The first day of the first time I taught Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov to an AP English class at Berkeley High School, I stood in front of the room reading chapter one aloud, the one that starts like this:
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.
You get a lot of bang for your buck reading Lolita out loud. Those are words to make your mouth water. They involve all the softest, wettest, sharpest parts of your mouth, and like that tongue, the language taps many levels—sensual, cerebral, and taboo, possibly in that order. Nabokov’s novel (a bestseller when it came out in 1955 and still selling well) is so notorious that even those who haven’t read it might know it’s the story of a pedophile who marries a woman just to get at her prepubescent daughter, whom he rapes repeatedly for years, a guy who hides his ugliness under upper crust manners and a Euro accent. And I, like a smooth-talking, click-baiting salesman, like any good teacher, was using it all to capture their interest.
It was near the end of their senior year of high school. They’d already taken the AP English exam and most knew where they’d go to college. Still, we had many weeks left together, so I pulled out all the stops in class that day hoping that my little-girl-voice would add another layer of intrigue by evoking Lolita’s physical presence through her rapist’s words. Afterwards, we tried to differentiate the writer from the narrator and talked about how beautiful writing can distract us from the ugliness of a topic, and how sex sells. We discussed how certain words allow us to intellectualize things and how others force us to feel them. I showed them several different versions of the book’s cover so we could think about how a cover (or an introduction, or a context, or a voice) sets a tone.
There were a couple free minutes at the end of class for chatting. When I got to Stefan’s desk, he was ready with a question: “Ms. Fonté: Why are we reading this?” Stefan was a student on whom I could consistently depend. He was always engaged and asked great questions. This one was loaded, one I could imagine a wide array of answers for, so I asked him what he meant.
“I mean it’s all about sex with children. Isn’t it a little risqué to be teaching this in high school?” He spoke politely and loud enough for the whole class to hear. Stefan was a gregarious, man-sized boy crammed into a student-sized desk. His wide-spaced, earnest eyes seemed to be asking me, Hey, high school’s not over yet; can’t we hold onto childhood a little while longer? Or perhaps his was a moral reservation: Maybe he’d been taught that rape was a rare sexual kink rather than a large social issue and he needed help re-framing the subject in his mind. Perhaps he felt threatened by me, the tiny woman standing at the front of the class, or maybe he was playing devil’s advocate, but for whatever reason, the question was fair. Whether he was clinging to innocence, looking for insight, testing my authority, or baiting a debate, the question deserved an answer.
After all, it was something I’d wondered when designing my syllabus. I worried if I taught Lolita, I’d be teaching rape. I asked myself if asking students to read a story told entirely from a rapist’s point of view would teach them to identify with and think like a rapist and view women as dumb, inhuman objects. But my answer was a loud and emphatic no. I thought I could use Lolita to teach something else entirely.
“Because this is what fiction is good for,” I told Stefan, loud enough so the whole class could hear. “Making us think about the world we live in, allowing us to vicariously experience scary scenarios and difficult issues in order to develop somewhat informed opinions about them.”
“No offense Ms. Fonté, but this” —he indicated the book on his desk— “isn’t the world I live in.”
“And yet it exists in your world. How do you explain that?”
“I don’t know,” he glanced at the students sitting around him, then waited for me to explain.
“In fiction you can travel anywhere. You can go there in your imagination, look around, and form your own opinions. It’s just words on a page, a completely safe place to explore.”
“But I don’t think I want to go there, even in my head,” he said.
“But if you pretend it doesn’t exist, you’ll never know what to do or think about it.”
The bell rang.
Since that day, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Stefan’s question, not only because I didn’t answer it very well but because it was my last chance to try. After ten years of teaching, I quit after that year. It had nothing to do with Stefan’s words but something to do with my inability to get more students to participate in the discussion. If my classes had been smaller, if I didn’t have so many preps, if the administration had supported me, maybe I could have become the teacher I wanted to be but instead, I replay this conversation in my mind: rephrasing, dog-earing new studies that are conducted and new stats that come to light, refining all the conversations we had in class that year. Because this is what good teachers do, even when they’re not teaching.
Because although we may fail to notice or ignore the facts, Lolita is a part of reality. After all, every 107 seconds, another person is sexually assaulted in the US, where 1 in 6 females and 1 in 33 males will experience an attempted or executed rape in their lifetime and at least 15% of them will be younger than 12. One study of college women found that 19%— nearly one in five— reported sexual assault in their first year. In our English class, there were 45 students who would be attending college the following year (and 38 desks, but that’s another discussion), so roughly three females and one male could know about rape firsthand.
