Is Lolita a Failure of Empathy?

Can you identify with a character who’s barely there, based only on a common gender? This is the question that sprang to mind when I read Rebecca Solnit’s piece, “Men Explain Lolita to Me”. In the article, she talks about how men reacted to her saying that she identified with Lolita when she read Lolita. One commenter told her that none of the characters in Lolita are meant to be “identified” with.

Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov.

I disagree with that premise. I don’t think anyone would write a book, especially one that goes so deeply into the main character’s head as Nabokov does with Humbert Humbert, with the intention that the reader shouldn’t identify with any of the characters. When I read Lolita, I identified mostly with Humbert Humbert. I felt bad for Lolita, but I couldn’t pretend to be able to get inside her head when Nabokov gives her little space to express her own perspective. I took a class on Animal Theory once and in that class we talked about the difference between sympathy and empathy. What I felt for Lolita was sympathy, not empathy.

I feel like there’s just not enough traction laid down by Nabokov to grip onto to understand Lolita strongly enough to “identify” with her, and in that sense I think maybe Solnit chose the wrong female character to make her point about how identifying with the female character (who you’re not “supposed” to identify with) raises the ire of men. I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t identify with Lolita, but that it’s not really possible. She’s a misty figure who lives mostly in HH’s head. She has no emotions, as far as HH and the reader can tell, and I feel like reading emotions onto her would be a kind of violation of her autonomy.

Even though she’s not a fully-fleshed character, Lolita is an enigma. I’d have to read it again to say for sure, but I don’t remember any evidence in the text of how she felt about her situation. I can assume that it was probably a mixed bag – here’s this older man, he’s attractive, he’s taking you places you’ve never been, giving you all kinds of things, saying he loves you… you feel like you’re living this glamorous lifestyle, but then he wants sexual favors in exchange… and by the way, you’re an orphan, you’re his ward, and it’s the 50’s, so good luck going to the police and explaining that your legal guardian is raping you? So she probably stuffed down her sad or angry feelings, because at the moment she was safe, and physical security often ranks higher on a person’s hierarchy of needs than abstract things like freedom or self-respect. HH is at least nice to Lolita (at least by his reckoning – and everything in Lolita is solely from HH’s perspective) and better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, so…

^ and I know that may sound like empathizing or identifying, but you know, Lolita could be feeling something completely different. She may love HH, or she may have been trying to poison his coffee every morning or draw attention to her predicament in public. The problem is that the whole book, all we see is HH’s perspective, so he could have left anything he wanted to out of the story. Point is, HH is an unreliable narrator, so any identifications with characters who are not HH are on shaky ground.

Back to the Solnit article, she assumes that anyone who disagrees with her on her identification with Lolita is either a male or a male-sycophant. I resent that, as a woman who read Lolita and identified with HH. Does identifying with HH make me a male-sycophant? I don’t know, but I find the idea very insulting, since I consider myself a feminist. Lolita is almost certainly disempowered and objectified, but does that mean that women shouldn’t read Lolita? On the other hand, Lolita does force female readers to empathize with the male protagonist, and Solnit argues that female readers already do enough of that and male readers should be encouraged to do more empathizing with female characters. But I don’t agree with her that men who don’t think you can empathize with Lolita are merely taken aback at the idea of of empathizing with female characters, because Lolita is just objectively not defined enough of a character to empathize with. If you say you identify with Lolita, I think you’re taking the word “identify” to mean something more shallow, like “sympathize”, and I think that kind of dilutes the meaning of the word. It’s like saying “I understand” when you obviously don’t understand, you’re just saying it because it’s what you’re supposed to say.

On the topic of supposed to, who said readers have to identify only with the characters that match their gender? That idea is just… ick.

Also on the topic of supposed to, who says you can only identify with good characters? Isn’t the ability to identify with evil characters the mark of a developed sense of empathy? And doesn’t it speak to the author’s skill, that he or she can make you empathize with a character that you’d find repulsive if you only knew the bare facts of the story?

This part I found very interesting:

There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not… Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.

And in her original piece she wrote that Lolita is an example of one such ”failure of empathy”…

I would say that fostering empathy is one possible aim of literature, but it’s not the only one. Literature can entertain and provide catharsis, at which I think Lolita succeeds beautifully. And I don’t believe Lolita is a failure of empathy, either. We get a very good picture of HH’s soul. It’s true that we don’t get a good one of Lolita, but the limited view of Lolita is what makes HH’s narration all the much more real. Do you think he could see Lolita as a fully-fleshed-out human being while he’s abusing her? It’s one of those “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” situations. If Nabokov tried to write Lolita from a third-person perspective, what would be the appeal? You’d have nothing but the cold fact of a 40-year-old man raping a 12-year-old girl. For a reader to enjoy Lolita and not be completely disgusted and want to stop reading, they have to be fairly well-enclosed in HH’s head, and only allowed faint glimpses of the harsh reality. This is what makes Lolita so great: that tension between empathizing with and being disgusted by the main character. The unique thing about Lolita is that this tension is never played for laughs, like it is in most TV shows that rely on cringy humor. Instead, it’s kind of romanticized and quixotic, but it’s a fucked up kind of romance. That tension between dream and reality builds over the course of the book, and eventually the dam bursts when HH finally puts himself in Lolita’s shoes and imagines her thinking: “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” That moment is absolutely heartbreaking and if that didn’t destroy you you are made of steel. Even in that moment, though, HH is reading onto Lolita, imagining what she feels instead of asking her how she feels.

One problem with Solnit’s feminism is that she feels comfortable telling women how they feel, or how they should feel. It’s not stated directly, but it’s implied that women would/should identify with Lolita and not HH. In a sense, she’s projecting her imaginings over the experience of female readers of Lolita just as she’s projecting her emotions onto the character of Lolita.

Back to that quote, though, Lolita is a male-centric story in which women are pushed to the boundaries. Does that make it masturbatory and self-isolating? In that sense, I would have to agree. Lolita strategically doesn’t give the reader enough room to identify with the female character, and in that sense it is a white-male power fantasy.

However, I think there’s a point when you take identity politics too seriously and start to categorize people by their race or gender, erasing individual differences. I think Solnit is edging into this territory in her article when she implies that there is no exercise of empathy between the average white male mind and HH’s mind, as if any white male mind is interchangeable with any other.

The article left me with a lot more questions than answers:

  1. How important is it that literature foster empathy across identity lines?
  2. Should readers be choosing books that show them how to see the world from a different identity?
  3. How many classic books could be summed up as power fantasies? And how many of those are specifically white male power fantasies?
  4. Does sympathizing with a bad protagonist make you evil, does it mean you were evil to begin with, or does it have no effect on your moral standing?
  5. Do books and reading have any relation to morality, or are they purely for entertainment?
  6. Does all reading make you more knowledgeable? Does some of it just confirm what you already believe to be true? And is this “comforting” property a good thing or a bad thing, and in what way?


Well, I am going to ponder these questions in the new year and hopefully read some more diverse authors in 2017!


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