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.