Not to mention the rapists themselves: Nobody knows what percentage of people attempt rape. That statistic doesn’t exist, although one recent study found that 1 in 3 male college students said they’d rape if they could get away with it. When I Google my zip code, I find 12 registered sex offenders on the map (not including the additional 5 that “could not be listed” for legal reasons), and these are only the ones who’ve been tried and convicted. So rapists are all around us. They’re at the supermarket fondling fruit, walking dogs in the park, picking kids up from school.
We’re surrounded by people who have been touched by rape— have either raped or been raped, who hear about rape or think about rape— who never verbalize it, for one reason or another. Sometimes it takes years for a rape victim to find words for what happened to them and sometimes they never do. Many rapists are so immersed in their own rapist egos that they don’t see their own crimes. Lolita never accuses Humbert of rape, not once, and he doesn’t see himself as a rapist. I remember reading the word “rapist” only once or twice in Lolita but in reference to someone else entirely.
That the word “rape” is missing from Lolita is important, as is its omission from almost every plot summary of the novel you can find in print or online. Instead, they refer to “sexual demands,” “pedophiliac longings,” “sexual favors,” “forbidden love,” “dark lust,” or a “seductive flirtation.” Isn’t that poetic? And the summaries of the films are even more blithely romantic, some going so far as to call the child a “willing prisoner.” We all know that a 12-year-old can’t give consent: Since the 1200s, there have been written laws prohibiting sex with children, but the idea conveniently never occurs to Humbert in relation to his own “romantic yet turbulent relationship.” If the word is never used, the accusation never made, the thought never thunk, is it still rape? If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does the tree fall?
Rapists are not rare or special or even particularly noteworthy. Everyone probably knows a rapist but no one knows who, maybe not even the rapists themselves. Anyone could be one: After all, even women have been trained to think rapist thoughts. If a woman gets raped, we ask about her neckline or what she drank, as if those were mitigating details. We can fill in the blanks without batting an eye: “Boys will be ____,” “She asked for __,” and “He’s mean to you because he _____ you.” Men like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby still have their fan clubs. The statistics and examples of how rapist thoughts infuse the collective unconscious are intoned so often they’ve become trite, but the truths they represent are still fresh enough to bleed. The fact that some people who read Lolita still gush and moan over the language yet overlook or downplay the fact that those pretty words describe the cold-blooded serial rape of a kidnapped child is a case in point.
But the first reason I wanted to teach Lolita was because I love the book. Judging by Stefan’s question, when someone says they love Lolita, they might say it with a blush, as if announcing a predilection for paraphilic infantilism or spanking monkeys. Why do I love Lolita? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it, and confusing since the book’s name is shared by its victim, who has come to represent everything her rapist thought and said about her, everything he did to her. When you say, “I read Lolita in high school,” the italics can’t be heard. You might be saying that you read the book or that you read her mind. Humbert thinks that’s what he’s doing, reading her mind, and that’s all we get: his version. The fact that he made up this diminutive pet name for her (her given name was Dolores) simply adds to the confusion of what we’re saying if we say we like Lolita. Thanks to Nabokov, her name is in the dictionary, but instead of describing a situation where a child’s humanity is systematically snuffed out by her rapist, it refers to a sexually precocious little girl. Talk about adding insult to injury! Even her name minimizes, co-opts, and blames her.
But this is how rape continues to be a normal part of our culture: the rapist rapes and then blames the victim. Brutal truth hides in plain sight, pointing fingers. “Lolita” is the rutting elephant in the living room, a trojan packed with explosives. Every time I hear the term “Lolita” used unironically, I imagine Nabokov having a long, self-satisfied chuckle at our expense.
And this is part of why I love Lolita. Because it is eloquent evidence of how power corrupts and twists everything around. Lolita— both the book and the character— is a mirror held up to show how demented and ass-backwards and fucked up things are, an object lesson for how we conflate sex with power and normalize rape, kowtow to privilege, and kneel to the white man. I love Lolita because of its ugly truth. If you love Lolita for any other reason, you’re missing the point.
