The Problems with Discussing Lolita
Go to Table of Contents of the analysis (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).
A problem with even beginning to try to compare Kubrick's Lolita to either Nabokov's book or his screenplay is resemblance is strained due the disparity in Lolita's age. A Lolita of twelve is not a Lolita of fourteen, as was Sue Lyon. In the book, Humbert was a pedophile/hebephile, attracted to girls from about age nine to fourteen, fourteen being the far limit. It's never made clear in the movie the age range of Humbert's attraction, but Kubrick's Lolita is fourteen, and though fourteen is certainly a child, those two years cause chaos in a society that says one thing about appropriate sexual age boundaries, but in which it is standard operating procedure for young teenage girls to be sexually harassed on the street for having graduated to puberty, and the Lolita of the film was clearly pubescent. Most women will have numerous stories of having been barely twelve or thirteen when they become magnets for unwanted and abusive attention on the street, unable to walk a few blocks without cars slowing, tailing them, wolf whistles the least of it as they are often aggressively pursued, and then verbally abused and threatened with physical abuse when they rebuff or simply attempt to ignore the situation. In the real world, some manner of this would already be experienced by Lolita, just minding her own business walking to the store.
The advertisements capitalized on Humbert's attraction to the young female who has just bloomed and is conscious of blooming. The question "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" begs for people to come see and find out how salacious it may be. On the other side of town, across the railroad tracks, Peyton Place (1956) depicted a teen who is raped by her step-father and kept this secret from a critical society that often held a female victim as liable and thereafter tainted. To support her vindication, the victim was portrayed as hyper-responsible both in school and at home, a good girl above reproach, while the rapist was an overtly contemptible, problematic drunk, and the family was lower class, residing in poverty. Middle class Lolita is her step-father's sex slave, but Sue Lyon and her candy red, heart sunglasses, sucking on lollipops in publicity photos by Bert Stern, is represented provocatively and sexualized. No one, for an instant, could look at those photos and not see the symbolism suggested in the props, enhanced by the direct-eye gaze. They were images that were half and half, just as adolescents are half and half, becoming adult but are still children, tormented by hormones, seeking independence and knowledge of their new selves and the world, experimenting with sexuality, but are also decidedly powerless and vulnerable children still reliant on adults for emotional and physical support and guidance. The iconic shot of Sue in heart-shaped sunglasses, red lips sucking on the red lollipop, tore the young adolescent straight down the middle between being innocent child and not-very-innocent jailbait. The kind of girl of whom many men have said was the seductress, older than her years.
But I have also heard and read individuals speak of the seductive eyes of younger children, misappropriating to them adult sensibilities and apprehensions.
Humbert (and others) would argue that Lolita's forbidden status is a matter of time and place and culture. Humbert holds up Poe's relationship with his Virginia, his cousin, who he married when she was just thirteen, as an exonerating example, but even Poe, despite having Virginia's mother's consent, was concerned and lied about Virginia's age for the marriage certificate, giving her as twenty-one.
Lolita's like a slippery pea that keeps escaping one's fork. She is a minor and a victim. But, oh no. Because she was already not a virgin in the book, because she initiated some manner of game with Humbert, which led to sex, she is declared as having agency and the fork spears her. This is the poster Lolita that beckons an audience to the theater.
In Mexico, to where Humbert and Lolita were eventually headed, in some places the minimum age of consent was twelve years of age. I read on Wikipedia that in the United States, in 1880, the age of consent was an astonishing ten in most states. However, in my experience, comb through census records and genealogies and it's pretty rare you'll find any girl under the age of eighteen marrying. I have a great-great-grandmother who was married at the age of fourteen to a nineteen-year-old male who had two sisters who both married at the age of thirteen to men in their early twenties. My family genealogy goes back generations on all sides and this was such a radical exception to the norm that I wonder what in the world was going on with these people. This was in post Civil War America, in Kansas, and is tantamount to marrying off little Laura Ingles in the 6th or seven books of Little House on the Prairie. No one expects that. Try to visualize Little Women beginning with Meg, Jo, and Beth being married and consequently the bulk of the book concerned with them comparing pregnancies.
The legal agreement for individuals possessing the maturity to vote is now eighteen, and to drink is now twenty-one. The legal age to drive is typically sixteen. Society concedes that youth hasn't the maturity for appropriate decision-making on an adult level until the age of eighteen. But in twentieth century America, the tantalizing teen paired up with the much older male has been not only well-worn comedic material, but also provided serious contenders for true romance.
She may have been seventeen, but 1947 had Cary Grant, age forty-three when the movie was released, comically fending off Shirley Temple, a fervently devoted teen, in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Shirley Temple had been America's little angel for years. In this case, the film never considered Shirley, almost of college age, to be suitable material for a romance with a man old enough to be her father.
Again, she may have been seventeen, but 1954 had Debbie Reynolds as a juvenile delinquent, in Susan Slept Here, pursuing fifty-year-old Dick Powell in another comedy. She, in her ernest and abiding love, won out over Dick Powell's twenty-something girlfriend who was of course more concerned with money and status than real love. The teen girl's love, in film, was portrayed often as the real, pure thing, whereas even a slightly older woman with a few more miles had settled into dishonest wiles. More than a few movies had older men saying, "No, no," to a lovesick teen, and by film's end had been educated they were the prejudiced, self-denying ones, not giving the young girl credit for the validity of her feelings, uncomplicated youth bearing the grail of the truest and purest of loves.
Woody Allen's Manhatten is a sterling example of this. Seventeen-year-old Mariel Hemingway is not only sleeping with Woody Allen, who is forty-two and saddled with two ex wives, she is crawling all over him for great sex because her three prior relationships have been with stupid, inexperienced boys. Her love is the purest of loves not yet twisted by years of adulthood, while Woody is the immature one for eventually feeling guilty about the age difference. When I saw the film at the age of, I guess, twenty-one, I may have been won over by the glorious romance of the opening shots of New York, but I was infuriated by the myth of the so profoundly mature high school senior, whose parents, it seemed, were perfectly okay with her relationship with the far older, twice-divorced Woody. She didn't strike me as a real person but a fantasy, and I was aware the only reason she was depicted as the mature, clear-eyed individual was to excuse the desire and behavior of the dominant male. As a teen I had known peers who were in relationships with older men, and maturity had never struck me as being characteristic of them. Instead they were always girls who were being manipulated. That Woody didn't even have Muriel being sent off by her parents to her great opportunity in London, instead having her parents already in London, reserving that good-bye moment for Woody and Muriel alone, was because to have all four of them standing there together would have blown his fantasy sky high. Though jokes were made in the film about Woody being older than her father, the jokes were not so much intended to point out the absurdity of their relationship, but to ultimately win the audience over to believing that young Muriel was the one with the power, not poor, decaying, neurotic Woody, and if there was anything that might stand in the way of this true and uncorrupt love it could only be misbegotten bad faith and a bowing to society's reluctance to accept their relationship (though, if I remember correctly, most everyone in the film did accept it).
In 1958, Maurice Chevalier was singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in Gigi, and though no definite age is given for her in the movie, in the book she was fifteen going on sixteen when she went into training to be a professional mistress. Enough history can be gleaned of many "muses" of artists to know it's not uncommon for them to come from a harsh background and be prostituted out by the age of fourteen or fifteen, and if they were lucky they instead were set up as mistresses.
1943 found Joan Fontaine, in The Constant Nymph, ably playing a fourteen year old in love with a composer who marries her older cousin, but very quickly he comes to learn that it is little Joan who really knows his heart and soul, who really understands him and his music, and he realizes that it is she he has always truly loved. The young teen's absolute devotion and singular focus on her hero, the same that fuels fan clubs, was preferable to the composer over a mature woman's resistance to that brand of absolutely self-sacrificial constancy, and ultimately to the audience as well. But the age gap was still a problem, the girl being only fourteen--for reason of which she had to die. She was already preparing to leave town, traumatized at coming between the composer and his wife, but she breathed her last in a gentle, some kind of heart problem manner, as, in death, the film could then end with the pair depicted as bound eternally, spiritually. Profoundly creepy for some people (like me, though I appreciated Fontaine's acting). Others get swept away by the spiritual end and weep.
Kubrick directed Kirk Douglas in Spartacus in 1960. In 1961's The Last Sunset, Kirk Douglas meets an old flame in a Mexican town, a woman he had an affair with sixteen years beforehand when she was about sixteen. Belle's daughter, who would be about fifteen, portrayed as a child, falls for him. It's coming of age time for Missy. She dresses up in Belle's old gown, one her mother had worn when romanced by Kirk, and announces to Kirk her love. At first Kirk pushes her away, protesting she should be with boys her own age, but is quickly captivated (a couple of minutes pass at most) and insists he is the only one for her, the love of her life. When Belle learns of their plans to run off together, she reveals to Kirk that little Missy is his daughter. Uh-oh. In 1943, Joan Fontaine had to die as the fourteen year old in the love affair with a married man. Now, it is Kirk who commits suicide for sake of his daughter, allowing himself to be killed in a gun battle. Still, it isn't Missy's age that is the problem. It is the fact they were unwittingly father and daughter, though Belle proposes he was attracted to Missy because he recognized himself in her.
