Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production: AA Productions. An Anya Productions/Transworld Pictures production, in association with Seven Arts Productions, for MGM; black and white; running time: 153 minutes; length: 13,798 feet. Released June 1962.
Producer: James B. Harris; screenplay: Vladimir Nabokov, from his own novel; additional dialogue: Stanley Kubrick; second unit director: Dennis Stock; assistant directors: René Dupont, Roy Millichip, John Danischewsky; photography: Oswald Morris; camera operator: Denys N. Coop; editor: Anthony Harvey; assistant editor: Lois Gray; sound editor: Winston Ryder; sound recordists: Len Shilton, H. L. Bird; art directors: Bill Andrews, Sidney Cain; music: Nelson Riddle.
Cast: James Mason (Humbert Humbert); Sue Lyon (Lolita Haze); Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze); Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty); Diana Decker (Jean Farlow); Jerry Stovin (John Farlow); Suzanne Gibbs (Mona Farlow); Gary Cockrell (Richard Schiller); Marianne Stone (Vivian Darkbloom); Cec Linder (Physician); Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore); William Greene (George Swine); C. Denier Warren (Potts); Isobel Lucas (Louise); Maxine Holden (Receptionist); James Dyrenforth (Beale); Roberta Shore (Lorna); Eric Lane (Roy); Shirley Douglas (Mrs. Starch); Roland Brand (Bill); Colin Maitland (Charlie); Irvine Allen (Hospital Attendant); Marion Mathie (Miss Lebone); Craig Sams (Rex); John Harrison (Tom).
Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita, New York, 1974; second edition, 1983.
Austen, David, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, London, 1969.
Walker, Alexander, Stanley Kubrick Directs, New York, 1972.
Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, New York, 1972.
Devries, Daniel, The Films of Stanley Kubrick, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973.
Hirschhorn, Clive, The Films of James Mason, London, 1975.
Phillips, Gene D., Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey, New York, 1977.
Winters, Shelley, Shelly, Also Known as Shirley, New York, 1980.
Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, Paris, 1980; revised edition, 1987; translated as Kubrick, London, 1983.
Kolker, Robert Philip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick,Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Oxford, 1980; revised edition, 1988.
Walker, Alexander, Peter Sellers: The Authorised Biography, London, 1981.
Sylvester, Derek, Peter Sellers: An Illustrated Biography, London, 1981.
Hummel, Christoph, editor, Stanley Kubrick, Munich, 1984.
Brunetta, Gian Piero, Stanley Kubrick: Tempo, spazio, storia, e mondipossibili, Parma, 1985.
Falsetto, Mario, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, Westport, 1994.
Jenkins, Greg, Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation: ThreeNovels, Three Films, Jefferson, 1997.
Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion, London, 1999.
Sweeney, Kevin, James Mason: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, 1999.
Garcia Mainar, Luis M., Narrative & Stylistic Patterns in the Films ofStanley Kubrick, Rochester, 2000.
Nelson, Thomas Allen, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze, Bloomington, 2000.
Hollywood Reporter, 13 June 1962.
Variety (New York), 13 June 1962.
New York Times, 14 June 1962.
Kine Weekly (London), 6 September 1962.
Croce, Arlene, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1962.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1962.
Buckley, Michael, "Shelley Winters," in Films in Review (New York), March 1970.
Posthumus, P., in Skrien (Amsterdam), February 1982.
Sineux, M., "Lolita: De mirage en cauchemar," in Positif (Paris), March 1984.
Combs, Richard, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), August 1984.
Burns, D. E., "Pistols and Cherry Pies: Lolita from Page to Screen," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), October 1984.
Combs, Richard, "Motel Passion," in Listener (London), 12 April 1985.
Schrader, Paul, "Lolita," in American Film, vol. 15, no. 1, October 1989.
"Quilty by Suspicion," in New Yorker, vol. 68, 18 January 1993.
Bick, Ilsa J., and Krin Gabbard, "'That Hurts!': Humor and Sadomasochism in Lolita: The Circulation of Sadomasochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 1994.
Gabbard, Krin, "The Circulation of Sadomasochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 46, no. 2, 1994.
Elia, M., "Lolita de Stanley Kubrick," in Séquences (Haute-Ville), no. 189/190, March/June 1997.
Taubin, A., "Hell's Belles," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 42, 29 April 1997.
McGinn, Colin, "The Moral Case for Lolita," in Times LiterarySupplement, no. 4926, 29 August 1997.
Seesslen, G., "3x Lolita," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 15, January 1998.
* * *
Undoubtedly a film by a great director benefits from being seen again in retrospect, since the films he has directed subsequently shed a new light on it. Such is the case with Lolita (1962), misunderstood at the time of its release when Kubrick's status as an auteur was not yet firmly established. The reputation of Vladimir Nabokov, author of the original and scandalous book, overshadowed the director's attempt at translating it for the screen. Two main criticisms were levelled at the film: one was its "betrayal" of a literary masterpiece, its failure to create an equivalent style, while the other was the disappointment of many who expected a titillating erotic experience. Seen today Lolita appears as a turning point in Kubrick's career.
On the most superficial level it marks his departure from America (to which he would never return). Because of the pressure of the moral leagues and also probably for financial reasons, Kubrick decided to shoot the film in London and decided to settle there. Lolita is the first feature where he decides to recreate a concrete world (the American province and its highways) in the artificial setting of a studio as he would with the Vietnam war of Full Metal Jacket. But more deeply Lolita is a study of madness that anticipates Dr. Strangelove and The Shining. Because of the censorship problems Kubrick displaced the focus of the story from the nymphet's relationship with an older man (Sue Lyon was too old to be a convincing nymphet anyway) to the obsessional nightmare of Humbert Humbert. From the first shot of Lolita appearing in a sunlit garden the film progressively becomes a journey to the end of the night which leads James Mason to a crisis of insanity in a dark hospital corridor and the murder of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) among the shadows of a baroque mansion.
The producer, James B. Harris, and Kubrick had acquired the rights of the novel in 1958 in the wake of their recent successes The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Asked to write an adaptation Nabokov delivered a script that would have led to a seven-hour film. He resumed work on it but eventually Kubrick changed it considerably, more than the credits suggest. In the foreword to his original screenplay, published in 1974, Nabokov writes, with wry humor and admiration, "At a private screening I had discovered that Kubrick was a great director, that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used . . . . My first reaction to the picture was a mixture of aggravation, regret, and reluctant pleasure."
The transformations made by Kubrick were all directed towards black humor and a sense of the grotesque. He particularly developed the character of Clare Quilty, a kind of superego for Humbert Humbert (Sellers, in anticipation of his three roles in Dr. Strangelove, disguises himself as a school psychiatrist, the threatening Dr. Zemph, and also a member of a Police convention, being clearly marked as an authority figure) and introduced scenes of macabre irony, like the ping-pong game before Quilty's murder.
Kubrick also emphasizes the social satire, looking at the American small town's life from the point of view of the visiting European Professor (played by the always suave and sophisticated English actor James Mason), as if he, who had just settled in England, were already a stranger in his own country. The scene in the drive-in with Lolita and her mother, the chess-game, and his listening to the mourners after Charlotte's death as he sits in the bath-tub are obvious examples of this satirical look at the vulgarity of the middle-class.
Followed as it was by the science-fiction trilogy (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange) Lolita may have looked at one time to be far away from Kubrick's new concerns. However, both Barry Lyndon and The Shining, two studies (among other elements) of domestic life, force us to look back on the earlier film with its intimation of the work to come. Kubrick casts the same cold eye and adopts the same pessimistic derision as he portrays the fate of his masochistic hero. But at the same time he lets the emotions come through at key moments, allowing Humbert Humbert to appear as a three-dimensional character, a rare feature in Kubrick's films, which generally tend to offer stylized heroes or abstract silhouettes.
"Lolita." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lolita
"Lolita." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lolita
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Lolita began as a novel and has become a code-word for the attractions of sexual girlhood. The novel titled Lolita was written by Vladimir Nabokov between 1949 and 1955, and published in France in 1955 and in the United States in 1958. Nabokov was born in Russia in 1899 and emigrated to the United States in 1940 after living in Europe since the Russian Revolution. He taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and Cornell University until the financial success of Lolita allowed him to stop teaching and move to Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977. Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls desperately in love with a young girl, Lolita, whom Nabokov famously described as a "nymphet." Humbert Humbert marries Lolita's mother in order to get close to her. After Lolita's mother's death, Humbert Humbert's passion is consummated during the course of an epic car trip, which ends in tragedy.