But when I say I love Lolita, I also mean that when I read the book, I’m overwhelmed by powerful waves of impotent pain, outrage, frustration, and desire to protect. As a female, I identify with her and as a mother, teacher, and human being, I feel responsible. Is see myself, my daughters, and my students in her. I felt all this when I put the novel on my syllabus and I thought my students could understand but in retrospect, I’m not so sure. Perhaps I overestimated the power of empathy. Rebecca Solnit calls Lolita a “masterpiece of Humbert Humbert’s failure of empathy.” I like that phrase: failure of empathy. It applies to so many situations today. Recently, Solnit has been parrying attacks on her articles 80 Books No Woman Should Read (a click-baiting title for an intelligent satire) and its follow-up, Men Explain Lolita to Me (both on Literary Hub). Solnit says she identified with Lolita, for which one unironic Lolita-loving guy chastised her of not understanding Nabokov in a comment that was not only knee-jerk but blind to the fact that with Lolita, one of Nabokov’s primary purposes is playing with feelings (ladies and gentlemen of the jury…). Again, if you miss the irony, you miss the whole point.
Reading with an empathetic eye means playing with Nabokov, not against him. Numerous studies have found that reading fiction trains minds to exercise emotional literacy, feel empathy, and develop theory of mind, an understanding of how others think and feel. This benefit might get complicated in the case of Lolita since the entire story is framed, worded, and delivered by her rapist. In other words, Lolita might teach empathy, but for whom: the rapist or his victim? It might be easier for shallow readers to identify only with Humbert, since we’ve all been trained to think like rapists and trust the narrator, especially if he’s a professorial white guy. It’s probably easier for female or non-binary readers to see beyond Humbert’s monomaniacal desire to understand Lolita while a shallow reader might fail to feel and thereby miss the point entirely and dangerously, since sociopathy is the endpoint in Humbert’s line of thought. Point blank: If you fail to empathize with Lolita, you’re reading like a rapist.
Perhaps this was what Stefan was wondering when he posed his question: Would the class be asked to “out” their inner Humbert or get in touch with their inner Lolita? Would this be a lesson in cynicism or something more? Would rape be poeticized, intellectualized, and/or empathized, and in the end, who would be blamed? Would this be just another book or would we be moved, shifted, jostled, stirred, shaken, and changed?
I couldn’t answer that question fully because it wasn’t just for me. It was for the class as a whole, and the answer depends on each of us. And even if we can’t answer, it’s important to keep asking.
Why do (or don’t) you love Lolita?
I don’t like it. I don’t like that you “taught” this book and then didn’t really reach your students, didn’t actual educate them properly about it. You used it, in your own words, as “click-bait,” to titillate otherwise jaded seniors suffering from senior-itis and ready for summer and beyond. Those are terrible motivations; no wonder you couldn’t respond to Stefan.
If you had it to do again, I hope you wouldn’t cop out and put the question back to your clueless students only. I hope you would raise the same issues you raised so well in this blog post, about power and status, the rapists’ POV as prominent and accepted, the blaming of the victim, particularly when she is young and female. The creation of “Lolita” as a character defined the acceptability of child rape for decades to come and still does.
“Abomination” is the word I would use.
Best to you,
Thanks for reading, Sally. I don’t know where you get the impression that I didn’t teach my students, but I can see how this idea would affect your response. I’ll consider editing this piece to read more defensively.
This part is interesting: “The creation of ‘Lolita’ as a character defined the acceptability of child rape for decades to come and still does.” But which came first: pedophilia or the book describing it? Even though I wasn’t alive in 1955, I believe the book brought a hidden reality to light, as great books often do. For some, I bet it felt like it happened the other way around, though, that the book created the problem. Interesting how a book can do that.
Lolita is one of those words/books that plugs people in, isn’t it? It’s important that we ask ourselves where these feelings come from, especially when they are so strong.
First of all, “Pedophilia” means “lover of children, which is an awful way to describe child molesting and child rape. I refuse to use that term. Second, I didn’t say Nabokov invented child rape.I said that his depiction of the female victim as seductive and willing set up Western culture (and I was alive in 1955) to believe that young girls “want it” and “cause” their adult abusers to rape or molest them because they’re so “irresistible” and “hungry” for sex. Awful and not at all ironic, IMHO. Thinly disguised as “literature,” it’s an homage to all the incestuous rapists out there, of which Nabokov probably was one.
I too had the impression that you felt you didn’t teach the students well. You admitted to an inadequate answer to Stefan’s response, and then followed it with your own reflections of what you hoped the students learned from reading it. Maybe just include more about what the students got from your teaching, other than doubts expressed on the first day of the unit. A recap after they all finished reading and discussing it under your direction.
Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if I feel the need to build a case for myself as a teacher. I don’t think I care if people think I was a bad teacher (or a good one, for that matter). If I tried to defend myself and pose as some kind of model, I’d end up writing things that don’t interest me, and it would change the whole point of this piece. What I find fascinating about teaching (and parenting, and most relationships, really) is not all the great things I do or say, it’s those awkwardnesses and failures and miscommunications that stick like thorns. That’s the good stuff. So I think I’m going to resist the reflex to prettify this and try to make myself look good here. I think I like it the way it is.
hi anna, when i read your confession that you were being click-baity, i didnt take it literally. i read it as the way you were suddenly imagining or accusing (or simply wondering) of yourself. the way someone might worry right when they enter a nice restaurant that their clothes are all wrong, when theyre actually fine.
so i didnt take from the article that you didnt teach, only that you wanted to be a better teacher. i cant imagine who on the other hand says, “you know? im a good enough teacher. in fact, i dont need to be any better than i am.” so to address the alternative– that you could be better, isnt a huge revelation or confession by itself.
that said, this is the part that really hit me when i was reading:
“If my classes had been smaller, if I didn’t have so many preps, if the administration had supported me, maybe I could have become the teacher I wanted to be…” thats a whole book right there, but at least another blog post. thanks for writing.
Perhaps Anna has benefited from years of honest and thoughtful consideration of her experience teaching Lolita. I suspect if she did teach the book today, she would direct the discussion to include the very pertinent threads that you recognized in this post. And I think she would stimulate some very engaged dialogue among a bunch of jaded high school seniors.
I believe Anna’s point is that literature is messy. It does not always say, directly, what we hope it would or should. But it has the power to force us to look in directions we might not otherwise dare.
Linda! Here I am, 10 years later, still refining my lesson plan. The truth is, there have been far more studies and surveys about rape conducted since I stopped teaching, although I did share all the information I had with them then, of course. Every time I read a new fact, I file it in my mind. If I taught it again I’d do better, but still not “perfect.”
Yes, it’s all so messy. And thank you for reading through my mess, as well. xoox xoox
I don’t think that this book should be taught in a high school. I would say, you’ve handled Stefan’s questions with grace, it seems to be the best answer a teacher can offer to her class. This is even the world, such monstrosity and cruelty do exist, you can close your eyes, but can’t hide from it. But, young minds are not at all wise to pick up the right things from even the wrong ones. They would like to ponder over the ‘poetic’ masking of rape. It’s a difficult issue to handle at their age..they deserve something better.
Anyway, I enjoyed reading the account. I always enjoy reading your posts … 🙂
As a parent, I’m so glad when teachers teach my students things they wouldn’t know if I was their only teacher. I’d even go so far as to say that this is why I send my daughters to school. I wouldn’t want my 15 yo to read Lolita quite yet, but I asked her to edit this essay for me, and she gave me some good pointers, and I definitely hope she reads Lolita before she leaves home/goes to college.
You’re right, it is so difficult! How to prepare our kids for “real world” but still protect their innocence? Fiction is an excellent way to broach those difficult topics. Then they can “ponder the poetic masking of rape” and see it for what it is: poetic masking!
Thank you for reading, and for commenting here!
I remember when reading this back in the day, I hadn’t thought to think of what was going on in this book as rape- today, I know I would. But I wonder how many people have read this book and not noticed the same, esp as it’s only in the recent present that we are finally beginning to address what is included in rape culture. Great unpacking of a layered matter.
It’s crazy, isn’t it!? How could we read Lolita and not say rape!? Thank you!
This is a powerful critique of a powerful story. I share so many if your sentiments. My first contact with Lolita was through the 1962 film. I was intrigued; however, the discomfort and other emotions that wash over me when I (attempt to) read it have actually prevented me from ever completing the novel! I plan to, several times a year.
Thanks for sharing.
I have stacks of books I mean to start or finish. They glare at me from the shelf. Funny, though— for me, the movies are the ones I can’t look at (other way around). Thank you for reading!
This is just a transcript, so without looking your students in the eye, I cannot tell what was exactly meant. What I do think however, is that people in general, especially kids who are still in high school, have a harder time showing empathy and vicariously feeling horrors that they did not experience and did not themselves commit. I don’t think it should be interpreted as their disinterest in learning, understanding and in future, preventing horrible things such as rape and pedophilia, the matter just needs to feel more personal, which is very hard to do with a book like ‘Lolita’.
As for me personally, I am, so to say, both disgusted by the mater of the book, horrified and it makes me feel fear reading it, but also very glad that a book like that exists, because it carries a very important message and lesson and can and should be used to incite engagement in the real world and changes.
