A Psychological Reading of Lolita

The elegant stories we tell ourselves to excuse our selfishness.

Posted Aug 28, 2017

Lolita, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written, is Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 first-person narrative of a hebephile’s fascination with a 12-year-old girl. Over the course of the story, the narrator, who calls himself Humbert Humbert, manipulates, coerces, and rapes Lolita, then convinces himself he’s in love with her and murders the man who stole her from him. Humbert’s prose is so elegant and so witty as to raise eternal questions about the relationship between one’s conduct and one’s verbal façade. The book’s real genius, though, lies in its ability to confront us with our own perversities and our own self-justifying crocodile tears.

Lolita can be read in many ways, but all the correct ways of reading it are literary. It’s not a potboiler or a melodrama or thriller. It’s literary in Skinner’s sense that the purpose of literature is to broaden our sample of private lives, to help us get inside other people’s heads, so we can learn something about humanity and the human condition besides what we can observe publicly and within ourselves. It’s not, as Nabokov himself points out in an afterword, pornography. It’s not written to titillate, and it eschews the structural features of pornography. You want Humbert to succeed, but not because there’s a good sex scene around the corner (there’s not); it’s because you are in his head.

Everyone has moments of extraordinary selfishness to the point of solipsism, the belief that the only person’s existence you can be sure of is your own. Okay, not everyone. Jesus was the exception. But what that means is that if you think no part of you is Humbert Humbert, then you are claiming to be Jesus. Lust often causes this selfishness, a fetishizing of a piece of clothing, a body part, or a moustache. But we’re also Humbert when we walk on the sidewalk and expect other pedestrians to make way or when we get off an escalator and just stop to get our bearings even when there are people behind us. We’re Humbert when we leave an empty soda cup on the urinal at Rodeo Beach even though there’s a waste basket just outside.

Nabokov confronts us with the elegant stories we tell ourselves to excuse our selfishness. The most perverted of these is the one that goes, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” Cee Lo Green showed us his inner Humbert when he was accused of drugging a woman and raping her. He tweeted, “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (Green later apologized.) Indeed, Humbert is at first punctilious about Lolita not knowing what’s up. He horses around with her on a sofa to the point of giving himself an orgasm, but he is untroubled because he thinks she didn’t know it had happened. When he gets her alone, he attempts to drug her into oblivion, to leave his conscience untroubled.

In this long, engrossing novel preoccupied with the title character, you learn almost nothing about her. She seems not to have a killer instinct at tennis, which she is otherwise pretty good at. I think that’s it. Her enjoyment of comics, candy, and clothes doesn’t distinguish her from any other kid her age. There are paeans to her downy arms, the arch of her back, and her hair. When Humbert convinces himself that he is in love with her, the joke is that he doesn’t even know her. He means simply that underneath his fetishizing, there seems also to be a feeling of tenderness, but it’s no different from loving food while you chew and taste it and then having a soft spot for the restaurant that provided it.

Many popular love songs might have been written by Humbert. The singer may be infatuated with the lips, the hair, “those eyes.” “Pretty Woman” gets a pass, since he hasn’t met her yet and merely likes what he can see, but “My Kind of Girl” (and of course, it’s a girl) is practically a recipe for a fetish: “she talks like an angel talks,” but no one cares what she has to say. Even worse than wooing a girl, of course, is wooing a “baby,” but trust in me when I say, if someone is told she’s too good to be true, she, too, is expected to be an angel and not a woman. Especially piquant in making Humbert a hebephile is that no 12-year-old girl could be sexually interesting to a 40-year-old man except as a fetishized object. And when Humbert murders the other fellow, he is as indifferent to the life he takes as he is to Lolita’s (although he spills a lot of ink on how important hers is to him).

So, this is a portrait of a part of all of us that we pretend we don’t have, the narcissist. Its genius is that it’s also a portrait of the way many educated people pull off that pretense, namely, by openly admitting the existence of that part of the self, dressing it up in urbane language, acknowledging guilt, and creating a narrative of psychology, politics, and society that amounts to an excuse. Any novel (or dream or childhood memory) can also be taken as an allegory, with different characters representing different aspects of the self, to illuminate the way people deal with themselves. Intrapsychically, Lolita is a portrait of how we maltreat ourselves when we bask ourselves in a glowing light, accepting ourselves without question or critique, glamorizing and adoring the self, and waiving all demands for actual participation or achievement.