Characters in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita consistently perform acts of social stealth that range from benign to survivalistic to horrifically nefarious. Scholars display considerable interest in the acts of confession that take place in the novel as well as how the novel supposedly acts as a love story. Acts of social stealth receive little to no attention. Abuse is not commonly thought of as a social identity marker such as race, class, gender, or sexuality, but among the parallels to be made with these other markers is abuse’s relationship to the phenomenon of passing. Sexual abuse is a social identity marker. Passing and spying (which will be further defined and discussed) are opposing forces receiving insufficient attention in Lolita scholarship. Humbert, in one sense, and society, in another sense, force Lolita to pass as a typical teenage girl despite her real identity of kidnapped sex slave. Quilty and Humbert also consistently adopt roles to hide their true nature, but their duplicity is more akin to spying than passing because they adopt roles to engage in inimical behavior. Humbert states early in the novel that his childhood dream is to become a spy before more subtly acting it out during his adult life; Quilty somewhat exclusively performs spying in the movie version. Kubrick further marginalizes Lolita’s passing despite the fact that portraying her as older is an instance of passing in itself. Kubrick’s Lolita takes the role of spying from Humbert and gives it to Quilty while minimizing the passing that Lolita must do in order to survive.
Examining how the sexually abused community passes helps to establish sexual abuse as an identity marker. Sinead Moynihan defines passing as “appear[ing] to belong to one or more social subgroups other than the one to which one is normally assigned by prevailing legal, medical and/or socio-cultural discourses” (8). Moynihan’s framework describes the sexually abused community.1 Laws exist protecting everyone from pedophilia and other acts of unwanted sexual interaction, but no legal designation identifies someone as sexually abused beyond involvement with a court case in some fashion. Incidents of sexual abuse do not appear on the census or other occurrences of gathering demographic data by the government, schools, or corporations; however, the legal system also creates laws around sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse that distinguish it from other acts of violence. Sexual crimes and childhood sexual abuse frequently go unreported. A contributor to this phenomenon is incidents of passing as unabused. The medical community investigates ways to help people overcome sexual crimes, and they also establish norms and expectations related to pedophiles and those who endure acts of pedophilia.2 An indicator of childhood sexual abuse’s cultural importance is that the subject somewhat frequently becomes a source of humor. Long-running popular comedies like South Park and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have devoted not just jokes, but entire episodes and comedic musical numbers to the subject of childhood sexual abuse.3,4 Even a less edgy show like The Big Bang Theory contains infrequent jokes related to childhood sexual abuse.5 Despite the fact that cultural awareness of sexual abuse issues have recently risen, many endurers of sexual abuse experience embarrassment about the sexual abuse that has taken place; this limits their awareness of their social interaction with one another and provides additional reasons to pass as unabused.6 The sexually abused community interacts sufficiently legally, medically, and socio-culturally to allow for the possibility of passing. All three of these perspectives recognize the sexually abused—either explicitly or implicitly—as nonnormative. Lolita’s passing occurs as she hides her childhood sexual abuse while projecting a normative identity.
Linda Schlossberg suggests that “identity is primarily a form of storytelling” (4). Social norms related to sexuality rob Lolita of her ability to openly present her identity and tell her story. As a result, her identity does not immediately suggest aspects of her narrative because her identity is intrinsically invisible. Schlossberg points out that “Theories and practices of identity and subject formation in Western culture are largely structured around a logic of visibility…” (1). Judaism and homosexuality are other instances in which oppressed identities are often invisible. These communities sometimes voluntarily create visual cues that reveal their identity, but other times a powerful group forces visibility symbols onto a marginalized group. This phenomenon of making a group’s invisible identity visible has not widely impacted those who experience sexual abuse.7 As long as sexuality is a taboo subject in many social experiences, it remains difficult to create space for the abused population to reveal their identity and make others aware of the story related to their struggle. Lolita is unable to reveal her identity to even her husband: “…Dick must not know [about Lolita’s sexual interaction with Humbert, which began at the age of 12]” (282). Lolita is firmly in the margins of Nabokov’s Lolita because she has no opportunity to tell her own story.