“people in general, especially kids who are still in high school, have a harder time showing empathy and vicariously feeling horrors that they did not experience and did not themselves commit.” I think you’re right. And yet my students read many books on murder, war, racism, etc. without batting an eye. Interesting. Thank you!
I think it is maybe because war, or murder, even though a terror, are perhaps a terror not strictly associated with their own body in a certain way, as in, let’s say there is war, a shrapnel hits someone who loses a leg. It is terrible, and leaves a person in both physical and emotional pain, but it is perhaps more visible? Yet rape and sexual abuse are most often terrors that leave wounds and scars that are not always visible to the naked eye. I think this is why it is maybe hard to vicariously and emphatically feel it for someone in high school, also at an age where they themselves feel an increase in their sexual drive and try hard to both keep it pleased and PG13 so to say. I can also tell you that before being sexually assaulted myself, I did not manage to fully understand or grasp the pain and scars it leaves inside a person forever, or how much stigma there is about everything. I was in high school, and was an avid reader and watcher of everything that had some pretty gruesome stuff in it.
I don’t know, just throwing my thoughts out there and I hope they are of some use to you 🙂
I wish my teachers had taught me this way when I was in school. Back then we were essentially told what to think, and not that we could think. For ourselves. That would have been valuable information right there as I didn’t begin learning to think for myself until I was in art college.
Perhaps your students weren’t up to the challenge of engaging with this difficult fiction. I remember reading it long after I’d left school, and it was a confronting experience. I remember being titillated by the pretty (almost reasonable) sounding use of language. It’s just so well written. But I also remember the realisation that what I was vicariously participating in was the repeated rape and degradation of a child. It kind of messed with my head a little, and I found that I had to put the book down more than a few times.
I agree with you that therein lies the value of fiction. Reading this one book led me to take a hard look at myself. Have I ever raped anyone? No. Have I lusted after prepubescent girls? Never. Did it show me that I could empathise with a rapist? Yes. And that worried me. Wasn’t I supposed to hate all rapists? His reasoning for the heinous things he did were so beguiling. I think that’s the one aspect of this that I found so disgusting. And that poor girl…
To this day, I refuse to call Dolores by her other name, and I still don’t know whether or not that’s just me “white knighting” or doing it out of genuine respect for her as a human being. I do know that I’m not the man I want to be. Hopefully, works such as Lolita will help to shape me in a positive way.
Great post. Much food for thought. 🙂
I like this part especially: “Did it show me that I could empathise with a rapist? Yes. And that worried me. Wasn’t I supposed to hate all rapists? His reasoning for the heinous things he did were so beguiling. I think that’s the one aspect of this that I found so disgusting. And that poor girl…”. Well said. I felt the same way after I read Lolita on my own, in high school. So confusing. And good point about “Dolores.” It fits her better anyway, right?
I completely agree with you, Anna. 🙂
WordPress is wacky tonight. It won’t let me click from my “followed sites” feed to anybody’s blog; have to use my favorites menu or type in the address. So if you’re not getting much love or hate yet on this controversial subject, maybe that’s part of it, who knows?
Anyway, these were seniors, right, Advanced Placement seniors in a liberal community in California? And it wasn’t 2015, where every controversial position gets crucified on Facebook. These kids were nearly adults; they should be exposed to dark and dirty and dangerous IDEAS, which is what you did for them.
That being said, I confess I’ve only ever started Lolita. I’ve picked it up a couple times, started it, then it’s bedtime and I forget the next night that I started it, and I grab a different book from the headboard.
Looking back, maybe you could have had a fellow teacher or friend play devil’s advocate and ask the question that Stefan ultimately asked, so you would have felt more ready for it.
I’m not going to get into arguments with other commenters, but I’d say that this passage from your post:
“Afterwards, we tried to differentiate the writer from the narrator and talked about how beautiful writing can distract us from the ugliness of a topic, and how sex sells. We discussed how certain words allow us to intellectualize things and how others force us to feel them. I showed them several different versions of the book’s cover so we could think about how a cover (or an introduction, or a context, or a voice) sets a tone”
tells me that you did, indeed, TEACH the book and use it to educate your students.
You certainly don’t shy away from difficult subjects, Anna.
45 students in one class? Really?
Yeah, I did in fact try to teach it, as you kindly, astutely noticed. But as with all the other books I taught, I keep thinking about my lesson plan and trying to make it better. And since I no longer teach, I’m writing this instead. Obsessive-compulsive?
