by Erin Bennett, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019
One of my primary goals when crafting a syllabus for a Reading & Composition course is to select texts with which my 18-year-old students can readily connect, but which also challenge them to develop their own coherent interpretations. Last spring, I settled on the theme of literary villains, and I immediately thought to incorporate Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita into the reading list. I remembered reading this text poolside one summer as an 18-year-old and being bewitched by Humbert Humbert’s rhetoric of seduction, despite the reality of his illicit, abusive behavior towards Dolores Haze. Ten years later, I read the novel again, only to experience a completely different reaction: Humbert disgusted me, and I found his character to be pedantic and grotesque. In other words, the novel’s language worked on me quite differently the second time around, and the breadth of my own responses to the text encouraged me to add it to my course reading list. The novel’s florid prose, I thought, provided an excellent example of how literary works can offer a plurality of meanings and how the practice of close reading can provide access to those various, often contradictory, meanings.
To my surprise, Nabokov’s prose transfixed none of my 17 students; many of them wondered with fervor why I had even assigned such a disgusting book. I had my work cut out for me: how was I to clarify the text’s slyly seductive qualities while simultaneously validating my students’ reactions of disgust? How might I urge them to intuit how Nabokov’s prose has the power to shroud a passage detailing a violation and to suggest an instance of beauty instead? I decided to focus on the extent of this text’s cultural influence. I did some Googling; I typed in the phrase “Lolita today,” and one of the first images that I encountered was an Instagram post by Katy Perry in which she sports a black negligee and lies upon an unmade bed, her eyes looking upward towards the camera. Accompanying the photograph is the caption, “Feeling v[ery] Lolita r[ight] n[ow].” Bingo. Here was an image of a contemporary popstar who was capitalizing on America’s cultural and mythologized conception of Lolita—not as an abused preteen girl, but as a “precociously seductive girl”: Merriam-Webster’s printed definition of a “lolita.” I continued on this path of research and found a lineage of contemporary female celebrities who infantilize themselves in photoshoots with the effect of glorifying the seduction (or coercion) of older men. I compiled these sources into a PowerPoint presentation and showed them to my students, attempting to trace a cultural genealogy of Lolita. These images, in this context, shocked my students; many of them had seen them before or had already heard the lyrics of their favorite pop singers without understanding their references to Lolita. Now, however, these images and lyrics assumed a more sinister tone for my students. They began to see just how relevant Lolita still is, even 60 years after its publication. This realization, in turn, inspired my students to go back to the text to search for what they had previously skimmed over, to figure out how the text spurred such an array of lasting implications. Not only did they face the challenge of close reading the novel’s language, but they also learned the importance of the tedious but essential practice of re-reading. To say the least, our class discussions thereafter became a lot more exciting and engaging.
In order to wrap up our exploration of the novel, I asked my students to write a short essay in which they contemplated the value of reading Lolita in a college literature course in 2018. I was delighted to read my students’ responses, several of which perceptively delineated the power of the novel’s language and the importance of attending to its details, questioning its most apparent meaning, and excavating alternative meanings. An excerpt from one of my student’s responses sums up the success of this project: “What loopholes in the world and culture of Lolita,” he wondered, “allow this child predator to hide in plain sight? And perhaps most importantly, why do his actions and his behaviors seem surprisingly familiar?” He concludes, “The fact of the matter is that even though Humbert’s twisted tale takes place in the America of the 1950s, his behavior can still pass under the radar—and, I dare say, it does pass under the radar, far more often than we would like to admit—in the America of 2018.” The connections that my students made between Lolita and their respective experiences of being in the world through their writing demonstrated to me their deepening critical thinking and close reading skills, as well as their new understanding of what it means to engage ethically with a literary text.