The sexually abused population of the United States consists of a large group of people that come from all sexes, races, religions, and social classes. Thaeda Franz states that “as many as 30% of children in the United States have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the time they reach the age of 18” (5). Children qualify as being both privileged and oppressed simultaneously because of their age. Children have fewer legal rights than adults: they cannot vote; they are given a limited and often ignored voice in courtroom and social service procedures; children cannot sue those who have wronged them without consent of a parent or legal guardian. In addition, their inability to provide for themselves leaves them entirely dependent upon others for survival. In situations where children are loved and cared for, these restrictions become largely practically unimportant. Fortunately, many children in the United States are loved and enjoy certain privileges that only children can expect: children typically do not work until well into adolescence; they often receive goods and services of all types without having to pay themselves; children are frequently forgiven for their lack of knowledge about the world in a way that no adult can expect. Abused minors suffer because they are not loved and cared for in a society that often takes parental love for children as a given; they become oppressed by both their abusers and (as Humbert threatens Lolita) by a series of state apparatuses that are unprepared for unloved children. Society expects parental love and the normative family. Nabokov’s Lolita passes as a normal 12 to 16-year-old because it is advantageous for her to meet these expectations. Some of the advantages to Lolita that come from passing include avoidance of further abuse by Humbert, avoidance of anticipated abuse by society, psychological protection against having to accept the realities of being a kidnapped sex slave, and the ability to experience a certain level of normalcy during childhood and adolescence.
Kubrick’s Lolita uses a 14-year-old actress named Sue Lyon to play the title role, but the film makes significant attempts to make her seem older still (see figure 1). The film passes Lolita as a 15 to 16-year-old girl at the start of Humbert’s sexual abuse. She has a date for the dance she attends in Ramsdale. Charlotte makes it clear that Lolita’s age would not restrict her from dating when Charlotte excitedly proclaims “Aren’t they adorable together. I think tonight’s the night. Well, Lolita told me that she is positive Kenny’s going to ask her to go steady tonight.” Charlotte says ‘I think tonight’s the night’ in a lyrical fashion that could easily be interpreted as suggestive of sexual activity. Lolita announces her own interest in sexual matters when she returns home from a party after the dance and states that “All the girls are crazy about [Claire Quilty].” Lolita hangs a poster of Quilty in her room which is suggestive of her own sexual attraction to him. The movie portrays Lolita’s general sexual interest in older men as appropriate for her high school age group while omitting novel sequences involving the incipient sexual experiences she has at camp and the abuses that Humbert enacted in her own home at the age of 12. Omissions related to abuse and Nabokov’s portrayal of Lolita as a prepubescent sexual being relate to issues of censorship described by James Naremore: “The development of the script involved the jettisoning of nearly a third of the incidents in the novel and repeated concessions to the censors” (100). Even with these significant alterations, the movie “was given an ‘A’ for ‘Adult’ certificate by the MPAA, an ‘X’ by the British Board of censors and it was condemned by the Legion of Decency” (100). The film’s need to pass Lolita as a fully sexually awake teenager for its survival becomes reflective of the same societal situations which necessitate Nabokov’s Lolita to pass for a normal girl in many social situations for her own survival. Much of 1950s America cannot accept either a movie about a sexually abused 12-year-old or the realities of the sexual abuse of children.
Diegetic and non-diegetic music also work to relieve the tension created by a plot that revolves around pedophilia. Although certain musical choices within the film are clearly satirical, they still help to place this ‘love story’ into familiar contexts for some members of the initial audience. Naremore claims that the culmination of such choices result in a film that “leav[es] the theme of pedophilia implicit and allow[s] at least some viewers to think of the film as a dark comedy about a middle-aged academic who is besotted with a teenager” (103). Early in the film, instances of both diegetic and non-diegetic cha-cha music create a light seductive atmosphere to surround an extremely serious subject. The film uses non-diegetic music that would be appropriate in a romance at two key points in the plot. Lolita leaves Humbert and her childhood home for Camp Climax to the sounds of orchestra music fit for a dramatic parting between two epic lovers. Shortly before this point in the book, Humbert molests Lolita for the first time. Kubrick’s creation of satire without including the realities of sexual abuse mimics passing because it shelters the audience from harsh realities in much the same way that passing by sexually abused people insulates the community from their experiences. The choice of music helps create a similar effect later in the movie when Humbert is consoling Lolita about the death of her mother; the sad but light and breezy orchestra music is a better fit for a romance than a story about pedophilia. Lolita romantically falls into Humbert’s arms as he consoles her. This scene in the movie has no direct analog to the novel; however, Lolita has one of her few lines of dialogue in the novel immediately before she learns of her mother’s death. Lolita states “I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man” (149). This is a response to the first time Humbert engages in sexual intercourse with her. The novel does include mention of Lolita crying in hotel rooms, but it occurs much later in the novel after Humbert has repeatedly sexually abused her and the fact that Lolita “sobs in the night-every night, every night-the moment [Humbert] feigned sleep” (186) suggests that her tears are related to Humbert’s frequent sexual abuse and not solely her mother’s death; Lolita situationally tries to pass even from Humbert. As the movie neuters the severity of Lolita’s emotional experiences, it is also reducing her need to pass while simultaneously including less explicit instances of passing.
