Classic Remarks: Should “Lolita” be assigned in schools?

Should we be assigning Lolita in schools or is it taking up valuable syllabus space another book should have?

This is another case where I have not read the subject book, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I have never been required to read it, nor have I desired to. However, I am familiar with it in summary and reputation. Based on this, I would most definitely keep it out of school syllabi, except possibly for a college course in which the novel’s subject matter of pedophilia and psychiatry would be deemed relevant. I would be interested to hear from someone who has read or studied the book.

The story follows a man calling himself Humbert Humbert who obsessively lusts after young girls, especially a flirtatious and manipulative 12 year-old called Lolita with whom he has a perverse and torrid affair for several years. Humbert narrates his ugly, evil actions in beautiful, sophisticated prose designed to win the reader’s sympathy. There’s a deliberate contrast between the way he writes and the way he acts. Yet even though he labors to prove he is not insane and to justify his life and actions, his story still ends in violence and loneliness.

As I understand it, Nabokov fully intends for us to despise Humbert and his sins. He also seems to scorn psychiatrists (especially those in the Freudian tradition) who seek simplistic ways to understand human behavior. One may do terrible, despicable things and yet still be a complex human being. Likewise, one may be a complex human being and yet still be justly condemned for choosing to do (and to enjoy) terrible, despicable things.

Do students, even up to the high school level, need to explore the crime of pedophilia in detail? And from the viewpoint of a charismatic predator? I don’t think so. Warn kids against strangers and teach them how to stay safe, by all means! But I see no reason why high school students (or younger) should be required to read a book that dramatizes such a traumatizing perversion from the viewpoint of the predator. From what I can tell, any important lesson in the book could also be gained from other powerful books that don’t dramatize pedophilia so graphically.

Looking at my own high school self, I guess that if I had read Lolita then, I would have been disgusted and disturbed, with those affects lasting, and would not have received much of any redeeming value in return. As opposed to something like Night by Elie Wiesel, which was disturbing in a way that was important and eye-opening. Night causes the reader to challenge prejudice and oppression by forcing us to confront the humanity of the victims and the injustice they have suffered, whereas Lolita gives us only the viewpoint of an unrepentant sexual predator.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

6 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Should “Lolita” be assigned in schools?”

  1. No, no, and no. Lol.This is no book for an adolescent mind, specially if they have not read the many others that are so crucial and meaningful to them. I can think of a 100 books before this one.

  2. I had to read Lolita in college and I really don’t understand the point. I guess readers are supposed to be intrigued by the idea that Nabokov can make a pedophile look sympathetic, but I’m sure I don’t know what good that accomplishes. I can think of tons of books that do far more interesting things and would be a better use of time to study.

    1. Yeah, that’s the vibe I get. Perhaps it would be interesting to contrast it with the movie “M” by Fritz Lang, which is regarded as a chilling thriller in which an entire’s city’s population, including its criminal element, search for a serial child-killer. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I’ve heard the movie may contain some messages genuinely worth thinking about. I’m less convinced there is any value in Lolita. And as you said, there are countless books more worthwhile.

      1. I hadn’t heard of that film, but then I don’t usually watch thrillers! I don’t want to get scared, actually. 😀

        College courses usually contain about eight books per semester. So to include Lolita as one of those eight that represents “American Literature” or whatever genre/topic the course is about, really seems a waste to me.

  3. Hi, David!

    It’s been quite a few years since I read Lolita, and when I read it I did so pretty quickly, so I can’t comment in any real depth on its themes. But the point of the book is not to make readers sympathize with a child rapist (although Nabokov does implicate the reader in that way). It also has to do with the relationship between the narrator and bourgeois postwar America. He holds it largely in contempt, yet it’s a place where he can fulfill his every desire — and that itself seems to be part of Nabokov’s ambivalent point. The author gets to lampoon American culture and the European elitism of his protagonist, while also suggesting that there’s something about this overlap of cultures that is both romantic and perhaps horribly damaging.

    To be honest, I don’t think I was a sophisticated enough reader at the time I read the book really to get everything that Nabokov was doing. So my gloss above might be totally out of place. But it didn’t strike me as a book without a moral core; quite the opposite.

    Because it’s a difficult book, I don’t see why mature readers shouldn’t have a chance to be guided through it by a teacher, even if they’re in high school. Because there’s so much going on, though, I’d probably only recommend it for advanced courses available to high school seniors (or maybe juniors). And I’d like to emphasize that I think a proper reading of Lolita would be a big ask for the average teenager. I don’t think it would be useful or helpful to include it in a general survey class, because most students frankly wouldn’t get much more out of it than “Wow. This book sure has some sick stuff in it.” But for students who choose to do advanced literary study? Those are exactly the readers for whom Lolita might be an appropriate challenge.

    There are a lot of worthy books that I suspect would resonate with high school students far better than Lolita. It wouldn’t be my first (or tenth or, indeed hundredth) choice for a high school lit class. But I tend to hold the view that even texts without potentially inappropriate material can do lasting moral and spiritual damage if badly taught or badly written. I mean, if we’re going to talk about a book where an older man targets and underage girl and seduces her into an abusive relationship, I’d much rather have my kid read Lolita than Twilight. Either text would be a challenge for even a good instructor, but whereas Lolita is brilliantly written and the author clearly intends us to regard Humbert as a monster, Twilight is a hash of terrible prose and the author clearly intends us to fall in love with Edward right alongside Bella. For those reasons, I’d be far likelier to object in principle to Twilight (which is subliterate garbage) taking up space in a high school syllabus than Lolita (which is a masterpiece).

    As for college courses, though, I could very easily assign it in a course on twentieth-century American lit. Indeed, a survey focused on 1950s American lit would make its inclusion almost (almost) a no-brainer. I could also see including it in a course organized around the themes of Pygmalion, and I could see including it in a course organized around themes of misplaced or corrupting desire—in which a film like “M” would also be totally fair game (Twilight would also be a provocative choice for these kinds of thematic courses). Lolita is a thematically rich text with a lot of purchase in popular culture, and there are any number of syllabi where it would be right at home.

    So my short answer to the question is, “Yes, when the right teacher is teaching the appropriate course.” But that would be my answer with regard to most texts.

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