When I first encountered the literary classic Lolita, I was the same age as the infamous female character. I was 15 and had heard about a book in which a grown man carries on a sexual relationship with a much younger girl. Naturally, I quickly sought out the book and devoured the entire contents on my bedroom floor, parsing through Humbert Humbert‘s French and his erotic fascination for his stepdaughter, the light of his life, the fire of his loins — Dolores Haze. I remember being in the ninth grade and turning over the cover that presented a coy pair of saddle shoes as I hurried through the final pages in homeroom.

Although I remember admiring the book for all its literary prowess, what I don’t recall is how much of the truth of that story resonated with me given that I was a kid myself. Because it wasn’t until I reread the book as an adult that I realized Lolita had been raped. She had been raped repeatedly, from the time she was 12 to when she was 15 years old.

As a young woman now, it’s startling to see how that fundamental crux of the novel has been obscured in contemporary culture with even the suggestion of what it means to be “a Lolita” these days.  Tossed about now, a “Lolita” archetype has come to suggest a sexually precocious, flirtatious underage girl who invites the attention of older men despite her young age. A Lolita now implies a young girl who is sexy, despite her pigtails and lollipops, and who teases men even though she is supposed to be off-limits.

In describing his now banned perfume ad, Marc Jacobs was very frank about the intentions of his sexy child ad and why he chose young Dakota Fanning to be featured in it. The designer described the actress as a “contemporary Lolita,” adding that she was “seductive, yet sweet.” Propping her up in a child’s dress that was spread about her thighs, and with a flower bottle placed right between her legs, the styling was sufficient to make the 17-year-old look even younger. The text below read “Oh Lola!,” cementing the Lolita reference completely. The teenager looks about 12 years old in the sexualizing advertisement, which is the same age Lolita is when the book begins.

And yet Marc Jacobs’ interpretation of Lolita as “seductive” is completely false, as are all other usages of Lolita to imply a “seductive, yet sweet” little girl who desires sex with older men.

Lolita is narrated by a self-admitted pedophile whose penchant for extremely young girls dates all the way back to his youth. Twelve-year-old Dolores Haze was not the first of Humbert Humbert’s victims; she was just the last. His recounting of events is unreliable given that he is serially attracted to girl children or “nymphets” as he affectionately calls them. And his endless rationalizing of his”love” for Lolita, their “affair,” their “romance” glosses over his consistent sexual attacks on her beginning in the notorious hotel room shortly after her mother dies.

This man who marries Lolita’s mother, in a sole effort to get access to the child, fantasizes about drugging her in the hopes of raping her — a  hypothetical scenario which eventually does come to fruition. Later on as he realizes that Lolita is aging out of his preferred age bracket, he entertains the thought of impregnating her with a daughter so that he can in turn rape that child when Lolita gets too old.

Lolita does make repeated attempts to get away from her rapist and stepfather by trying to alert others as to how she is being abused. According to Humbert, she invites the company of anyone which annoys him given that the pervert doesn’t want to be discovered. And yet, he manipulates her from truly notifying the authorities by telling her that without him — her only living relative — she’ll become a ward of the state. By spoiling her with dresses and comic books and soda pop, he reminds her that going into the system will deny her such luxuries and so she is better off being raped by him whenever he pleases than living without new presents.

Given that Humbert is a pedophile, his first-person account is far from trustworthy when deciphering what actually happened to Lolita. But, Vladimir Nabokov does give us some clues despite our unreliable narrator. For their entire first year together on the road as they wade from town to town, Humbert recalls her bouts of crying and “moodiness” — perfectly understandable emotions considering that she is being raped day and night. A woman in town even inquires to Humbert what cat has been scratching him given the the marks on his arms — vigilant attempts by Lolita to get away from her attacker and guardian. He controls every aspect of her young life, consumed with the thought that she will leave him with the aid of too much allowance money or perhaps a boyfriend. He interrogates her constantly about her friends and eventually ransacks her bedroom revoking all her money. Lolita is often taunted with things she desires in exchange for sexual favors as Nabokov writes in one scene:

“How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty.”

Lolita eventually does get away from her abusive stepfather by age 15, but the fact that she has been immortalized as this illicit literary vixen is not only deeply troublesome, it’s also a completely inaccurate reading of the book. And Marc Jacobs is not alone in his highly problematic misinterpretation of child rape and abuse as “sexy.” Some publications and publishing houses actually recognize the years of abuse as love.

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On the 50th anniversary edition of Lolita, which I purchased for the sake of writing this piece, there sits on the back cover a quote from Vanity Fair which reads:

“The only convincing love story of our century.”

The edition, which was published by Vintage International, recounts the story as “Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel” but also as having something to say about love. The back cover concludes in its summary:

“Most of all, it is a meditation on love — love as outrage and hallucinations, madness and transformation.”

“Love” holds no space in this novel, which details the repeated sexual violation of a child. Although Humbert desperately tries to convince the reader that he is in love with his stepdaughter, the scratches on his arms imply something else entirely. Because the lecherous Humbert has couched his pedophilia in romantic language, the young girl he repeatedly violated seems to have passed through into pop culture as a tween temptress rather than a rape victim.

Conflating love or sexiness with the rape of literature’s most misunderstood child is dangerous in that it perpetuates the mythology that young girls are some how participating in their own violation. That they are instigating these attacks by encouraging and inciting the lust of men with their flirty demeanor and child-like innocence.

Let it be known that even Lolita, pop culture’s first “sexy little girl” was not looking to seduce her stepfather. Lolita, like a lot of young girls, was raped.

(photo: popmatters.com)