The novel includes hundreds of examples of Lolita passing as the daughter of Humbert. Every instance during the one year in which Lolita and Humbert check into countless hotels, motels, or lodges is an opportunity for society to detect her real identity. Humbert frequently introduces Lolita and himself as father and daughter in these situations. Nabokov’s Humbert describes motels as “clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation insatiable illicit love” (153).
Lolita’s choice not to tell her story at any of these locations, despite opportunities to do so, hits upon a key theme in Lolita scholarship: she is unable to confess. O’Rourke points out that “the dominant critical reception of Lolita has accepted, explicitly or implicitly, Humbert’s claim that ‘it was she who seduced me’” (168). Although scholarship does not regard Humbert’s confession as truthful or reliable, critics typically do not openly and assertively accept that Humbert kidnaps Lolita to become a sex slave after her mother’s death. At least partially, Lolita cannot confess because she lacks the language skills to compete with Humbert as she tells her story. Humbert is rich with these skills, and other people heavily invested in language skills have become his jury. The choice of many English literature scholars to prioritize a language academic’s florid confession over Lolita’s brief utterances of murder, rape, and incest resembles real life instances in which members of political organizations, universities, athletic programs, churches, and other institutions band together to protect one of their own. Scholarship about Lolita that considers the novel a love story is also further evidence that she passes as either Humbert’s daughter or Humbert’s lover. It is important to note that this scholarship is not confined to the 20th century. For instance, Kevin Ohi (2005) discusses the line of scholarship concerned with viewing Lolita as a love story before arguing that “… Lolita is a great love story not in spite of its cloying sentimentality, its insincerity, the ever-visible calculation behind its more dazzling stylistic effects, not despite the vicarity it uncovers in desire, but because of these things” (159). To state the matter simply, Lolita cannot be a love story because Lolita cannot consent to a sexual relationship; this is true even in the unlikely event that Humbert’s telling of the tale is accurate because neither flirtation nor willingness implies consent since consent requires an understanding of the consequences of the action that will take place. As a 12-year-old, Lolita can only be sexually abused. The novel reveals that she was able to pass as Humbert’s daughter or societally accepted lover hundreds of times despite the thin walls which frequently separate temporary lodging situations; critical reception of the novel reveals that Humbert’s Lolita was able to pass despite the education of those that learned of her plight.
Kubrick’s Lolita includes instances of Lolita passing; however, these instances are both much less frequent and of a different nature which causes their impact on passing to change. For example, Lolita and Humbert check into The Enchanted Hunters Hotel as a police convention is taking place. The ongoing convention emphasizes that Lolita and Humbert are able to avoid the police, but drawing attention to their ability to escape police detection draws the viewer away from recognizing that Humbert and Lolita are consistently passing as a normal family in normal situations. In the novel, they not only avoid police detection, but also elude a myriad of hotel workers, school officials, theatergoers, shopkeepers, passersby, and neighbors. They avoid detection throughout American society from coast to coast. Richard Corliss describes the filmmaker’s desires regarding how Lolita should be perceived: “Rather than a tale of a monster who learns too late what love is, the filmmakers wanted a love story, though bitter and unfulfilled, all the way through. So Humbert could be no monster or child abuser” (32). Kubrick’s Lolita omits many of Humbert’s monstrous tendencies; this simultaneously diminishes societies’ complicity. Humbert and Lolita visit only two hotels. Quilty takes the place of Miss Pratt when Humbert is questioned about Lolita’s behavior by Beardsley school, and they are never seen going to ice cream parlors or movie theaters alone together. Lolita also simply has less need to pass in these locations because Humbert is less monstrous. Lolita depicts its title character as a seducer in the film without the inclusion of rape accusations or other charges. She allows her nails to be painted, dangles eggs coquettishly over Humbert’s face, places her hand on his in a movie setting even with her mother in the car, and wakes Humbert with the intention of convincing him to engage in a sexual game. Lolita remains an underage sexual partner, but Kubrick’s movie includes both omissions and additions designed to ameliorate the discomfort felt by those who encounter the narrative. As Lolita’s relationship with Humbert becomes more palatable, society also becomes less complicit in the events that take place. Lolita is often portrayed in the movie as she was when she passed for a normal daughter and/or in a consensual and healthy romantic relationship; the omission of most of her abuse and nearly solely portraying her as a seducer makes displaying her passing from abused girl to normative impossible.
