Hello all. This was my final for my 20th Century American Fiction course last semester. I don't wanna have to disclaim this, but I know I have to in this day and age: please don't use this for your own paper. Please, go ahead and draw inspiration and use my sources and, hey, paraphrase some shit or cite me, but please no plagiarism. Thank you and enjoy~
Trouble with Children: Tackling Taboos in Lolita and Beloved
Two of the most commonly banned books in American schools, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Toni Morrison's Beloved broach some heavy subjects. The main character and narrator of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, details his attraction to young girls, particularly the title character. Sethe, protagonist in Beloved, and her family are haunted by the daughter she killed. Pedophilia and infanticide—valid reasons to exclude these novels from classroom reading lists. However, by banning books such as these, are young readers being deprived of a different type of education?
When Vladimir Nabokov finally finished Lolita in 1953, it was rejected by several publishers due to its subject matter. Finally in 1955, a house in Paris, France agreed to publish the novel. In the following years, multiple countries banned the book, calling it pornography. Nabokov knew that his book would have problems reaching the public: "In Strong Opinions, […] He writes with cynicism about publishing houses and the three themes which were held in the mid-1950's to be completely and utterly morally subversive: 'Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme (pederasty) but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned [the other two being a happy, successful mixed-race family and a happy, successful atheist].' (316). [...] It seems Nabokov was quite right in his assessment of the three subjects which were held to be absolutely taboo in the 1950's. His list would not be so inclusive these days, since pedophilia would be the only one left on the list." (Jones 12-13). Indeed, the text continues to meet banishment and controversy, sparking debates about censorship and the sensitivity of sexual child abuse.
Chad Brevis, in his dissertation on taboo in Lolita, has a specific theory on the repeated abjection of the novel: "A novel such as Lolita, with its controversial approach to sensitive social topics like paedophilia, incest, rape and murder, undoubtedly sparks discussions of human ethics and morality. Owing to the novel's engagement with these potentially sensationalist themes, Nabokov's fictions have often been analysed in terms of ethics and morality and it has been a recent trend to focus on the author's moral position and reasoning for creating such controversial high art as discussed in his idea of "aesthetic bliss" (Nabokov 358)." (Brevis 121). "Much fuss has been made about the treatment of taboo issues in Lolita, specifically the Western perspective on paedophilia. Many theorists with an inclination to the disciplines of ethics, law and gender studies have taken issue with the sympathetic treatment that the protagonist and "moral leper" Humbert receives (Nabokov 3). The novel's banning indicates to what extent society condemns taboos like paedophilia. […] Within some of the court cases on the banning of Lolita, one concern that reoccurs is that lawyers analyse the text, and not literary critics who are trained to identify the nuances of high art. The problem with this is that the law is not equipped to deal with subtle aspects of literary criticism such as metaphor and allegory." (Brevis 21). What Brevis presents here is that Lolita is only being argued over its superficial content rather than what it'd really about: language.
Nabokov himself, in an Afterword to Lolita and in response to an American critic, says that there is no moral to the story and that the text was really just a love affair with the English language. His treatment of language in the novel creates an inverse relationship between art and truth. If only focusing on the art, one is swept up into the aesthetic (possibly self-indulgent) language performed by Humbert Humbert and can sympathize with him despite his perversion. If only focusing on the "truth," one is swept up in perversion and cannot sympathize with the aesthetic language performed by Nabokov. It's only when the book is presented with a marriage of these aspects that one can wade through each, finding the truth in the art and art in the truth, and understand what Nabokov means. The content is only a mode for the language; "Lolita is a testimony to art itself. [The] narration exemplifies the idea of language as an art form." (Mulready). However, because American society and press is so obsessed with the two opposing, superficial focuses—that students shouldn't read Lolita because it's about pedophilia; reading the self-indulgent prose in Lolita will make students sympathize with a pedophile—young readers don't even get the opportunity to read Lolita as it should be read, because they're stopping them from gaining the analytical skills and craft knowledge to do so.
