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Book #33: Lolita

After reading 33 books in 16 months, it finally happened: I don’t know what to say.

What I mean is that I have so much to say that I don’t know how to say anything. I’m speechless…well, except for the fact that this is probably my longest review.

Brace yourselves.

You see, I don’t know how to review this book. I’m baffled.

Here’s why: On one hand, I can’t ignore the disgusting nature of the subject matter in this book. If you’ve read any of my previous posts about Lolita, you are well aware of this, so I won’t linger on it.

But on the other hand, I recognize the significance of the novel, the beauty of Nabokov’s writing—a man who was born Russian and mastered the English language—and the skill in which he uses words to bring these emotions out of me.

It’s not like all of the book critics who have praised Lolita for more than five decades are idiots. It’s not by chance that Lolita was chosen for the Time list and is ranked 4th on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.

You don’t have to be a pedophile or a weirdo to like this book. Many of you who read this blog love Lolita, and that’s fine by me. But, for me, I ultimately couldn’t navigate through the subject matter.

I couldn’t walk the tightrope that Nabokov asked of me, to detach myself from what the book was about and to appreciate Lolita as a work of art. And that’s what it is. The writing is beautiful and the story—as sadistic as it is—is captivating, which caused me to read through the novel much quicker than I expected.

And, if I’m honest with you, the second part of the book is much more readable–in terms of subject matter–than the first part of the book. While the narrator, Humbert, is still lusting after young Dolores, the frequency and intensity of his lust is much less in this section–mainly because he now has her in his possession. He’s kidnapped her.

I read through the book quickly for two reasons. 1) Because Nabokov is an incredible storyteller. The entire book flows so together so well. And 2) The subject matter of Lolita caused me to read quickly, just to get the book over with, or maybe to finally see what happens to the creepiest character of all-time, Humbert Humbert.

So, yes, I’ve read all of the praise heaped upon this book. Presumably, those people—including many of you—were able to jump the pedophilia hurdle and see the forest for the trees.

I couldn’t. Whether you want to admit it or not, I think it’s a high hurdle to jump.

Never has a book made me nauseous quite like Lolita. Even in the first 33 novels, the violence of A Clockwork Orange and Blood Meridian, the dark thematic nature of Revolutionary Road and Rabbit Run, the graphic drug use in Infinite Jest, nothing has made me want to lunge for the toilet (metaphorically, of course) quite like Lolita.

Want an example? Here’s how the novel opens:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

You know you’re in for trouble when a book opens with the phrase “fire in my loins.” Is there a more disgusting word than “loins?” And fire in the loins of some pedophiliac old guy? That’s nasty, man.

That’s the vibe you get from Humbert throughout the entire novel, though. Honestly, and fortunately, there’s not any graphic sex in the novel, like you might expect. Nabokov leaves you at the doorstep. A lot of that is alluded to or happens “off screen.” But the reader is constantly reminded of Humbert’s passionate lust for this young girl.

So, oh yeah, do you want a quick plot description?

Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert—a high-brow, well-educated writer and widower—and his obsession with Dolores Haze, his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. When Humbert was twelve, he had a sexual encounter with a young girl that basically left him lusting after 12-year-old girls the rest of his life.

After his first marriage fails, Humbert finds himself in need of a place to stay. With some help from a friend, Mr. Humbert ends up lodging at the house of Charlotte Haze, whom he eventually marries so as to stay close to her young daughter Dolores—whom Humbert refers to as “Lo” and “Lolita.”

After a few freak events, Humbert has Lolita all to himself, and they head out on a trip all over the country, as he does his best to skirt the law, take advantage of the girl, and bide time until he can legally marry her. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for anyone.

Nabokov: He looks angry.

The story is told from Humbert’s first-person point of view in the form of a memoir he wrote from jail. How did he get to jail? Oh, you must read to find out.

Is it weird to say that I hated this book, but I still recognize it as a “good” book? All of the key elements of a classic novel are there: amazing writing, strong story, powerful characters, questions of morality, and so on. I “get” Lolita and what Vladimir Nabokov was trying to do with this novel.

It’s a classic tale of captor and captive, not unlike the Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard stories in real life. At times, it even appears that Dolores has a case of the Stockholm Syndrome–or at least from the way our unreliable narrator remembers the story.

It’s a twisted, manipulated story told from the point of view of a highly unreliable narrator who is lying to you—the reader—and even to himself. I understand all of that.

