De-victimizing Lolita: Removing Emotion from the Classroom
Abstract: This paper focuses on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Specifically the argument discusses the need for reform within the classroom setting regarding student reaction and interpretation to the text. Class discussion involving Lolita tends to fall under a blanket of socially constructed presumptions that lend the discussion toward a shallow and judgmental reading of the text, and this tendency limits the discussion. This paper argues that, for a teacher attempting to teach this novel, it is important to limit the amount of emotionally reactionary responses and guide the class towards a more allegorical or symbolic representation of the text. This paper is intended for publication in College English, which is a bi-monthly periodical published by the National Council of Teachers of English.
Lolita in the Classroom
At what point does a reader decide whether a narrator is reliable or unreliable, and what real difference does this decision make. If a narrator is deemed reliable, does the story gain any truth or significance that it had been missing before the determination was made? If the narrator is decidedly unreliable, what other sources are available to bring the reader closer to or passed the deceptions of the narrator? At what point does the narrator’s unreliability begin to reflect on the author? And if that connection is sustained, should the reader then assume that the author is also unreliable, forever mistrusted and scrutinized? These questions are integral when discussing Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for within this novel the reader is asked to separate herself from conventional ideas of morality, decency and reality, and place herself within the trust of an unreliable narrator.
The unreliability of the narrator should be the key point of interpretation when discussing Lolita, however, this is generally not the case within the classroom. In my educational career I have studied Lolita in two classroom settings, one as an undergraduate and one as a graduate student. In both of these classes the discussions ignored the science of the unreliable narrator and chose to focus exclusively on the moral implications presented by Humbert Humbert concerning twelve-year old girls. I would have expected such a discussion in the undergraduate setting; the novel’s shock value is high, and for the untrained reader, it is natural to focus on the surface morality of the novel rather than the underlying narrative discourse. However, when I found myself again discussing Lolita with this same narrow approach in my graduate class, I began to wonder if the majority of readers only focused on Humbert Humbert’s transgressions. Had the rest of the world missed the point? Could no one recognize the genius behind the monster? Is it possible for the average reader to grasp the ironic intentions of the author, or is Lolita forever overshadowed by the reader’s need to...