The older man paired with the young woman or girl was often a trade off between the older man getting a second lease on life, rejuvenated by her, and the younger woman getting money and status in exchange for the purity of her love and her enthusiasm for life.
Sometimes, however, the younger woman or girl was a user, as I've discussed in Portrait of Lolita, and the morally corrupt femme fatale, who has no love for the older man, ends up murdered.
Lolita is fourteen in Kubrick's film, so perhaps I shouldn't be pulling in movies about seventeen year olds who are almost legal material for May-September or May-December relationships, and I don't care about legal age consensual sex. Except all of the above stories did involve a minor female.
Let's turn back to twentieth century real life and some things that were going on about 1962 in the ball park of the fourteen-year-old age range, using celebrity land stories, because those are the ones we know about.
In 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis, at the age of twenty-two, married (his third time down the aisle) a thirteen year old who was the daughter of a cousin. The news was that she was fifteen, and I don't know if the public knew differently. It was scandalous, but she was also his cousin, which was part of the scandal. By the way, Myra now says she had been waiting to be married and a mother forever, that like all teenagers she thought she was grown up. "I was that stupid.". Here they are not long after they were married. When they tied the knot, it's said she still believed in Santa Claus. She also seemingly told reporters, "You can marry at ten if you can find a husband."
About 1959, Elvis Presley met Priscilla, who was only fourteen, and began courting her. The PR was "chastely". She was fifteen when she moved into Graceland.
Over in England, with the 60's, Jimmy Saville began his decades-long career of sexual abuse, often of young teens. The public didn't know about it though for many decades. Not until he was dead and then it was okay to break the story.
In America, we were entering the rock-and-roll tour era of groupies, and a number of those girls were very young. Two of the famous, so-called "baby" groupies were Lori Maddox and Sable Starr. Sable Starr was apparently thirteen when she became a groupie, having sex with Iggy Pop at that age. Lori Maddox was reportedly fifteen (more likely thirteen or fourteen) when she reports herself as having first had sex, which happened to be with David Bowie. She reported it as an excellent experience. After this, she was either fourteen or fifteen when she hooked up with 29-year-old Jimmy Page for a year-and-a-half "romance" that commenced, after her self-reportedly rebuffing Page, with his tour manager "kidnapping" her and taking her to his room.
It was dimly lit by candles...and Jimmy was just sitting there in a corner, wearing this hat slouched over his eyes and holding a cane. It was really mysterious and weird...He looked just like a gangster. It was magnificent. Can you believe it? It was just like right out of a story! Kidnapped, man, at fourteen!...And that was the beginning of our romance. We like fell in love...We were madly, madly in love. It was like a fantasy or a fairy tale. But the others were really against me at the time. They were concerned because somebody warned them that if Jimmy was discovered with a fourteen-year-old girl, he'd be deported immediately. So Jimmy kept me locked in the room at all times. Both Peter Grant and Richard Cole insisted that I be kept locked up. They didn't let me go anywhere because I was so under-age...Jimmy met my mom and everything. He called her one day and said, 'I hope you don't mind that I'm seeing your daughter.' He was a real gentleman, and she knew that he was a really respectable guy and that he had money and, I mean, what is she gonna say? You know, she knew I was doing it anyway, so she figures if I'm gonna be doing it, who better with?
I mean, he was a real romance. He's the most romantic person in the world. He's so sweet and gentle...He'd give me presents, like an old scarab necklace to keep away evil spirits, and I'd give him like an antique music box or something. It was real sweet. And it was really an innocent, beautiful perfect love, you know? Like he knew I just loved him for himself and nothing else...
This ended real well with Lori when, eventually rejected, disconsolate and angry, physically fighting with her rival, Jimmy laughed and reportedly said she was too young to know how to mix fantasy with reality.
Which is the problem. Emotional maturity is sporadic and hard to come by in adults, much less fourteen year olds. Not to mention the power differential, the emotional and mental maturity of teens is a serious liability for them when mixing with the adult world, as evidenced in the real life situation of Lori Maddox who was kept hidden in hotel rooms and honestly believed hers was the romance of the ages, just like out of a fairy tale.
However these girls came about doing what they did, they were certainly used and abused but saw themselves as special and report themselves as willing, even despite a purported "kidnapping". They were famous and broadly received. How many were not so famous?
The "baby" groupies of the music world are especially relevant as Lolita, along the way, becomes a willing "groupie" of Quilty. Not only is there the assumed prestige of the fan garnering the attention of the celebrity, he promises her stardom in Hollywood.
Society says, "No!" And society says, "Yes!" I'm not going to get into the problem of underage prostitution, but there's that as well and I wanted to at least mention it. 200,000 to 300,000 children are estimated as being prostitutes in the United States alone. When I was about fourteen I was standing in line excitedly waiting for an Orange Julius when a man who was probably in his forties approached and asked me how much. I was stunned, offended, perplexed as to why he would think I was a prostitute. I also wondered if he was an undercover police officer. Whoever he was, he'd ruined my afternoon and my Orange Julius. I felt like a little fool for having been standing there just thinking about how great an Orange Julius would taste. I felt like a fool for having been taken off my guard. It never occurred to me to yell out to the surrounding customers and employees, "Hey! This guy is trying to buy a minor!!" It felt so grotesque that all I wanted to do was escape the experience. I didn't want to cause a scene. Plus I'd already come to expect to have my experience discounted, it didn't matter, and expected more of the same.
Everyone has difficulty with maintaining their own agency in situations with significant power differential, but with children and adults this is especially the case. Children may not know when boundary lines are being crossed, and even if they do they have a difficult time saying no to an elder. An anonymous survey of fashion models reported that about 55% began working between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, only about 37% when they were seventeen to twenty and only about 7% when older than twenty-one. Ages were not given but about 30% respectively had experienced inappropriate touching on the job and being pressured to have sex with someone at work. Over 86% were asked to change nude without advance notice and over 27% posed nude as they felt they had to, even if they didn't want to do so. if it seems odd that I went from a paragraph on prostitution to the fashion industry then google modeling and sexual abuse of minors or prostitution.
Children do not have agency.
Children often don't realize they don't have agency.
It's true that some girls do equate the forbidden, secrecy, and even abuse, with love. More than a couple of times, as a teenager, I found that I, in an outing with a friend, was nothing more than a cover story. Though I'd believed we'd planned to go to a movie, the real purpose of the outing would be revealed to be a meeting with her older boyfriend, usually in his early to mid twenties, which is a broad gap when one is thirteen or sixteen. I would be told it was real love, which must be secret for now. There was the age factor, no one could know about it as the girl's parents wouldn't approve, but sometimes there was a complicit reason for secrecy, the secret boyfriend's excuse being another girlfriend whose fingernails were still stuck in him, but just wait, just wait, like married men who say wait for the divorce. Shiny "pre-engagement" momentos would be shown me. A slip of a gold ring with a little stone, put on just before the meeting and taken off immediately after. A little gem stone pendant on a necklace worn beneath the shirt. "You're naive, he's using you," I would think. And there were instances of tearful phone calls about how the boyfriend who gave her the baubles was making a girl do things she didn't want to do and if she didn't do them she would be roughed up, yanked around by her hair, struck. She would be called a whore and a slut. When thirteen, I chose to tell on a friend who was in such a relationship because she would call me about how the boyfriend was abusing her, would start talking about suicide, and would pass out on opioids while we were still talking on the phone. I didn't divulge the relationship she was in. I just told her mother I was scared because I was afraid she was going to overdose. We never spoke again.
Then there is the idea of the older male artist and his young female muse, and that of the learned older man being sometimes a sophisticated bridge from adolescence to adulthood, educating intellectually and aesthetically and the sexual relationship being part of it, the professor and the student, the instructor and devoted protégé.
Peter Sellers, after winning Lolita as a playwright, in 1964 was a famous pianist pursued by two fourteen-year-old fangirls in The World of Henry Orient. The antics and mindsets of the girls were decidedly teen and Sellers' character was horrified. But not so the director, George Roy Hill. The 44-year-old married man with 4 children seduced the sixteen-year-old Tippy, who played the troubled teen of the pair, and carried on an affair with the high-school senior for months before she came to the decision it had to end. Decades later she described herself as having been sexually innocent and overwhelmed by the director's fame. She didn't count herself as a victim but the emotions she had when being seduced tell a different story.