That said, I would rather jump off a cliff than have to read it again. I would rather go to Mrs. Dalloway’s party every day for a year than have to read it again. I would rather dive headfirst into a swimming pool filled with rabid piranhas than have to read it again. Okay, maybe that one is a stretch.

If this novel did anything, it proved to me that I have a limit, that no matter how wonderful a story is told and highly acclaimed it is in the world of literature, that there are some topics I would just as soon not read about.

I mentioned this in my preview of the book, and it still holds true: Of all the places I want to be, inside the mind of a pedophile is probably last on the list.

In Nabokov’s defense, I don’t believe he was trying to glorify pedophilia, though some critics might tell you that. What was his point, though? In the afterword, Nabokov pretty much admits he didn’t have one:

Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as “What is the author’s purpose?” or still worse “What is the guy trying to say?” Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origins and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination–which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.

I find it odd that a novel about this topic is just a book the author feels like he needs to get off his chest, especially if that’s the only purpose for writing the story.

Even as a highly skeptical reader of this novel, though, it’s easy to see Humbert’s desperation and insanity increase as the story moves forward. In the end, he even embraces the reality of his wickedness after he is rejected one final time by Dolores:

It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.

Humbert is admittedly aware of his pathetic nature, and I think that shows a redeeming quality to the book. In the beginning, he’s filled with justifications and half-lies to explain away his sickness. In the end, he slowly accepts reality: He’s a creepy pervert.

But, still, for all its literary merits and high praise, I could never get over the fact that, at its core, Lolita is a book about a grown man who sexually abuses a 12-year-old girl for two years. That’s just not something I want to read about–regardless of the author’s intentions.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

The Meaning: Just like Joseph Heller created the term Catch 22, Nabokov coined the word “lolita,” which generally refers to a promiscuous young girl. The main character in the novel, Humbert Humbert, refers to 12-year-old Dolores as his “Lolita.”

Highlights: Nabokov could probably make a book about the nighttime habits of crickets seem interesting. He’s one of the best writers I’ve read.

Lowlights: This is where it gets difficult. I’ve never read a book that made me more uncomfortable than Lolita. More nauseous. More willing to jump through the pages of the novel and punch this creepy  narrator, Humbert Humbert. But, again, is that really a lowlight, or does that just mean Nabokov was an incredibly gifted writer who crafted well-thought-out characters? Oh, literature, how you frustrate me!

Memorable Line: “It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.” -Humbert Humbert

Final Thoughts: I have no idea how to rank this book. I truly never want to read it again, but it’s one of those books that sits with you, not unlike Never Let Me Go. I hated the topic but really appreciated the way Nabokov crafted the story. If you choose to read this book, you need to approach it seriously. If you’re just reading it “to see what the fuss is all about,” you’ll never get through it.

Find out more about Lolita on Amazon.

89 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am proud of you for finishing what I could not. Great review. To your point, a brilliant writer who chose a very creepy and disgusting sickness to write about, long before it was in news constantly as it is today.


    December 20, 2011
  2. Hooray, you are done with it! The creepiest book on the list …


    December 20, 2011
  3. Are you glad that you have read this book?


    December 20, 2011
    • I don’t know if “glad” is the word. I feel like I understand the point of the book better than I did before reading it, but that doesn’t mean I want to re-read it or even recommend. I guess I feel satisfied that I was able to get through it.


      December 20, 2011
      • Maybe a better way to phrase my question would have been: “Do you feel personally improved after completing this book?”


        December 20, 2011
        • Gus #

          If that is the reason why you read books, then you have missed the hole point of literature… stick to self-help perhaps?


          August 5, 2013
          • Gus #

            typo: Whole


            August 5, 2013
      • Can’t say that’s the case, but that hasn’t been the case with a lot of the books so far. Lot of dark, depressing novels on this list.


        December 20, 2011
  4. I think Nabokov’s point in the afterward was not that he wrote this book, or any, simply to “get it off his chest”, but that many literature teachers strain too hard in searching for some sort of moral message at the center of a novel. So many people hesitate to let a novel just be a novel, in favor of seeking a political or moral code supported by the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    December 20, 2011
    • I think it’s both. I’m with you about the point of finding a moral message, but he also says “I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book.”


      December 20, 2011
  5. 2blu2btru #

    What a good review! I’ve never read Lolita, but I feel something similar for Bastard Out of Carolina–it’s a hard thing to read, but he wrote about the psychology behind a disturbing crime before it was being addressed as a major concern by society. Provoking that type of discussion and thought makes great literature. That said, it will be a long time before I read this one.


