“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” never meant as much as it does for Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”
Whether you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, wondered about Lana Del Rey’s obsessive personalization of the novel or even just recognized the heart-shaped sunglasses, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about “Lolita” and have made your own assumptions about the book.
While the book itself poses questions about toxic relationships, the reliability of Humbert Humbert as a narrator and the mental psyche of a pedophile, what interests me is the exterior of “Lolita” — specifically, its cover.
Walk into any bookstore in the U.S. and you’ll probably find a “Lolita” bound in a cover displaying a girl or even just parts of one.
Over the years, we’ve seen many forms of Lolita on her cover. Sometimes these children — and they are always children — are sitting in sexually charged positions, staring seductively at an unseen audience. Like most women portrayed in art, here Lolita is always seen, from the point of view of a male audience, but never herself seeing the onlooker.
Other times the girls are portrayed as innocents being observed in pristine condition, and on some covers a silhouette of a man, supposedly Humbert, is seen interacting with the girl.
Unlike the infamous narrative of Humbert and his step-daughter, few in the general public know the story behind the cover.
Nabokov never wanted a girl on the cover of his masterpiece. In fact, he vehemently objected to it.
According to the New Yorker, Nabokov wrote to his publisher, “Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for Lolita (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway — that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.”
This quote was published in a critical piece in the New Yorker about “Lolita” covers in 2013, and yet, in 2015, we still see the same doe-like eyes staring intimately from bookshelves everywhere.
If ignoring an artist’s wishes is unethical, creating illustrations they explicitly expressed not to represent their work is atrocious.
But why should we care? Nabokov has long since been dead and buried, and even if “Lolita” made the cut for Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language novels,” people aren’t snagging copies like “Go Set a Watchman.”
Discussion and reconstruction of “Lolita” covers is necessary because the sexualization of young girls is nothing to gloss over.
Our community felt shock at the reveal of Jared Fogle’s pedophilia. Fogle plead guilty to possession of child pornography and engaging in sex with minors in August.
When the public becomes immersed in stories like Fogle’s, the typical questions plague us. Was he always like this, could this have been prevented and — the million dollar question — why?
We participate in discussions about rape culture, the harms of pornography and the subliminal messages in sexually suggestive commercial ads. But when it comes to discourse about intentional and unintentional sexualization of young girls, we fall before the finish line.
Could a cover like those commonly featured on “Lolita” acted as a mental conduit for someone like Fogle? Are images like these conveying the idea to men that it’s acceptable, rational and even natural to find a prepubescent girl sexually appealing?
I’m not saying that looking at a “Lolita” cover is going to cause sexual perversion and begin an epidemic of sex offenders. Even reading the novel itself is unlikely to account for such damage.
However, culture saturated in “Lolita” covers and the belief that sexualizing a young girl is acceptable if she “looks old for her age” might.
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