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People and Planet: The complex role of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ in pop culture

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Implying a great and passionate love story, these lines are quoted and referenced frequently throughout literature, music and film. The main character’s name in American Beauty is an anagram of the narrator in this novel. In the book My Dark Vanessa, Mr. Strane gives young Vanessa a copy of it. In Allison Pearson’s “I Think I Love You,” the lines are directly quoted.

 However, these lines are not about a lover and this novel is no love story. 

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita is told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator who becomes infatuated with his adolescent new step-daughter Dolores, or ‘Lolita’ as he privately calls her. 

In fewer words, he is a pedophile.

Nabokov’s intent for the novel was for Lolita to be read not as a love story but as the disturbing narrative of a predator’s manipulation. As Humbert provides insights into his thoughts and feelings, readers begin to empathize with evil before even realizing it, swayed by flowery language and emotional appeals. 

The violence and volatility in the novel’s prose quickly made it a classic referenced constantly in future art.

I would argue that it is not necessarily the fault of artists who make reference to the novel for the rampant romanticization of Lolita that has sprouted online in the past decades. There is a fine line between artists outright romanticizing the novel and using Lolita as a symbol for the abuse they have experienced, rampant especially within the music industry.

For example, singer Lana Del Rey often faces criticism for her references to the novel. However, the context in which she references Lolita must be considered. In interviews, Del Rey has been transparent about the abuse she has endured in relationships, and more relevant to the novel, she has spoken various times about being groomed by a male teacher at a boarding school she attended.

In this context, it seems that the intention behind the allusions to Lolita within her music has much more to do with Lolita being an allegorical figure to women and girls who have become trapped in cycles of abuse rather than the glorification of abuse and pedophilia and as a character which Del Rey can heal through herself.

The true romanticization of Lolita was born when uneducated and impressionable young people come across references to it. Go on Tumblr, search up the “Lolita” tag, and find countless out-of-context lyrics seeming to romanticize abuse alongside pictures of skinny, bruised legs contrasted with hair ribbons and pale pink lingerie alongside a man’s hands around a woman’s neck, all a product of young girls being exposed too early to themes too complex for them and thus deeply damaging their perceptions of love and making them more susceptible to abuse.

While Lolita is a very strong choice as an allegorical figure for abuse, it is extremely important that mediums referencing the novel are kept away from young girls who do not yet understand its intricacies and impressionable young men who also may interpret the story incorrectly, done best by parental monitoring of internet usage where such misrepresentations of the novel are rampant and unfiltered.

In a great sense, it is the responsibility of the novelist, songwriter or screenwriter to ensure that the meaning of their work is clearly communicated. However, it is also only natural for such topics to cause discourse among an audience and to reach beyond the audience for which it is intended.

Meg Diehl is a freshman studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What are your thoughts? Tell Meg by tweeting her at @irlbug.

Meg Diehl

Assistant Opinion Editor

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