you’re saying is that Nabokov perfectly captures a pedophile as you IMAGINE them to be. And that is a completely different can of worms. Fiction is fiction. It is fake. It is not real. The only thing fiction can esteem to be is as close to an imagined reality as possible. It’s still not reality. And that’s because reality can often be so much more boring and so much more disappointing than what we build it up as.

    You and I don’t know for sure exactly how or why pedophiles act and think the way they do. But we have definite clear ideas of how we imagine them to act and think. And that is what Nabokov, I believe, captured so well and that is why he creeped so many people out. He got too close to what was in our heads about what was in their heads.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • Whether or not he captured it well, he still captured something–and I personally don’t enjoy reading about it. No, I don’t know what a pedophile is thinking. But we know Humbert is one, and the fact that I’m reading from his point of view the whole time creeps me out.

      As far as expectations going in, you’re probably right that I already had a negative vibe on this book. But, to some degree, I think we all have preconceptions of most novels going in, especially classics we’ve heard about but haven’t read. That’s just human. I’ve had many reading experiences–including some on this blog–where I totally changed my mind about the book after having read it. I don’t think that will be the case with this one…but we’ll see. I’ll admit if I have a change of heart.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
  9. Dominick Sabalos #

    I have to say I’m actually quite surprised with all the outbursts against Lolita, though it is slightly amusing to see that people seem to feel they need to preface any Lolita-related comment with assurances that they think pedophiles are bad. It seems like an odd way to approach the book, is all.

    I hope you get something out of it, anyway.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
  10. People write about all sorts of things they haven’t experienced personally – that’s what makes it fiction. Horror writers aren’t killers, fantasy writers aren’t flying around on dragons, etc. It’s strange to me that people have a tendency to conflate artists, musicians, writers, and actors with their works.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
    • Right, I mention that in this post. The fact that you don’t have to be a murderer to write about a murderer. What makes this book different, at least in my opinion, is the psychological nature of it. Nabokov isn’t just telling a story. He’s telling a story from the point of view of a pedophile. It’s a psych profile of Humbert.

      Throughout this blog, my goal has been to be honest with what I think about each book–right or wrong. And this is just one that I’m struggling with. Not because it’s a “bad” book, but because of the subject matter. That’s it.

      Like

      December 15, 2011
  11. I think it’s us readers who cannot break the mindset that an author must somehow know of something first before he/she can write about it intimately. It might be more fair to Nabokov to say that he was interested not in pedophilia, but in the kind of twisted mind that allows one to justify it. His interest in this kind of mentality/personality can be fleshed out by people he studied, or even books he read. The rest is his imagination. When you say that the book is psychological and presents the psyche of a pedophile, the reality is that we don’t even know if the book IS a good portrayal of a real pedophile’s psyche. It’s what Nabokov IMAGINES is the psyche of a pedophile.

    For me, when people object to Lolita, it’s because most readers still want to identify with the hero/anti-hero of a novel, no matter how he is portrayed. When we read books or watch movies about outlaws (murderers/robbers as in China’s famous Water Margin, for example), we silently root for them even though we know it would suck if we were the ones getting robbed/murdered in real life. In the case of Humbert Humbert, there’s no way you can sympathize with him at all, which makes him a very uncomfortable person to read.

    Like

    December 15, 2011
  12. Layinka #

    I loved this book and to answer: ‘I don’t understand how someone takes up a book of this nature without being drawn to this topic in some weird way’, I did not choose it. My English 101 professor made it a compulsory read at University. After reading a few chapters we would discuss the book and that is what made the read a 3D experience. Reading it on my own, I don’t think I would have understood the subtleties. Luckily today we have so many books that explain/analyse other author’s works. I do have to say that I was rooting for Humbert Humbert… pls don’t lynch me.

    Like

    December 16, 2011
    • Haha. When I mentioned that line I was talking more about someone writing about pedophilia with such detail. I didn’t mean that reading the book was an indicator of being drawn to this subject.

      Like

      December 16, 2011
  13. smiler #

    i am pleased that some one has taken the time to write a book like this, i was raped as a little child , and it may sound wierd , but reading a book like this gives me more of an understanding as to why they did it , i one day want to find it in my heart to forgive them for what happened to me , as bitterness and anger just rules you until the day you die …..

    Like

    July 8, 2012
    • Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine what you went through, but I’m glad that novel helped you process it better. Thanks again for reading this post and sharing your story.

      Like

      July 8, 2012
  14. ziv #

    In my opinion, one cannot write any book without inserting his own personality. It’s not by chance that Nabokov was the one to write this story. Nabokov probably wasn’t a pedophile, but I believe he had pedophilic fantasies, otherwise he wouldn’t have come up with such a story. It’s a common sexual fantasy of many men – being attracted to young girls. The difference is that Nabokov was a skillful writer, and seem to be thinking alot about this kind of twisted connection between a kid and an adult man. I think it’s disgusting. It seems to me that people can be forgiving toward “artists” who construct such creations. Yet, I think that it is better for people such as Nabokov write books or make movies, if it helps releasing their twisted thought, otherwise they might try to carry them out in their own lives.

    Like

    November 16, 2013
  15. Emily Anne #

    I’m a survivor of sexual abuse as a child by more than one person, and I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie with James Mason.

    I have researched the reasons for pedophilia, and how such people think. It is almost always a reenactment of what once happened to them. They almost never feel any regret or guilt, and live in a world of denial. Of course they sexualize the child, and the age can be as young as a baby, or as in this case, a 12 year old. And invariably blame the victim.

    I don’t know if I’ll try to read Lolita or not-but when I read that it was a 12 year old girl, I thought that no move would actually portray her as a real person, a normal 12 year old. For if they did that, no one would be able to stand to watch the film. Instead, they show her as the imaginary ‘nymphet’ the pedophile sees.

    I wonder if a more true version would be one in which we see this normal kid, and then we hear the sick thoughts of the disgusting monster who is the narrator of the film. Isn’t that what the book is really about?

    To understand the way abusers think all you have to do is find out about the ‘boy man love association’, in which pedophilles assert that it’s an act of love to have sex with a child.

    I read somewhere that an abuser once said, of a two year old, “She wanted it, she came over to me without a diaper on.”

    That is the mentality, and anyone could do research to learn about such things, including the author, but maybe he had contact with some creepy people when he was young, or some abusive ones. All abuse is essentially the same-people who were once abused now re-enacting what happened to them, oftentimes at the exact same ages, and in eerily similar ways.

    The book might be too hard for me to read, but I see that the author specializes in giving us the thoughts and feelings of people who are doing awful things, if I understand this correctly, and so it is not a sort justification for adults to abuse kids and call it ‘love’-nor an invitation to empathize with the abuser’s delusions.

    Like

    October 4, 2014

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