I recently came across this article on Cosmo which included Lolita as one of the 29 best “erotic novels” (it’s since been retracted and revised). Now, bad takes are a dime a dozen out there on the internet, and they even find their way onto reputable outlets like Cosmopolitan. While disappointing and revolting to include Lolita on that list, it’s a long standing issue that “we” are shit at watching a movie or following a narrative without automatically placing the narrator/lead character as the “hero” of it.
Perhaps blame rests on the longer tradition of western mythos and storytelling, but regardless, we have an unwarranted tendency to automatically trust whoever’s leading the narrative on the pages we’re turning or at the epicenter of the drama unfolding.
The issue is that this isn’t some modern technique, the unreliable narrator has been used for ages, as has the villainous narrator, and when we automatically grant carte blanche moral/factual authority to a narrator/protagonist we may be missing out on a lot of what a story is telling.
Is it about sex? Yes, but Humbert Humbert’s pursuit of Dolores “Lolita” Haze is meant to be deeply disturbing (not a typo, the narrator of Lolita really has the same name in duplicate). It’s pedophilia/pederasty after all, but is it erotic? Romance? You the reader are supposed to say, without hesitation, ‘abso-fucking-lutely not.’
Nabokov’s stream of consciousness recollection through the eyes of H.H. is meant to convey how artful the worst and most vile people can be with language. The reader, in poring through H.H.’s flowery prose and romanticism of his lust is supposed to never lose hold of how wrong what he’s justifying is.
We need, in any media with this narrative perspective, to remember that narrators are fallible people. In Humbert’s case, they can be outright villains. We don’t think that Screwtape being the voice of the Screwtape Letters makes him an angel, do we?
Equally problematic has always been the unreliable narrator. There’s been no shortage of undue stress caused because people herald Holden Caulfield as an unbroken prism of counter culture, rather than taking any time at all to consider that the kid is clearly suffering from PTSD from watching a friend be killed by bullies who suffered no consequences for their heinous act.
Over the course of the The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway proves he’s not the best person to trust with telling a story of romance because he’s clearly confused about what he considers love to be (see: his impassive breakup with Jordan Baker, and his late night escapade with Mr. McKee).
Walter White is a murderous manufacturer of one of the most terrible drugs known to us.
Humbert Humbert is a vile, child abusing pederast, not a voice of the Romantic or Erotic.