Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lolita: Seductress or seduced?

This 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel introduces the antagonist Humbert Humbert with an explanation of his obsessive infatuation for young girls. The film jumps forward to Humbert as a 40 year old academic who comes to America for a teaching job. He rents a room from a widow, Charlotte Haze, upon seeing her young daughter Dolores. He marries the widow (for whom he has no romantic inclinations at all) to ensure proximity to “Lo”, as she is called. When his wife discovers his journal detailing his private thoughts, she runs into the street in hysterics and is killed by a car. Humbert fetches the girl from summer camp under false pretenses and takes the girl on a cross-country car trip. The pair develop an inappropriate romantic relationship while Humbert poses as her real father. After admitting to her that her mother is dead, Lolita realizes the seriousness of her situation and seemingly succumbs to the role of willing accomplice. He takes a job at a private school and enrolls Lolita as his daughter, but it doesn't last. They take to the road again, with Humbert unaware of Lolita's plans to escape her captor for Clare Quilty, a playwright from the school who shadows them on their trek. A paranoid Humbert supposes that their shadow is a policeman; Lolita feeds his paranoia and seems to delight in doing so. She escapes her captor Humbert, and he is unable to find her until he receives a letter from her three years later informing him that she is pregnant and in need of money. He finds her married to a working man, not the man who stole her from him. She reveals that the shadow was in fact Quilty, whom she believed herself to be in love with and who orchestrated the entire trip. She tells Humbert that Quilty only wanted her to perform in his pornographic home movies and refuses his offer to leave her husband and travel with him. He heads directly to Quilty's home and kills him after a heated confrontation. The movie ends with Humbert swerving aimlessly down the road in his car as the police sirens catch up to him.

Viewing this movie with a critical eye and with a particular focus on the title character's psychological development, it has almost become a different film for me. I never noticed Lolita's body language and how it changes throughout the course of the film. When we first see her, on the lawn, she is seemingly unaware of how beautiful she looks and her effect on Humbert. Later she is like a newborn fawn, uncoordinated and awkward. She is starting to become aware of Humbert's fascination with her. She seems unsure of how to act and uncomfortable in her own body. Her body language becomes more sensual and confident as she is starting to realize it has a powerful effect on Humbert. Lacking a father figure, she seems to gravitate towards any man that shows any real attention towards her (Ryan, 2007). She uses her body to get attention, praise, and ultimately, some power and control over her situation. Finally, it becomes rigid and cold as she begins to despise Humbert and starts to see his affection as a desperate attempt to keep her. As she grows more aware of her own body, she also finds it to be her most powerful asset in dealing with her captor.

As her loathing for Humbert grows, she uses her sexual power over him to attempt to gain control of her situation, even going so far as to barter sex for a $1 raise in her allowance (Begg, 1999). He never knew where she hid the money, but was convinced she was stowing it away to finance her escape from him (Lyne, 1998). Later, Humbert relates, “As she became cooler to my advances, I became accustomed to purchasing her favors” (Lyne, 1998). Initially she idolizes Humbert as a father figure, hanging on her every word and action, mistaking this for genuine caring. As the camera pans to show a picture on her bedroom wall of a father holding his little girl, she has written his initials over the head of the man with a heart around them. She longed for a positive male role model, not a sexual relationship. Humbert preyed upon this. So desperate was she for his approval that in bed, she tries to impress him (like a child would impress their parents) by mentioning a supposed lover from camp (Ryan, 2007)! In a scene where Humbert goes to her room seeking sex, Lolita turns away from him and begins crying. Instead of trying to comfort her, he chooses to leave. She realizes that his primary interest in her is sexual, not loving, and that she is trapped. It is at this point that she loses respect for him and his authority. She starts to rebel and become cruel and cold towards Humbert. It doesn't occur to her to report him to an authority figure. She's so inexperienced and not mature enough to find another way out other than to run into the arms of another pedophile. Her mother and her school have both taught her that women need men to provide for them.

This story could and probably does happen every day. Given her circumstances, I feel these are realistic reactions to the situations presented her. Even Humbert's own conscience realizes that he has killed the very thing that so drew him to her in the first place. He says, “What I heard then was the melody of children playing... and I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not the absence of Lolita from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus” (Lyne, 1998). He attempts to distance the audience from his actions via his realization that he stole Lolita's youth. Humbert raped Lolita, held her captive and abused her. There is nothing ambiguous about that (Begg, 1999). Humbert also prevents Lolita from realizing her sexual or romantic potential. Lolita was in love with Clare Quilty, not with Humbert. Even though Quilty is a no less unsavory character than Humbert, Lolita's love for him is an expression of her own will, self-direction, and interests. Erickson suggests that during the adolescent period of testing out one's identity, 'falling in love' is not entirely, or even primarily, a sexual matter, arguing that to a considerable extent adolescent love is an attempt to arrive at a definition of one's identity by projecting one's diffused self-image on another (Lankester-Owen, 2005). Sadly, even at the end she has not matured enough to break free from her reliance on men, stating of Clare Quilty, “He was the only man I was ever truly crazy about,” implying that she is only with her husband out of necessity.

In this story, Dolores/Lolita starts as a normal precocious teenager lacking a father figure and hampered by a weak mother who is desperately searching for a man to take care of them. Pre-disposed by her circumstances to be the victim, Humbert is an all-too-eager predator. The burden of the shame that she carries alienates her internally and stunts her emotional growth. Not only does he isolate her physically, but emotionally as well. She is forever limited by these experiences; she'll never know what she might have become had this man not come into her life and preyed upon her innocence. He destroyed that which he sought to possess, her childlike exuberance and love of life.


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Papalia, Diane E., Sally Wendkos Olds, and Ruth Duskin Feldman . Human Development, Eleventh Edition. United States Of America : Mc Graw Hill, 2008. Print.

Ryan, Amanda K. "Deception Of The Worst Kind: Pedophilia And The Young Victims In Lolita." The English Journal. Spring 2007 (2007): n. pag. Web. February 6, 2011.

Sova, Dawn. Forbidden Films. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. Print.

Stein, Sadie. "Reading Lolita In America: Where Victim Becomes Vixen." Jezebel. n.p.,

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