NSRC: National Sexuality Resource Center

Little Deadly Demons 

I bet my first experience with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is not unusual. As a precocious preteen, catching Sting’s cue that this was a dirty book, I picked it up and skimmed it for the sex scenes. I was terribly disappointed, of course. While I was searching for pornographic thrills, I missed the fact that the rewards of this astoundingly complex novel lie more in intellectual, rather than erotic, stimulation.

In a more mature reading of Lolita years later, I discovered a pathetic schlub and a tough little chick tangled together in a horrible situation. This time I identified with Lolita. I understood the fun of flirting with an adult who listens, who makes a girl feel special, worth paying attention to. I am fully aware that, in the current climate, to admit that preteens may be interested in sex is not only unfashionable but also a dangerous challenge to social equilibrium. The fact remains, however, that they are. And yet when abuse has occurred we needn’t feel we’re blaming the victim when we acknowledge that interest. A child’s interest in sex never justifies an adult’s abuse of that interest. Vladmir Nabokov understood this point: he portrays a situation in which a very young girl’s natural curiosity is betrayed and used against her.

Unfortunately, Nabokov’s Dolores Haze has entered mainstream American consciousness as Lolita, a teenybopper seductress—a perspective that assumes preteen interest in sexuality is unusual. I argue, however, that, not only is Lolita sexually normal before she encounters Humbert, but also that she succeeds in preserving her sexuality from his potentially warping or perverting influence. True, Humbert may have tampered with her sexual development, forcing her to advance in sexual knowledge much more quickly than our culture accepts. But it is a testament to her admirable strength that this precocity does not rob her of her own normal sexuality, which she retains, never surrendering it even as she is subjected to Humbert’s sexual control.

Nabokov makes it clear that Humbert is not the sole catalyst for Lolita’s sexual development. For one thing, we know that children normally hit puberty at right around twelve years old. We also know from Lolita’s postcoital chat with Humbert that she had already, the summer before meeting him, become interested in sex play. Viewed objectively then, Humbert simply seems to meet Lolita as she is shifting from little girl to young woman, as she is naturally beginning to explore her womanly skills. What Nabokov captures in Lolita is the very thin line between childish playfulness and flirtation that is not unusual in girls her age. He even keeps wonderfully ambiguous what Lolita means by her advances toward Humbert because although it may be normal for prepubescent girls to be sexually curious, we can’t expect them to understand the full import of their flirtatious games.

It is during the sofa episode that the otherwise harmless flirtation between Humbert and Lolita takes an alarming turn and he takes advantage of Lolita’s girlish flirtations for his own sexual satisfaction. Oddly, he claims to do so entirely without our young flirt’s understanding and cooperation, and we may be tempted to believe him. But is his claim plausible? If we agree that Lolita is healthy in terms of her sexual development, does it make sense to suddenly consider her entirely innocent of the desire to participate in the newly discovered and mysteriously titillating form of play that has sex as its subtext even though probably not as its object?

Let’s explore the possibility that Lolita may indeed be tempting the lodger in this scene, may indeed be continuing the flirtation they have been mutually engaged in—without accepting that such behavior means she deserved Humbert’s abuse. As it is to be with the consummation of their physical relationship, it is Lolita who initiates contact on the sofa. True, Humbert has dressed and perfumed and come downstairs from his room to the living room to make himself available, but it is Lolita who joins him on the sofa (clutching an “Eden-red” apple, lest we miss the point that she has arrived to tempt the lodger), and it is she who begins the magazine snatching game that provides the excuse for physical contact between them. Even the otherwise coy Humbert notices that this game is a sham, an excuse to be “all over” him. And, although he is so seldom right about Lolita and her motivations, his guess is apparently correct here since as soon as she obtains the magazine she is content to let it “escape...to the floor” as she reclines on the sofa and, “with perfect simplicity,” extends her legs across Humbert’s lap.

Humbert, who has made so much of Lolita’s orchestration of the scene thus far, now arrogantly (or possibly ignorantly) claims control of the rest of it. Ultimately, he actually seems to believe (and to want the reader to agree) that he is able to “crush out against [Lolita’s] left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known”—through a series of “stealthy movement,” “obscure adjustments” and babbled distraction—all without her notice. However, his confidence may be more of a stretch than he lets on. And even if we allow that he believes that “she had noticed nothing,” we have no excuse to be so obtuse. We should see more than Humbert’s proclivities and the particular parameters of his fantasies allow him to see.

