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Depicting Sexual Predators As Villains In Fiction Is Tricky


Now to a story about villains in literature - and this story may not be appropriate for our younger listeners.

When writers portray a pedophile, a rapist or a sexual predator as a villain, it can be complicated business because their actions are despicable. But written too broadly and the character is cartoonish, too deep and it makes the villain too sympathetic, which brings us to a legendary literary villain created by Vladimir Nabokov and the controversy that's followed the character for a half century. As part of our series on villains, Bad is Beautiful, NPR's Lynn Neary shows us how things have changed.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Nabokov's classic novel begins with a young girl's name, Lolita. She's the target of a much older man's obsession, Humbert Humbert, her sophisticated, charming stepfather. He not only repeatedly rapes her, he even takes her identity, discarding her real, more prosaic name, Dolores Haze, in favor of the nickname he made up for her.


JEREMY IRONS: (Reading) Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

NEARY: For more than 50 years, readers have been entranced by Nabokov's brilliant prose and biting black humor. And Humbert Humbert is considered one of the greatest fictional characters in literature. Crime novelist Laura Lippman first read the book as a teenager. She rereads "Lolita" every year.

LAURA LIPPMAN: As a character, he's terrific. He's charismatic. There is something horribly fascinating about seeing the world through Humbert's eyes. I mean, he's the best company you could have for a very dark and depraved story.

NEARY: But make no mistake, says Lippman, about who Humbert Humbert is.

LIPPMAN: Humbert is absolutely a villain because he knows, in some part of his brain that he's shouting down, that what he's doing is horrible and violent and criminal with complete indifference to another human being. And the human being, in this case, is one of the most vulnerable people you can imagine, a young girl whose mother has been killed.

ELLEN PIFER: Obviously, Humbert was considered a villain because the book was considered, I think, villainous.

NEARY: Ellen Pifer, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, is a Nabokov scholar who has taught "Lolita" many times over three decades. "Lolita" almost didn't get published in this country back in the 1950s. And once it was published, there were attempts to censor it. At the time, Pifer says, little was known about pedophilia. And when well-known writers and critics defended the book against censorship, they paid scant attention to Lolita herself.

PIFER: In their defense of the novel as a work of art, there is a tendency to focus on Humbert - his passion, his love of art, his claim that he's bewitched by the nymphet - and less emphasis, less attention paid to the ruination of a child's childhood.

NEARY: The film depictions of "Lolita," says Pifer, especially Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version starring Sue Lyon, reinforced the image of the young girl as a precocious sex kitten.


JAMES MASON: (As Humbert Humbert) You know, I've missed you terribly.

SUE LYON: (As Lolita) I haven't missed you. But it doesn't matter a bit 'cause you've stop caring anyway.

MASON: (As Humbert Humbert) What makes you say I've stopped caring for you?

LYON: (As Lolita) Well, you haven't even kissed me yet, have you?

NEARY: Readers who know of the book only from the movies are sometimes shocked when they realized how very young Lolita is, just 12 years old, when Humbert first encounters her. And in recent years, Pifer says, attitudes towards Humbert have changed.

PIFER: I would say about 15 or 20 years ago, with our growing awareness of child abuse, the scandals that - you know, in the Catholic Church and other things - that there has been more attention paid again to Humbert's villainy, to his perversity and to the child's plight.

NEARY: When novelist Alice Sebold talks about Humbert, she doesn't mince words.

ALICE SEBOLD: I think of him as a pedophile who knows right from wrong and commits wrong.

NEARY: There is one moment in the book, Sebold says, that seems to sum up Humbert at his worst. After having sex for the first time, he and Lolita are about to head out on their road trip around the country.

SEBOLD: He has this moment of reflection. And he says, it's as if I were sitting with a small ghost I had just killed. And I think that's an incredible line, and it's incredibly chilling. And so I think it's his awareness throughout the book that what he's doing is wrong but his consistent pursuit of doing it.

NEARY: Sebold told a story of a rape from a different perspective when she created one of the most chilling villains in recent memory in her novel, "The Lovely Bones." Mr. Harvey, as she calls him, lures a young girl who lives in his neighborhood into a secret hideout where he rapes and murders her. The dead girl narrates the story. Like "Lolita," this book also begins with a name. But this time, it is spoken by the victim.


SEBOLD: (Reading) Chapter 1 - my name was Salmon, like the fish - first name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

NEARY: The name was important, Sebold says, because too often victims of sexual assault and rape go nameless.

SEBOLD: I'm very aware that without a name, they have no autonomy, they have no authority, they have no identity. People don't listen to you in the same way they do if you have a name. So it was very important for me to get that out right in the beginning of the book.

NEARY: Sebold wrote the book, in part, because she herself was raped. And she wanted the character of the murderer and rapist to feel very real.

SEBOLD: I wanted him to be human. You know, he's a man, and he also does this other thing. But it's much more frightening to think that he's a man that you could pass by on the street than if you just say, oh, he's a monster and get rid of him that way.

NEARY: Both Sebold and Nabokov humanize their villains, but books like "The Lovely Bones," says writer Laura Lippman, illustrate the shift in thinking since the era when "Lolita" was written.

LIPPMAN: We talk a lot about the male gaze. Among the writers I know, there's a real desire to turn the gaze back, to take the stories back, to say the story of a rape is more the story of the victim than the story of the rapist.

NEARY: There's no question, Lippman says, that "Lolita" will always be considered a great novel. And though she may loathe what Humbert Humbert does to Lolita, Lippman still can't put the book down. She plans to read "Lolita" again next year.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.