Is the book Lolita a romanticization or a critique of child sexual abuse?

I was reading an argumentative essay on the issue of child sexual abuse in my country and the dissertation started by citing the book Lolita as an example of a story that romanticizices CSA and became “famous”. I was talking about this today with a person I know about finding it kind of meaningless that the author of the text wrote this, but this other person also disagreed with me and reinforced that she also thinks the book is a “romanticization of pedophilia”. Then we got into a discussion about the issue, and I tried to argue that in my interpretation the book would function more as a critique of what is portrayed in it, if you read between the lines. Anyway, she managed to rebut a lot of what I said, but I won’t go into the details of our discussion. I don’t know if you guys read the book or at least watched the movie, but the question I ask here (for those who know this story) is if you think Lolita is a story that romanticizes child sexual abuse or criticizes it? Or do you have any other different views in it? I’m curious to know…

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I’ve never read this book, but I believe people would say that anything “romanticizes” CSA if it doesn’t portray the pedophile as something similar to a psycho serial killer. Because, you know, people are just dumb like that. They only understand the world if it were simple like that. What can we do?
¯\_( ◉ 3 ◉ )_/¯

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The podcast about this argues that the book does not romanticize CSA, but that many pop culture adaptations of it do. The host is particularly hard on Lana del Rey.

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Lolita is a real mindfuck because it’s beautifully written and Humbert earns your sympathy even though he doesn’t really deserve it…sympathy also eventually turns to pity. But, like, it’s definitely a CSA story. There is nothing ethical about Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. She is very young and he puts her in the position of being vulnerable to him with lies. He cajoles and punishes her at times and also eventually resorts to money and bribes to get her to give him sex when she’s not interested.

Lolita indicates many times that she doesn’t love Humbert and is not really consenting - also she’s never old enough to consent to him.

But it’s a beautiful book. You end up emotionally invested even in the moments where you are kinda disgusted because someone is being a jerk or downright pathetic. It’s pretty impossible to justify anything Humbert does, but you still end up interested in his journey.

When I first read the book I had a lot of very complicated feelings and seeing some small part of myself in Lolita led me to understanding that I was a little and needed ageplay in my life. I have even roleplayed Lolita/Humbert scenarios, but as a consenting adult with another consenting adult.

I actually think it fails to romanticize ultimately because everyone frankly ends up pretty pathetic. Or dead.

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Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Like how George Lucas’s space monks turned out to be more fallible than he expected, and the ones who could point out those failings were supposed to be the bad guys.

That’s exactly what I was thinking after the discussion, proof that I only think about the best arguments or most important things to be mentioned after the discussion is over!LOL

I only watched the 1997 movie adaptation, I didn’t think it romanticized this story, but if I had any doubts if Lolita was a story that in fact was a story that sought to romanticize that CSA, they all went away after I read the book. I like Lana del Rey’s song “Lolita”, it’s very “catchy”, but I confess that never stopped to analyze the lyrics of the song.

Not Lolita related, but has anyone ever done a critique of the uncensored novel Josephine Mutzenbacher?

Honestly, I feel that anyone who argues that Lolita is a romanticization of CSA either has not fully read the book, or is incapable of distinguishing between the message of a book and the perspective of a character in it.

Of course Humbert romanticizes and justifies a lot of his behavior (although even he admitted in the end that he messed up Lolita’s life, and that she would probably have been better off without him), but just because the book is written from his perspective does not mean that this is the intended message of the novel. If a novel portrays the perspective of a character who thinks that “X” is good, that does not mean that he author wants the reader to think that “X” is good.

If you just look at the things Humbert does without getting entangled in his psychological justifications, it is imo quite clear that he is not a “good” guy. He grooms Lolita, almost murders her mother so he can be with her, rips her out of her life to run away with her, pays her for sex and so on… He is a romantic psychopath confusing lust for love, and believing that these feelings justify anything he does, no matter how extreme. If anything, the novel is an interesting characterization of what goes on inside a person doing these things.