We fell in love during the filming of the World of Henry Orient and remained so through most of my senior year in high school[actually, the story goes, he had lunch with me every day starting during the rehearsal period to win my trust and calm me down and gradually gradully we developed a strong bond. he was one of the only adults that sanctioned my personhood ever, my family was so competitive and I was the daughter. We stared filming in June, I got more and more used to the camera as time went by, never comfortable, never really confident, but had begun to be able to think abit after the terrifying ACTION. So, it was August, I was in his office, a basement cement block room reaking of lysol, the whole place reaked of lysol except the soundstages which reaked of aerosol--movie making wasn't the healthiest environment, having the framiliar lunch, suddenly he jumped up, I can't remember what we were talking about whether there was some sort of creciendo or if it was apropos of nothing, and came over to me saying he was going to teach me how to french kiss, and started to kiss me in this most passionate way-agressive-serious sloppy way. I know I had a second to react, a world of thought rushed through my mind, a jam of screams and curiosity, resistance, fear. How could I refuse him? the director, he had become the only person in the world I depended on for validation, he made my performance in the film possible, how could I turn him away? Risk the loss of his support, admiration? I was 16, and not the worldly 16 that is so often depicted now or then. I had never had a boyfriend, was so shy I could hardly speak to the soft spoken ladies in the library...It happened, he Kissed me, and that line was crossed. To this day I wish he hadn't or that I had been able to be firm in a self protective way, but I didn't know how. On the other hand, these things happen at some point. That it was him for me was so intensely romantic and profound. I loved him, he loved me, I believe. It had no future. There was no marriage there. I would never want to ruin his family. The secrecy nearly killed me, and the controversy. No turning back, very tough to go forward...It feels wrong to be writing about it even now. He took me to the the Gugenheim, to my first Charlie Chaplin movies, took me to see Elvira Madigan, after which I couldn't speak for a good 15 minutes, he watched anxiously. He was so smart and funny and interested in me, for the first time in my life an adult wanted to know what I thought about things, watched me for reactions. I guess everyone's first love feels like that, but Mr. Hill was such the accomplished man...It was one of the huge events of my life. And because of the enormous secrecy, having to keep it from my parents, the effect it had on me as a person, my connection to the world was torn apart and I couldn't tell any adult why I was so changed, so rocked, so disaffected suddenly. It was very destabilizing. And at the very beginning of my "career".
She was sneaking away during trips with her classmates to NYC to museums to see him. That kind of thing. The power dynamic of the older man and the inexperienced teen, in what is viewed as a consensual relationship, couldn't be more transparent, how he knew what he was doing and how she hadn't a clue as to the full extent of the manipulation.
The seduction of the student by the mentor-teacher. I remember my first experience of this with a friend when we were fourteen (she may have been fifteen), both in training for years to be classical musicians. She was shy, delicate, showed no interest in boys, seeming entirely disinterested in anything but practicing her instrument, her chaste profile captured as if from a John William Waterhouse painting, loose brown tendrils of hair framing a somber profile. She didn't look so much like a Botticelli as a somber, withdrawn teen-aged Virginia Woolf. Then she revealed to me one day she had been sexually active for a while with her music instructor. She was "special", and their relationship was comprehended as a special and beautiful one touched with the holy, golden glow that came with sexual subservience to the arts. Initiated into the mysteries, she could bring that passion to her music, or so she was told. (Speaking of Virginia Woolf, she said her half-brother, George Duckworth, abused her, but biographers excused this as fantasy thinking on her part, reasoning she desired George so she imagined he abused her.) Then I met another young teen who had been sexually involved with her instructor, but she wasn't a romantic and behaved as though the sex had been just another one of so many exercises to be practiced and was no big deal except for the fact that she'd reached an awareness that maybe it shouldn't have happened. No red lollipops and no red heart sunglasses, these were careful girls who would rouse no suspicion. No shiny pre-engagement momentos were involved. Art was all.
[NOTE: While doing an extensive rewrite of this post, it was at this point that I became really depressed, thinking of all the abuse out there I'd encountered as a young teen, and our code of silence, and had to stop working on the rewrite of this page for a few weeks.]
Despite the ad campaign, Kubrick's film is partly a parody of both the comedic jailbait (or near it) and dramatic society-won't-accept-our-love tropes, as well as as a parody of the old style tear-jerker romances, one of the two main, musical themes being the dramatic style associated with overblown melodramas, a musical style that was dying out, and the other a fresh and jaunty, adolescent pop tune that would be covered by the Ventures. Lolita, who has photos of Hollywood stars papering her walls--the industry desiring adolescent fixations that translate into sales--is attracted to Quilty in the fan girl crazy way that she says the rest of her peers are, and then problematically presented as willingly consummating a relationship with Humbert. But my read on the film is that it's a deadly serious parody that pokes at society's predilection to see the girl as a femme fatale. We are shown how fatherless Lolita does actually look upon Humbert as a father substitute, but she has no clue how to properly relate to him as her mother treats her as a sexual rival and also due Humbert's signaling his interest in her. Lolita's father died seven years beforehand, and though the age difference between her parents in the book was twenty years, the picture of him that glowers out at us in the film is of a man who was far more than old enough to be Charlotte's father when they married, so Lolita has daily observed that photo and absorbed the older man as romantic parter. We are never told how old Charlotte was when she married but she describes herself as having been a baby with no knowledge of the world, which is why she credits Humbert as being able to fool her as he did. The mother-daughter relationship strained, Lolita has a number of reasons for wanting to get back at her mother through Humbert, and after having been introduced to sex at camp she knows how to do it. However, sex also has no meaning for her other than as a naughty game. She is not the femme fatale. She's a young teenager with a man who was ready to kill her mother to get to her (though she doesn't know this), who unexpectedly finds that her mother is dead and that Humbert is stepdaddy and all she's got left in the world. He is her guardian. She believes that if stepdad Humbert abandons her she'll be put in a juvenile delinquent facility (in the book Humbert tells her that she is a juvenile delinquent and what will happen to her if she tells anyone about them). This is a child who, before she learns her mother's dead, is focused on malts and fries, and afterwards only knows to ask if she can have her record player and records from home. She's held prisoner, used as Humbert's sexual slave, and finally really comprehends his desire for girls her age and taunts him that he can't get his hands on her friends, which is to demean herself and fully acknowledge her own position. When she's offered an escape route, which she seizes, it's through another abuser who she idolized and knows to be idolized by others. She hopes he will be better than Humbert. When she and Humbert last meet, she is so clueless she even apologizes to Humbert for cheating on him, that's how screwed up Lolita is, and how little she understands about what has happened in her life, and the fact is she's going to understand very little as a product of her environment plus the times. It's made very clear that, calling on Humbert for help, she perceives him as dad, and is even concerned about hurting him. And if she sees him as dad at the film's end, that clarifies how she has related to him throughout. He was dad, though a stepdad, with whom she is forced to have sex. While kept prisoner by him, she helped him hide what was going on from the world as she didn't want to get in trouble for being bad, and she still hides it, even from her husband, perhaps because she wants to repress the past but also because she worries about being seen as a bad girl juvenile delinquent. She is so young, immature and jaded as to say that Quilty was the only guy she was ever crazy about (perhaps because she first related to him as a teen fan to a demi-god celebrity), despite his having abused her. Ten years later she would have been kidnapped to Jimmy Page's hotel room and thought it the advent of a marvelous love affair.
Nabokov did want and expect Lolita to be portrayed differently from the Lolita Kubrick depicted. In the book she was about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 78 pounds. That is a young child. That is not an adolescent with breasts, hips and a menstrual period. Nabakov wanted her at least grubby and childish in the film. Instead, Kubrick gives us a more polished Lolita in make-up, nylons and heels, a child who is being educated by society for her future station as a (likely married) woman, but it is all imitative womanhood at this stage, mimicry, So, we need to give up the idea of Lolita being twelve and barely pubescent, for Kubrick has, whether due his worries over censors or because he was interested in parodying and playing with the hypocrisy inherent in the teen girl trope. But whether she was twelve or fourteen doesn't much matter, though an adolescent Lolita is more acceptable to the public than a prepubescent Lolita, for they are both minors, and both are prisoners.
In an interview, Kubrick once said, "Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I wasn't able to give any weight at all to the erotic aspect of Humbert's relationship with Lolita, and because his sexual obsession was only hinted at, it was assumed too quickly that Humbert was in love. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end." I've difficulty believing he would have later dealt with Humbert and Lolita in a much more explicit way than in 1962, because as close as he ever got to erotic was in Barry Lyndon, and that wasn't much.
As for whether or not Humbert was really in love with Lolita by the end of the film? Did Kubrick believe Humbert truly discovered, at the end, he was in love with Lolita?
For every artist, writer, director etc.who we know to be despicable individuals who have done really foul, nasty things to others, how many skate on by without their actions ever coming to the light of day. It's this way in every walk of life. I know a number of people who were abused as children, and even when the actions of abusers became known, not quite zero but almost zero ever made it to court and behind bars.
