Learning from Lolita, a lecture by Chelsey Shannon


Photo by Demi Guillory

Chelsey Shannon presented her Lolita lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 5 to a full capacity audience, discussing readers’ responsibility in approaching the text.

Demi Guillory, Reporter

UNO MFA candidate Chelsey Shannon stood before a packed, standing-room only audience in LA 197 on Tuesday, Feb. 5. There, she presented her lecture entitled “Learning from Lolita.” Anticipation for the afternoon talk was evident: students and faculty kept piling in until the lecture began promptly at 12:30.

Shannon started by reading from a 1997 Vanity Fair quote on the cover of that year’s edition of the novel: “‘Lolita,’ the only convincing love story of our century,” it promises. Audible gasps and timid laughter filled the captivated room, suggesting some of the audience had prior knowledge of the controversial novel.

The 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov tells a story of Humbert Humbert, a man who is dangerously infatuated with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores Haze. His obsession eventually leads to illegal sexual engagement with “Lolita,” his private name for her. Shannon summarized the story in one definitive sentence: “It is a story about child abuse and a society that facilitates it.”

Nabokov’s story had a lasting influence on popular culture that “many writers only dream” of having, Shannon explained. Pop culture has found inspiration in the image of Lolita in a variety of ways. Shannon referred to examples from the music of Lana Del Ray to the Lolita “fashion subculture in Japan, modeled off 18th- and 19th-century European children’s clothing to the baby-doll styles of the early 1990s,” she said.

Much of her lecture was focused less on Lolita’s cultural presence and more on the neglect of readers who fail to recognize the gravity of its subject matter. As Shannon, in her “unprofessional but ardent opinion” put it, readers have “smothered” Lolita’s flame since it was published in 1955. Readers have “failed to take the dynamite of Lolita and use it to blow up our status quo,” she said.

Shannon argued that the book’s success stems from not the story, but Nabokov’s writing and “glorious” use of language. Readers become so engrossed with the writing that they lose their focus on the story. They tend to forget that the story is Humbert’s “confessional account of his abuse to Dolores” and that failing to read the text actively “plays right into the narrator’s objectionable hands,” stated Shannon.

The story may be fictional, but it is based on the reality that many children and teenagers have long been exposed to adult sexuality. Shannon cites a 2014 study that revealed “50 percent of women begin to experience street-based sexual harassment by age 17 or younger.” Another study found that roughly 11 percent of underage girls are abused or assaulted by adults, according to Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Shannon noted that this compares to just under 2 percent of boys, and that the real numbers could be “even higher” considering not all cases are reported.

Shannon doesn’t discourage anyone from appreciating the novel’s literary beauty—the book is still one of her favorites. But she strongly encourages readers, using Nabokov’s words, to be a “wise, staunch and sensitive” reader. “It would be disingenuous to consider her a mere fictional character, irrelevant to legions of girls navigating a very real, very noxious culture,” Shannon said.

The lecture ended with a resounding round of applause and a declaration that even ambiguous artifacts like Lolita “can do the deep, restorative work we collectively need, provided we are brave enough to face the bliss,” Shannon concluded.