Arguably the most controversial novel of the 20th century, Lolita explores the relationship between an unsettling yet intelligent pedophile and his young nymphet as their lives become increasingly intertwined over the span of five years. This storyline is extremely unconventional, bizarre and downright sickening, but at the same time, the words written by Vladimir Nabokov are rendered in the most beautiful and elegant arrangement that I have ever read.
Forbidden love and the desire for objects one cannot have fuel this passionate but ultimately one-sided love story. The main character, Humbert Humbert, is a scholar from Europe who develops a fetish for young girls after his childhood love, Annabel Lee, dies suddenly before the two can consummate their love. Consequently, Humbert is obsessed with finding young, honey-skinned girls with soft "down" on their arms in order to fulfill his primal desires.
After a failed marriage, Humbert moves to a sleepy town in New England and lives in the house of Charlotte Haze. In this Haze household (the father recently died), Humbert meets the girl who will become the driving force behind his entire existence: Dolores "Dolly" Haze.
The first sentence of the book sums up Humbert's instant love affair with this girl of 12: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." His feelings toward her are disturbing in context and utterly taboo in today's society, but the way he describes his little nymphet is still so charming, adoring and beautifully disgusting.
Humbert, the meticulous pedophile that he is, keeps a diary of his daily interactions with little Lolita. Once she is sent off to camp, her mother declares undying love for Humbert and asks for his hand in marriage.
As if he couldn't get sordid enough, Humbert agrees to marry the pathetic widow so he can gaze upon and touch his tween obsession whenever he likes.
Using irony and a dab of coincidence, Nabokov then throws an unusual curveball at the reader: Charlotte Haze is run over by a car and killed instantly. Snatching his pubescent prisoner from camp, Humbert and Lolita embark on a year-long road trip across the United States filled with teen tantrums and erotic nights in motor court hotels.
Humbert is an extremely unreliable narrator. He tells his story as though we, the reader, are the judges in his shamefully sexual life. He continuously tries to rationalize his unusual and strange behavior, stating multiple times that he was a good father to the scared Dolly Haze.
Settling back in Beardsley, the two attempt to have a normal life but then leave on another special father-daughter road trip a short while after. It is here that the climax of the turbulent love story reaches its height.
Overall, this novel is certainly controversial, but it does not contain sexually explicit scenes; it is more of a psychological novel akin to Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (another Russian author). What resonates with this work is the sad life of Lolita: She had her childhood robbed of her and had no self awareness at all. To her, sex was not precious, but merely something an older man did to her in exchange for pretty clothes and movie theater tickets.
This book is certainly not for the conventional, "goody goody" reader; it is for those who like psychological thrillers, mystery and revolutionary prose. Pedophiles are never the traditional subject matter for stories, but maybe that's why this book will never shed its notorious fame and impact.