by Doctor Science
Brand, Gerhard. "Lolita." Magill's Survey Of American Literature, Revised Edition (2006): 1-2. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 May 2013.
The novel works on many levels: It is a remorseless satire of middle-class, immature America and a seriocomic commentary on Continental-American cultural relations. More profoundly, it is a moving romance in the medieval tradition of courtly love, with the afflicted Humbert Humbert displaying his derangement by obsessional devotion and self-pitying masochism. He submits himself to his emotionally unattainable mistress as her slavish servant, glorying in her cruelly capricious power over him.[emphasis mine] The medieval tradition of courtly love is calling, they want an apology. Flogging would be traditional.
Sprog the Younger found this gem while researching a paper for English class. She also discovered something I hadn't known, which is that the word "lolita" is filtered out by Google Safe Search. Frustratingly, I don't seem to be able to enable Safe Search for images while leaving it turned off for text results. Having it on for text is really annoying, especially when I'm being an adult searching for adult concepts; having it on for images is crucial if my eyeballs and brain aren't going to be seared.
Poor Mr. Brand is (apparently) a professional lit-critter, but he is also a textbook example of a reader not "getting" an unreliable narrator. It's boggling that a pro trying to give the potted, conventional-wisdom take on Lolita doesn't seem to have absorbed that Humbert Humbert is one of the leading Unreliable Narrators of the literary canon, which I thought was pretty conventional wisdom.
But the trouble with Unreliable Narrator as a literary device is that it's *really* difficult, in a way that makes it hard for the writer to realize what the problem is and to find hir way to fixing it. The problem isn't really in constructing a story with an Unreliable Narrator, it's in conveying it to the readers in such a way that most of them will *get* it, will recognize that the narrator is unreliable and read the story you, the writer, intend them to read. It's all too easy for the writer to decide that readers who don't "get" it are unworthy fools, swine before whom the pearls of your prose have been cast -- instead of recognizing that part of the writer's job is communication, and maybe you're not quite doing it right.
Unreliable Narrators are one of the literary devices fanfiction has helped me to understand far better than conventional English classes ever did, because they're a good deal more common (both as failures and as successes) in fanfic than in other genres.
The great advantage fanfic writers have in writing UNs is that the readers know ahead of time that some characters are much less reliable than others. If someone is writing an Avengers story, for instance, both Loki and The Hulk (as Hulk, not as Bruce Banner) can give you a POV that is extremely unreliable or distorted. Or they can give a POV that is more honest than the conventional heroic POV of, say, Thor or Captain America.
Because fanfic writers and readers share a pre-existing sense of the characters, it's easier for a writer to signal to the reader that this POV is not to be trusted, and easier for the reader to pick up on it, to overcome the very strong human tendency to trust one's own perceptions -- which includes trusting the words a writer is putting into your head.
Sustained distrust is difficult and tiring for a reader, because you have to fight the meaning of each sentence. I think that's why UN is much more successful in short stories than in novels. "August Heat", for instance, is IMHO an extremely successful example of an UN, and it illustrates why UN is often found in the horror or supernatural genre. The very sensation of unreliability, of having to struggle against your own perceptions, is creepy and unsettling, so it automatically puts the reader on horror/supernatural genre terrain.
Getting back to Lolita, I think there's a level on which Nabokov failed as a writer. The fact that you can't safely search on "lolita" proves empirically that many, maybe most, readers haven't grasped that Humbert's POV is distorted, that Dolores isn't really like that, she is not an underage seductress. Even quite sophisticated readers like Mr. Brand here have completely bought into Humbert's vision: they read Lolita as a romance, not a horror story.
I am not completely convinced, myself, that Nabokov meant to be writing horror. I think it quite possible that he both wanted to write an unreliable, evil POV convincingly, *and* to indulge himself in the sexual objectification of a young girl, while condescending to readers who only "got" half of the story. I am dubious because I don't know that he was enough of a feminist to recognize that Lolita was reflecting and even amplifying a cultural narrative where young girls are objectified, sexually exploited, and then blamed for it.
It seems to me there's definitely room for a re-writing of Lolita as horror, with Dolores as the Final Girl in the sense Carol J. Clover explicated in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
Clover suggests that in these films, the viewer begins by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experiences a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.Was Nabokov trying to create that sort of shift, from identifying with Humbert to identifying with Dolores? If he was, he failed for most readers, he didn't leave a clear enough trail for most readers to follow him -- we can tell because they *don't*. I wonder if a writer would need to use some of the techniques of horror to get readers to go there, and which techniques would *work* if the text was still from Humbert's POV.
I see from Wikipedia that there have been several novels re-telling Lolita from Dolores' POV, but none so far that bring forward her character while keeping Humbert's POV. It would definitely be a very high degree-of-difficulty, but then -- so is the book.
And for another example of how difficult it is to read -- and write -- an Unreliable Narrator when romance/sex/love is involved, the following quote was going around Tumblr this past week:
"DiCaprio and Mulligan, meanwhile, don't seem like star-crossed lovers so much as a delusional man in love with a bauble of a woman. Maybe that's intentional?"I have been unable to confirm or deny that this is an actual quote from People, it must have been in last week's magazine, not the current one (with Angelina Jolie on the cover).
— People Magazine's review on 'The Great Gatsby'
 I should confess that I tried to read Lolita only once, decades ago, when I was unsophisticated enough not to realize it was UN. I never finished it because I found being inside Humbert Humbert's head both revolting and boring. This post, then, technically falls under the heading of bullcrit: having a detailed literary opinion about a work you haven't actually, like, read. Also known as "grad school".
 Another advantage of fanfic for lit-critting is that we get into the habit of not assuming the text is perfect and that the writer didn't make any mistakes. High school English teachers could really benefit from spending time with fanfic, Sturgeon's Law and all.
 And not just American or even Western culture, either. "Lolita" is a huge cultural emblem in Japan, pervading both fashion and porn.