Before March break, English teacher Heidi Hojnicki’s two Form Five AP Language classes studied “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabakov. On April 8, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., both the H and G period classes were lucky enough to host Jenny Minton Quigley via Zoom call.
Ms. Quigley works in publishing and is currently working on her own book, “Lolita in the Afterlife: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the 20th Century.” Her book goes into how “Lolita” has aged as a novel and explores her own unique connections to its publishing; her father, Walter Minton, was the novel’s first American publisher. She also happens to live in West Hartford.
For those unfamiliar with the book, when it was first published, “Lolita” was controversial yet commonly interpreted and taught as a love story. Over time, it’s been revisited and rethought within the world of literature. Today, “Lolita” remains controversial and is known for its narrator, a middle-aged man obsessed with a young girl, Dolores (AKA Lolita), who endures various forms of abuse from the narrator throughout the book. It’s generally studied now as a testament to unreliable narration and has gained increased notoriety in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
During the hour-long class, students told Ms. Quigley about activities and discussions they did in class, volunteered to read Lolita-inspired poetry, asked about her experiences with the book and even answered some of her own questions. “There was kind of like a symbiotic nature to that meeting,” Ms. Hojnicki said. “She benefitted from talking to us; we benefited from talking to her.”
Junior Mary Ellen Caroll commented on the symbiotic nature of the discussion, explaining that Ms. Quigley was equally as interested to listen to the students’ experiences as they were to hear hers. “Ms. Quigley seemed surprised by our class using primarily Dolores-first language,” she said. “Our class generally doesn’t refer to the titular character as “Lolita” because that’s not her name; we usually call her Dolores, and she seemed pretty surprised by that.”
Ms. Quigley discussed a variety of topics stemming from the novel, from the male gaze in literature to domestic violence and even recent events involving COVID-19. A subject discussed at length was the question of whether Lolita should be taught to high schoolers. The general opinion of students was that it should be taught but with restrictions such as providing trigger warnings, allowing alternative options for students, or simply teaching to an altogether older audience. “I’m of the opinion that ‘Lolita’ should be taught, but it should be taught by choice,” Mary Ellen said.
Junior Isabelle Rome said many people in her class thought the book shouldn’t be taught at a high school level. “Most students across the board said we shouldn’t,” she said. Student opinions were taken into careful consideration, and ultimately Ms. Hojnicki has decided to retire “Lolita” from the curriculum.
No matter their opinion on the novel, students agreed that discussing the book with Ms. Quigley was a unique opportunity. “She adds a lot of extra perspective when you’re thinking about the book and looking back having read the whole thing,” junior Braeden Rose said. “She read it in a different time, so you get to kind of try on a different perspective.”
Isabelle said she agreed that hearing from viewpoints other than her classmates was a special experience. “it was a unique opportunity, so obviously we get [Ms. Hojnicki’s] view as an adult view,” she said, “but it was a different type of adult view.”
Mary Ellen appreciated the interesting connection Ms. Quigley has to the novel. “She obviously has a special connection to this book’s publishing and how the cultural zeitgeist effect was changed around the release of this book,” she said.
Braeden said he discovered a whole new side of literature while reading her proposal. “The premise of her book was interesting because there have been so many other books that have done similar things that are almost like a commentary,” he said, “and I didn’t know that kind of literary stuff existed.”
Ms. Hojnicki said she thinks her visit was especially valuable because students could interact with somebody who professionally writes about literature. “We ask y’all to write about literature all the time,” she said, “and I think it’s really helpful for you to see someone who does it and gets a paycheck for it.”
In light of the shift to online classes, the consensus of students was that Ms. Quigley’s visit was a unique and informative experience. “We go to KO, so we can do different and exciting opportunities, and this is an example of something that other people reading this book might not have,” Isabelle said. Braeden agreed that he was glad the conversation was still able to happen. “I think we’re really fortunate that she was able to do the Zoom stuff. It was just really nice that we were able to reschedule it,” he said. Form Five English was glad to have Ms. Quigley’s special insights, despite physical obstacles.