Since this scene is filtered through Humbert’s perceptions and prejudices, to see what is really going on may be difficult, but it is possible. The challenge is to look past the nymphet Humbert gloatingly believes to be “safely solipsized” to what the actual human girl is doing—to see, not only that Humbert may be wrong in his assumption that she is entirely unaware of his activity, but also that Lolita may actually be supportive of it.

Can we really accept that a girl as intelligent and aware as Lolita would not at least comment upon the lodger’s odd behavior? The fact that she doesn’t suggests that she is consciously indulging it, perhaps even knowing it to be subterfuge for an activity she may not fully understand but which she, for whatever reason, is inclined to allow. Humbert’s last attempt, before the sofa episode, to progress “toward [Lolita’s] taut little rear” resulted in her “shrill brief whine: cut it out!” From this the reader knows as well as Humbert does that Lolita is not apt to tolerate any contact she is not interested in. Therefore, we must admit that she is quite purposely allowing the “golden load” of her legs to remain in Humbert’s “live lap.” Of course, we need not assume her knowledge here is complete. She may be aware that Humbert enjoys the feeling of her legs in his lap without fully understanding why that may be so. Just as she may have previously sat “with curiosity and composure” waiting to be kissed, she may now be interested to see how this game will play out.

Lolita does not unconsciously allow Humbert to reach his goal. Instead, her “every movement ...help[s]” him. Merrily she goes along with his singing. Her legs twitch. Humbert insists that she is unaware of her cooperation, but the reader cannot ignore “the minute hairs [that] bristle ever so slightly along her shins” in response to his “glancing finger tips.” Nor can she disregard “the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung around little Haze.” Even as Lolita “strain[s] to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender,” the obviously aroused coconspirator does not remove her legs from Humbert’s lap. Humbert may report this compliance as “innocent,” but he does admit to knowing he is safe to “slow down in order to prolong the glow.” He is safe because although he can’t admit it, he knows that Lolita understands that something is going on—and that she is not alarmed by it. Humbert does not have to hurry to achieve his satisfaction before she notices and objects because she has already noticed and, not only has she not objected, she has left her legs on his lap to help him along.

Under the influence of the “neo-Freudian hash” which he understands insists upon a period of sexual latency for children and under the influence of his own much cherished assumptions about the underlying innocence of nymphets, Humbert cannot help but believe that Lolita is unaffected by the “huge hairy hand [that] massaged and slowly enveloped” her thigh. But we need not be so deluded. Since we are not so invested in the strict categorization of Lolita as a “nymphet,” we need not believe that she is unconscious of her sexuality. In fact, we can see the normal response of a sexually curious girl as Humbert’s “muscular thumb...reach[es] the hot hollow of her groin” and her voice becomes shrill with the titillated alarm that may be expected of a virgin submitting to experimental sex play. Even with Humbert’s thumb on her “groin,” our presumed innocent doesn’t pull away. Lolita throws her head back and bites her lip as Humbert crushes his orgasm out against her.

Saved by the bell, we don’t have time to wonder whether Lolita’s lip biting was due to anxiety or ecstasy since she now (only afterward) decides to “attend to the formidably loud telephone that may have been ringing for ages.” May have, indeed. It is on the phone, “cheeks aflame, hair awry,” that Lolita betrays herself. Humbert prefers to believe that her eyes “pass...over [him] lightly as they did over the furniture,” but given our deeper investigation into what has just occurred, might not we also interpret her shifting gaze as the natural embarrassment of a girl who is still unsure of postorgasmic etiquette? Very simply, she just can’t meet Humbert’s eyes. She holds one of her slippers in her hand, tapping it against the phone table in further evidence of her agitation. We can’t say exactly what is behind this restlessness. Humbert doesn’t try to interpret it, he simply notices it. And we are left to wonder whether Lolita is irritated with her mother for calling and interrupting, whether she’s dissipating the arousal left unsatisfied by the interruption, or whether she is simply jittery because she is confused by what just happened.