While Nabokov claimed his real subject matter was the esthetics of extreme erotic desire, the ostensibly pedophilic content of his novel rendered it scandalous. The book manuscript was first rejected by four United States publishers, then published, in English, by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press in France, and finally in an American edition by Putnam in 1958. The novel elicited outraged protests against its content, which did not lead to censorship in the United States, but caused the Olympia Press edition to be banned by the French Ministry of the Interior, at the request of the British Home Office. Having already generated brisk illicit sales, Lolita soared to the top of the United States' best-seller lists once it was officially published. Three days after publication, 62,500 copies were in print, and by 1964 the novel had sold 2.5 million copies in the United States alone. By the mid 1980s, Lolita had sold about 14 million copies aroundthe world.
Lolita 's notoriety was magnified by its translation into film. The famed director Stanley Kubrick created his screen version in 1962, starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Sue Lyon (then fifteen years old) as Lolita, Shelley Winters as Lolita's mother Charlotte Haze, and Peter Sellars as Humbert's rival Clare Quilty. The film's screenplay was written by Nabokov himself. The film proved as controversial as the novel had been. After much debate and some editing of the film, it was released, but rated for adults only.
Kubrick's Lolita provided an image that resonated as widely as the novel's title. In an early scene, Lolita, reclining on the grass in a two-piece bathing suit, casts a sultry gaze at Humbert Humbert over her sunglasses. This image became conflated with a publicity still for the film showing a close-up of Lolita looking over red heart-shaped sunglasses while sucking on a red lollipop. Merged in the popular imagination, these two images have come to stand for Lolita, and, by extension, for the entire issue of whether precocious sexuality is an abusive adult fantasy, or the reality of incipient adolescence.
A sign of Lolita 's ongoing relevance was the remake of the film by Adrian Lyne in 1997. The new film's screenplay was by Stephen Schiff and starred Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita (with a body double widely announced to be playing Lolita's sex scenes). Though Lyne had proved himself to be a commercially successful director in the past, he had great difficulty finding a U.S. distributor for the film. The problem of sexuality in and with young girls, "nymphets," remains a troubled cultural terrain and the ambiguities of Lolita that connect pedophilia with sexual precocity incorporate and reflect that terrain.
See also: Images of Childhood; Theories of Childhood.
Nabokov, Vladimir. 1964. "Interview: Vladimir Nabokov" Playboy 11 (January): pp. 35–41, 44–45.
Nabokov, Vladimir. 1991 . Lolita. Rev. ed., annotated and introduced by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: Vintage Books.
Phillips, Glen D., and Rodney Hill. 2002. The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Facts on File.
"Lolita." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lolita
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"Lolita." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lolita
"Lolita." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lolita
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"Lolita." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lolita-0
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By: Vladimir Nabokov
Source: Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Everyman's Library. New York: Knopf, 1992. Originally published in 1955.
About the Author: Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He was the oldest of five siblings and was raised in a wealthy, aristocratic family. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, Nabokov and his family moved to England where he enrolled in Cambridge University to study French and Russian literature. After leaving England in 1922, Nabokov published his first Russian novel, Mary, in 1925; he continued to publish novels in Russian during the years before World War II, when he lived in Germany and France. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first English novel, was published in 1941. In the 1950s, while pursuing another of his passions—the study of butterflys, Nabokov wrote his most famous work, Lolita. He died in 1977 having published several other works during the last sixteen years of his life, including Pale Fire and Ada; or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. None of them matched the notoriety of Lolita.
After being rejected by four American publishers, Lolita was finally published in 1955 by a French publisher, Olympia Press. The book's first printing of 5,000 copies sold out quickly after author and critic Graham Greene hailed the work in the London Times as one of the best books of the year. Lolita also received other, less laudatory reviews as well. John Gordon of the Sunday Express called it "sheer unrestrained pornography"; the British Home Office confiscated all copies that entered the country. In 1956, the French interior minister banned the novel as well; it remained forbidden for two years. In 1958, the book was finally published in the United States and sold 100,000 copies in three weeks, the first novel to do so since Gone with the Wind.
The novel tells the story of Humbert Humbert, who is writing a novel from his jail cell, where he's being held while on trial for murder. His manuscript recounts his love affair with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, or Lolita, the daughter of his landlady, Charlotte Haze, who rented a room to Humbert after his wife left him on the eve of their emigration to the United States.
Humbert, still recovering from an earlier, unrequited infatuation with Annabel, another "nymphet," soon becomes obsessed with Lolita. When her mother sends Lolita away to summer camp, Humbert marries Charlotte. After Charlotte discovers Humbert's journal documenting his obsession with Lolita, she is struck by a car.
Humbert picks up Lolita from her summer camp and tells her that her mother is at a hospital. The two have their first sexual encounter and then set out on a driving tour of the United States. As they travel for the next year, they continue the affair. They settle in the town of Beardsley, but their stay is short-lived. Lolita is pursued by Clare Quilty, a well-known writer and producer of pornography, who eventually bribes Lolita to leave Humbert and work for him. After years apart, Humbert receives word from Lolita, who is now eighteen, that she needs his help. Humbert finds Quilty and kills him, feeling justified that he did society a favor by killing a person with such perversions.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Nabokov's son Dmitri once noted that his father was more than "a person who wrote a very dirty book put out by a very dirty publisher." However, Lolita's legacy overshadowed most of Nabokov's later literary works. Advocates and academics assert that the novel itself was benign, but that its legacy overtook the novel itself. The book was first translated to film in a 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick with a screenplay written by Nabokov himself. The film ran into the same problems that the book at first encountered. Kubrick was forced to deal with film industry censor-ship as well as powerful film rating groups who deemed it obscene. A 1997 film version received additional objections about the content.
Nabokov supporters suggest that the image of Lolita has been transformed by mass media. The book itself is not taught to high school students, not taught to many undergraduates, and has not been a best seller since it was first introduced. However, the idea of Lolita emerges in advertising; allusions—such as Amy Fisher's nickname "The Long Island Lolita"; and in music like the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Lolita branding covers anything from call girl services to underwear.
In August 1996, the First World Congress Against Commercial Exploitation of Children protested the release of the 1997 film version of Lolita and launched an attack on "Lolita imagery" in advertising. Regardless of academic acclaim of the book Lolita, much of society refuses to tolerate the depiction of pedophilia.
Marks, John. "Lolita, a Girl for the '90s." U.S. News and World Report (October 14, 1996).
Schiff, Stacy. "Forever Young." New York Times (September 15, 2005).
CNN In-Depth Reports. "Beyond Lolita: Rediscovering Nabokov on His Birth Centennial" 〈http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/books/1999/nabokov〉 (accessed March 20, 2006).
"Lolita." Gender Issues and Sexuality: Essential Primary Sources. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/educational-magazines/lolita
"Lolita." Gender Issues and Sexuality: Essential Primary Sources. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/educational-magazines/lolita
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For Further Study
When Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was first published in 1955 in Paris, it was soon banned for its controversial content. Yet as an underground readership grew, the novel gained international attention, and, as a result, the bans were lifted. Immediate responses to the work were understandably mixed. Many critics condemned it as pornographic trash, citing its "obscene" descriptions of a pedophile's sexual activities. Others applauded the work's originality and sparkling wit. The novel has now, however, gained almost universal approval as a brilliant tour de force. Readers find middle-aged narrator and protagonist Humbert Humbert to be both perpetrator and victim of his disastrous obsession with the young Lolita. In his record of his relationship with her, Humbert becomes a complex mixture of mad lecher who "breaks" the life of a young girl and wild romantic who suffers in his pursuit of his unattainable ideal. Donald E. Morton in his book Vladimir Nabokov argues that "what makes Lolita something more than either a case study of sexual perversion or pornographic titillation is the truly shocking fact that Humbert Humbert is a genius who, through the power of his artistry, actually persuades the reader that his memoir is a love story." Nabokov's technical brilliance and beautiful, evocative language help bring this tragic character to life.
Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Twenty years later, during the Bolshevik Revolution, he and his aristocratic family fled to Berlin. After graduating with honors from Cambridge in 1922, Nabokov lived in Berlin and Paris where he wrote and taught English and tennis. In 1925, he married Vera Slonim, who became his lifelong helpmate and mother of his only child, Dmitri.
In 1940, Nabokov immigrated to the United States where he soon became a citizen and embarked on an illustrious teaching career at Stanford, Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard. After he moved to America, he began writing in English, a change that he notes with despair in his Afterword to Lolita:
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
Critics, however, insist that Nabokov's American period was his most successful. During his years in the United States, he completed his highly acclaimed Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), Lectures on Literature (1980), and Speak Memory (1951), as well as other noteworthy works. Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, Switzerland. During his lifetime, he was awarded the Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing in 1943 and 1952, the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1951, a literary achievement prize from Brandeis University in 1964, the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969, the National Medal for Literature in 1973, and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980 for his Lectures on Literature.
Lolita chronicles the life of its narrator and protagonist, Humbert Humbert, focusing on his disastrous love affair with a young girl. In this dark, comic novel, Nabokov paints a complex portrait of obsession that reveals Humbert to be both a middle-aged monster and a wild romantic who fails to attain his ideal.
In the Foreword, fictitious Freudian psychiatrist John Ray, Ph.D., who claims to be editing Humbert's manuscript titled "Lolita or The Confession of a White Widowed Male," notes that Humbert died in prison in November 1952 of heart disease a few days before the beginning of his trial. He also reveals that Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, who the reader will discover at the end of the book is Lolita, died in childbirth on Christmas Day, 1952. Ray, whom Nabokov later admitted he "impersonated," warns readers that they will be "entranced with the book while abhorring its author."
Humbert begins his memoir with "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." He admits that Lolita had a precursor, and that "there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child." During the summer of 1923, Humbert and Annabel, both thirteen, fell "madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other," but were unable to find an opportunity to express it. When Humbert notes that Annabel died four months later of typhus, he wonders, "was it then … that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?" He asserts his conviction, though, that "in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel." He defines Lolita as a nymphet, a category of young girls between the age of nine and fourteen who exhibit "fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm," and a certain "demonic" nature.
After Annabel's death, Humbert became obsessed with "nymphets," a condition that eventually prompted him to marry in order to keep his "degrading and dangerous desires" under control. After a few unhappy years, his wife Valeria left him for another man, and he departed for America, where he worked in his late uncle's perfume company. He was hospitalized several times for mental breakdowns before he moved to a small New England town where he could write.
Humbert rents a room from middle-aged widow Charlotte Haze, who has a twelve-year-old daughter named Dolores, or, as Humbert would come to call her, Lolita. He immediately begins a "pathetic" obsession with Lolita that prompts him after several weeks to marry Charlotte in order to be closer to her daughter. One day after reading his diary, which contains vivid descriptions of his true feelings for her and Lolita, a furious Charlotte confronts him and demands that he leave. Refusing to hear his excuses, she runs out of the house, but before she can mail some letters that will expose him, a car runs her over. "McFate," as Humbert calls it, has just given him the opportunity to have Lolita to himself.
After the funeral, Humbert picks Lolita up from camp and tells her that her mother is about to undergo a serious operation. That night, he takes her to the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where he plans to drug her and then spare "her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anesthetized little nude." The sleeping pill he gives her, however, does not have the effect he had hoped for, and so he cannot fulfill his desires. After a restless night, Lolita wakes up, looks at Humbert lying next to her, and promptly seduces him. Later, she tells him she had sexual experiences with a boy at camp. The fact of her previous sexual encounters helps ease his guilty feelings until he notices that "a queer dullness had replaced her usual cheerfulness." Later, when she wants to call her mother, he admits she is dead. That night she comes crying to his bed, for "she had nowhere else to go."
During the next year, as the two travel across America posing as a typical father and daughter on a cross-country trip, Humbert admits that he constantly has to bribe Lolita for sexual favors. He threatens to send her to a reformatory school if she tells anyone about their relationship. At the end of the year, they settle in Beardsley, a northeastern college town where he works on his book and she enrolls in a private girls' school. He keeps "a sharp eye on her" there, restricting her privileges. After an argument, Lolita announces her desire to leave the town and to travel again, and so the two begin another cross-country odyssey. This time Humbert suspects that someone, probably a detective, is following them. During their trip, Lolita comes down with the flu and has to be hospitalized, while Humbert fights his symptoms in a hotel room. When he recovers and calls the hospital to arrange for her discharge, an administrator informs him that her "uncle" had picked her up the day before. Enraged, he begins a desperate search for her and her "abductor" as he heads back east.
Humbert spends the next "three empty years" on the East Coast where he meets and has a brief relationship with a young, rather dim-witted, woman. After receiving a letter from Lolita, who is pregnant, married, and in need of money, he travels to her home where she fills in the missing parts of their story. She explains that she ran off with Clare Quilty, the director of her school play, because he was "the only man she had ever been crazy about." When Quilty pressured her to engage in group sex and in pornographic movies, she left, and eventually married Dick, her "sad-eyed" husband. Even though she now has "ruined looks" and is "hopelessly worn at seventeen," Humbert confesses, "I knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else." When she refuses to come back to him, Humbert gives her some money and leaves, acknowledging that he has broken her life. Eventually, bent on revenge, he tracks down Quilty, and after a prolonged struggle, kills him. His final request is that the manuscript he has written about himself and Lolita be published only after he and Lolita have died, so that "in the minds of later generations" the two can share "immortality."
Lolita's "elegant, cold, lascivious, experienced" girlfriend. Humbert decides she "had obvi-ously long ceased to be a nymphet, if she ever had been one."
Jean and her husband John are Charlotte's friends. In an effort to prevent the pair from paying too much attention to his plans, Humbert suggests that Lolita is the product of an affair he had years ago with Charlotte. Humbert considers Jean "absolutely neurotic" and notes that she "apparently developed a strong liking for me." Jean dies of cancer two years later.
Farlow looks after Charlotte's estate after she dies.
Gaston, who teaches French at Beardsley College, finds Humbert and Lolita a house to rent. Humbert trusts him because he is "too self-centered and abstract to notice or suspect anything." While revealing a "colorless mind and dim memory … nonetheless, everybody considered him to be supremely lovable." Humbert suggests a sinister motive behind Gaston's enjoyment of the company of the small boys of the neighborhood: "There he was devoid of any talent whatsoever, a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar, a glum repulsive fat old invert, highly contemptuous of the American way of life, triumphantly ignorant of the English language—there he was in priggish New England, crooned over by the old and caressed by the young—oh, having a grand time and fooling everybody."
Lolita's mother appears as both victimizer and victim. Humbert rents a room from her and eventually marries her so that he can be close to Lolita. Charlotte is a type of middle-aged woman "whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor … utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished." She "combined a cool forwardness … with a shyness and sadness that caused her detached way of selecting her words to seem as unnatural as the intonation of a professor of speech." Charlotte resents Lolita's affection for Humbert and so packs her off to camp. Humbert writes, "she was more afraid of Lolita's deriving some pleasure from me than of my enjoying Lolita." Yet she turns into a "touching, helpless creature" with Humbert, at least until she discovers his true feelings about her and Lolita. "McFate" conveniently removes her from Humbert's life when she is hit by a car.
A name invented by the author/narrator of "Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male." Humbert is a witty, cultured European with a destructive obsession for young girls. For several years he lives with Lolita, his young stepdaughter, whom he coerces into granting him sexual favors. In his recreation of his life with Lolita, he calls himself "an artist and a madman." He tries to convince the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury," of the following partly true description:
the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! … We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.
Yet at other points, Humbert admits that his "pathetic" obsession with Lolita "broke" her life. In the Foreword, the narrator suggests that Humbert writes of himself and Lolita with "a desperate honesty," and comments on "how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendress, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author." Humbert dies of heart disease in prison, while awaiting his trial for the murder of Lolita's lover, Clare Quilty.