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You spoke my exact thoughts about it. I even kinda tried to explain to her these points in our discussion, but she told me that she believed the book still had romanticized their relationship, although it didn’t romanticize Humbert’s character (which seemed totally nonsensical to me) and she also argued that at the time the book was released there was a very large tendency in society to normalize relationships of younger girls (including underage girls like Dolores) with older men and that she did not believe that the writer of the book would have the “idea” of making a kind of critique in the book, since “pedophilia” was already very “normalized” in society at that time. I thought the argument was horrible, because Nakabov was in my opinion (and in the opinion of many people out there including people who study/studied literature) a brilliant writer and I’m pretty sure that already at the time of it release, the book had already received a lot of criticism for portraying that kind of “relationship”, so it doesn’t seem to me that society normalized these types of relationships THAT much, but this evaluation depends a lot on the country you’re considering. Anyway, some people have opinions that may seem pretty far-fetched, and unfortunately they’ll just never change their minds. So it’s just up to me to respect and get on with my life… however I really wanted to talk about it here on the forum because it was something that stuck in my head and I believe this is a subject that is relatively within what we sometimes discuss here.

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Admittedly this clip from 42nd street filmed 22 years before Lolita released, but attitudes hadn’t altered much in that time. (& yes they weren’t promoting underage relationships, but as a young child in the 60’s/70’s the message got me believing that I should have had an advantage.)

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I’ve seen all the movies, read the book twice… anyone who reads it at all carefully, sees it is in no way a glorification of CSA, though as Chad_Chan noted, lots of folks feel that if any pedophile is presented as anything but a two-dimensional evil cutout, it’s glorification. Some of his feelings should resonate with anyone who’s been obsessed with another person along the lines of feeling they are in love with them – but acting on them the ways he does is highly immoral. My opinions shifted recently when I was told Humbert is an unreliable narrator. So like if Humbert says Lolita was the first one to suggest sex, maybe that’s not really true in some reality that sophisticated critics understand. I like most people evaluate the book based on what the words in front of you say.

I have a section of my blog on “Fictional Pedophiles”, https://celibatepedos.virped.org/categories/10-Fictional-Pedophiles, and I didn’t even include Humbert because when you strip the art away, he was too uniformly repulsive in his actions. I’d love to talk about those fictional pedophiles with folks, but I don’t understand that new-fangled blog software well enough to really know how to deal with comments reliably (groan). But anyone who really wants can reach me at virped.org.

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Fictional pedophiles are an interesting topic. A while ago, I wrote a blog post attempting to classify stereotypes of pedophiles as they appear in fiction (hint for those who do not speak German: the stereotypes are all negative).

I put Humbert Humbert in a category that I called the “Twisted Manipulator”, which consists of highly charismatic people who subtly and with malicious intelligence manipulate the people around them, with the sole purpose of achieving their ultimate goal of being able to have a sexual “relationship” with a child.

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That was an interesting blog post! I was not previously familiar with any of the films, and perhaps our lack of overlap was largely because I was going mostly for books and you were going for films? But I do think just about all of the pedophiles in the stories I cite are more interesting and do not fit caricatures of evil.

Here’s one that has both a book and a movie:
https://celibatepedos.virped.org/archives/98-Review-of-the-movie-and-book-Lamb.html

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Well, I also mostly focussed on characters where it is explicitly established that they have a sexual interest in children, and which are therefore presumably seen as “pedophiles” by most people watching or reading the story.

For instance, while there are good arguments supporting that Holden Caulfield is a pedophile, it is never explicitly stated, so there is still some doubt. Most readers probably don’t even get the idea that he could be a pedophile, and therefore it does not really affect their idea of what a pedophile is like.

On the other hand, Humbert Humbert’s lust for younger girls is described in great detail, so much more people see him as a representation of a typical pedophile. Therefore, “Lolita”'s Humbert Humbert (sadly) has a much greater effect on the public’s idea of what a stereotypical pedophile is like than “A Catcher in the Rye”'s Holden Caulfield.

I agree with you that most people think pedophiles are terrible, and that is reinforced by the stereotypes of them in the things people watch. For the job you set out to do, I agree wtih you.