When one can know something about the individual, it's nice to have that information when considering their work, which is not created in a vacuum. And when one doesn't have the slimmest of info, simple critical thinking can sometimes evaluate attitudes and values. But, often enough, the book, the novel, the music is viewed as a creation semi-distinct from the artist, and so a small paragraph suffices on the creator's history, and if there only happens to be a name and a date then that is sufficient. And, still? The public likes to have content as well as the personality that created it--even way back, and they had trouble with multiple authors. Thus, Moses. Let's have one original source who is also a personality. Then again, they will accept content as a stand-alone. It's complex.
A lot of authors and artists that have been studied in schools have been dead people and many times all that you would know about them was a paragraph, and if they were people who did bad things, well, they lived a while back, they were dead, and it was the content that mattered. Those things studied used to be almost always by dead men, because we were told women didn't possess genius, and if they had talent ti was middling. In other words, women were for sex and having children and cleaning house and cooking and sometimes they were secretaries before they married. As for 20th century literature, everyone loved and excused a bad boy with a big personality, is the best way to put it. Genius and bad boy and big personality were kind of expected, and who cared if they were misogynistic and beat up "their women" and stabbed them, like Norman Mailer did. What mattered was the genius, and the world needed what the genius produced. The woman stabbed by the genius was likely to be grasped as a meaningless, powerless, not-even-side-character dragging the genius down with the threat of the offending genius possibly getting into trouble and the world thus being denied the genius' genius. It's complex.
Often enough, the person (often a woman) who was wronged by the often male genius was discounted as crazy. The genius could be crazy but he was crazy in the ways expected or at least excused a genius. The person wronged by the genius was just plain crazy and a troublemaker who was a threat to the world because they had threatened the output of the genius. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife in 1960 and she was discounted as crazy.
So we shall take a look at the world in which Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old and got in trouble for it and didn't. I'm bringing up Roman Polanski because his is one of two big names always brought up as an abusive creator, and the question of whether or not his films should be viewed had been batted around for a long time.
It was in 1977 that Roman Polanski was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen year old. To my reasoning, he ended up being the rare person out of how many who gets caught with "the drugs", and the reason he was taken down for having been caught with "the drugs" probably had more to do with Sharon Tate and the Manson killings, and the taint of all that falling over onto the foreign Polanski (he was originally under suspicion for his wife's murder). I'm not excusing Polanski. All I'm saying is he's the one who got caught, and it's hypocritical if we don't acknowledge there are many who weren't caught, and many were probably known about but things were kept quiet.
I can't recollect when I first saw a Roman Polanski film, but I do know for certain I saw The Tenant when it came out in 1976, which was before his arrest, and I remember thinking, "This is a person who knows the deep psychology of abuse of power and abuse in general." There's a scene in the film in which he faces a little girl who is brought by her mother to his door. Roman is an outcast in his apartment building and so too is this crazy mother who empathizes with him, but she's also trouble and he doesn't want trouble. The girl acts like a peculiar cipher, simply standing there, silent, never speaking a word. There was something there that made me think that little girl, depicted as disabled with a leg brace, was his alter ego. That was just my read. There was a connection there that was as dark and remote as the child. I felt a ping. I didn't know it at the time but the girl turns out to have been Eva Ionesca, eleven years of age 1976, who was the youngest model ever to appear in "Playboy" (October 1976), and whose mother, Irina took provocative, nude photos of her between the ages of four and twelve. The mother says they were art (they were artistically staged, but certainly exploitative) whereas Eva says she was deeply traumatized. The mother says the 70s were different times and that Eva colluded in that she was sometimes paid. They haven't spoken for over forty years, Irina losing custody of her daughter in1977 due the photos.
I always feel I must have seen his film, Repulsion, before 1977 as it was what put him on the radar for me as far as a deep, seeming intimacy of the harm of child sexual abuse, Deneuve's PTSD hell and psychotic break so effectively portrayed in terms of an inescapable, secret horror that informs every moment of her life, but I am pretty certain I didn't see the film until much later, in the late 80s, when it was available on VHS, and it puzzled me because of what Polanski had done. If one has known abuse, one immediately recognizes past trauma bubbling out of every atom of Deneuve's present, she is drowning in it, unable to escape, and those around her don't understand because they're not in the same ocean. They don't get how sex is a minefield and that any man is a possible threat. It was perfect that at the end of the film we see the photo of her as a young girl staring over at an older man, and what I suspected all along is confirmed. This is a woman who as a child was sexually abused and has been living with the secret horror of this. When I saw that film I felt even more that here is someone who "knows". Polanski knows.
And yet he was an abuser.
In mid-twentieth century America, there was little out there dealing with sexual abuse in any real manner. My in-general experience of a sizable portion of the representation of women in literature and film and the arts, as a teen, had been material composed by men that was typically male gaze, women fulfilling several different types of sex objects. Women that were developed as "strong" characters by men seemed also crafted in the male gaze of what a man would want in a strong woman, she usually being, first and foremost, perilously attractive, aggressive, dominant, her world too was all about power over and power under, and she was not to be outdone. But Repulsion drilled in behind sex and into a catastrophic abuse of power that has unhinged this woman's world. As I've said, the same tone was had in The Tenant. And we certainly have it in Rosemary's Baby as well.
Polanski had done Repulsion which depicts the long-term effects of sexual abuse, and yet he had sex with a thirteen year old and plied her with drugs and alcohol, and I assumed if he had done it with one girl then there were others.
Others have come forward with #metoo. Most recently, he has been accused of sexual assault of a ten year old in 1975, but the statue of limitations has expired so he won't be charged.
Natassia Kinski's early films are all salacious kinky or pretty baby material, and she has said she wouldn't put her own child in such a position. In 1976 there was To the Devil a Daughter, in which she was a Satanist nun and satanist Christoper Lee wants to have sex with her. Natassia, born in 1961, met Polanski in Munich in 1976 when she was fifteen, and photos from 1976 show her cavorting topless with Arnold Schwarzenegger and others in Polanski's pool. In 1977, at sixteen, she played a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl having an affair with a teacher in Reifezeugnis. In 1978, in Stay as You Are, she is a college girl who has an affair with a much older man, Marcello Mastroianni. He learns it's rumored she is possibly his daughter, as he had a relationship with her mother not long before her birth, and her father is only a foster father who has taken care of her since her mother's death. When he tells her of this possibility, despite the fact she has her room papered with posters of father figures and keeps looking for father figures in relationships, she insists it doesn't matter, that your true father is the one who raised you and she looks upon her foster father as her true father. To further complicate matters (like they could be any more complicated) he is still married and has a daughter of the same age. He and Natassia have a last big fling and then she disappears from his life just like her mother had done.
When Tess (1979) was released in 1980 in the US I at first refused to see it. I just was not in the mood for sitting through what to me felt like would be Polanski's Manhattan (1979), not even if it was about a girl who was raped and whose life goes to hell because of it. I assumed Kinski was likely a sexual partner of Polanski's, another young teen exploited by a mentor figure (Kinski says no, media says yes and still says yes, Kinski says he was a mentor who got her into respectable films and respected her, which could mean anything, I don't know but the body language of the pair in photos from 1979 is very intimate), and I felt the dynamics of that relationship were likely to flavor the material. And I felt the dynamics of that relationship denied the material. It seemed bizarre to me that after his having raped a girl Polanski would do this film, even if it was intended to portray a girl used, abused and wronged by the world.
I was pissed off with men depicting for other men the sexy allure of the teenage minor in film, and young women being made to feel that this kind of youthful experience would give one power and worldliness, and made for sophistication. Sometimes in rural and essentially uneducated society, girls who have just graduated to puberty are counted as ready for marriage because they're rural and unsophisticated--then values change as one moves up the ladder a bit and girls that are minors become too young for relationships with older men--but there's then another ledge one moves over that has to do with wealth or worldly class or the arts and the ripe age for a girl drops yet again and she's sophisticated if involved with older men.
Over the years, I kept returning to Polanski's Repulsion, and The Tenant, and Rosemary's Baby because these films grasped the traumatic power dynamics of abuse, the claustrophobia of living with that trauma, the distortion of reality that can come with disassociation caused trauma, and the obliviousness of society. I purchased his autobiography and read it, trying to understand how he, though knowledgable of the nightmare trauma of the abused, could abuse and gaslight, but I also knew the autobiography would be done by an unreliable narrator, as most autobiographies are.
The problem with trust is truth is hard to come by, and the world is full of expert manipulators. It doesn't surprise me that so many individuals have been exposed as abusive. For me, the problem in wholesale blacklisting their art is that they are the abusers who are known about, and just how many more abusers are there who will never be guessed, as well as people who are also known to be abusers but whose reputations and legacies are fiercely protected. I know this because I know how many people I know have been abused and have never exposed it. I know this because of the people with whom I'd had breaches of trust and either my experience was discounted or I didn't expose them, because trauma builds upon trauma, it is overwhelming, you reason that you won't be believed, people don't like to face the ugliness of authority abusing power, they tend to blame the victim (somehow, some way you were responsible by simply not guessing the meteor heading your way and stepping out of its path) and you just want to escape and put it behind you and breathe. You don't know that the future may slam your face into it over and over again with, "You didn't escape after all, you idiot." Just surviving doesn't mean you will win in the long run. A few years down the road and those battle scars can open gaping mouths and start consuming you. You begin to comprehend what exactly you lost, what was compromised.