Valerie is Humbert's first wife. He marries her in an effort to control his desire for young girls. Humbert admits he fell for "the imitation she gave of a little girl," but soon discovers she is at least in her late twenties. Initially his naivete prevents him from seeing that he "had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba…. Her only asset was a muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort in [their] small squalid flat." When she falls in love with another man, Humbert leaves for America. Later, he finds out that she died in childbirth.
- Lolita was twice adapted for the screen. The first version was directed in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick from Nabokov's screenplay and starred James Mason, Shelley Winters, and Sue Lyon as Lolita. This initial film was released by Warner and is available from Warner Home Video.
- The second film version, featuring a screenplay by Stephen Schiff, was directed by Adrian Lyne and stars Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, and Dominique Swain. The film was released in 1997 by Trimark and is available from Vidmark/Trimark Home Video.
- The novel was also recorded in an audio version read by Jeremy Irons and released by Random House Audio in 1997.
In the first lines of the novel, Humbert characterizes Lolita as "light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." Readers see her from Humbert's point of view, which presents an often idealized but sometimes realistic image of this young girl, with whom he had an incestuous relationship for several years. Initially he defines Lolita as a nymphet, a category of young girls between the age of nine and fourteen who exhibit "fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm," and a certain "demonic" nature. He admits, "what drives me insane is the two fold nature of this nymphet—of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pink-ness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country …; and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels." Sometimes he sees her as
a combination of naivete and deception, of charm and vulgarity, of blue sulks and rosy mirth…. When she chose, [she] could be a most exasperating brat … [with her] fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style—a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl.
Most often, Humbert projects Lolita as a vision of innocent beauty, as when he watches her play tennis:
[E]verything was right: the white little-boy shorts, the slender waist, the apricot midriff, the white breast-kerchief whose ribbons went up and encircled her neck to end behind in a dangling knot leaving bare her gaspingly young and adorable apricot shoulder blades with that pubescence and those lovely gentle bones, and the smooth, downward-tapering back.
Yet, almost against his will, Humbert recognizes that "Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac." After she leaves Humbert, Lolita lives for a time with Clare Quilty. He throws her out after she refuses to allow him to put her in a pornographic film. A few years later she dies during childbirth.
Miss Pratt is headmistress at Beardsley School for girls. She tells Humbert that Lolita's grades are slipping and that she appears "morbidly uninterested in sexual matters." In an effort to help Lolita, she convinces Humbert to let her be in the school play.
Lolita runs off with him during her second cross-country trip with Humbert, who drops clues throughout the text that Quilty is a projection of an extreme version of himself. Nevertheless, he constructs a history for him. Quilty had known Lolita's mother, since his brother had been her dentist. He was the mysterious man who sat in the shadows at the Enchanted Hunter and quizzed Humbert about Lolita. Intrigued by their relationship, he followed the pair to Beardsley, where he wrote and produced a play for Lolita, who considered him "a genius," a "great guy," and "full of fun." This "great guy," however, encourages Lolita to engage in group sex and to participate in pornographic films. When she does not agree, he kicks her out. Humbert finds him "gray-faced" and "baggy-eyed" before he shoots him.
Art and Experience
When Humbert calls himself an artist, he reveals his attempt to impose some kind of meaningful order on his baser instincts. In his record of his life with Lolita, he tries to create a work of art that will grant immortality for the two of them by foregrounding his aesthetic sense of Lolita's beauty, and at the same time, by obscuring his morally corrupt crimes against her. Yet, he is often unable to accomplish this, as evidenced when he imagines himself as a painter, expressing the poignancy and heartbreak that defines his relationship with Lolita. He suggests his murals would recreate
a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower…. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of jukeboxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group, Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
At other times, he turns to art to help ease his burden of guilt: "Unless it can be proven to me … that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a north American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art."
Appearances and Reality
Humbert's struggle to create art relates to another important theme—appearance versus reality—when he tries to present an idealistic portrait of Lolita and his relationship with her. He continually insists on the innocence of Lolita, which is crucial to his vision of and therefore his desire for her. He insists that "under no circumstances would [he] have interfered with the innocence of a child." She, however, was never quite the innocent he envisions. While at camp, she engaged in sexual activities and thus felt confident enough to seduce Humbert during their first night together. Later, in response to his control of her, she turns into a "cruel manipulator" who demands cash for sexual favors. At the same time, she was more vulnerable than Humbert is willing to admit, and he took advantage of that vulnerability, as when he comforted her after she learned her mother was dead. He offers a symbolic assessment of his destruction of her innocence when he admits that "our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep."
Victim and Victimization
Humbert becomes both victim and victimizer in his relationship with Lolita. He admits that he forced a "singular and bestial cohabitation" on her and "that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif." Yet he was also victimized by his uncontrollable obsession with her, which he eloquently chronicles.
Anger and Hatred
Humbert's self-loathing prompts him to create a double who can absolve him of guilt. Clare Quilty becomes the manifestation of his illicit desire for Lolita. When he kills Quilty in a fit of revenge, he tries to erase the pain and suffering he caused her. Previously, his remorse over his obsession with young girls caused several breakdowns and subsequent hospitalizations. Yet, the absurd encounter with Quilty at the end of the novel suggests that Humbert recognizes his responsibility for his and Lolita's tragic relationship.
Point of View
Humbert serves as the first person, unreliable narrator in Lolita. His "impassioned confession" unfolds from his very subjective point of view. In the Foreword, a fictitious Freudian psychiatrist, who is supposedly preparing Humbert's manuscript, informs us, "No doubt, [Humbert] is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity…. [B]ut how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author." At certain points, however, Humbert also gains our compassion in response to his often witty, sometimes agonizing recount of his obsession with Lolita.
Humbert and Lolita twice travel across the United States, stopping frequently along the way at roadside motels, attractions, and restaurants, "where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crested salads." The trip serves as a metaphor of the juxtaposition between Old World culture and Middle America's unsophisticated, brash materialism. Middle-aged European Humbert appreciates the natural beauty of the landscape while modern American Lolita prefers movie magazines, candy, and gift shop trinkets. The Enchanted Hunters Hotel is a witty allusion to Humbert's "enchanted" state as he "hunts" Lolita.
Topics for Further Study
- At one point in the novel, Humbert admits that At one point in the novel, Humbert admits that he never found out the laws governing his relationship with Lolita. Investigate what rights Humbert had as a stepfather in 1955 and what the penalties for incest were.
- Research the psychological term "obsession" and apply it to Humbert.
- Read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and compare and contrast each novel's treatment of obsession and its effects.
- Investigate the effects of incest on children and compare your findings to the effects Lolita's relationship with Humbert had on her.
Humbert calls his manuscript a "confession," which it partly is. He frequently addresses "the ladies and gentlemen of the jury" during breaks in his account of his relationship with Lolita in an obvious attempt to gain their sympathy. The novel contains elements of parody, especially at the beginning and at the end. In the Foreword, Nabokov creates a fictitious Freudian psychologist who warns readers to look out for life's "potent evils"—a very pedantic reading of the book. This characterization relates to Humbert's encounter with Quilty at the end of the book. In the comical wrestling scene that culminates in Humbert being all "covered with Quilty," Nabokov pokes fun at the Freudian concept of dual personalities, as Humbert tries to find a way to absolve himself.
The text abounds with symbolism in its verbal puns, settings, and characterizations. The most important symbol occurs in the characterization of Clare Quilty, who appears as a manifestation of Humbert's evil self. Humbert gives us several clues to Quilty's real identity: He calls himself "Mr. Hyde" (referring to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson's famous novel on dual personalities); Quilty reminds him of his uncle; and, in the hilarious parody at the end of the novel, when the two wrestle over control of the gun, Humbert writes, "I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us." When Humbert kills Quilty, he tries to absolve himself of his guilt, as suggested in the judgment he handed down: "because you took advantage of a sin … because you took advantage of my inner essential innocence because you cheated me … of my redemption…. because you stole her … because of all you did because of all I did not you have to die." Humbert, of course, has proven himself to be guilty of all these crimes.