Unlike the legal hardships and deep, ongoing judgement of Lolita, Toni Morrison's novel Beloved has been raved about since its publication in 1987. It quickly won a Pulitzer Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award, and Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in the film adaptation. And yet, Beloved is still listed as one of the most commonly banned books in the American school system.
The protagonist of Beloved, Sethe, is a black mother who escaped slavery and committed infanticide on her daughter, and attempted infanticide on her other children, to protect them from the same. The plot of the magical-realism novel is how the dead daughter, known only as Beloved, haunts her family, first as a ghost and then in physical form, creating an extreme dynamic of co-dependence, parasitism, manipulation, and abuse, feeding off and taking advantage of Sethe's guilt. Through the efforts of Sethe's community—namely her daughter, Denver, and Paul D, fellow ex-slave enamored with Sethe—Beloved is exorcised from their house and Sethe learns to truly heal. The major themes of the book explore family, trauma, and questions of morality. However, Beloved is primarily described as being "Morrison's most sensitive novel till date. It deals with the forgotten era of slavery and the pathos of black slaves. The most striking element is the heart wrenching story of a black female slave, Sethe, who kills her own daughter to protect her from the horror of slavery." (Gupta 1). The infanticide is the key element associated with the book, often criminalizing Sethe for the act. The circumstances surrounding the murder, which makes it more morally ambiguous, gets ignored by those who oppose the teaching of this book.
Part of the reason those circumstances don't get discussed by the banners may be because its relation to real history. Sethe's tale is the true story of Margaret Garner, "a slave who in January 1856 escaped from her owner of Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River and attempted to find refuge in Cincinnati. But when caught by the owners she looses all hopes of freedom, and kills one of her daughters with the butcher's knife. […] American public considered Margaret Garner and other slave mothers who killed their children, criminal. There have been numerous examples in the American history where mothers have killed their infants to remove the extra burden on them. For instance, Mary Montgomery escaped the plantation with her child but when she found it difficult to escape with a baby in tow, she left, 'her sucking infant behind to die' (Drew 49)." (Gupta 2). Talking about Sethe's tragedy would mean talking about the very real horrors America has imposed on black people, a subject usually glossed over in History classes. America does not want to confront its dark past, which includes not passing such stories as Beloved on.
Morrison;s novel explores the struggle of trauma and the path to healing in a way that includes talking about it, confronting it, getting help for it. Sethe is experience her past in her present, making no progress, and "it is with this physical reincarnation of her daughter that Sethe fully immerses herself in traumatic memory and […] maintains the silence characteristic of trauma, causing additional suffering for herself and her community." (Harvey 64). Likewise, not talking and teaching about America's past horrors will only continue causing the suffering of marginalized communities, because no one will learn and work towards healing the race and culture conflicts that's plagued America since its colonization. Beloved being banned in schools, besides the basic deprivation of quality literature and missed opportunity to harvest analytical and craft abilities, contributes to the systematic silencing of marginalized voices and blocks young Americans from being able to improve their national community.
There's something to be learned from any book. In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the relationship between language and meaning, art and truth, is explored through the lens of pedophilia. Toni Morrison's Beloved explores the relationships of community, trauma and healing, past and present, morality through infanticide. The taboo topics tackled by these two novels are certainly hard to swallow, but act as a mode for so much more that could be beneficial to the development and education of young readers and to society as a whole. Banning these books, especially in a learning environment, is not worth shielding students from "inappropriate" or difficult content.
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Jones, Heather Menzies. Nabokov's Dark American Dream: Pedophilia, Poe, and Postmodernism. Diss. U of New York, College at Brockport, 1995. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Nabokov's Dark American Dream: Pedophilia, Poe, and Postmodernism. Web. 13 Dec. 2015. . /~ .
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. First ed. New York: Random House, 2004. Print. Vintage International.
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