It wasn't that I had trusted Polanski--but I had felt fooled. I had been attracted to these films, and for one who has experienced abuse, that might feel like being attracted to the abuser, which is profoundly disorienting.
Ultimately, though I couldn't trust Polanski, I still trusted a good many of his films as they so well depicted certain aspects of trauma and the unstable, twilight world in which the victim can sometimes reside.
I don't remember when I first saw Kubrick's Lolita. I don't remember, either, when I first read Nabokov's Lolita, but I do recollect that I had to make several attempts at it. At first, all I knew was that it was a book about pedophile Humbert's abuse of a little girl but was supposed to be a love story. The idea turned my stomach. I was college age and I wouldn't read it because of what I'd been told about the plot. Then I read something else of Nabokov's, I had gotten involved in his in-depth translation work, and decided to try Lolita out, but I was immediately put off by the language. The book sat around and finally I read more than the first few pages, continued on, and was astonished that it wasn't a love story at all. More than anything else, Lolita was the story of the abused child, how Humbert manipulated her and others, and the story of a European's encounter with America. Perhaps, at first, I protected myself by looking upon Humbert's relationship with Lolita too much as a metaphor for Europe's relationship with America. I read it several more times for the multiple layerings. I appreciated it as a great novel. As a writer I know that writer's can write about things they haven't personally experienced. If writers could only write about things they'd personally experienced then the bulk of them would be in prison, wouldn't they.
Later, I learned that Nabokov had written an earlier version of Lolita in The Enchanter, and that Lolita themes had intruded upon other novels.
I've cribbed the below directly from Wikipedia rather than paraphrase:
In 1939 Nabokov wrote a novella, Volshebnik, that was published only posthumously in 1986 in English translation as The Enchanter. It bears many similarities to Lolita, but also has significant differences: It takes place in Central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide. The theme of ephebophilia was already touched on by Nabokov in his short story "A Nursery Tale", written in 1926. Also, in the 1932 Laughter in the Dark, Margot Peters is 16 and already had an affair when middle-aged Albinus becomes attracted to her.
In chapter three of the novel The Gift (written in Russian in 1935–1937) the similar gist of Lolita's first chapter is outlined to the protagonist, Fyodor Cherdyntsev, by his obnoxious landlord Shchyogolev as an idea of a novel he would write "if I only had the time": a man marries a widow only to gain access to her young daughter, who resists all his passes. Shchyogolev says it happened "in reality" to a friend of his; it is made clear to the reader that it concerns himself and his stepdaughter Zina (15 at the time of Shchyogolev's marriage to her mother) who becomes the love of Fyodor's life.
In April 1947, Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson: "I am writing ... a short novel about a man who liked little girls—and it's going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea...." The work expanded into Lolita during the next eight years. Nabokov used the title A Kingdom by the Sea in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographical novel Look at the Harlequins! for a Lolita-like book written by the narrator who, in addition, travels with his teenage daughter Bel from motel to motel after the death of her mother; later, his fourth wife is Bel's look-alike and shares her birthday.
The unfinished novel The Original of Laura, published posthumously, features the character Hubert H. Hubert, an older man preying upon then-child protagonist, Flora. Unlike those of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Hubert's advances are unsuccessful.
The Enchanter is indeed very similar to Lolita. It opens as follows:
"How can I come to terms with myself?" he thought, when he did any thinking at all. "This cannot be lechery. Coarse carnality is omnivorous; the subtle kind presupposes eventual satiation. So what if I did have five or six normal affairs--how can one compare their insipid randomness with my unique flame? What is the answer? It certainly isn't like the arithmetic of Oriental debauchery, where the tenderness of the prey is inversely proportional to its age. Oh, no, to me it's not a degree of a generic whole, but something totally divorced from the generic, something that is not more valuable but invaluable. What is it then? Sickness, criminality?...I cannot even consider the thought of causing pain or provoking unforgettable revulsion. Nonsense--I'm no ravisher. The limitations I have established for my yearning, the masks I invent for it when, in real life, I conjure up an absolutely invisible method of sating my passion, have a providential sophistry. I am a pickpocket, not a burglar. Although, perhaps, on a circular island, with my little female Friday ... (it would not be a question of mere safety, but a license to grow savage--or is the circle a vicious one, with a palm tree at its center?).
"Knowing, rationally, that the Euphrates apricot is harmful only in canned form; that sin is inseparable from civic custom; that all hygienes have their hyenas; knowing, moreover, that this selfsame rationality is not averse to vulgarizing that to which it is otherwise denied access...I now discard all that and ascend to a higher plane.
"What if the way to true bliss is indeed through a still delicate membrane, before it has had time to harden, become overgrown, lose the fragrance and the shimmer through which one penetrates to the throbbing star of that bliss? Even within these limitations I proceed with a refined selectivity; I'm not attracted to every schoolgirl that comes along..."
The Euphrates apricot is annotated as being thought to be the apple of Eden.
In the novel, The Enchanter, is a scene that recalls Humbert's plan to abuse Lolita while she is asleep, which does not work out as she wakes. In Lolita, the child invites Humbert to play a game. In The Enchanter it's the stepfather who lies to a terrified stepdaughter and tries to convince her she has misunderstood, that it is all a "game".
...he saw that she was fully awake and looking wild-eyed at his rearing nudity.
For an instant, in the hiatus of a syncope, he also saw how it appeared to her: some monstrosity, some ghastly disease--or else she already knew, or it was all of that together. She was looking and screaming, but the enchanter did not yet hear her screams; he was deafened by his own horror, kneeling, catching at the folds, snatching at the drawstring, trying to stop it, hide it, snapping with his oblique spasm, as senseless as pounding in place of music, senselessly discharging molten wax, too late to stop it or conceal it. How she rolled from the bed, how she was shrieking now, how the lamp scampered off in its red cowl, what a thundering came from outside the window, shattering, destroying the night, demolishing everything, everything..."Be quiet, it's nothing bad, it's just a kind of game, it happens sometimes, just be quiet," he implored, middle-aged and sweaty, covering himself with a raincoat he had glimpsed in passing, shuddering, donning it, missing the armhole.
Below is a passage from Look at the Harlequins! in which the father stresses the purity of his relationship with his daughter except for a few "insignificant" lapses:
As late as the start of the 1954-1955 school year, with Bel nearing her thirteenth birthday, I was still deliriously happy, still seeing nothing wrong or dangerous, or absurd or downright cretinous, in the relationship between my daughter and me. Save for a few insignificant lapses--a few hot drops of overflowing tendeness, a gasp masked by a cough and that sort of stuff--my relations with her remained essentially innocent.
And then this, also from Look at the Harlequins!, on the protagonist last seeing Bel., in which she is frustrated over his calling her by another name, a frustration that seems to come of a larger discontent.
I never once--never once, reader!--looked up at my Bel, but as we were about to part (forever) I did look at her, and she had new twin lines from nostrils to wicks, and she wore granny glasses, and a middle part, and had lost all her pubescent prettiness, remnants of which I had still glimpsed during a visit to Larive a spring and winter ago. They had to be back at half-past-twenty, alas--not really "alas."
"Come and see us at Quirn soon, soon, Dolly," I said, as we all stood on the sidewalk with mountains outlined in solid black against an aquamarine sky, and choughs jacking harshly, flying in flocks to roost, away, away.
I cannot explain the slip, but it angered Bel more than anything had ever angered her any time.
"What is he saying?" she cried, looking in turn at Louise, at her beau, and again at Louise. "What does he mean? Why does he call me 'Dolly'? Who is she for God's sake? Why, why (turning to me), why did you say that?"
Dolly is a nickname for a girl he had became infatuated with when she was only eleven, perhaps had also molested, and with whom he had a brief affair when she was twenty-four.
Dolly walked in, smiling. Smiling, she indicated with a tilt of her chin that the receiver should be cradled. Smiling, she swept the examination books off the desk and perched upon it with her bare shins in my face. What might have promised the most refined ardors turned out to be the tritest scene in this memoir. I hastened to quench a thirst that had been burning a hole in the mixed metaphor of my life ever since I had fondled a quite different Dolly thirteen years earlier.
Dolly (Lolita's name is Delores) is described as having Lilithian eyes.
Nabokov wrote about Lolita many times in his life, but it was just one of those books that happened to strike a chord with the public and become famous, selling over fifty million copies since 1955.
Though Nabokov authored many things, and I've read other works by him that had nothing of Lolita in them, learning that Nabokov had written several times of Lolita made me a little nervous. Could I trust this author? When one's good faith has been betrayed, one is especially concerned about this. One doesn't want to be tricked.