But I can see why you haven’t read it. The version I taught was annotated, with thousands of footnotes and references, which were interesting but not exactly pleasurable. I enjoyed it immensely, for convoluted reasons, but I don’t recommend it to everyone. If you ever do read it, please tell me what you think.
Yes, 45 students in one class. Can you imagine? And that’s just one class. They were all wonderful young people, but I can’t believe I lasted 10 years.
This is a brilliant post. Made me wonder how long it took you to write. I appreciate your anecdote. My two cents: These kids get worse stuff to read/watch. You offered a unique perspective as well as literature. Coincidentally I just finished a short story that included exactly the passage you quoted and the story is also about a woman and sex. I’m going to go over it again now…
This happened in 2005. I started writing this essay about a month ago. So either way you look at it, it took too long!
Thank you so much for reading!
I remember so little about the book. I remember him jacking into her underpants. I wish I knew if I finished it and how old I was. I know I felt she was deliberately provocative and had that impression from the movie also. And that Humbert was an unattractive ass. I think I best read it again. I feel like I must have a really perverse idea of it. That speaks volumes to me.
Ooo. Virginia, I wonder what you’d think if you read it again. I’d be interested to hear. Our context has changed so dramatically, as have our world views. The movies are all terrible, since you can’t separate Lolita from HH’s view of her. Ugh.
I loved everything about this post. First, because I’ve taught high school students, and I too have gone back over and over questions they asked and how my answer could have been better. Could have dragged them forward ….. And yet as teachers we don’t get do-overs. We learn as much from our interactions with our students as they do from us. So thank you for your brutal honesty with yourself.
I also know that while most people might say high school — even seniors — is too early for Lolita, don’t kid yourself. They are reading and watching such literature already. I didn’t teach Fifty Shades of Grey, and wouldn’t have, but the majority had already read it or had seen the movie. We aren’t protecting them when we back off from the hard topics. We are simply then allowing them to explore those issues among themselves, with little guidance from a more mature viewpoint. They are always 5 steps ahead of where we think they should be.
It takes courage to explore what we wish we had said, especially as teachers. We’re held to a standard of perfection that is unachievable, even by those tho hold our feet to that fire. And by ourselves, although we wish we could always give the perfect answer, grab the perfect teaching moment. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t even imagine the weight of the regrets of teachers.
As for loving Lolita …. I just wish I could save her from her role as history’s most famous rape victim.
It was a wonderful job and I still miss my students. I stopped teaching because of this regret you talk about. I could never quite grasp the (perhaps too high) goals I had for my classes and knew that I’d never get there, given the ways our school was set up. It is the same regret I have with my own kids, only with them, I get more chances to redeem myself. The words I’m using here sound more apologetic than I want them to sound, but I can’t think of others to use. It’s the most deep and important work I can imagine. Thank you for your comment.
I gave up teaching last July for good. I’ve turned down several teaching jobs since. And one of the reasons is that I couldn’t teach writing in the way I knew writing should be taught. And my standards were not only higher but different from those of my supervisor and other teachers in the department, as well as most of the students. It certainly wasn’t fair to those few who wanted what I had to offer. Now I teach my 4-year-old granddaughter to read and write, and she loves it.Small successes close to home.
I say this just to let you know I think I really do understand. And I miss the kids too. So much. Just not …. everything else.
This is such an intelligent piece about Lolita. I disagree very much with the first and second posts – young people should be taught to look at, and think about, difficult ideas, otherwise we are sanitising reality. If not when they are students, then when? By examining this book, and other difficult works, we come to understand more about our inherent prejudices and ideas we might unwittingly accept from society around us. In other words, we are taught to question, examine and think. We cannot teach this by only looking at ‘clean’ texts.
Thank you so much. I’m not surprised people get upset about Lolita, though. We should be upset about it! And think our ways through. Thank you!
I both loved and hated Lolita. Nabokov is a master of language, and I both love and loath that depending on the language we use we can drastically alter the end perception of what we have written. Words matter. I also seriously question anyone who thinks that Lolita, a CHILD, was deliberately sexy for Humbert of her own accord. Have you met a child who–like children do–wants to please someone they see as powerful? They eat bugs because a teenager tells them it makes them cool. A discussion of Lolita without a serious discussion of the rape culture it brings to light (thank you for that in your post) AND the victimization and Stockholm Syndrome suffered by Dolores is not a complete discussion. Thousands of victims identify and act in ways to please their captors, either because they are tired of fighting or because they do not understand that fighting is an legit option.
Thank you for writing this post, reminds me of all the reasons why I read and why I appreciate good writing.
