At the age of fifteen, on a school trip to California, I picked up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the airport bookstore. I was attracted to the book because of its cover: a creamy, peach-colored paperback displaying full pink lips, smiling with a secret. This fascination with aesthetics was one of the first parallels I drew between myself and Lolita upon my reading of Nabokov’s novel, at only three years older than the heroine.
Humbert Humbert, the eloquent narrator, lures his step-daughter Dolores (Lolita) into his arms with promises of gifts and vacations. As a fifteen year-old girl, I found myself attracted to the same things as Lolita. Colorful clothing frequently caught my eye during trips to the mall. I was lured in, as Lolita is, by “dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, [and] oolala black.” The idea of being able to transform oneself with the mere change of a fabric color had me feeling whimsical, like a butterfly.
Vladimir Nabokov studied butterflies and frequently mentioned them in his works. In a way, Humbert hunts butterflies, too; throughout the novel he attempts to lure in the flighty, fragile object of his desire. I was enamored: Humbert gives Lolita everything she wants! Lolita’s fascination with “soft goods” like records, cosmetics, and clothing keeps her in Humbert’s arms. He woos her by buying her things, and I found myself daydreaming of mountains of gifts.
An article by Eve Merriam from 1960, entitled “Lolita and Lollipops,” examines teen fascination with material goods. In 1945, a man named Eugene Gilbert began polling teenagers under the Gilbert Youth Foundation. His polls eventually allowed companies to expand their products to a new market: the teenager. All of this took place around the time Lolita is set. Teens could now read about the products they cared about in magazines targeted towards their age group.
“No matter how I pleaded or stormed, I could never make her read any other book than the so-called comic books or stories in magazines for American females,” Humbert says. Lolita would have been the target audience for magazines like Seventeen, which during 1959, had over one hundred pages of advertisements. Young girls who were skeptical about the adult world relied on the information in these magazines to tell them how to act and behave in order to appear more “grown-up.”
Lolita “was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses.” What struck me about this is that the trip Humbert and Lolita embark on actually resembles a honeymoon. The pair visits kitschy tourist traps and spends their nights in motel rooms, just like a couple of newlyweds. This tour of America struck me, at fifteen, as wildly romantic. “Neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by puffs of aspen, pink and lilac formations” and “tiny cushionets of alpine flowers” conjured up images of natural beauty best shared with a loved one.
I was so enchanted by the gifts and the whimsical road trip that I overlooked the horrific truth of Lolita and Humbert’s relationship: she is a young girl, and he is her step-father, and they are sexually involved. He plies her with ice cream sundaes and hot coffee, but only after she “does her morning duty.”
As a writer, I am fascinated by Nabokov’s ability to make a character, who should be despicable, rather charming. This is achieved through Humbert’s unreliable narration. We as readers are initally only offered a glimpse into Lolita’s reaction towards Humbert. We hear all about his ecstasy with only slight mentions of Lolita’s disgust. Because of this, we may even see Humbert as bearing resemblance to a handsome movie hero; in the most honest portrayal of a young girl in the text, Lolita scribbles Humbert’s initials underneath a movie star’s photograph. Humbert’s own journal entries are as descriptive and eager as a teen in love for the first time. Although the sinister intention is there, affection wins out.
Just as Lolita is attracted to the aesthetically-pleasing materials in shop windows, Humbert is attracted to the aesthetically-pleasing nymphet. As mentioned previously, he hunts and tracks Lolita like an object throughout the novel, and through his first-person narration, we are forced to experience his obsession and eroticism first-hand. The fact that the author has enabled his readers to feel curious about or aroused by this taboo is quite a feat, but Nabokov carries it off beautifully. Upon my initial reading, I fell in love with the words, and dismissed any feelings of distaste I may have had on the real subject matter of this book. I believe it was a Vanity Fair review that called Lolita “the only convincing love story of our century.” While that is a lofty title for a story to carry, I am so swept up in the beauty of the thing that I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.