Teaching Lolita

How do we teach traumatic subjects without hurting our students, especially when they are so beautifully narrated by the “bad guy”?

This week I’m teaching Lolita in my American Literature survey course. Lolita is one of my favorite novels, but it’s also complicated and upsetting and centered on really touchy subject matter. I was both excited and incredibly nervous about teaching it. Yesterday was the first of three class days devoted to the novel. So far my students have been really engaged by it and I was pleased that, despite some initial tendencies to think of Humbert Humbert as Nabokov or to read the narrative too one-dimensionally, they are picking up on the gross beauty of Humbert’s narrative voice. They are also noticing some important details about how Humbert tells his story and starting to think about why.

Still, as a teacher of literature and a scholar of girlhood studies, I’m finding it hard to balance relishing in the stylistic beauty of the novel and pushing us to think about the implications of the novel. It’s especially hard as Nabokov asserted that Lolita was a novel without a moral. I’ve basically divided our time into three chunks. Day one was devoted to creating space for students to ask basic questions and start thinking about Humbert as a narrator–how much can we trust him? What are the limits of his perspective? What are the major themes of his narration? Day two will focus on literary form–what genres does Lolita play with (romance, realism, travel, etc.)? How does the frame narrative set the story up? What is the relationship between the narrative conventions and the cultural conventions that Humbert/Nabokov critiques? I’m also having them read short, short selections from On the Road and Travels with Charley to connect Lolita to American highway narratives. Finally, on day three, I’m having them read selections from Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again to set up a discussion about the difference between Lolita in the novel and in popular culture. I’d like us to think about the implications of the Lolita archetype culturally and what it means for a novel to take on a life of its own outside the artist’s original work and desires (i.e. Nabokov didn’t want a girl on the cover of the book and every one of my students’ books have a girl on the cover). I also want them to spend some time thinking about what we really know of Dolores Haze from the book and freewriting about what elements of the story we lose by not having her perspective.

I like the plan, but I find that I’m struggling with the execution because I have a hard time balancing getting content covered while also drawing out the students’ responses. Plus, teaching Lolita has some implications that other novels might not. What happens if the novel strikes a nerve with a student because he or she was abused as a child? What happens if students don’t understand the issues of consent in the novel? It makes me think a lot about pedagogy and students’ experiences. In teaching 20th century American literature, I’m teaching a lot of texts that may push buttons. Students are likely to have different experiences of racism, classism, sexism, violence, etc. and there may be texts that they find really upsetting even if there are others that are really moving to them. So I have some questions about pedagogy.

  1. How do you teach sensitive subjects and create a space where students don’t have to feel exposed or relive traumas but simultaneously a space that asks students to think hard about these subjects?
  2. How do you get students to talk about uncomfortable or controversial content in a way that is sensitive but also critical, without imposing your ideas on them? Or sometimes do you need to do that?
  3. Is encouraging students to delight in texts such as Lolita problematic? How do you clearly balance the delight in the art and the critique of the cultural implications?

So, what do you do? In teaching Lolita, I’ve been trying to get us to think a lot about form and choosing examples to talk about in class that are rich for modeling literary analysis but wouldn’t necessarily make a student for whom the book might feel too personal feel exposed or something. I’ve also talked to other educators about letting students know that they can absent themselves from discussions that could be traumatic, but in a way that is asking the student to out him or herself, isn’t it? I’ve been reflecting a lot on something that one of my friends said in our WGS course last week, that rather than being a safe space, the classroom is an inherently political space, charged with the histories, experiences, and ideas that teachers and students bring to it. I’ve been thinking about how to express that in a way that makes students feel welcome to engage with each other, the material, and me, but also to be aware of the politics of their own positions, experiences, thoughts, and statements.

I think what’s been really neat about our discussion so far was that students could see the way that the book is relevant to the real problem of pedophilia but they’re not dismissing the text because of that. There are some students who are really disgusted and pissed, but even they are thinking critically about what elements of Humbert’s narration make them feel that way, not just focusing on the sexual element. A lot of them are enjoying the uncomfortable mixture of the beautiful narration and the objectionable actions of the narrator. I even have students thinking about what Humbert’s desire means apart from sex. So, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by their level of engagement with the text beyond the salacious, controversial parts, which I think is especially impressive given Humbert’s tendency to slip into French and obscure allusions (which some of them are getting or looking up!). This is a 100-level course. Rock on, class.

Further Reading:

15 Redesigns of the Lolita Cover

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