Classic Remarks: Lolita

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s question is:

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

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, who is a pedophile.  He narrates the story, attempting to gain reader sympathy as he describes seducing the twelve-year-old Dolores after he becomes her stepfather.  Critics like to talk about how he gains this reader sympathy; they are fascinated and repulsed by it.  They also like to talk about other things like how the book could be read as a travel story.  I assume this allows them to avoid the disturbing subject matter.

So.  Do we even need to be reading this book?  It’s the most disgusting and upsetting thing I have ever read. I was assigned to read it in school and even got stuck giving a presentation and writing a paper on it.  I had to show up at my professor’s office hours once or twice to “discuss” the project.  This really meant I was using her almost as counseling to pull myself through emotionally.

One could argue that this book might be doing some important work by, I don’t know, making us look at the way we treat pedophiles?  I’m not sure.  I don’t think it really does any work except attempt to titillate the reader.  And when you consider that most college courses assign about eight books a semester, I have to wonder, if you are narrowing down your field to eight books, do you need to pass over another book for Lolita of all things?

I’m not saying that we need to shield college students from difficult subjects, but when do address these subjects, there should be a clear purpose.  Lolita does not offer enough social commentary, in my mind, to warrant emotionally scarring a room full of undergrads when another important book could just as easily be placed on the syllabus in its stead.  Just because someone called a book a classic doesn’t mean we all need to read it.

Leave your link below! Krysta 64


17 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Lolita

  1. alilovesbooks says:

    Playing devil’s advocate, is it not good to have a book that is controversial and that generates strong emotions even if they are negative? I have to admit I haven’t read it (and haven’t really wanted to) but it does sound like a story that would generate some good discussion and make you think.


    • Krysta says:

      Sure, but there are other controversial books and topics out there. When you only have eight books on a syllabus, why must one be one that tries to get the readers to sympathize with a pedophile? It’s like classes I’ve heard of where they show risque photos to talk about pornography laws. Is that helping or hurting?

      Liked by 1 person

      • alilovesbooks says:

        I’m not actually sure. I do think it’s good to bring these issues out into the open but I don’t think it should be to get you to sympathise with a paedophile. I suppose it depends on how it is taught and the level of reader.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. looloolooweez says:

    I think it really depends on the class. The reader has to have the sensibility/sensitivity to know that Humbert is an unreliable narrator and the author is intentionally trying to horrify his audience, not only by the main character’s behavior but by making him “sympathetic”… and I don’t think that’s something that just every student is going to be able to handle properly. An upper level lit class that is structured around unusual/controversial books? Yeah, it would be appropriate. But for a freshman Classic Lit 101 type of class? Maybe not so much.


    • Briana says:

      This makes sense to me. (Though I haven’t read the book; only Krysta has!) But I work with college students and definitely one of the challenges, particularly with freshman, is that many of them are very sympathetic readers. (Which is actually great if you’re an author!) However, many of them have the tendency to agree with whatever the author/narrator of an article/book is saying and not think critically about why they’re agreeing and whether they should based on the evidence presented. It’s definitely a learned skill. It may sound a bit silly, but receiving several freshman essays about how Humbert is a great, sadly misunderstood man whom should be admired would be very likely. (I mean, you can argue just about anything in a college class, but ideally it would be after some thought, not because you automatically agree with the author/narrator of anything you read.)


      • Krysta says:

        I’ve found even some older students have difficulty imagining ways to push back against authors. They’ve been trained pretty thoroughly to see other writers as the experts whose authority they must assume to be credible themselves.

        I think there’s also a troubling tendency for some instructors (or some I’ve met) to see themselves as the enlighteners who are going to pull away the wool from their students’ eyes and make them question all their previous beliefs and values. While it is important for students to interrogate their beliefs, this sometimes occurs by the instructors introducing content that’s meant to have some sort of shock value. Like, “We’re going to watch or read sexually explicit material now because it’s my duty as your instructor to open your eyes to the ‘real’ world and transform you from ‘conservative’individuals who were taught sexuality is private and are uncomfortable talking about it in a room full of thirty people to more ‘open-minded’ individuals who can read and look at explicit content without batting an eye.”

        And I question why this particular lesson has to be taught. What is it to the instructor if their student would prefer not to read explicit material? Why can’t the instructor have students interrogate their beliefs and their value systems and the premises they rest on without deliberately trying to shock students into a new frame of mind? And by looking at or reading explicit material, is in the class actually working against it (as many of them try to do) and saying “Oh, hey, we shouldn’t exploit these individuals” or is the class ironically participating in that same exploitation?


  3. luvtoread says:

    Interesting post! I had to read Lolita for a college humanities class that focused on banned items (movies, books, artwork, etc). We read the book and had a very horrifying discussion on it really. The majority of the class seemed to take Humbert Humbert’s “side” (over Lolita’s), and there was one gal in my class who ended up in tears over our classroom discussion. I probably took this class well over 10 years ago, so I wonder if people’s viewpoints and thoughts would be different now. I certainly hope so. I live in a very progressive, liberal area of the US, and so this conversation was so shocking to me in how people sided in regards to the book, and it made me very uncomfortable. It’s a book that while I can appreciate the writing, the content is something I just cannot read again.


    • Krysta says:

      I think that while today many people would recognize that Humbert’s position is not one anyone WANTS to identify with, the book is written in such a way that readers find themselves tempted to do just that anyway. And many students have difficulty finding ways to read against the text as they’ve been trained to accept writers as those with authority. Part of the instructor’s job is, of course, to help readers to find ways to respond that are more than acceding to whatever the author says. But I think that you can do that with another text. Why, if you’re teaching an American Lit course and can only feature eight books, must you include this one to the exclusion of another? It’s not immediately apparent to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books says:

    Love this post and totally agree!! There are a lot of controversial books out there and some of those would serve a much better purpose than a book about pedophilia sympathy. Your college must be much better than mine was bc we never read 8 books a semester!!! I kind of wish we did though!!!

    Adding to what you said about classics– I think there are a lot of classics taking up space on school curriculums that are being taught because “that’s what has always been taught”… and I know there are much more worthier, better written, better thought-provokers among modern books. I wish those things would get shaken up every now and again.


    • Krysta says:

      I understand why classics are being taught even if the teachers themselves may not enjoy them. If we consider literature a field in its own right with works that influence other works, you need to be familiar with the important touchstones so to speak. Sometimes we treat literature classes as more of a vehicle to develop reading comprehension or even as composition courses, but doing so doesn’t help individuals who might go on to study literature in higher education. You still need to be able to enter grad school having read a good chunk of the Western canon, even if you think the Western canon is ridiculous as a concept.


  5. liliananbookish says:

    Funny thing: Lolita never was included in mandatory school programm in Russian schools whatsoever. Summer reads, yes, maybe, but never was a book to be discussed and reviewed in classes. Says the person who attended Russian school^^


      • liliananbookish says:

        Is that even a topic of debate? That’s news for me 🙂 I mean, I understand that he’s an emigrant, but he’s still considered as a Russian author 😀 Actually, we even have that category of Russian emigrant authors, so it’s like completely out of list of fully Russian authors, but still considered Russian despite changing his citizenship.


        • Krysta says:

          In the U.S., Nabokov can appear on both American author and Russian author reading lists. So it appears that people aren’t really sure what to do with him? Maybe the U.S. really likes him and just wants to be able to claim him for their own. 😉


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