    December 20, 2011
    • The psychology aspect of it is what makes this book so difficult.


      December 20, 2011
    • maya #

      If I remember right, Bastard Out of Carolina was from the POV of the teenage girl. Lolita is from the POV of the male abuser. Big difference for me as a reader.


      July 16, 2014
  6. I finished Rabbit, Run yesterday so I started Lolita today. So far I’m ok but it’s just begun. I’ll read your review fully when I’m done because I don’t want to spoil anything for myself. I know nothing about the book except it’s about a pedophile.


    December 20, 2011
    • Thoughts on Rabbit Run?

      Good luck with Lolita!


      December 20, 2011
  7. Your review sounds a lot like the review I posted yesterday for Ursula K. Le Guin’s award winning book The Left Hand of Darkness. I could appreciate the quality of the writing, the brilliance of the worldbuilding, and the overall themes of the story, but it didn’t work for me for many of the same reasons Lolita didn’t work for you. (Obviously they’re very different books, one about a pedophile and one about a person being alone on an alien planet, but the idea is the same.)

    In reading there are certain books or topics that we enjoy, and some that just don’t work for us. Even when you appreciate the quality of the book, if you don’t like the topic, it won’t work for you.


    December 20, 2011
    • Absolutely. I think it’s good to read books like this every now and then, if only to broaden our horizons. If we only read stuff we “want” to read, we may never have the opportunity to be surprised.


      December 20, 2011
  8. I should probably read your other posts on this first. Your post makes me think that those of us that revel in dark and depressing forms of entertainment could actually, if not enjoy, at least not jump off a cliff rather than read it again. I’ll have to find out for myself.


    December 20, 2011
  9. After reading your other posts about this book and reading your review, the part where you state the author just “had to get this book off his chest” is rather disturbing. But as you said, books are art and what art some love, others hate. (Remember I didn’t care for your Andy Rooney clip – doesn’t mean I was right)

    Congrats on completing the novel – you keep suggesting such wonderful books for me to add to my reading list – thank you! (No, I won’t be adding Lolita but you’ve suggested so many others) I really do love your blog.


    December 20, 2011
    • The “get off his chest” part was just my interpretation of what he was saying. At the very least, he said he didn’t really have a greater purpose for writing Lolita…which is something I’d like to see if I’m going to read a book like that.

      As always, thanks for reading the blog!


      December 20, 2011
    • You should read it. While Humbert is a pedophile, he truly loves Lolita, and though perverse it is a great love story. My sister yelled at me in a restraunt for saying this, and many others probably would too. It would take a long time to explain, but I think the book is beautiful and very moving.


      February 16, 2015
  10. E.M. Cioran once stated, “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.”

    I believe this is true of most great literature, but also particularly true of “Lolita”. Cioran’s quote takes what you see as perverse (Nabokov having to “get the story off his chest”) and renders it differently. Yes, Nabokov had to get the story of Humbert and Lolita off of his chest, but perhaps the pedophilia was just a device used to employ deeper themes of human separation, sanity, power, and control. I do believe one can read “Lolita” as mainly if not completely metaphorical. But also, the old man-young woman dichotomy is central to human behaviour, and perhaps was for this reason a useful and obvious tool for Nabokov to use when discussing these themes.


    December 20, 2011
    • Everything you say could very well be true. But like I said, I couldn’t get past the hurdle of the subject matter and read the book the way Nabokov meant it to be read–if indeed it was metaphorical.

      That’s just my thing. Other people won’t have the same issues. Whatever the case, it’s obviously a powerful book because it sparks a lot of discussion.


      December 20, 2011
  11. Did you notice that Beloved is on many of the same lists as Lolita, the ones declaring that the novels are nothing but pornography and as one person wrote: “The teachers who have assigned Beloved … should not only be fired, they should be arrested.” In a defense of Beloved, much of the criticism is directed towards our innocent children reading the book in school where it can be discussed in a semi-professional environment and not just hidden under the mattress for late-night reading by flashlight under the covers.

    Hopefully The Bluest Eye is not on the Time list. If you considered Lolita hard to take, how about a story detailing a father’s sexual pursuit and conquest of his own daughter?

    I just checked the list, no Bluest Eye but there are a number of homosexual oriented novels yet to read but, fortunately, none of them too graphic (try Gary Indiana if you’re curious).
    The funny thing is that after sex (natural and unnatural) one of the biggest things that gets books banned from polite company is occultism. One of the major battles in literature then is Harry Potter: will occultism or commercialism win out in the end?

