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?