Yes, yes, yes! I’ve never met a child like the Lolita Humbert sees. When we say she’s his fantasy, we mean literally. We’re not talking about Lolita when we talk about Lolita, we’re talking about his effed up projection. Thank you for reading, and for commenting!
actually i originally started following your blog because I love crows … really appreciate your post and cannot agree that it was a dicey subject for near-adult students. i first read lolita more than five decades ago as a very immature 17-year-old – at that time the book was stil banned in my country. i found it very hard to take, but, also, completely gripping because of the power, and yes, beauty, of the language. i do think that students today are usually far better informed and able to articulate on subjects that i and my contemporaries would have blushed to name, and they owe that in large part to their education, and to teachers like you.
As for the student who did not want to know – you probably know the book ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. She and her students put themselves in considerable danger in order to study this and other banned works. Even the young me was doing something illegal by reading it. We are fortunate to have this freedom. But then, as Rousseau said, man is born free, but everywhere he is found in chains.
thankyou for your post, and greetings from me and the hoodie crows
Yes, I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran and feel so indebted to and inspired by Azar Nafisi. Her book made me realize that a part of me had been reading Nabokov like a specific type of white male American. Even in the US a woman thinking her own thoughts is a dangerous thing, but those dangers are so much more obvious and ominous and sharp in some other cultures. I wonder where you’re from and I suppose we could talk quite awhile about the dangers of thinking while being a woman, how our worlds are carefully designed to keep us from asking questions. I also need to get back to the crows, don’t I? They’re cawing out there right now, as I write! So good to read your comment. Thank you.
Pingback: Privyet, Comrades! | Trailertrashdeluxe's Blog
Hi Ms. Fonte, thanks for sharing this post. I wish I had read this before I read Lolita last year. I didn’t read this in high school. Rape is still something that hurts me to the core, and I turn away from it because just thinking about it causes nausea. I don’t watch any movies with rape in it, so I screen it by asking my friends and family or looking it up online. I do the same with books. But I forced myself to read Lolita last year, and I felt like throwing up almost throughout the entire book. I had so many questions for Lolita throughout. I wanted desperately to know what was going on in her mind. And in the end, I was frightened by how captivating Humbert’s language was. Thank you talking about rape,for teaching your students this book, and for asking them to have this discussion.
Someday, someone is going to write a book from Lolita’s p.o.v. I want to read that book! Thank you for reading and commenting!
Thanks for having the courage to throw this topic out in front of people and make them think about it. For most, it’s just too easy to sweep it under the rug and hope that no one notices. Hats off to you !!! 🙂
The number of comments indicate the interest readers have in the subject matter of your post. I found your post and accompanying discussions very informative. Lolita, as you mentioned in your post, describes the power of words to manipulate a subject matter that may be uncomfortable to many but unfortunately exists in society. In a personal level I always disliked the depiction of Lolita as a seductress. However, to answer Stephan’s discomfort that he “does not want to go there”, does not address the issue. I think if one is better informed, it is easier to chose the right path.
“I always disliked the depiction of Lolita as a seductress.” It’s outrageous, isn’t it? It’s time to see Dolores differently.
I love your posts!!! I hope you fallow me back, I’ve just started my blog and I would love your input.
Very sensitive topic, and very good question, Why do (or don’t) you love Lolita?
I think, fiction like Lolita or 50 shades of gray which give us a prospect of sex and abuse should be taught to the children specialty boys, so that they see their counter part as a human being rather than a toy to play. The mentality which associate most of the problem directly or indirectly to sex should also be a topic in discussion. If we can present the effects of forcing some one’s hand into doing some thing they do not want then we can clearly see that it is crime. Everyone should be able to make his/her own judgement about their acts and especially in case of minors. And under no circumstance victims should pay higher price than they already have by being abused.
Being from a troubled childhood, when I snuck a few scenes of the movie during my teenage years…and I’m being utterly, discomfortingly honest here…I completely sucked up the sort of blueprint on how to be a seductive and innocent girl. Teenagers are so (not all) influential…we must take caution when teaching them such matter. That being said, if someone had been there to tell me…this is wrong and its the viewpoint from a rapist…I may not have felt the information learned from the story so precious as I did at the time.
I completely hear Stefan’s answer, “I’m not sure I want to go there”. So many of us deal with things that way. But ‘going there’ is the only way to truly understand such situations and make moral decisions regarding such.
This: “I completely sucked up the sort of blueprint on how to be a seductive and innocent girl.” Yes, and yes to understanding Stefan, too.
