When I first heard Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, I was a naïve sixteen-year-old girl. Naturally most references went over my head, but one particular song, “Off to the Races,” made an impression on me. The song had a sophisticated but crass way about it; I knew that that the first two lines of the chorus “light of my life, fire of my loins,” referenced Lolita, which as far as I knew was some American classic about a relationship between some older man and some girl. Lana Del Rey introduced me to Lolita, though it wasn’t until I read Nabokov’s Lolita last year that I realized Lana had told me a different story entirely. Through what is perhaps a misreading, or a misinformed understanding of the story, the word “Lolita” has come to describe a young seductress, and Lolita, a love story. I hope to demonstrate that reading Lolita like Lana is only possible when you ignore of the tragic aspects of Lolita and Humbert’s relationship; that of a middle aged man repeatedly assaulting a 12-year-old girl and calling it love.
For those unfamiliar with Lolita, the plot follows a lovelorn, tormented man named Humbert Humbert as he narrates his autobiography. He tells his story from a jail cell, awaiting trial for a crime that is only revealed at the end of the book. Humbert details his upbringing on the French Riviera, where he is raised by his hotelier father and his aunt after his mother’s untimely death. The pivotal moment of his childhood is the youthful passion he conceives for a visitor to the hotel, Annabel Leigh. Both children are around 12 at the time; Annabel is fairly strictly chaperoned by her parents, and the young lovers’ furtive attempts to consummate their passion are continually thwarted. Annabel dies four months later of Typhus, and out of this continual interruption, Humbert’s obsession with “nymphets” –young girls between 9 and 14, whom he believes possess a certain sexual precociousness that sets them apart from their contemporaries—is born. He attempts to sublimate his unwholesome longings in marriage to his wife who ultimately leaves him for another man. He eventually travels to America and finds himself in the house of one Charlotte Haze, looking to rent a room. in search of a way extricate himself from Charlotte’s rapacious clutches, he encounters her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores, alias Dolly, Lo, and Lolita, whom he is instantly infatuated with. He watches her every move, flirts with her, and even marries Charlotte to stay close to her. After Charlotte finds his pedophilic longings in his journal, she meets an unfortunate but rather convenient death. Humbert, Lolita’s new legal guardian, abducts her from camp and they embark on a long journey across the country as “lovers”.
Lolita was surrounded by controversy even before it was released; it was accompanied by a tumultuous legal battle and a ban in France despite first being published by a French publishing house, Olympia Press. When it was finally published it was thought as brilliant by some, porn by others, but perhaps the most offensive review of the book called it a love story. Nothing encapsulates this tragic willful misreading of Lolita than the words of Bret Anthony Johnston, an author, who in 2006 described Lolita as “one of the most beautiful love stories you’ll ever read. It may be one of the only love stories you’ll ever read.” He is neither the first or nor the last to fall into the trap of selectively avoiding the rape at the core of the story, of assuming it is possible for a 12-year-old to seduce a grown man. Rather, he is one in the long line. The most influential contributor to the reading of Lolita as synonymous to a young temptress, though perhaps unintentionally, comes from Stanley Kubrick’s film. In his Paris Review Interview, Nabokov tells us himself Kubrick only took “enough borrowings from it in his version to justify my legal position as author of the script […and] did not follow my directions and dreams.” Due to legal reasons, Sue Lyon, who portrays Lolita, portrays a Lolita that is closer to 17 than 12. This age difference is vital in making the relationship plausibly desirable to the average male, acceptable to an average female, and detracting from the point that Humbert is depraved in his desires. Kubrick’s film gives us Lolita lite; those who have the film as their primary source are terribly misinformed, and those who read the book are able to escape confronting the uncomfortable relationship between this middle aged man and a 12-year-old girl. The film enables viewers to forget or avoid the core issue of work: the fact that Humbert wanted Lo precisely because she is not sexually mature, that Humbert was fond of “little girls” not simply “young girls.” As Nabokov, in his Paris Review interview reminds us, that “nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and; ‘sex kittens.’ Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her…by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his ‘aging mistress.’”
In her 2012 album Born to Die, Lana Del Rey extends Kubrick’s interpretation of Lolita. Allusions are everywhere; the song “Diet Mountain Dew” name checks the famous “heart shaped sunglasses” Lolita wears in Kubrick’s film (but nowhere in the book); Del Rey names a song “Carmen,” one of Humbert’s nicknames for Lolita, and song on the Deluxe edition is given Lolita’s name. “Off to the Races” is perhaps the best example of the romanticized dynamic between Humbert and Lolita. Lana begins by letting us know that her lover, her “old man” is old enough to be her father. She wants to be loved in the same manner that Humbert Humbert loves Lolita. She craves and yearns for the twisted love of ownership and worship. Lana’s lover is a dirty, rich man who constantly splurges on her in exchange for sexual favors and companionship, as in Lolita, the only exception being the fact that this prostitution of self is very much mutual, even encouraged. Because of the history of misreading Lolita, Lolita has somehow come to mean, in the cultural lexicon, an underage siren whose sexual appeal is recognizable to all, a reading that accepts Humbert’s view of Lolita as accurate, and unfair to the character of Lolita.
This misreading is a product of forgetting that embedded in Lolita is a critique of America’s advertisement culture. One of the core themes of Lolita is a critique of advertising, -ads being a mimicry of art that confuses the world of art and artifice in order to manipulate another person- understanding this, makes it fairly simple to avoid this misreading of Lolita as a sex symbol or a party in some love story. The theme of advertisement-language in Lolita suggests that language can be used to depict objects or realities in a way that adds artificial value, and one of Humbert’s intents as an adman is to commodify his behavior: to sell it to the jury and the reader. He describes Lolita in an alluring way that transforms her from a child into an object of erotic desire. He depicts the child in a way that actively counteracts the audience’s disgust to the idea of lusting after a twelve-year-old child, steering the audience to read the work as that of a poetic anguish of unrequited love, a tale of one man’s torment in the face of his beloved’s frigid contempt, and portraying her at times as a willing participant, “I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.” (132) Understanding Humbert’s depictions of Lolita as moments of advertisement-language allow us to see that his relationship with Lolita is rendered more beautiful or valuable than it actually may be. There is no better critique of mass advertising culture than the ability of one ad man, from his jail cell to successfully to sell his pedophilic relationship and sexual abuse of his step daughter as a love story. This critique is sharpened by Lana Del Rey and Co.’s current and continual misreading of Lolita: it is the latest entry in the tragic legacy of glorifying a Lolita that never truly existed.