I've read several biographies of Nabokov and there's no indication anywhere of his ever abusing children, though he did study the habits of teen girls and their language in preparation for Lolita. His wife, Vera, was enthusiastic about Lolita, encouraging, unconcerned--they were a close couple and in his travels throughout America, collecting butterflies, making notes for Lolita, Vera was always with him and serving as his secretary and archivist. Not that there weren't indiscretions. While they were still living in Europe, Nabokov had an early affair with another woman, almost leaving Vera, but gave it up (this woman later claimed Lolita was about her). There are other reports that Nabokov also had an eye not for young girls but the college girls he was entrusted to teach, and had not only flirtations but it seems some passionate affairs. These are themselves abuses of power, but from what I've read Nabokov seems to have been largely unconflicted about them. Nabokov could be a real asshole and regarded himself very highly. Maybe he took these affairs or dalliances as part and parcel of being a professor. Part of the salary. The college girls were not Lolitas but he may have invested Lolita with bits of them. Like Irina, his major, European rival to Vera, had said Lolita was about their affair.
Nabakov had to write about this young girl (by "had to" I mean compelled to do so) and the abuse of youth by adults. If it was a love story, he could have written of an older girl. Instead he wrote of Lolita over and over again, an adult's abuse of a child. There's been speculation that Nabokov was subject to sexual abuse by his uncle. Could Nabokov have been abused as a child? I would argue that Nabokov was able to write Lolita because he had no real emotional investment in it if there was only the American Lolita, but he approached the taboo story several times. For all I know the whole personal point was dragging the taboo out onto the public stage because the taboo was happening and needed to be publicly acknowledged and discussed in a non-Freudian manner. Freud had pretty much branded the child as sexual aggressor and a conjurer of victimized fantasy that sprang from personal desires. Nabokov had no use for Freud. L. De La Durantaye writes, "Nabokov voiced that psychoanalysis had dangerous ethical consequences in its penchant for the disculpation of crimes."
There's a filmed co-interview of Nabokov and Lionel Trilling online, from 1958 or 1959. I read that it was one of Nabokov's first interviews after gaining fame. Nabokov says of Lolita:
First of all, I don't wish to touch hearts, and I don't even want to affect minds very much. What I want to produce is really that little sob in the spine of the artist's reader. I leave the field of ideas to Dr. Schweitzer and to Dr. Zhivago...you imply a purpose, an object, an awakening, beyond and apart from the dream of the book. I have invented in America, my America, just as fantastic as any inventor's America.
I don't feel I have any special message...
To this Trilling responds:
You can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do and even then we don't have to believe him.
Which I think is Trilling's one correct observation in the interview. As it goes on, Trilling and Nabokov (Nabokov sometimes echoing Trilling) describe Lolita as being about love rather than sex, and that people think it is about sex because they think in cliches.
Trilling: It is not a book so much about an aberration as about an actual love. A love that makes all the terrible demands that almost any love makes, certainly that any sexual love makes. But is very full of tenderness. Very full of compassion as well as well as passion...
Interviewer (who has described Humbert's relationship with Lolita as an affair): ...What Mr. Trilling is saying, I think, is your book is about love and not about sex.
Nabokov: And I agree with him perfectly.
Interviewer: But a great many people, who are shocked by this book, think it is a book about sex, right?
Trilling: Oh, yes, and because it is destructive and because the love is destructive or cruel or many other things it is no less love, in fact this why it is love. Love is all these things.
Nabokov: They think in cliches. For them sex is something so well defined there's a kind of gap between it and love. They don't know what love is, perhaps. And perhaps they don't know what sex is either.
That exchange takes one aback, mostly due Trilling initiating the idea that the book was about love, not sex, not about Humbert's aberration but about a tender and compassionate love. This despite Nabokov never letting the reader forget, in Lolita, that she is Humbert's sex slave and is relentlessly, cruelly abused. For instance, a flowery appreciation, by Humbert, of Lolita's body, will be followed up by a brief mention of his then abusing her and that she falls to sleep crying every night. Not to mention that Humbert is an unreliable narrator and we get glimpses through the cracks that he has perhaps altered the "truth". That Trilling raises to Nabokov his view that Lolita is a love story is disturbing, and then it's disturbing as well that Nabokov says he agrees with him. Or does Nabokov only appear to be in agreement, and if his intent was further probed in the interview, questioning him on Humbert's cruelty, would Nabokov clarify he hadn't meant it like that, he hadn't meant he agreed with Trilling "perfectly", he was just over-excited by the sudden fame and interviews and sitting there with Trilling, and being praised so effusively, he was ready to hug him and pet him and squeeze him and pat him and pet him and rub him and caress him and kiss him and call him George.
Nabokov has a pile of notes and cards on his lap to assist him with his responses. After this, he never had interviews in which he didn't have the questions in advance and prepared answers. Also, many interviews that were presented as happening personally with him were accomplished in writing, and Nabokov had final, authoritative say on the interview before publication. Keep this in mind with Nabokov's 1967 interview in the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 40.
No, it is not my sense of the immorality of the Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship that is strong; it is Humbert's sense. He cares, I do not. I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway, cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was fond of “little girls”—not simply “young girls.” Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and “sex kittens.” Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his “aging mistress.”
Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.” That epithet, in its true, teariridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how can I “diminish” to the level of ciphers, etcetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can “diminish” a biographee, but not an eidolon.
In a 1962 interview, Humbert describes the genesis of Lolita.
She was born a long time ago, it must have been in 1939, in Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through me in Paris in '39, or perhaps early in '40, at a time when I was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which is a very painful complaint-- rather like the fabulous stitch in Adam's side. As far as I can recall the first shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper, showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.
This is the story that he often gave and which he also told in the earlier interview with Trilling, minus the Adam's side portion. As to why he wrote Lolita...
It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.
Again, as with the Trilling interview, Nabokov insists there is no message, no social purpose. The novel was for the pleasure of it, a riddle with an elegant solution. And yet he had also said that he could not diminish the "poor little girl" to a cipher. Which Nabokov is to be believed. Perhaps both.
Which Kubrick is to be believed? The one in interviews or the one who skewered with satire the trope of the romance of the young girl and the older man?
In 1960, in Horizon Magazine, Kubrick referred to Trilling as regards his understanding of Lolita.
I've always been amused at the cries of pornography, because, to me, Lolita seemed a very sad and tender love story. I believe that Lionel Trilling, in an article he wrote about the book, said that it was the first great [contemporary] love story. He remarked that in great love stories of the past, the lovers--by their love and through their love--totally estranged themselves from society and created a sense of shock in the people around them. And because of the slackening moral and spiritual values in the twentieth century, in no love story until Lolita has that occurred.
The Complete Kubrick by David Hughes, supplies the following observation.
In discussing Lolita prior to its release, Kubrick was careful to distance the film from the controversial subject matter of its source material, stating--somewhat unconvincingly -- that it was the story of "the outsider who is passionately committed to action against the social order' and was, in that respect, similar to his earlier films. "The protagonists of Paths of Glory, The Killing, Spartacus and...Lolita are all outsiders fighting to some impossible thing, whether it's pulling a perfect robbery or saving innocent men from execution by a militaristic state or carrying on a love affair with a twelve-year-old girl."
The above is from a NY Times article by Eugene Archer, Oct 2, 1960, titled "'Spartacus':Hailed in Farewell".
The theme Mr. Kubrick indicated, has distinct parallels with his other film work. "It concerns the outsider who is passionately committed to action against the social order. I mean the outsider in the Colin Wilson sense--the criminal, maniac, poet, lover, revolutionary. The protagonists of 'Paths of Glory,' 'The Killing,' 'Spartacus' and my next film, 'Lolita,' are all outsiders fighting to do some impossible thing, whether it's pulling a perfect robbery or saving innocent men from execution by a militaristic state or carrying on a love affair with a 12-year-old girl."
"If I have my way, they'll think in 'Lolita' too," he [Kubrick] said. "The audience will start by being repelled by this 'creep' who seduces a not-so-innocent child, but gradually, as they realize he really loves the girl, they'll find that things aren't quite as simple as they seemed, and they won't be so ready to pass moral judgments. I consider that a moral theme."
Nabokov has assured us he views Humbert as a cruel wretch and Lolita as a poor little girl, but Kubrick in these interviews refers to Trilling, saying it is a sad, love story. In another interview Kubrick stated that he hoped the viewers, at first repelled by the creep who seduces a not-so-innocent girl, would realize he does love her and perhaps not be so inclined to pass moral judgments.
What? How does that play with a character who keeps Lolita prisoner? Does Kubrick really feel this way about Lolita? Should we assume "If it walks like a duck,and it talks like a duck" in these interviews, then it must certainly be a duck?
