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November 9, 2012 / Amy Bradney-George

Literary discussion: why is Lolita a victim?

It is perhaps a bit controversial to talk about Lolita as anything but a victim. The adolescent girl from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is the apple protagonist Humbert Humbert’s eyes. So much so that Humbert marries Lolita’s mother in order to be closer to the young girl.

Even Kubrick’s film had its own take on Lolita.

But I wonder whether “victim” is an all-encompassing description of this iconic character. When I read Lolita for the first time (earlier this year), all I knew about the story was a handful of pop culture references to paedophilia and those heart-shaped sunnies used in Kubrick’s film. I’d somehow managed to miss any substantial analysis and reviews til then, so I came to it with fresh eyes.

What I found was far more complex than a story written from a paedophile’s point of view. Yes, that is a huge part of it, and the crowning talent of Nabokov’s narrative is the fact that readers can sympathise with Humbert. But I never fully engaged with the idea of Lolita as a complete victim. I thought there was more to her than that.

At 12 years old, she seems curious about attraction, the opposite sex and maybe even sex itself. That made perfect sense to me (who isn’t curious at that stage of puberty??), and probably had a huge influence on how I interpreted the story. I saw Lolita as someone who was in a state of change, as someone exploring new opportunities.

There are times in the book when she seems very provocative (why would she engage with Humbert at all, otherwise?). The way I read it, she was testing her boundaries at the start of hers and Humbert’s sexual encounters, but as the story progresses she becomes more and more disillusioned and uncomfortable with the setup. Enter the victim label.

How do we define victims in literature?

Make no mistake: I don’t doubt that Humbert takes advantage of her and that the relationship is wrong, just how fully “victim” describes things. Could it be more complicated than that? How do we know someone is a victim? Is it because we say it, or because they say it?

While definitely not clear-cut in life, in the case of literature I think it boils down to interpretation. Peoples arguments for Lolita as a victim primarily centre on the age difference between her and Humbert. But as I mentioned before, it wouldn’t be strange to wonder about sex at 12 years old, or even younger.

Is Lolita just the apple of someone’s eye or can she eat that apple?

I remember, when I was about six years old, and my friend was eight, she went to “try sex” with a boy who was nine. It was a scandal among the parents, but my friend and the boy saw nothing wrong with it. To them, it was just another game. Maybe that was how things started with Lolita.

Surely intentions and personal perception play a part in being or becoming a victim. Yet I knew when I read Lolita what most people thought and how my interpretation differed. I’m not the only one, either. In a Mamamia post about literary heroines, journalist and author Wendy Squires says Lolita is hers, explaining:

…I discovered the power a young woman wields, the affect it has on men and the great price paid for using said power as a bargaining chip. I have read the novel many times as I have aged and passed it on to my god daughters when they too have reached that delicate stage when their bodies say women but their minds are still very much that of a girl.

My first thought when I read this was “THANK YOU”. Finally someone who was on the same (or a similar) page to me when it comes to this book.

What sparked my own post, however, were the many comments criticising Squires’ views. Many people said there was no way Lolita could be considered a heroine because she was “clearly a victim”. It’s not that black and white.

There’s a saying that came up a lot during my training at Meisner Melbourne which I feel is particularly relevant: “You’re playing the victim”.

It was often used as a warning for people who were wallowing in their own feelings instead of working with the actor opposite them and letting their emotional state change organically. But I think it can be applied to other situations, which is why I brought it up here.

Basically I think there can be a choice between being the victim and being the hero. If you have the luxury of that choice (which we as readers DO in literature), then you are not the victim, because you are actively engaging with the situation and doing what you can to gain some control over it (thus becoming a hero). Even if others would call you a victim.

If you don’t see yourself as a victim, are you still a victim? If others see you as that, does that make it irrefutable? What about if you see yourself as a victim but no one else does? What is the truth in that?

I don’t think there’s a simple black-and-white answer to these questions, but in the case of literature, I do think characters are open to interpretation. If Lolita was a character in a play, I guess I would make a choice that she is not a victim. I don’t necessarily think she’s a heroine either though – I think for most of the book she was actually quite passive and occupied a grey or liminal place between victim and hero, sometimes shifting closer to one end of the scale than the other.

That’s the real beauty of this book for me: it’s so subjective. I mean, even the way it is written (first person from Humbert’s perspective) is subjective.

So maybe a better question for me to ask is not “why” Lolita is a victim, but “is Lolita only a victim” or “in what other ways could Lolita’s character be seen”?

After all, we as readers (and hopefully critical thinkers) benefit from discussions that challenge our own views and bring forth new interpretations.


Leave a Comment
  1. Bridget / Aug 23 2013 5:59 pm

    Humbert is an unreliable narrator. There is no reason to take anything he says about her at face value. Of course he’s going to claim that she was eager to have sex. He wants to get around the fact that he is a monster. That was the author’s intention. To make readers identify with a terrible human being, then feel uncomfortable about that, and then understand that what Humbert was doing was awful.


  1. Nabokov’s Lolita: An Appreciation « Wandering Mirages
  2. Requested Ebook – NOVEL [PDF] – Lolita BY Vladimir Nabokov | My Blog

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