Sexuality in the 1950s
Traditional attitudes about sex began to change during the 1950s—the time in which Lolita appeared and just after the period in which Humbert and Lolita were sexually intimate. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's reports on the sexual behavior of men and women (1948, 1953) helped bring discussions of this subject out in the open. Although many Americans clung to puritanical ideas about sexuality, they could not suppress questions that began to be raised about what constituted normal or abnormal sexual behavior. Movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, who openly flaunted their sexuality, intrigued the public; and Playboy magazine, begun in 1953, gained a wide audience. Hugh Hefner, publisher of the magazine, claimed that the magazine's pictures of naked women were symbols of "disobedience, a triumph of sexuality, an end of Puritanism." Playboy itself promoted a new attitude toward sexuality with its "playboy philosophy" articles and its centerfolds of naked "girls next door." In the 1960s relaxed moral standards would result in an age of sexual freedom. Yet, most Americans in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes toward sexuality: they did not openly discuss sexual behavior, and promiscuity—especially for women—was not tolerated.
The Affluent Society
In The Affluent Society, published in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith examined American consumerism in the 1950s, a time when more than ever before Americans had the money not only to acquire necessities but also to spend on "conveniences" and "improvements" to their lives. The higher standard of living enjoyed by Americans during this period resulted from the United States's participation in World War II, which enabled the country to become the strongest and most prosperous economic power in the world. Money poured into defense spending helped to create a successful military-industrial complex that bolstered the economy: companies produced goods that caused them to become prosperous and hire more workers, who would in turn buy more goods.
In this "age of plenty," customers could choose from a wide variety of innovations; the two most popular were new automobiles and suburban homes, both of which became important status symbols. Car manufacturers sold 21 million new cars during this period, most with powerful V-8 engines, tail fins, and lots of chrome. Developer William J. Levitt dotted the American suburban landscape with developments that crammed together hundreds of inexpensive, assembly-line houses with wall-to-wall carpeting and fully mechanized kitchens. The number of new homeowners in the 1950s increased by an unprecedented 9 million.
Americans' new materialism resulted from their eagerness to forget the hardships of the economic depression of the 1930s and the war that dominated the 1940s. Now the focus was on obtaining a good white-collar job, marrying, and raising a family in a suburban home with a lawn and a backyard barbecue. As the work week decreased to forty hours, Americans enjoyed more leisure time for personal comfort and entertainment.
Attitudes toward class distinctions also changed during the 1950s. Many Americans echoed Ernest Hemingway's assertion that the only factor that set the rich apart from the rest of the classes was that "they have more money." As more members of the middle class acquired the goods that had previously been reserved for the wealthy—the large shiny cars, the backyard swimming pools, the memberships to golf clubs—some class lines began to blur. Having and spending money lost the stigma it had had in the previous two decades when the wealthy had been criticized for lavish lifestyles in the face of depression and war. With the economy booming, the rich spent as they had in the twenties, and the burgeoning middle class emulated their habits. The introduction of department stores and restaurant charge cards also helped ordinary Americans spend much like the rich did.
Lolita's interesting publishing history begins after Nabokov finished the novel in 1954 and submitted it to four American publishers, all of whom rejected it due to its shocking themes. Refusing to make any revisions to the manuscript, Nabokov sent it to Olympia Press in France, a company known for publishing pornography. After publication, however, France banned the "obscene" book, which cemented its popularity with underground readers. When tourists brought the book into America and Britain, U.S. Customs agents grudgingly allowed it in, but British officials convinced France to confiscate any remaining copies. In response to these censorship efforts, novelist Graham Greene, in a London Times article, declared it to be one of the ten best books of 1955. The controversy surrounding Lolita brought it international attention. As a result, the bans were rescinded and in 1958 this now notorious novel was published in the United States by G. P. Putnam & Sons. It immediately soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list where it remained for over a year.
The controversial novel earned mixed reviews after its publication in America. Many critics found it to be immoral, including a writer for Kirkus Reviews, who called for the book to be banned, insisting, "That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves." A Catholic World reviewer argues that its subject matter "makes it a book to which grave objection must he raised." A writer for Library Journal echoes these criticisms, stating "thousands of library patrons conditioned to near-incest by Peyton Place may take this in stride. However better read before buying. Although the writer prides himself on using no obscene words, he succeeds only too well in conveying his meaning without them." Orville Prescott in his review in The New York Times finds two reasons to attack the novel: Lolita, he writes, "is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worthy of any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive."
Several other critics, however, offer their strong support of the novel, dismissing the charges of pornography and praising its artistic presentation of humor and tragedy. New Yorker reviewer Donald Malcolm considers Lolita "an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity that quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity." In The Annotated Lolita, editor Alfred Appel Jr. declares the book to be "one of the few supremely original novels of the century," while San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Lewis Vogler calls it "an authentic work of art which compels our immediate response." Those who praise the novel, however, sometimes have difficulty with its complexity, a typical characteristic of Nabokov's works. Andrew Field in Nabokov: His Life in Art writes, "Virtually all of the foremost literary critics in the United States and England have written about Nabokov, with enthusiasm often bordering on awe … but their eloquence, where one wants and would expect explication, betrays the fact that they are at least as ill at ease with Nabokov as they are fascinated by him."
Nabokov's literary success continued after the publication of Lolita, which is now widely considered to be one of the outstanding novels of the twentieth century. During the next twenty years he produced works, including Pale Fire, his autobiographical Speak Memory, and Lectures on Literature, that solidified his literary reputation. Most critics would agree with writer Anthony Burgess's conclusion in The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction that Nabokov is "a major force in the contemporary novel."
Perkins is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland. In the following essay, she examines how the narrative form of Lolita reveals the main character's attempt to artistically recreate his relationship with a young girl.
Some critics read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a story of Humbert's unrequited love for the title character; others consider it a record of the rantings of a mad pedophile, with, as Humbert himself admits, "a fancy prose style." Nabokov's innovative construction, in fact, highlights both of these aspects as it reinforces and helps develop the novel's main theme: the relationship between art and experience. By allowing Humbert to narrate the details of his life with Lolita, Nabokov illustrates the difficulties inherent in an attempt to order experience through art. As he tries to project an ideal vision of his relationship with Lolita, Humbert manipulates readers' responses to him in order to gain sympathy and to effect a suspension of judgment. Ultimately, though, tragic reality emerges within his art.
In 'Lolita' and the Dangers of Fiction Mathew Winston comments on Humbert's motive: "The artist wants to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets. The lover wants to write a history that will glorify his beloved for future generations…. In his final words, 'this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,' Humbert appears as Renaissance sonneteer, boasting that he will make his love immortal in his writing." Humbert does accomplish his goal in part: his manuscript contains beautiful and heartfelt descriptions of "the perilous magic of nymphets"; it also records, however, the devastating results of his illicit obsession for a young girl.
Humbert tries to manipulate his readers' response throughout his memoir by presenting a poetic portrait of Lolita and his life with her. He admits, "I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers." In an effort to provide himself with an excuse for his obsession with Lolita, he details his relationship with Annabel, Lolita's "precursor" at the beginning of the novel. Of his adolescent relationship with Annabel, he writes, "the spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of to-day." He suggests that educated readers will thus comprehend the beauty of that relationship, as well as his with Lolita.
Before he begins the details of his life with Lolita, Humbert introduces the following idea: "Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets.'" This description suggests he was a "hunter," "enchanted" by the "nymphet" Lolita almost against his will. He asserts that "under no circumstances would [he] have interfered with the innocence of a child."
In another effort to suspend readers' judgment, Humbert frequently interrupts his memoir with descriptions of sexual customs in other countries and other time periods. He notes that society dictates sexual taboos and that they change from culture to culture and in different time periods. "Let me remind my reader" he begins, that in the past girls Lolita's age frequently married and that artists like Dante and Petrarch "fell madly in love" with young girls. Thus, he intimates, readers should not impose judgment on him based on twentieth-century moral standards.
Humbert provides eloquent descriptions of Lolita that reveal the "incomparable" and "poignant bliss he feels in her presence." In the following passage, he mythologizes her as he reveals his exquisite pleasure over watching her play tennis:
I remember at the very first game I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation. My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clan resounding crack of her golden whip.
Humbert illustrates the depths of his feeling for her when he admits that in his assessment of their life together, everything "gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, Oh God, oh God. And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer's ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is Lolita."