I feel like there's a whole lot of disingenuous going on in some interviews. I would like to hear the explanation behind Nabokov's, "I don't wish to touch hearts and I don't even want to affect minds" and the avowal he has no use for "ideas". Had I been the interviewer I would have stuck around those answers and probed them some, because I'm not sure how you write a story not just once but several times and do so only for the "pleasure" of it, considering the subject matter in this case, nor do I see how Nabokov could protest that it is Humbert who cares about public morals and Humbert who has a strong sense of the immorality of his relationship with Lolita whereas he, Nabokov, does not.
To read the book, Lolita, is to walk away feeling largely unconflicted about Nabokov's portrayal, as Humbert's emotional and physical brutality and his falseness are never neglected--the vanity, the insecurity, the psychopathology of power and abdication of any responsibility for one's actions, Humbert attempting to convince the audience of how he loved Lolita more than he victimized her, fenangling for trust by admitting his brutalities even as he obfuscates with kilos of sweetener. To read or listen to Nabokov on Lolita, however, is sometimes quite a different experience and leaves a person wondering if one got it all wrong after all, if Nabakov himself had a grasp on exactly what he was doing and why, or if he callously, coldly, and grotesquely abandoned the child to a love story interpretation because he was ultimately terrified by the public's glare, for some reason feeling it best to promote Lolita as a love story, when that wasn't what the book was about. It was about brutal abuse and use and Humbert not having a clue who Lolita as a person was, not caring for her as a person until at the bitter end, on his way to Quilty's, he seems to grasp a little of just how he didn't know her, how he had abused her, and even then one doesn't deem his feelings as too trustworthy.
A love story? How could Trilling call it a love story where there is only abuse? And then Nabokov agrees with Trilling, that it is a love story? And Kubrick as well? Calling it a love affair? Am I to believe Kubrick would see this as a love story after his portrayal of men chewed up by the power machine of war in Paths of Glory?
Kubrick said of Lionel Trilling's article in Encounter,
I think Lionel Trilling's piece...is very much to the point when he speaks of it as "the first great love story of the 20th century." And he uses as his criteria the total shock and estrangement which the lovers, in all the great love stories of the past have produced on the people around them.
Let's go to Lionel Trilling's article in the "Encounter", which is quite long, and see how he relentlessly overlooks Lolita's youth and circumstance for sake of Humbert's love.
I was plainly not able to muster up the note of moral outrage. And it is likely that any reader of Lolita will discover that he comes to see the situation as less and less abstract and moral and horrible, and more and more as human and "understandable." Less and less, indeed, do we see a situation, what we become aware of is people. Humbert is perfectly willing to say that he is a monster; no doubt he is, but we find ourselves less and less eager to say so. Perhaps his depravity is the easier to accept when we learn that he deals with a Lolita who is not innocent, and who seems to have very few emotions to be violated; and I suppose we naturally incline to be lenient towards a rapist--legally and by intention, H.H. is that--who eventually feels a deathless devotion to his victim!
...a story of passion-love must see to it that his lovers do not approach the condition of marriage. That is, their behavior to each other must not be touched by practicality, their virtues must not be of a kind that acknowledges the claims of the world...a man in the grip of an obsessional lust and a girl of twelve make the ideal couple for a story about love written in our time. At least at the beginning of his love for Lolita, there are no practical moral considerations, no practical personal considerations, that qualify H.H.'s behaviour. As for Lolita, there is no possibility of her bringing the relation close to the condition of marriage because she cannot even imagine the female role of marriage. She remains perpetually the cruel mistress; even after her lover has won physical possession of her, she withholds the favour of her feeling, for she has none to give, by reason of her age, possibly by reason of her temperament.
Trilling is a horror story himself, refusing to comprehend the prisoner status of Lolita, viewing the twelve year old as a temptress and cruel mistress who withholds the favour of her feeling. Which is just about one of the damnedest remarks ever.
Am I to believe Kubrick would see this as a love story, when Kubrick inserted in many of his other films a childhood/adulthood relationship that helped fate an individual for disaster? Killer's Kiss had Gloria telling a story about her sister, who committed suicide, that insinuated a troubling relationship with their father, and the gangster who kidnapped Gloria resembled that father. The photo of Gloria's father stares out at the viewer in her bedroom, much like the troubling photo of Harold Haze gazing at us in Lolita, informing the viewer that a young Charlotte married a man a good deal her senior, which becomes even more interesting when we consider the gun that Humbert uses was Harold's, one with which he had intended to commit suicide. In Thackery's book, Barry Lyndon, Barry was only fifteen when involved with his cousin, Nora, who was twenty-three, and everyone looked upon him as being ridiculously used by her. It was his romantic innocence that set him headlong against Brady and threw him out into the world, his experience with Nora contributing to his later callous abusiveness with women. Kubrick inserted into The Shining a clip from The Summer of 42, a movie about a boy who falls into a relationship with a woman in her twenties, which the book especially shows as emotionally disastrous for the youth, Kubrick's use of this seeming to suggest Jack may have had such a relationship.
Kubrick also had this to say about Lolita in an interview with Terry Southern:
And, of course, Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship. In fact, it isn't until the very end, when Humbert sees her again four years later, and she's no longer by any-stretch of the definition a nymphet, that the really genuine and selfless love he has for her is revealed. In other words, this element of their estrangement, even from the author - and certainly, from the reader - is accomplished, and sustained, almost through the very end.
Selfless love? For Lolita?
This statement of Kubrick's demanded some more investigation in the interview, which didn't happen. He says that Nabokov was brilliant at withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship. By author, one could say, "Oh, well, he must have meant the author as Humbert." Or did he? It's strange, because the statement ends with his talking of the estrangement from the author and the reader, which seems to suggest Nabokov as Humbert is by no means estranged from the material. Sandwiched inbetween is the idea that at the end "the really genuine and selfless love for her is revealed".
Over a period of a couple of years we can see Kubrick parceling out in interviews lines that don't much change. He has his decided upon spiel. I know this is standard but it also means no real discussion. The interview is thus the poster version of the selling of a product that will pull an audience into the seats. Below is from a 1961 interview with Robert Emmett Ginna for Horizon.
I think the book is a rare and unique masterpiece; that is to say that it is a rare masterpiece of understanding of characters and situation, and of life itself. To me, Lolita seemed a very sad and tender love story. I believe that Lionel Trilling, in an article he wrote about the book, said that it was the first great love story of the 20th century. He remarked that in all the great love stories of the past, take what you like - Anna Karenina, The Red and the Black, Romeo and Juliet - the lovers, by their love and through their love, totally estranged themselves from society. It seems to me one of the wonderful things about Lolita is that it shocks, because of the relationship. You are prevented from making a premature and overly sympathetic judgment of Humbert's position by the shock that's created in your mind. And, finally, when you read your way through the book and get to the last scene - the confrontation between Humbert and Lolita when she's 16, pregnant and unattractive, by his own description, and certainly no longer an infant - you realise, without any doubt, and with a completely sweeping emotional effect that he selflessly and truly loves the girl and that he is broken-hearted.
Compare it with a broader quote, from the 1962 interview with Terry Southern, than the one I've already given.
Well it's certainly one of the great love stories, isn't it? I think Lionel Trilling's piece in Encounter is very much to the point when he speaks of it as "the first great love story of the 20th century." And he uses as his criteria the total shock and estrangement which the lovers, in all the great love stories of the past have produced on the people around them. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black, they all had this one thing in common, this element of the illicit, or at least what was considered illicit at the time, and in each case it caused their complete alienation from society. But then in the 20th century, with the disintegration of moral and spiritual values, it became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for an author to credibly create that kind of situation, to conceive of a relationship which would produce this shock and estrangement - so that what was resorted to achieve the shock value, was erotic description. Whereas Trilling felt that Lolita somehow did succeed, in the classic tradition, having all the stormy passion and tenderness of the great love story as well as this element of the lovers being estranged from everyone around them. And, of course, Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship. In fact, it isn't until the very end, when Humbert sees her again four years later, and she's no longer by any-stretch of the definition a nymphet, that the really genuine and selfless love he has for her is revealed. In other words, this element of their estrangement, even from the author - and certainly, from the reader - is accomplished, and sustained, almost through the very end.
The problem is that comparing Kubrick's remarks to what he depicts in the film is like trying to bang a square peg through a round hole. The square peg will not fit. Kubrick begins the film with Quilty's knowing mockery of Humbert's so-called protestations of love, and Humbert shooting Lolita, by proxy, via the portrait (not in the book), as he guns down chattering Quilty who condemns Humbert's love by offering him his mansion and its people who he can use as furniture (like Lolita), including the guy who looks like a bookcase (not in the book). He can fix it so Humbert revels in attending executions, just him, liking to watch as others are put to death (like Humbert put Lolita to death in his use of her). Kubrick has Humbert's parting words to Lolita being that her marriage is only incidental, an accident, she's not bound to her husband, that she is instead bound to him alone through everything they have lived together (none of which is in the book), when all that they have lived together was Humbert's abuse of Lolita, of his caging her, holding her prisoner, dragging her around the country trying to keep anyone from learning about them, keeping her isolated from others. When Kubrick says that a really genuine and selfless love is revealed, that is a square peg that will not go through the round hole.