Kubrick’s Humbert controls the narrative that presents Lolita as [more] normative. The movie contains multiple voiceovers in James Mason’s voice. Mason plays Humbert, but he was also “a romantic heartthrob of the 1940s and early 1950s who contributed both sex appeal and an aura of intelligence…” (Naremore, 107). The voiceovers are truncated excerpts from the novel that imply the film is Humbert’s retelling of events; the omission of a voiceover when a letter from Lolita to Humbert is displayed strengthens the possibility of this idea. Viewers see the article Humbert receives, but they never hear Sue Lyon’s voice as they do with James Mason’s reading of Humbert’s diary earlier in the film. The over sexualized vision of Lolita as she is introduced also focalizes the film through Humbert’s eyes; this seems to be a portrayal of Lolita as Humbert would have first seen her (see figure 1). The casting of Mason works to increase the permissibility of Lolita’s attraction to Humbert while simultaneously increasing the permissibility of audience members to be attracted to him. This mimics the seductive elements of Humbert’s narrative as presented in the novel that numerous critics have commented upon. The voiceovers in Mason’s voice also strongly suggest that Kubrick’s Lolita is Humbert’s narrative, and that he marginalizes Lolita’s abuse and suffering through narrative control. Kubrick’s Lolita does not possess a confessional element because it never provides a genuine portrayal of Lolita’s anguish.
Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze share a need to pass as normative as they navigate society. For different reasons, both fear the police and both fear discovery of their true identity for reasons of psychological health. The many names Lolita and Humbert each go by in Nabokov’s text reflects a division of identities. Humbert refers to Lolita as Dolores, Lo, Dolly, Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, Dolly Schiller, Carmen, Diana, Lola, and my daughter. Humbert names himself Hum, Humberg. Humbug, Herbert, Dad, Father, Mr. Haze, Hamburg, Otto Otto, Mesmer Mesmer, Lambert Lambert, and Humbertson. The multiplication of names indicates a similar multiplication of identity. Humbert’s second paragraph suggests that names correspond with specific societal interactions: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita” (9). Similarly, Humbert uses different aliases to perform different social interactions including the predominant name Humbert Humbert which is used as a nom de plume. Despite these similarities, Humbert engages in social stealth for a reason that Lolita does not share. Humbert consciously and deliberately passes as normative to hurt others.8 The phenomenon of passing with the intention of performing actions that will harm others can metaphorically be labeled as spying.
Nabokov’s Humbert arrives at the Haze household as a spy. A difference between the novel and Kubrick’s movie involves the nature of Humbert coming to live in the Haze household. In a voice over, Humbert explains that “Friends had given me several addresses in Ramsdale that lodgings were available for the summer.” Kubrick’s Humbert simply ends up at the Haze household as he is looking for lodging. This contrasts starkly with Nabokov’s Humbert who spends the train ride to Ramsdale “imagining in all possible detail the enigmatic nymph that I would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish” (37). Nabokov’s Lolita only endures Humbert through a twist of fate. The girl Humbert fantasizes about on the train is named McCoo, but her house burns down shortly before Humbert arrives. Before arriving in Ramsdale, Humbert exchanges letters with the McCoos “satisfying them I was housebroken” (37). Obviously, an admission of his real identity as a pedophile actively looking to harm their daughter would result in the rescindment of the offer to provide lodging. Kubrick’s movie makes Humbert’s discovery of Lolita seem random, but the novel makes it clear that Humbert expends considerable effort trading letters with the McCoos to gain their trust before the McCoos recommend the Haze household to Humbert. Nabokov’s Humbert does not search for lodging; he performs searching for a residence with the express intention of infiltrating someone’s house to molest their daughter. Humbert engages in residential espionage.