The wit and humor Humbert invests in his artistic reconstruction of his past further gain readers' sympathy and restrict their efforts to judge him. New Yorker contributor Donald Malcolm observes, "an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity … quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity." The memoir contains several examples of Humbert's verbal brilliance and quick wit, but the most inventive occurs at the end during his comic scene with Clare Quilty, presented as Humbert's evil twin. In their death struggle, which recalls another lesser artform, Humbert notes,
I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us…. [E]lderly readers, will surely recall at this point the obligatory scene in the Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed with dirty cotton and rags…. When at last I had possessed myself of my precious weapon, and the scenario writer had been reinstalled in his low chair, both of us were panting as the cowman and the sheepman never do after their battle.
What Do I Read Next?
- Death in Venice (1913), by Thomas Mann, is a tragic tale of an acclaimed author's obsession for a young boy and an exploration of the nature of beauty.
- Nabokov's 1962 Pale Fire, a hilarious look at a different kind of obsession, presents a brilliant parody of literary scholarship.
- Speak Memory (1951), by Nabokov, is a moving account of his life and family.
- Nabokov wrote Lolita: A Screenplay for the 1962 film version of his novel. Stanley Kubrick rewrote much of it when he transferred it to the screen.
Humbert, however, cannot hide the reality of Lolita's suffering in his idealized portrait of her. He often, almost uncontrollably, undercuts his romantic vision with disturbing details of his re-sponsibility for her "broken" life. At one point he admits, "I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me … living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil…. [O]h my poor, bruised child. I loved you…. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything … and there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it." Another time he writes, "I recall certain moments … when after having had my fill of her … the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair." Ironically, though, Humbert's brutal honesty gains him a measure of respect from his readers.
Humbert reveals his complex nature when he insists, that to love a nymphet, "you have to be an artist and a madman." In the Foreword, the fictitious Freudian psychiatrist John Ray Jr. insists, "No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity…. [B]ut how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author." Donald E. Morton, in his Vladimir Nabokov, argues, "What makes Lolita something more than either a case study of sexual perversion or pornographic titillation is the truly shocking fact that Humbert Humbert is a genius who, through the power of his artistry, actually persuades the reader that his memoir is a love story. It is this accomplishment that makes the novel a surprising success from the perspective of Humbert Humbert's desires and intentions." Yet while readers recognize the poignant love story in Lolita, they also identify it as a tale of cruel victimization, and in its entirety as an illustration of the artist's difficult task in successfully ordering experience through art.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Chester E. Eisinger
In this overview, Eisinger argues that Lolita is not so much about its plot as it is about art; he asserts that the novel's "primary if not its sole reality is language."
The apparent subject of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is the titillating perversion of a madman who virtually kills his wife in order to make captive and lasciviously possess her 12-year-old daughter; and when the child, who has in fact seduced him, escapes him, running off with another man, he apparently kills that man. This lurid tale would seem to invite either a sensational or a moral response. The problem Nabokov deliberately sets for himself, however, is to persuade the reader to transcend the erotic content and eschew moral judgment in order to perceive his novel as an artistic creation and not as a reflection or interpretation of reality. Lolita is not immoral or didactic, he has said; it has no moral. It is a work of art. The apparent subject of the novel is Humbert Humbert's perverted passion for a nymphet. But we come closer to the real subject if we perceive that his passion is his prison and his pain, his ecstasy and his madness. His release from the prison of his passion and the justification of his perversion is in art, and that is the real subject of the novel: the pain of remembering, organizing, and telling his story is a surrogate for the pain of his life and a means of transcending and triumphing over it; art, as it transmutes the erotic experience, becomes the ultimate experience in passion and madness.
Late in the book Humbert says that unless it can be proved to him that it does not matter that Lolita had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, then he sees nothing for the treatment of his misery but the palliative of articulate art. At the end of the novel, addressing Lolita, he says, I am thinking of angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. Here is the only immortality he and Lolita may share. Here is the only balm that will soothe. Here, in art, are the forms that will control the passionate furies while the music of the words cloaks it all in saving beauty.
Not that "reality" doesn't intrude. Nabokov sought and captured the way schoolgirls talk; he conveys the feel and the smell of American motel rooms in all their philistine vulgarity. But a major thrust of the novel is toward undermining and mocking the concepts of fact, reality, and truth in fiction, toward destroying, in short, the very bases of literary realism. Nabokov undercuts a firm conception of reality by involving Nabokov the "author," Humbert the "narrator," and John Ray the supposititious editor in the making of the book, creating an ambiguity and uncertainty about authorship, reliability, and authority which attack the validity of fact, reality, and truth: can we trust the criminally insane Humbert as the primary source of our knowledge of events and people, especially since "Humbert Humbert" is Humbert's own invention? And more especially since his diary, presumably the original source of the narrative, has been destroyed? Or the pompous Ray, who speaks of newspapers which carry the story of Humbert "For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the 'real' people beyond the 'true' story …," a man who asserts that the tale tends toward a moral apotheosis? The factitious factual character of the story that Ray emphasizes is only a device for encouraging our conventional expectations as readers of traditionally realistic fictions which make traditional moral judgments. Nabokov will disappoint these expectations just as he has deliberately confused the point of view and the identity and relationship of the characters. The techniques of the novel are forms of play for him, as art itself is play.
Writing his memoirs in prison, Humbert says, Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with. It is the case that word play and pure sound are one source of the wit and joy of the novel, as Humbert imagines the nymphet he would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish. Nabokov uses language so that it draws attention to itself. It is frequently more important than the action of the novel. It is thus possible to argue that if Humbert had only words to play with, he never had a flesh and blood 12-year-old girl at all. She is a fantasy, imagined by a madman imprisoned as much in his cell as he is in his lust. Indeed the entire book may be a fantasy. When Humbert kills Clare Quilty, the playwright who abducted Lolita, the characters move as though they were underwater or with that heavily retarded motion common to nightmare. Quilty may be as unreal as Lolita, Humbert's alter ego haunting him for his guilt in relation to the child. Lolita is thus an occasion for Humbert's fantasy of sex and Quilty for his fantasy of violence and revenge. It is as necessary to transmute the pain of one's fantasy life into art as it is the pain of one's conscious and quotidian life. Whether Lolita and Quilty are "real" or not, language will serve as a means of dealing with them.
It is not only through language that Lolita is removed from the "real" world. As a nymphet, she is nymphic, that is, daemonic. A nympholept like Humbert instantly recognizes and always burns for such a creature. When he gets her into bed, in an inn called appropriately enough for a magical, mythical experience The Enchanted Hunters, he thinks of her as an immortal daemon disguised as a female child. Thus it is possible to read Lolita as a daemonic spirit residing in the human id, that is, as an irrational, self-destructive force related to the primitive in man that will overwhelm his rationality with the frenzy of its appetite. The price of this ecstasy is its inevitable pain. And so we return to language, because only it, only art, will bring these demonic energies under control. And that is the essence of the entire novel: its primary if not its sole reality is language.
Source: Chester E. Eisinger, "Lolita: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
Phillip F. O'Connor
In the following essay, O'Connor discusses Lolita as a parody of several popular genres, as a work rich in characterization, and as the catalyst for Nabokov's success as a writer.
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Source: Phillip F. O'Connor, "Lolita: A Modern Classic in Spite of Its Readers," in A Question of Quality: Seasoned "Authors" for a New Season, Vol. 2, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980, pp. 139-43.
Alfred Appel Jr., The Annotated Lolita, McGraw, 1970.
Anthony Burgess, The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, Norton, 1967.
Catholic World, October, 1958.
Kirkus Reviews, June 5, 1958.
Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art, Little, Brown, 1967.
Library Journal, August, 1958.
Donald Malcolm, review in The New Yorker, November 8, 1958.
Donald E. Morton, Vladimir Nabokov, Unger, 1974.
Orville Prescott, review in The New York Times, August 18, 1958.
Lewis Vogler, review in San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 1958.
Mathew Winston, "'Lolita' and the Dangers of Fiction," Twentieth Century Literature, December, 1975, pp. 421-27.
Martin Amis, review in The Atlantic, September, 1992.