I was looking at a much smaller and less consequential situation – how more thoughtful writers have engaged the subject and what sort of pedophiles they have written about. We at Virtuous Pedophiles have had maybe a dozen writers over the years who have a pedophile in their story and wanted our advice on how to portray them more accurately. If “Catcher in the Rye” is still as popular as school reading as it was, entertaining the idea that Holden Caulfield was a celibate pedophile would be a Big Deal, but I have no idea who to approach, or if the idea simply could not be contemplated because it would upset the reading list.

I like the idea of finding more positive role models for pedophiles, especially teenagers and those who are just realizing their attraction. Right now, if you are a pedophile and look to the media for any kind of guidance, the only characters to look up to are basically rapists, psychopaths, sadists and the suicidally depressed.

I am not sure though if it would help to gain sympathy for pedophiles. The question of whether a character is a pedophile is in my experience basically handled as a question of whether this character is irredeemably bad or not. As soon as people hear that Holden was supposed to be a pedophile, they are going to look over any other characteristics that he has and classify him mentally as a villain. See for instance the debate over whether or not Lewis Carroll was a pedophile: those who say that he was (and he very obviously was) argue that he therefore is to be regarded as a controversial historical figure and basically a bad person, and those who say that he wasn’t argue that he couldn’t be, because there is real evidence that he was actually mostly a kind and respectable person. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for us. The idea that someone could be a pedophile and a good person hardly occurs to anyone, and many people seem to be more willing to erase any good characteristics of someone found to be a pedophile rather then letting this idea enter their head.

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Which is hilarious because there are no sane (operative word) calls for Lovecraft being a particular bad person, despite his cat’s name. Or are we worse than racists? Frankly, this level of infamy is something to be proud of at this point.

“The question of whether a character is a pedophile is in my experience basically handled as a question of whether this character is irredeemably bad or not.”

I think you are too pessimistic. Sure, most people won’t change their minds on much of anything, and on pedophilia, even fewer. But there are always the thoughtful ones, young folks just starting out, questioning everything. There’s a sizable collection of social liberals who have never considered that there might be pedophiles who don’t abuse children, but once you tell them that, they are instantly our allies. Winning hearts and minds is slow, hard work, but I figure we use every tool we have, and arguing about fictional characters is more fun than most. :slight_smile:

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Reading that blog post… Yes, I can see those archetypes from what little fiction I’ve viewed with them. There is one character that I can think of that is a bit of The Afflicted Soul type, but also seems a little different from how the archetype seems to be portrayed going by your blog.

I’m talking about games from Japan, by the tway… In the Drakengard game, (which is the predecessor to the NieR franchise) the very first Drakengard game has a nearly unlikable cast:

  • The protagonist is a mass-murderer who abuses his own party members and has no qualms about killing children. None of that “heroic slaying evil mobs” thing, the game spells out that, in any other story, this protagonist would be a villain.
  • The elf is a literal baby eater/cannibal who is only restrained from doing so by the efforts of magic.
  • A child exposed to abuse that goes on to try to end the world and is eaten alive by a wandering dragon in one ending.
  • And another major party member is a pedophile who molested a child in the past, and deeply regrets it… And is easily one of the nicest characters in the game. He took care of children to try to repent for what he did in the past, actively protects the child-characters met in the game, survives in one ending and sacrifices himself to protect his party in another ending.

Honestly probably the first time I’d seen a pedophilic character that wasn’t portrayed as evil incarnate in fiction and arguably one of the most heroic characters in the story. Seemed like a normal person for the most part (though part of that may be do to his traveling companions looking pretty bad in companion…), though the game does state he still feels guilty about what he did and wants to make up for it as best he can. Really blew my mind at the time, but it may have helped cement the idea of such a character not being portrayed as evil incarnate when I learned about the character’s original characterization.

… That said, this character being a pedophile was removed in the English version of the game (except one scene that hints at it), while the protagonist being a mass-murderer who can and will kill children and literal baby-eater’s characterizations were both left alone in the English version of the game… Along with the child character being eaten alive by dragons just off-screen, totally fine… This is also the same game where giant stone babies are going around eating people and you need to kill them, along with fighting a giant pregnant woman.

… But that one character was going too far.

Like… What?

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