Spying becomes a tool for Humbert. Humbert tells us early on in Lolita that he “wanted to be a famous spy” (12). Spying is a practice that Humbert engages in throughout his life. John Ray Junior’s foreword describes Humbert’s name as “[a] mask—through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow—[which] had to remain unlisted in accordance with its wearer’s wish” (3). Even in death, Humbert practices disguise so that his memoir can infiltrate society without his actual identity being detected. Humbert is consistently in disguise. To engage in pedophilic voyeurism, a young Humbert Humbert “sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book” (21). In order to increase the sexual appeal of his first wife, Humbert infiltrates an orphanage: “somewhat to [Valeria’s] surprise, [I] had her wear, before I touched her, a girls plain nightshirt that I had managed to filch from the linen closet of an orphanage” (27). Humbert is enthusiastically enthralled when he first sees Lolita not simply because she is a nymphet that he is attracted to, but because she stirs in him a Proustian remembrance of childhood. Upon first seeing Lolita, Humbert believes that he “passed by her in my adult disguise” (41). Despite the emotional significance of this event that Humbert spends a great deal of time leading up to, Humbert remains practical enough to act as a now enthusiastic potential lodger. Humbert wears a disguise even in his most emotional moment.
Spying through disguise becomes comedic in the film adaptation, and primarily revolves around Quilty. Nathan Abrams points out that “[a] stand up [comic] sensibility was allowed to permeate the entire film” (20): this includes instances that seem more sinister in the novel. Kubrick’s movie includes Humbert’s sudden transition from uninterested potential lodger to enthusiastic tenant, but the lack of previous information to this event minimizes the nefarious nature of Humbert’s infiltration of the Haze home. Humbert is seen awkwardly hiding behind a potted plant to gaze upon Lolita at the school dance; this choice is decidedly comedic, and Humbert is caught avoiding social contact with adults to gaze upon the teenagers dancing later in the scene (see figure 3). Humbert also gawks openly at Lolita as she hula hoops. The movie does not portray Humbert as a successful spy; it portrays Charlotte as a dupe who let a sometimes clownish pedophile into her home. He is caught red handed hiding in the bathroom while journaling by Charlotte, which leads shortly thereafter to the discovery of the unlocked journal’s contents. The novel has Charlotte infiltrating Humbert’s study to steal the locked up journal. The choice to make Humbert’s spying comedic minimizes the importance of Humbert’s infiltration of the Haze home. He becomes a trusted family member in the novel, but his overt awkwardness and the ease with which the audience can detect his attempts to appear normal in the movie creates the feeling that he is consistently an outsider. This is an example of visual media struggling to reinforce the theme of “Stranger Danger” related to pedophiles despite the fact that Humbert becomes Lolita’s stepfather. In reality, pedophiles often pass undetected by society as the novel carefully illustrates.
Quilty becomes a successful spy in the movie. Kubrick’s Lolita opens with Humbert unaware of Quilty’s presence despite being in the same room. He tricks Humbert into believing that he is a school psychologist, a police detective, and remains undetected to Humbert through a phone call in which he questions Humbert. These disguises and infiltrations into Humbert’s life allow Quilty to successfully gain control of Lolita. Quilty is also a pedophile and is firmly a stranger to Humbert. Quilty’s infiltration of Humbert’s household becomes complete when he successfully masquerades as Dr. Zempf in Humbert’s own living room. The various roles that Quilty takes on throughout Kubrick’s movie make it clear that his identity is splintered as well. Jerold Abrams observes: “We do not see Quilty die—which is a brilliant move on Kubrick’s part. As a man without a unified self, there is simply nothing left beyond the final mask” (126). Quilty and Humbert are both made into humorously shattered men. Making Quilty so wildly successful as a spy despite the ease with which the audience can identify him while comedically emphasizing Humbert’s inadequacies in this area works to make pedophiles appear considerably less threatening. Quilty only fools Humbert, and the audience easily sees through the disguises of both pedophiles. Humbert’s consistent confession leaves readers of the novel unable to experience unmasking Humbert as a pedophile because he gives this information willingly. Kubrick’s Humbert is comedically inferior to the audience while Nabokov’s Humbert consistently strives to maintain a sense of superiority.