Nabokov gave all his characters as galley slaves. We are not to take him too seriously, and writers will know more than the general public how an author will feel for a character but then must put them through their paces. They aren't real people and depending on which rewrite you are doing you do push them around the page in order to meet their ordained end. But, certainly, take care with them, treat them and the hell you put them through with the respect, and don't, please, be disingenuous and abandon them, through a kind of cowardice, to a lying end. I have already explored in The Shining how Kubrick appears to pin King down to the mat for having done just that, King putting his galley slave characters through hell and then foisting upon them a disingenuous end that makes Jack guiltless. I have also shown how Kubrick did the same to Burgess, in Clockwork Orange, for having done the same thing, again pinning Burgess to the mat for releasing himself, as the author, from any responsibility for Alex, when he presented, literally, Burgess as the author character Alexander. Kubrick didn't do this to all the authors of the books he made into films, but he did do it, and it creates an interesting layer of tension in the addressing of the initial creator of the story and calling foul.
I feel this same tension between what Kubrick has said to the public of Lolita, as versus the film he actually gave them. And that the reason the peg doesn't fit through the round hole is because it was square and didn't fit because, well, the peg was square and the hole was round. They weren't made to go together. Kubrick repeatedly quotes the then well-known and respected Lionel Trilling's assessments of the novel, encouraging the prospective audience to see this film which turns out to be a love story just as Trilling says it is, and he presents Lolita, in ads, in such a manner, with her red heart sunglasses, sucking on the lollipop, that the audience is eager to go see the film in which the fantasy of bonking the young teen seductress is absolutely going to be fulfilled. They know it's going to happen. They know Humbert does go to bed with Lolita. They've had years of films that typically hold out the bait of the possibility of the kid going to bed with the adult, but it never happened in those films. Now it will! But then what does the audience get for their money? Let's look, for a second at the so-called seduction scene, and perhaps even keep it in mind that in one interview Kubrick does say it's Humbert who seduces Lolita, then immediately turns around, corrects himself, and says it's Lolita who seduces Humbert.
The scene in the screenplay is the same in the film as far as the bones. Kubrick adds the childish double-jointed games, after which Lolita suggests they play "the game"", whispering her description in his ear. Nabokov has her telling Humbert it's a game all the kids as playing, Humbert not being able to guess what it is, she asks him if she can show him the game, and Humbert says yes if it's not too dangerous. In the book, it's much the same, though she tells him it was a game she played with Charlie, and Humbert allows, "She saw the stark act merely as part of a youngster's furtive world, unknown to adults." Then later, in the book, with Lolita having initiated sex, Humbert is able to hold it over her head that there would be severe penalties for her, should she ever go to the police, for corrupting an adult and having generally loose morals. Humbert does let slip through periodically Lolita's insistence that he raped her at the hotel. Because of this game, however, people view Lolita as the seductress, and despite all that he has done, and despite his captivity of her, Humbert is often liberated of responsibility, some individuals seing Lolita instead as a manipulative aggressor despite Humbert's intentions and his lying to her. It's this version of Lolita that captured the public's attention, rather than the 1939 version, in The Enchanted, in which the stepdaughter leaps from the hotel bed in horror, screaming, the predator being the one who insists it's all a game. Rewriting Lolita as the seeming aggressor, Nabokov spares the reader a rape scene, which he may have perceived as essential for the public if they were to stick around and read the remainder of the book. Humbert certainly knows what game it is that Lolita is suggesting, and leads her on with his feigned naivety, deceiving her into the aggressive position.
The game is preserved in the film. Lolita is angry at her mother and Humbert for having married. She knows enough to tell Humbert her mother would perhaps divorce him and strangle her for sleeping in a hotel room together. In the morning, Lolita's so-called seduction is composed of first comparing tans, showing her double-jointed fingers, then proposing a game she learned at camp, and the last thing we hear her ask of Humbert before the screen goes dark is, "You mean you never played that game when you were a kid?", to which Humbert says, "No." A few hours later, Lolita gazes on in stark horror after learning that Humbert has been lying to her and that her mother has died. She begs Humbert not to abandon her to a home for juvenile delinquents, then next they're at Beardsley and she's taunting him that he not dare molest her friends, he can't have them. Lolita hates this man's guts.
America sits in its cinema audience seats and hears Lolita say to Humbert, "You mean you never placed that game when you were a kid?" And a supposedly adult audience calls this seduction? The viewer is perhaps reluctant to take this for what it indicates, what Nabokov stated in his book, that Lolita saw whatever it was she had proposed as a child's game. We vaguely hear her say that, "You have to be completely...to play the game." Perhaps she is saying you have to be nude. We can't be secure that she is even proposing intercourse, for in the book she complains afterwards about being in pain, and, as I've said, in the book she says Humbert raped her. Here, we only have Lolita proposing the child's game that Humbert says he never played as a child.
America was perhaps reluctant to look on this "seductress" Lolita, the one in the red heart sunglasses in the ads, as someone who was fourteen and didn't relate to sex as an adult because she was incapable of doing so due her age. That is what Kubrick is saying here, as had Nabokov. This is not a seduction, and Kubrick shows it's not a seduction. Lolita may know the mechanics of sex from her stay at camp (I think we can be certain her mother didn't talk to her about sex), but she knows nothing about adult sex. She is not yet part of the adult's world, she doesn't comprehend life as an adult, she doesn't comprehend sex as an adult. She is a fourteen-year-old child and incapable of "seduction" as an adult should comprehend seduction. This isn't a romance.
The square peg doesn't fit in the round hole, as far as I can tell, because Kubrick was saying one thing in interviews, but then was showing America's adults, in their cinema seats, how the face-making, backtalking, desultory, very-much-a-teen, dependent child has been eroticized, how fatally inappropriate and immature is the fantasy of the seductress child and a love story between her and her captor. He did it undeniably right from the beginning, Quilty mocking Humbert's love and Humbert gunning him down through the portrait of the young woman that stands not only for Lolita but serves as a kind of self-portrait of Humbert, his obsession and desires that he impressed upon Lolita.
In Paths of Glory, Kubrick builds a solid sympathetic connection between the audience and the non-commissioned soldiers. He has the audience comprehend their plight and how they are sacrificed for nothing by an abusive upper class. The audience is so in tune with the soldiers that, at the end, when the men are at the cafe and cat-calling and harassing the frightened young woman who has been propelled on the stage to sing for them, the audience might even go along with their abuse out of this feeling of fraternity and a reluctance to turn around and make a judgment against them. So Kubrick, in that film, has Kirk Douglas standing outside, listening, showing his repulsion. By this, the audience is aware that what the soldiers are doing is, after all, wrong. Despite our sympathies having been with them, these soldiers are committing a wrong against this woman. The peculiar figure of Quilty, in Lolita, serves this same function. Don't buy Humbert's protestations of love, they are false. Understand that Humbert uses people as furniture and has used Lolita like furniture.
There is a love story in this film, and it is revealed in the end, but it isn't Humbert's love for Lolita, it is Lolita's devotion toward her husband. The fact that despite all she has been through, despite the fact that she doesn't yet fully comprehend her years of abuse, she is still able to want to have faith in a loving relationship. The audience, as with Humbert, takes it for granted that she doesn't love because she says Quilty was the only one she was ever crazy for. But, as we know with Humbert, being crazy for someone doesn't translate into love. Love is not just feeling but dedication, decision, and sacrifice. Kubrick is always interested in the plight of human beings in their fated cages, but the particular cage in which Lolita now lives is one she lives in out of choice rather than as a prisoner in Humbert's cage. Unable to comprehend anything other than possession, Humbert, before giving Lolita her inheritance, attempts to persuade her that to be free is to leave what is "shabby", attempts to convince her that she is bound to him through her time of captivity with him, and that her husband is just an "accident" rather than Humbert having been a train wreck that plowed into then consumed her life.
But there's more, another love story, which is Lolita's awful sympathy for Humbert's pain. When Lolita had found out her mother died, Humbert was unable to tolerate her sobs. He implored her to stop crying and tried to mollify her with promises that they would be happy together and would do many things together. He had no empathy for her. He was pityless. Now he cries. Lolita asks him to stop crying, worried that her husband will hear and wonder what is up, but Nabokov and Kubrick also have her reach out to him to say, "I'm sorry". That "I'm sorry" comes of her not yet comprehended her situation, what she lived through, but it is also out of a sympathy for Humbert which he in no way deserves.
Humbert's obsession has been for Lilith rather than Lolita. As stated in the novel..."Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for." Humbert may waken a little to a knowledge of his abuse of Lolita and how he doesn't know at all who she is--which he seems to do in the book at the end--but Lilith is his obsession, which he had impressed upon Lolita.