As a fellow teacher and one who honors the dark side as well, i find it refreshing to see a teacher step outside the box. Cudos!!!
I would say that this book is about life as it always was and will always be… As a father, I would be caution of letting my daughter out the door. Not only rape, but violence in general. I can only reflex on what I see through my eyes, and what I see is ugliness all around us. As a young boy I was approached by a man relative who attempted to assault. Somehow I was strong minded to stop him, of course I was threaten not to say a word about anything. It still affects me today.. I can only imagine the horror of those who were assaulted. You post here give readers a lot to think about… Thanks for posting it!
Pingback: Teaching Rape | 🌺
Have you read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’? It was published in installments in a Russian magazine, but when it came to the chapter from the viewpoint of a sick child molester, delving into the depths of his distorted psychology, the magazine refused to publish. My husband too, could not/did not want to go on reading that chapter. I can understand this stance as well as Stefan’s. Going into the mind of a rapist only to try and empathize with both the rapist and the victim is a calling for only a few. Like the priesthood. Or someone called to save his/her first kiss for marriage. The rest of us can be empathetic, as well as socially aware, without having to get mixed up in unhealthy and unnatural fantasies and ways of regarding relatively helpless people, as some people who have posted in these comments have. I commend you for reflecting so much on your teaching and I wish some of your former students can see this. You say you quit teaching ten years ago, but by your deep essays and the discussions they provoke, I don’t think so.
What is it with the Russians, I wanna know!? We don’t need to empathize with HH, but we can recognize our own solipsistic tendencies. I do think it’s interesting to see the places we won’t let our minds go. Sometimes we refuse for excellent reasons.
I just read an excellent collection of short stories called Gutshot by Amelia Gray. I love, loved her violent, viscous style and there was one story I could not finish. I still love the collection and will probably keep it forever so i can look at it some more, even though that one story made me nauseous. Nauseous in a hey, what’s this about kind of way. Thank you for reading.
Ummm, im pretty sure i love you.
Ha! Smiling hard!
Pingback: Teaching Rape – Misfit Spirit
I absolutely love this book. I think the book portrays so Mich more than a story about pedophile. But I would struggle to discuss it with students. I can see myself easily crossing the line and asking questions that could be unacceptable in school environment.
Being a mother myself, I am worried everyday what will daughter walk into the next day? Is the world safe for her? The statistics clearly show how unsafe our surroundings are but I wish, I hope that in her school, there are teachers like you. Teachers who do not shy away from going beyond curriculum and teaching what’s necessary. You effort in teaching empathy for the victim to the class is exceptional. I hope this post teaches the lesson to many.
I first read Lolita in high school and I wish it was apart of the syllabus. I actually borrowed the book from my AP Literature teacher. It was such an interesting perspective on rape coming from the perpetrator’s point of view. I was never disgusted with the nook or author because of the association with rape. The novel is a mature read and viewers of a certain age should be able to handle the content.
Reblogged this on oshriradhekrishnabole.
I thoroughly appreciated this post! I will add this to my reading list for the year absolutely. I am very grateful to you for having faith in the capabilities of the students you taught. So often in school I found that we were being taught as if we weren’t ready for the whole picture, or as if we needed to be shielded from the realities of the world. Anyone who finds the topic of rape inappropriate in a school setting is out of touch with the realities of high school. How infinitely useful to not only hear rape tossed around as a joke or a shameful story, but rather told openly and discussed. Thank you.
I read Lolita because it was a selection from our book club – I was long out of college at that point. What I remember most about the book was the language – lush and dangerous. It is what made it beautiful to me: because it made me forget/ignore the underlying ugliness of the subject matter. Does that make the author’s treatment immoral? Possibly. Yet I also came away with the feeling that all the characters in the stories had suffered some degree of abuse.
And finally, while one can’t forget the shock value of its subject matter, this is also a character study of extraordinary daring.
I really enjoyed reading your post about Lolita and looking at the conversation you ignited. I’m going to the library tonight to check it out. I must say, I admire your writing very much and it motivates me to exercise patience and precision with my own writing.
Very powerful post and I thought very thoughtful… You covered two thoughts I have had about the book: 1.) as you wrote “how beautiful writing can distract us from the ugliness of a topic” 2.) this book was and still is a best seller (and made into a movie) ~ it is within every society around the world, which means it mirrors the dark side of our characters. There are a few people who would rather bury the book (i.e., like the ostrich sticking its head in the sand), but sometimes “discomfort” makes us think…makes us evolve.