Analyzes Humbert's psyche and the effect he has on others in his life, including Lolita, as well as acts of cruelty and moral issues in Lolita.
Roger Angell, "Lo Love, High Romance," The New Yorker, August 25 & September 1, 1997, pp. 156-59.
Revisits the novel as a new movie version is released in 1997.
Frank S. Meyer, review in National Review, December 11, 1995.
Examines Nabokov's intentions behind writing Lolita.
Rex Weiner, "'Lolita' Gets Old Waiting for a Date," Variety, June 2, 1997.
Discusses the controversy surrounding the distribution of the 1997 film version of Lolita.
"Lolita." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/lolita
"Lolita." Novels for Students. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/lolita
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THE LITERARY WORK
A man abducts and sexually abuses his twelve-year-old stepdaughter after her mother dies. Later, in prison awaiting trial for murder, he composes a memoir devoted to his stepdaughter, in which he tries to explain his actions.
Vladimir Nabokov, a novelist, poet, playwright, and translator, as well as a collector of butterflies and inventor of chess problems, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. His idyllic childhood and adolescence were abruptly ended by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which forced his family to flee from Russia to Europe. From 1919 to 1922 Nabokov studied Slavic and Romance Languages at Cambridge University, then moved to Berlin, Germany, where he married his wife, Vera. In Berlin and later in Paris, he supported his family by giving lessons in tennis, boxing, and the English language as well as by publishing original works of literature in Russian. Because Nabokov’s wife and son were Jewish, however, the family eventually had to escape from Europe to the United States to avoid Nazi persecution. Lolita, the third novel that Nabokov wrote after arriving in America, is narrated by a European emigre with a terrible secret: he is attracted to little girls. Nabokov’s protagonist finds that in postwar America he can fulfill his darkest fantasies—with tragic consequences for himself as well as the child.
Millions of European citizens were displaced from their homes, their livelihoods, and their native countries by the Second World War. Many of these “displaced persons” were Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcast groups who were persecuted by the Nazis.
During the war, and immediately after it, various displaced persons tried desperately to leave Europe for the United States. Nabokov’s own family was a case in point. His younger brother Sergei, who was homosexual, died in a German concentration camp; Nabokov’s wife and son, who were Jewish, were also in jeopardy. The family fled first from Berlin to Paris in the late 1930s, and then to the United States in May 1940, immediately before German tanks rolled into Paris.
After the war, the proportion of American immigrants who were political refugees increased dramatically. The Displaced Persons Act, which Congress passed in 1948 and renewed in 1950, allowed over 400, 000 Europeans to become American citizens, relaxing the rigid quotas established after the First World War. As Americans grew anxious about international communism, however, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 returned to earlier quotas and barred entry to anyone who had ever be to an ganization seeking to overthrow the United States government. The following year, the Refugee Relief Act set aside the quota in the case of individuals who had been persecuted by communist regimes.
After Nabokov’s family fled Russia, that country established a communist government and became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By the time Nabokov wrote Lolita, the United States was engaged in a protracted “Cold War” with the Soviet Union, the only other dominant nation after the Second World War. Competing for world leadership, the two superpowers conducted their hostilities at a distance by supporting different sides in conflicts around the globe, engaging in espionage, and stockpiling nuclear weapons of mutual destruction. In 1948 the so-called Cold War heated up. The Soviet Union blockaded Berlin and took control of Czechoslovakia, while North Korea established a communist government. In 1949 China established a communist government and began a strategic alliance with the Soviets; in response, the United States joined forces with European countries to create the opposing North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Seeing the rapid rise of international communism, Americans were afraid that this political philosophy might spread to the United States as well. In 1947 hundreds of workers in the motion picture industry were threatened with being “blacklisted”—included on a list of individuals barred from employment—unless they cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee by acknowledging their guilt and naming other suspects. In 1950 Alger Hiss, a prominent lawyer, was convicted of perjury for denying his involvement with Whittaker Chambers, an admitted communist. That same year, Joseph McCarthy, a new Republican senator from Wisconsin, became famous overnight after announcing that he could name 205 communists who had infiltrated the State Department. McCarthy later claimed that he could identify over 30, 000 books by communists and communist sympathizers in American libraries. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage—a judgment that is still controversial—and sentenced to death by electrocution. Before long, many Americans were swept up in the belief that the country was rife with communist spies and secret agents. Jews, homosexuals, artists, people who had not been born in the United States, and anyone who had ever belonged to the American Communist Party fell under suspicion. Meanwhile, American popular culture became dominated by anticommunist themes in comic books, detective stories, spy novels, and science-fiction films.
As an émigré who had left Russia over 30 years earlier, Nanokov disavowed both communism and the Soviet Union. In 1950 he even volunteered to write a series of articles on Soviet culture for the New Yorker, explaining that “I think I am the right man for it since I know exactly all the moves in the Soviet anti-American game” (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 108). At a time when most American academics protested government inquiries into a possible communist presence on campus, Nabokov, who was teaching at Cornell University, “befriended the FBI agent assigned to Cornell and declared he would be proud to have his son join the FBI in that role” (Boyd, p. 311). Themes of paranoia, detection, espionage, and political assassination dominate Nabokov’s fiction from this period. In addition, many of his major characters—such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita—are political refugees, members of oppressed ethnic and religious groups, social misfits, or sexual deviants.
Lolita, which features a protagonist who sexually abuses his stepdaughter, reflects trends in American popular culture as well as Nabokov’s own writing during these years. Case studies and legislative changes suggest that at least some Americans at the time were concerned about child molestation. In a 1953 study of young adults, for example, 35 percent of female college students reported that they had been sexually molested in childhood. “The mean age at the time of the molestation was 11.7 years,” which is the girl’s approximate age in 1947 in Lolita, when she is first abused (Luandis in de Young, p. 6). Recognizing the extent of the problem, some states passed laws to address it. Utah, for example, in 1953 made it “a felony to engage in sexual penetration or sexual contact with a person who is under eighteen where the offender is the victim’s parent, stepparent, adoptive parent, of legal guardian, or occupies a position of special trust in relation to the victim” (de Young, p. 125). In Lolita, the main characters travel through a number of states with similar statutes. Indeed, the child’s stepfather refers knowingly to various local and federal laws, especially those that forbid statutory rape and the transportation of minors across state lines for immoral purposes.
America at the wheel
Meanwhile, during the period of unprecedented economic growth that followed the Second World War, the United States consolidated its position as the richest country in the world. The gross national product rose from about $200, 000 million in 1940, to $300, 000 million in 1950, to over $500, 000 million in 1960. As their earnings increased, more and more Americans joined the middle class. With the aid of the G.I. Bill, expanded credit, and federal housing loans, even young couples with little money could buy a house. Many bought low-cost homes in the surburbs. In 1947, William J. Levitt began to produce “Levit-towns,” enormous housing developments that contained thousands of similar homes laid out on identical plots in new residential streets. These houses were so popular that 14, 000 were sold to individual families on a single day in 1949. In addition to owning their own homes, more Americans than ever before could now afford such luxuries as a college education, household appliances, and one or more automobiles.
Even as Americans were settling down in suburbia, they were also spending more time in cars. In the suburbs, after all, automobiles were necessary for husbands to commute to work and for wives to shop, run errands, and chauffeur children. Owning a new car became an important status symbol, and traveling by automobile a common leisure activity. More and more families chose—in the words of a popular advertisement of the time, sung by Dinah Shore—“to see the U.S.A. from [their] Chevrolet.” Service stations, road maps, and tour books helped make such travel possible. At the same time, a host of other products and pastimes organized around the automobile sprang up: fast-food restaurants, diners, and drive-in restaurants; motels; roadside attractions; drive-in movie theatres; billboards and other highway advertisements. It was in 1949 that Richard and Maurice McDonald devised the cheap, quick hamburger sandwich that eventually dominated fast food franchises from coast to coast. In 1952, the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Four years later, the federal government introduced the Interstate Highway System, which was constructed for national defense purposes but made long car trips easier and faster for everyone. Driving became a national pastime, celebrated in “road movies,” chase scenes, and novels set on the American highway. During three weeks in the spring of 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote, on a scroll of paper 120 feet long, one lengthy, single-spaced paragraph about his travels across America, which was published six years later as the underground classic On the Road (also in Literature and Its Times).