“Blessed be the Lord, she had noticed nothing,” Humbert congratulates himself. He seems convinced that Lolita is “safely solipsized,” but as he later admits, he never really knew nor understood her. Indeed, he shows signs here that he’s not sure how to think about what has just occurred. We may assume that the manic quality of his conjectures is the result of the elation he is feeling due to his success—but does it not also give the appearance of “protesting too much”? “I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done,” he insists. But at the same time he seems to be taking great pains to convince us (and himself) that “Lolita was safe—and [he] was safe.” He seems to struggle to reassure us (and himself) that “what [he] had madly possessed was not she, but [his] own creation...having no will, no consciousness—indeed no life of her own.” In order to rehabilitate in his own mind what has just occurred, Humbert seems to scramble to remove the real girl from the mythical world of his nympholeptic fantasies. And yet, even in the midst of his celebrations, he may be revealing his own fear that he is being naive. His insistence that he had not possessed the actual girl may be an admission that he knows that his account of the episode is not accurate. He may, on some level, realize that the fantasy, the solipsized image of the nymphet he imagines Lolita to be, may not have known what happened—but that the real girl did.

Later, when Humbert has Lolita “prepared for [his] secret delectation” up in their room at the Enchanted Hunters, he bemoans his eventual downfall, admitting that he should have seen it coming. “Somewhere behind the raging bliss,” he remembers “bewildered shadows conferred—and not to have heeded them, this is what I regret!” “I should have understood,” he berates himself,


    that Lolita had already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel [his childhood love]...I should have known (by the signs made to me by something in Lolita—the real child Lolita...) that nothing but pain and horror would result from the expected rapture” (emphasis added).

Humbert regrets not having heeded these warnings because he finally realizes (too late) that he never was fully in control of his interactions with Lolita. He castigates himself, not for the sex he is to have with Lolita, but for not having heeded the knowledge that she would cause him suffering. But how could he have known she would do so? Where could he have read these signs of which he writes? Where did he get a glimpse of (and then work so hard to ignore) the real child Lolita? The answer is that he should have known from their tryst on the sofa that Lolita was not sexually latent, that he could not expect to be fully in control of her sexuality. His expression of regrets for not having heeded the warnings offered him in the sofa episode proves that, despite his celebrations immediately after the fact, he was not straightforward in his account of what he knew.

This examination of Lolita’s sexuality is not to blame her for her own kidnapping and sexual imprisonment. There is no doubt that Humbert did take unconscionable advantage of a young girl’s natural sexual curiosity. However, by taking the time to pick the real girl out of Humbert’s nympholeptic misinterpretations, to delve for evidence of who she is apart from his biased conception of her, we can see more clearly why Nabokov himself claimed to admire her so as a person. Lolita is admirable because she is not a pathetic and powerless victim. She is not sexually “innocent” when she meets Humbert, but this does not make her in any way responsible for the abuse she suffers at his hands. With Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov has captured perfectly a girl on the brink of young womanhood. She’s gaining the knowledge that will separate her from what we think of as the innocence of childhood, but she doesn’t yet know what to do with this knowledge.

Perhaps we avoid confronting evidence of Lolita’s normal and healthy sexuality because, on the one hand, we’re wedded to the notion of the sexual innocence of children and, on the other hand, because we want (as we should) to avoid even the appearance of blaming the victim. And yet if we deny that Lolita is a normal, sexually curious girl, we fall victim to the subtle persuasion of her victimizer’s logic. To believe that Lolita is a nymphet is to buy into Humbert’s illness. As he explains his “nympholepsy,” one has to be “an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins” in order to consider little girls to be the “little deadly demons” he considers nymphets to be. In short: only pedophiles believe in the existence of nymphets. The rest of us are free to admit that a young girl has the right to develop sexually without evidence of that development being used against her by a pedophile, or by a society, to blame her for her own abuse.

 Kellie Dawson Kellie Dawson teaches a course in popular culture at California State University, Northridge and a survey of American literature at the University of Southern California. Her recent work on Lolita appears in Nabokov Studies and an upcoming anthology entitled, From Camera Lens to Critical Lens: A Collection of Best Essays on Film Adaptation. By this fall she will have finished the manuscript of her book examining the effect of Lolita on American culture.




benjamin.hokins's picture
benjamin.hokins's picture
Anonymous's picture

The above comment smacks of

The above comment smacks of exactly the sort of superficial reading that Nabokov himself would have derided. If you read carefully you find that neither the author of this article, nor Nabakov, blame the victim -- instead, both authors beg readers to read closely and carefully.

Anonymous's picture


Hhm. This article definitely smacks of a certain kind of victim blaming/harm trivialisation.

The article below by Natalia Antonova is much better. It's personal, human and unapologetic.