Although Nabokov’s depiction of Humbert can certainly become darkly comedic, the gravity of rape and murder are repeated often enough that Humbert never becomes more comedic than sinister. Reading Lolita as primarily comedic must ignore not only occurrences of pedophilia, but also the strong possibility that Humbert murders Lolita’s mother. Lolita hurls this accusation at Humbert twice throughout the novel, and Humbert openly fantasizes about murdering Charlotte so that he can be free to molest Lolita without the encumbrance of her mother. Humbert arguably both denies and subtly confesses to Charlotte’s murder, but Lolita scholarship does not include discussions of the potential murder of Charlotte. Seeing Lolita as an impoverished and pregnant 16-year-old wife causes Humbert to reflect upon his treatment of her: “I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one” (302). As Humbert recounts the reasons for the guilt welling within him, he recalls a time when Lolita asked where her mother was buried. At first, Humbert cannot decipher who Lolita is inquiring about. Lolita informs Humbert that she desires to know the location of “my murdered mummy” (304). Next, an emotionally rattled Humbert walks through the cemetery where Charlotte is buried. Humbert offers a potential confession to her murder:
On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens. Gee, Ed, that was bad luck—referring to G. Edward Grammar, a 35-year-old New York office manager who had just been arrayed on a charge of murdering his 33-year-old wife, Dorothy. Bidding for the perfect crime, Ed had bludgeoned his wife and put her into a car. The case came to light when two country policeman on patrol saw Miss Grammar’s new Big Blue Chrysler, an anniversary present from her husband, speeding crazily down a hill, just inside their jurisdiction (God bless our good cops!). The car sideswiped the pole, ran up an embankment covered with beer grass, wild strawberry and cinquefoil, and overturned. The wheels were still gently spinning in the mellow sunlight when the officers removed Mrs. G’s body. It appeared to be a routine highway accident at first. Alas, the woman’s battered body did not match up with only minor damage suffered by the car. I did better. (305)
Humbert’s claim that he ‘did better’ either implies that he somehow manages to push Charlotte in front of a car undetected or that he was simply luckier, but the specific claim ‘I did better’ implies control and consciousness. The word ‘alas’ in the penultimate line of this quote indicates regret that Mr. Grammar was unable to murder his wife undetected; Humbert feels kinship with Mr. Grammar. This potential confession occurs as Humbert is visibly shaken from his encounter with Lolita and about to commit another murder; it would make sense that he is reflecting on his first murder before committing his second. Humbert is walking through Charlotte’s graveyard in Ramsdale. It is unlikely that New York’s Mrs. Grammar is buried here. Rather, the most likely scenario is that Humbert recalls the story of Mr. Grammar’s murder as he stares at the grave of his own murder victim. This act of recalling Charlotte’s murder and his subsequent confession would resemble phenomenon described by Olga Hasty: “Humbert finds himself overwhelmed by memories that take over to force him into conscious awareness” (236). Humbert does offer convincing defenses around the time of Charlotte’s death, but he seems less defensive and more vulnerable after having briefly reunited with Lolita only to never see her again. Charlotte’s sudden death seems exceptionally fortuitous given that she is actively carrying letters that would ruin Humbert to the mailbox when she is struck by a car. Humbert’s confessions to the crimes of Quilty’s murder and pedophilia may be elaborate defenses to the murder of his own wife; this crime becomes especially heinous since a result is the abduction of Lolita and her subsequent sexual abuse. Nabokov’s Humbert is exceptional at remaining undetected from society, and he is capable of the most sinister acts to remain masked. Police only catch Humbert after he elects to draw attention to himself by driving on the wrong side of the road. Humbert successfully spies on and infiltrates American society from coast to coast. Scholars failing to strongly consider Lolita’s claim that Humbert murders Charlotte is another example of the desire to normalize her experiences, and it is another example of failing to hear her struggling voice.
Although Humbert abandons a murderous plan shortly before Charlotte’s death, her death is clearly an accident in Kubrick’s adaptation. Humbert is on screen calling out to Charlotte while he is inside the house at seemingly the exact moment Charlotte is struck by a car on a rainy day. Kubrick omits the graveyard scene containing Humbert’s potential confession. Kubrick’s Lolita never expresses fear that her molester and effective stepfather is also her mother’s murderer. Kubrick consistently diminishes Lolita’s pain.