    Mike in Hilton Head


    December 21, 2011
  12. Margaret #

    I have held back from commenting until you completed your review. I read Lolita about 30 years ago while at university. I don’t recall having a strong reaction to it one way or another (in fact, I hated “As I Lay Dying” much, much more). However, the summer after reading Lolita I was a temp office worker (answering phones, typing [yes typing] and filing). One week I worked at a Psychiatric Hospital, typing notes made by one of the psychiatrists. Her notes were made interviewing a pedophile. They were creepily like Lolita. When I began typing another set, I told her she must have given me the same notes. Her reply: “Oh no, they ALL say the girl wanted it too.” THAT was creepy. A fictional novel can’t come close to the feeling that knowledge gave me. And that’s why I think it’s really important that novels touch on uncomfortable subjects: we really need to know the terrible plight some women–some people–go through if we want to change things.


    December 28, 2011
  13. I enjoyed this review. I wasn’t as enamored of Nabokov’s prose at first because it confused me in a way I didn’t expect. When I ultimately got drawn in, I couldn’t stop reading, which of course horrified me because of what I was reading.

    To elaborate, if I may, here are two posts that I wrote this summer during and after reading Lolita for the first, and most likely last, time:
    Beware of the Russians:
    The vocabulary of insanity:


    December 30, 2011
  14. I just finished reading Lolita and was not as creeped out by it as I was preparing myself to be. My mom tells me that it’s good for me to have read it before becoming a mother rather than after.


    January 15, 2012
  15. I can’t say read “Lolita” even if it’s disturbing because I drop books for the same reason. (There is a Joyce Carol Oates novel that makes me nauseous every time I think about it.) However, I don’t believe Nabokov is interested in Humbert Humbert because he’s a pervert. I think he’s interested in Humbert Humbert because HH is a narcissist — one who almost literally sees no one but himself as fully human. HH doesn’t see Lolita as a person (even though he studies her intently). Which allows him to do what he does to Lolita, which is rape her for two years.

    From this statement, you may guess that I don’t believe Nabokov when he claims he has no moral purpose in his novels. Many of his books feature monsters of narcissism as their major characters: Humbert, Kinbote in “Pale Fire,” Van and Ada Veen in “Ada”. But Nabokov’ sympathies – sometimes explicitly stated in interviews – is with their victims, Lolita, the Shades, Lucette Veen, and with victims in general, Pnin or Adam Krug and his son in “Bend Sinister”. Humbert Humbert himself concludes that he deserves “at least 35 years for rape” which I’ve never found a reason to think a lie, and I have tried.

    Why Nabokov did this, I don’t know. He might have been a little vain and wanted to be seen as a “Capital A” artist instead of a conventional moralist. He may have wanted to make sure we didn’t overlook the perfect prose, the shimmering portrait of America in the 50s, the funhouse mirrors of the plot, or the transcendental intensity with which Humbert captures Lolita and preserves her against death in the book. The last line says what, perhaps, the purpose of all art is: “And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”


    April 15, 2012
  16. This was another of our book club reads. I completely agree with you about Nabokov’s style. As for Nabokov’s ‘purpose’, spurious though such a question might be, I did wonder whether it was the challenge of writing convincingly inside the head of the most despicable character he could imagine. If so, he succeeded. Humbert is as nuanced and convincing as he is indeed despicable. What was perhaps more disturbing even than reading the book was the tendency in discussion for some of my book club members to allocate a share of culpability to Lolita. It is of course a question that the novel raises but, surely, as it is mediated by Humbert’s perverted perspective, we are never meant to give it serious consideration and to do so is merely to play the abuser’s game? That Nabokov’s novel managed to bring these issues into discussion within a fairly homogenous group of middle aged, middle class mothers is perhaps testament to his achievement.


    April 18, 2012
  17. Strangely, men are more sensitive about the book’s subject than women. I read it when I was an 18-years-old girl (something around that age) and enjoyed every word of it.
    I was disappointed in the manipulative and weak nature of Humbert Humbert, because he was the adult in the story.
    But I didn’t consider Lolita to be quite innocent either. I really thought that some things she did were out of sexual instinct and with an adult that lacks the sense of responsibility and clear judgement, he took advantage of her.
    But on the other hand, if his passion and descriptions were closely about a young 20-year-old girl, I found them extremely alluring.
    I don’t remember a lot of what happened from Lolita’s point of view, but I remember I secretly wanted her to get away at some point.
    Although there was this tension in the book, I always wanted to re-read it (because of the natural way of storytelling that Nabokov has) and I always recommended it.


