Lolita, one of the most controversial of books and movies, has been banned and denounced countless times. It is a work of fiction by the famous or possibly infamous, depending on how you view it, Vladimir Nabokov. It deals with the life and love of 40 year old Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and his paedophilic obsession with the nubile 14 year old girl, Lolita (Dominique Swain).
The opening scene depicts Humbert driving recklessly, disconnected from reality, absorbed in his grief. There is a gun on the backseat. The movie is told as a flashback. So let’s rewind and see what happened that drove Humbert to murder.
At age 14, Humbert fell in love with another 14 year old, called Annabel. Humbert claims, “What happens to a boy when he’s 14 can mark him for life.” Annabel died of typhus only four months after they first met. The repercussions of her death are extremely significant as it is implied that this is the root of his paedophilia. This is evident when Humbert says, “I kept looking for her long after I’d left my own childhood behind.” Even as a man he wanted to recapture the bliss of those moments they spent together as 14 year olds. He couldn’t get over Annabel’s death, so perhaps his way of coping was searching for her everywhere in everyone. “The wound wouldn’t heal… something in me froze.” Only when he found a new 14 year old to love and to replace the lost Annabel, would his wound ever heal.
Humbert, now a professor, rented a room at Charlotte Hayes house, the mother of Dolores, nicknamed Lolita. Charlotte, a lonely widow, flirted relentlessly with Humbert. Her efforts were in vain, however, for the moment Humbert set eyes of Lolita, he was under her spell. Lolita has a playful, wilful and extremely obnoxious spirit. Her relationship with her mother is strained as her mother is constantly barking at her to do chores while Lolita is either sulking or shouting back. It appears there is also some competition between Lolita and her mother for Humbert’s affections. In order to rid herself of the “pest” as she calls Lolita, Charlotte decides to send her to boarding school partially because of its strict discipline and sound religious training, but also to get Humbert all to herself without any distractions. As Lolita is about to leave to her new school, she sees Humbert at the window. Immediately she jumps up, sprints up the stairs and throws herself into Humbert’s arms. Here’s where she kisses him on the lips for the first time. It’s clear she doesn’t understand the kind of relationship there should be between a father and daughter. Humbert exploits that.
In a love letter Charlotte expresses her love for Humbert. Humbert pretends to feel the same way in order to stay close to Lolita. Within two weeks of Lolita’s departure, the not-so-happy couple are married. All ends in tears when Charlotte finds a diary Humbert kept which details his hatred for her and his criminal love for Lolita. Charlotte scribbles down an incriminating letter which she runs out to post. In her haste, she doesn’t see the oncoming car. Tragically, she gets hit and dies. It’s Humbert’s dream come true.
With a spring in his step, Humbert goes to collect Lolita from her school, pretending that her mother is in the hospital. As Lolita hops in the car she says, “I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you.” She has a very unhealthy self-esteem whereby she only feels validated through men’s affections. She then kisses him on the lips. She doesn’t quite seem to know what she’s doing, but she knows it’s wrong by the way she jumps off him when a car approaches. Humbert should have been the one to set the boundaries. Lolita, no matter how she behaved, was still a child.
Humbert and Lolita book a night in a hotel room. At the hotel reception area, Lolita meets an odd, ominous stranger. Clare Quilty, a playwright, takes an interest in Lolita and her so-called step-father. He begins to pop up wherever the duo goes. His face isn’t revealed until the end. In all the scenes of him, he is either concealed behind objects or masked in smoke and darkness.
Humbert becomes ever more obsessed and jealous over Lolita. Lolita uses his infatuation to her advantage. It is clear she loves the excessive attention Humbert gives her and the power she has over him. Since she has no father figure, except this warped image Humbert’s provided, she seems to think that all relationships with men are sexual. As an audience, we tend to forget how young Lolita actually is. But little things are always there to remind us, such as how she is always playing with gum, her retainer, and how as they went to stay at a hotel, it said “Under 14s free.”
After Humbert tells her that her mother is dead, their relationship starts to sour. From the sweet bliss and paradise Humbert described their time together as; it begins to turn bitter. He takes her to Beardsley Prep school where she can learn and he can be a professor. Lolita starts becoming more manipulative and starts prostituting herself to him to save up in order to run away.
They leave Beardsley but wherever they go, they’re followed. Humbert becomes paranoid. Lolita then comes down with a virus whereby she has to stay in a hospital overnight. In the morning, she is gone. Humbert tries with no avail to track her down. It’s not until three long years later that he hears from her again.
Humbert receives a letter from Lolita. She is married, pregnant and in need of money. He tracks her down and at last finds out who it was that collected her from the hospital bed that fateful morning. Clare Quilty, the playwright, had a side business using young girls for pornography. Lolita was in love with him and refused to do what he said, so he threw her out. Although she was an “echo of a nymphet from long ago,” Humbert still loved her. Even though she wouldn’t run away with him as he wished, he gave her money. “Can you ever forget what I’ve done to you?” Humbert asked Lolita before he left. She didn’t answer.
Humbert hunts down the inebriated Quilty. His time has come. “You cheated me of my redemption. I have to kill you,” Humbert states. Although Humbert knew what he was doing with Lolita when she was just 14 was sick, he loved her and would continue loving her into old age, when their love wouldn’t be considered sick or illegal. The only way he could be redeemed of his sins was if Lolita stayed with him long enough. Lolita was his obsession, his sin, and he had hoped his redemption. Quilty, however, snatched her away. Humbert kills him. As he drives away hopelessly, with the police on his tail, he remarks that killing Quilty was the only thing in his life he didn’t regret.
Humbert was decidedly a paedophile, but one quite unlike any that we’ve read or heard about. We are able to connect with him and understand some of his pain. The movie is unmistakably biased as it is from his perspective and not Lolita’s, which would be an interesting twist had it been. He lost someone he cared for greatly at 14 and since then was unable to move on. We get the impression he was a healthy young boy, but a trauma destroyed and debilitated him. Lolita was his only recovery. The only way he could begin to lead a normal life was once she had turned of age. It was not to be. His obsession with her was his undoing. As for Lolita, the incredibly precocious young teenager, she was bratty and manipulative. But she was just a child. She had no father figure and didn’t get along with her mother. She didn’t seem to understand appropriate relationships between men and women. She had no role model to guide her or teach her right from wrong. She was left to do it all alone. And when her mother died, her only guide was her paedophilic step-father. She had no-where else to go and no one to turn to. Until Quilty came along that is. She went from one destructive relationship to another. But she was too young to know any better. In the end both Humbert’s and Lolita’s lives were ruined. Annabel’s unexpected death had stolen Humbert’s childhood away and he, in turn, had stolen Lolita’s.
Kassar, M., Michaels, B., J., & Lyne, A. (September 25, 1997). Lolita [Motion picture]. United States: Pathé
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