Reassessing scholarship and Kubrick’s film version becomes especially critical when viewing sexual abuse as an identity issue. Lolita is not merely a fictional character; she’s become a worldwide cultural icon associated with pornography, pop music stars, and even Japanese fashion trends. Lolita is likely the most iconic cultural representation of sexual abuse, and largely in ways that are not helpful when framing how sexual abuse endurers are perceived. Lolita’s sexual abuse is far too often at the margins of her cultural impact as indicated by Merriam-Webster’s definition of Lolita as “a precociously seductive girl.” Although certainly influenced by censorship efforts, Kubrick’s film minimizes and distorts issues of sexual abuse in ways that search for societal acceptability and commercial success. It must be noted that problems with scholarship related to sexual abuse extend beyond the field of English as such academic luminaries as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul-Sartre, Feliz Guattari, and Alain Robbe-Grillet all signed a 1977 petition to abolish age of consent laws in France. Foucault defends this position by saying “to assume that a child is incapable of explaining what happened and was incapable of giving his consent are two abuses that are intolerable, quite unacceptable” (284). Recognizing sexual abuse as an identity casts such scholarship as at best outdated and at worst as a horrifying attack on the legal rights of a tragically marginalized segment of the population. In very few words, Nabokov’s Lolita makes her sexual abuse known; her extreme sexual suffering is clear to even Humbert. Kubrick’s Lolita is the rare instance of an issue of fidelity to source text becoming central to understanding the film because this unfaithfulness both stems from and mirrors a colossal amount of academic and societal denial.
Scholars throughout the humanities should work toward the development of Abuse Studies in hopes of revealing the many instances of abuse that remain undetected, marginalized, or uncommented upon in fictional narratives. A great deal of work has already been done in the social sciences to support a more progressive understanding of sexual abuse narratives; however, it is not sufficiently applied to examinations of cultural artifacts. Abuse is often central to understanding the motivations of characters, and furthering our understanding of abuse will greatly improve psychological and sociological readings of texts. In addition, scholars interested in English literature, cinema, the fine arts, literature in translation, and any other field where sexual abuse narratives are covertly or overtly represented have a unique opportunity to de-mask abuse by revealing its true nature by applying a contemporary understanding of abuse. The focused study of abuse narratives gives scholars an opportunity to continue their commitment to increasing overall awareness of narratives concerning marginalized groups while simultaneously inviting new intriguing close readings of texts. Evaluating and honestly assessing past Lolita scholarship and its implications while considering Nabokov’s and Kubrick’s work through a lens of abuse is an important step in this process.
1 It may seem difficult to say if there is a sexually abused community. Certainly, the number of sexually abused people suggest this as a possibility. Recently, online communities have developed with the intention of developing community and offering support for fellow sexual abuse endurers. In person psychological help groups have been formed with the same purpose. Recent political movements like #metoo in one way and Qanon in another suggest significantly the arrival of a developing and important politically influential community.
2 Those who experience childhood sexual abuse are best identified as endurers rather than survivors or victims. Victims has the obvious implication of being weak. Survivors implies that the individual has overcome the event after it has taken place. In reality, sexual abuse has now become part of their identity, and they must endure the results of the abuse for the rest of their life.
3 For representative examples of episodes of South Park focused on childhood sexual abuse, see S4 E5, S10 E1, and S22 E2.
4 For representative examples of episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia concerned with childhood sexual abuse, see S1 E7, S3 E6, S4 E13.
5 For episodes of The Big Bang Theory containing jokes related to childhood sexual abuse, see S10 E20, S10 E24, S11 E3, S11 E6, S12 E15.
6 For an additional discussion of the role embarrassment plays in social interactions by sexual abuse endurers, see Sable et al.
7 The phenomenon of doxing pornographic actresses is potentially an example of abuse victims being made visible on an individual level, however.
8 Research exists suggesting that “pedophilia is a sexual predisposition that may demonstrate the same relative stability across the life course that characterizes sexual orientation such as heterosexuality and homosexuality” (Cranney, 852). The current level of disgust for pedophiles typically held by the general population may well contribute to the problem of childhood sexual abuse; guilt and shame may lead to compulsive antisocial sexual behavior. Claiming that Humbert is spying in a distinctly negative way has the potential to further disgust for pedophiles and exacerbate the problem of childhood sexual abuse. At the same time, equating Humbert's passing to facilitate rape and murder to Lolita’s passing and the passing of other nonthreatening marginalized groups is obviously undesirable and problematic.
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