    April 24, 2012
  18. I am sure that I will never read this book. Thank you Robert


    December 18, 2012
  19. I read this book a long time ago and there’s one heart-breaking passage toward the very end that stayed with me through all these years. It describes the narrator stopping at a roadside above a mining town, listening to the voices of children playing, and mourning the absence of Lolita’s voice among them.


    January 14, 2013
  20. I’ll be honest: I’m intrigued by the subject. I heard about this book in a variety of other blogs and books and I do want to see what’s it like. Though, I can tell your absolutely disgusted by this, I still want to read it. Remember: it’s become a classic because of this disgusting tale, so I have to say that he accomplished at least that.
    I’m curious about it but answer me this:
    is this a book for teenagers or should I wait until I’m an adult?


    July 19, 2013
    • Back when they made the first movie treatment of Lolita, the motion picture gurus decided it could only be seen by older teens: 18 or 19. The irony was that the star of the movie, Sue Lyons, was not old enough to see her own movie in the theaters.

      I suspect that today’s teenage readers have read far more controversial books than Lolita but it’s also true that age isn’t necessarily a key factor in accepting the Nabokov novel, evidenced by the adults that are only responsive to the surface narrative and miss the sub-text and thematic challenges.

      For any book, stay open to the experience and ignore such artificial and often useless designations such as Juvenile or Adult. Go for it .. if it makes you bleed, put a bandage on the wound and be proud of the scar.


      July 19, 2013
  21. Gus #

    I think the moralistic outburst is misplaced in this review. It would be more fitting if reviewing the memoir of Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Hoess, but here? In my opinion focusing on the moral issues raised by the story is completely missing the point. I think the quality of the satire and the prose are what matters and they are very hard to match. A masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 5, 2013
  22. Matthew ( #

    A really good review of a book you obviously didn’t enjoy. There’s a fine art to writing about problems with a book – personal or otherwise – without sounding bitter, daft, or anything else. I think your review here is finely balanced, and far better than a lot of attacks I’ve read on Lolita. Personally, I think the book is an astonishing piece of literature, and the subject matter doesn’t cause me a problem – but, like you, that’s a personal thing.

    I’m seriously dubious about Nabokov’s various claims of amorality, and lack of authorial intent. Personally, I read Lolita as a story about the power of words to bemuse, befuddle, and ingratiate amongst other things. I think the reader’s battle against the skewed eloquence of Humbert is one of the key things in the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 13, 2014
  23. Chloe #

    I absolutely love this book I dont have a problem with any of it. I bought it when i was around 14 years old but struggled to read for some time due to the prose. i knew what it was about as i had seen the film. the writing is absolutely fantastic and so is the story. i find those that may be getting caught up in morals are missing the beauty of this story completely. i really feel as though lolita played her part in the relationship also. ive seen the film so many times that maybe ive forgotten my initial reaction im not sure (i do realise this is a book review but have to make the point that i knew the story so well prior to reading it)


    March 11, 2014
    • I love the novel but hate both movie versions. The earliest version focuses on the humor and the later version too much on the sexual relationship. Neither comes near the heart of the novel.


      February 16, 2015
  24. You said you got it. I don’t believ when you did. Lolita first and fore most is a love story and at the end when he visits her and she is no longer the lovely nymphet he still wants her to run away with him. When she won’t he helps her family anyway.


    January 8, 2015
  25. priyanka #

    I have not read this book yet , so I have no idea if i would really find this work disgusting. From your review I understand that this story speaks about a man’s dark personality , and I guess the narrator makes it quite disturbing when he explains about Lolita . But on the literary front I still believe it is a great book from Nobokov , considering his style of writing and so on. I think reading about a man’s darker side of his personality might actually be interesting . And I think I should get my hands on this book to see how disgusting the narrator could get 😀 As a reader , I’m actually pretty excited to read this book .


    February 3, 2015
  26. Amanie #

    I just read this after reading your recent posts about Naked Lunch and I found it hilarious. I’m guessing Lolita is no longer the most uncomfortable book you had to read lol. Naked Lunch sounds purely disgusting!
    I loved Lolita. One of my favourite novels in fact!


    March 29, 2015
  27. jakester48 #

    Why is Lolita a more disturbing book than, say, American Psycho?


    November 4, 2015

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