As the two main characters of Lolita cross the country by car, Humbert describes the advertisements and other sights that he and Dolores glimpse with the remark: “The Bearded Woman read our jingle and now she is no longer single” (Nabokov, Lolita, p. 158). This sentence parodies the over 7,000 red-and-white signs advertising Burma Shave shaving cream that were common on American highways at the time. The Burma Shave Company divided such an lines into a series of six signs spaced along the road for a mile. In 1953, as he finished Lolita, Nabokov composed another such rhyme—“He passed two cars; then five; then seven: and then he beat them all to Heaven”—and ended it with the usual refrain, “Burma Shave.’’ He offered to sell it to Burma Shave, but the company replied that it already had more jingles than it could use (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 137).
Nabokov knew firsthand many of the aspects of America’s automotive culture that appear in Lolita. Every summer from 1949 to 1959, as soon as his teaching duties at Cornell University were over, he and his family would set off on butterfly-hunting expeditions that took them all over the United States. Indeed, Nabokov completed the manuscript of Lolita in various motels and assorted cars (his wife did all the driving) during such automotive tours in the summers of 1951, 1952, and 1953.
Lolita takes the form of a two-part memoir written by Humbert Humbert, a child molester, to help his attorney defend him against a murder charge. As Part One opens, Humbert recalls his happy childhood on the French Riviera, where at 13 he met Annabel Leigh, a young girl his own age. They fell in love, but Annabel died a few months later. Humbert cites this tragic romance as the reason for his sexual attraction to little girls, whom he calls “nymphets.”
Humbert struggles to both satisfy and control his urges over the next 25 years, at one point even marrying a woman who dresses and acts like a little girl. The marriage does not last, however, and as the Second World War begins Humbert leaves France for America. He ends up in Ramsdale, a small New England town, where he decides to rent a room from Charlotte Haze, a young widow, because her 12-year-old daughter Dolores—whom he calls “Lolita”—resembles Annabel.
Humbert seizes every opportunity to be alone with Dolores; meanwhile, the girl’s mother tries to seduce him. Charlotte, a middle-class housewife bored with a life of gossip, shopping, and social clubs, used to dream about being “a career girl” before Humbert became her lodger (Lolita, p. 56). She now believes that marrying Humbert will make her happy. However, because she envies Dolores’s youth and vaguely senses Humbert’s interest in her, she sends the child to camp for the summer. After Dolores leaves, Humbert consents to marry Charlotte—who declares her love in a letter—because he thinks that he will have more access to the girl as her stepfather. He begins to collect sleeping pills in order to drug both his wife and his stepdaughter, so that he can fondle Dolores without anyone’s knowing. Although Charlotte learns of Humbert’s intentions, she dies in a car accident before she can do anything to stop him.
After the funeral, Humbert picks up Dolores at camp. Hiding the news of her mother’s death, he takes her to the glamorous Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where he coaxes her to swallow some sleeping pills and then locks her in their room until they take effect. It turns out that the pills are placebos, and Humbert doesn’t dare touch the girl in case she is not asleep. When Dolores wakes up the next morning, however, she herself suggests that they have sex—and Humbert agrees.
At the beginning of Part Two, Humbert recounts his year-long automobile trip with Dolores throughout America, during which he uses both promises and threats to force her to engage in various sexual acts several times a day. Most of his bribes involve the opportunity to visit a particular motel, diner, or tourist attraction—“a lighthouse in Virginia, a natural cave in Arkansas converted to a café, a collection of guns and violins somewhere in Oklahoma . . . anything whatsoever-anything, but it had to be there, in front of us, like a fixed star” (Lolita, pp. 151-52).
We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dogeared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.
(Lolita, pp. 175-76)
After he runs out of money, Humbert takes Dolores back to New England, where he has a temporary teaching job at Beardsley, a women’s college. There she attends school, makes friends, flirts with boys her own age, and even stars in the school play—which has the same name as the Enchanted Hunters Hotel because, as it turns out, the playwright Clare Quilty stayed there the night that Humbert and Dolores did.
At the end of the school year, Humbert discovers that Dolores has been skipping her piano lessons and lying about it. They have a bitter fight, during which he twists her arm, and she accuses him of both molesting her and murdering her mother. Afterwards, though, Dolores suddenly forgives him and suggests that they go on another cross-country trip, asking if this time she can plan the itinerary. During their journey, Humbert keeps thinking that they are being followed. Although the color, make, and license plate of the car changes, Humbert believes that the same mustachioed man is always at the wheel—and that he has managed to establish communication with Dolores. At any rate, this second trip ends abruptly after Dolores develops a fever and enters the hospital. When Humbert goes to pick her up, he learns that she checked out the day before, on Independence Day, in the care of a man claiming to be her uncle.
Over the next several months Humbert retraces their steps, looking for clues to the man’s identity in the registration books at motels where they stayed. Although he finds many entries that seem suspicious, he can’t figure out who the man is. Eventually he gives up. Three years pass, which Humbert spends pining for Dolores—until suddenly he receives a letter from her. She is now 17, married, and pregnant, and has written to ask for money so that she and her husband can move to another state where he can get a better job. When Humbert sees Dolores again, he notices how much she has grown. Now that she is no longer a child, he even decides that he loves her for herself instead of her appeal as a nymphet. He is still determined, however, to find the man who stole her from him. When Dolores reveals the man’s name (Clare Quilty), Humbert realizes that he should have known it all along. Indeed, Humbert explains that he has scattered clues throughout his narrative so that readers, at this point, will enjoy the same feeling of sudden comprehension.
As Humbert prepares to track the man down and kill him, he recalls the entire saga of his relationship with Dolores, now acknowledging, for the first time, various incidents that demonstrated how unhappy she had been. And after Humbert murders Quilty—in a climactic scene that parallels the rape in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel at the end of Part One—he waits quietly to be arrested. Humbert concludes his memoir by stating that he feels guilty of committing rape, not murder. He now realizes that he and Dolores can never be together except in the pages of his memoir, which he wishes to be published only after her death.
Except for a foreword by John Ray, Jr., the memoir’s fictitious editor, the entire novel is told from Humbert’s point of view. This device is crucial to the overall design and meaning of Lolita. Humbert is an exceptionally unreliable first-person narrator. He is biased, deceptive, manipulative, and mentally unstable, and his testimony relies on his poor recall of past events. Although he often cites evidence that supports his case—such as a photograph of himself and Annabel, a journal detailing his relationship with Dolores, and a love letter from Charlotte—he admits that these items exist only in his memory. In addition, Humbert’s account of his early infatuation with Annabel Leigh, which he uses to explain his sexual attraction to little girls, is transparently modeled on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee.” Poe’s speaker recalls how, even though “I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea,” he and Annabel enjoyed “a love that was more than love” until “the winged seraphs of Heaven” envied them and killed her (Poe, pp. 957-58). Humbert describes the childhood romance with his Annabel, which also began at the seaside and ended with her sudden death, in similar imagery. Such blatant allusions to “Annabel Lee” seem especially suspicious because it turns out that Humbert is a Poe scholar.
Despite his unreliability, however, Humbert is a witty, amusing, and charming narrator. The fact that readers know only his version of events makes it easy to accept them on his terms. Indeed, Nabokov has designed Lolita so that readers cannot help but identify with Humbert, even though he is a child molester. The novel achieves this effect by suppressing Dolores’s own point of view almost completely. Only at the end of his memoir does Humbert acknowledge that he deliberately tried to conceal her utter misery. “In order to enjoy my phantasms in peace,” he now admits, “I firmly decided to ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn—to mention only mentionable
DID VIVIAN DARKBLOOM REALLY WRITE LOLITA?
Although Nabokov considered Lolita his best novel, he was afraid that it could never appear in print because of its subject matter. At one point he even decided to burn the manuscript in the backyard, but his wife stopped him at the last minute. Nabokov thought that if Lolita were published, it would have to be anonymously or under a pseudonym. In order to encode his actual authorship within the text, therefore, he introduced a minor character whose name, “Vivian Darkbloom,” is an anagram of “Vladimir Nabokov.” After Alfred Appel’s edition of The Annotated Lolita appeared, Nabokov playfully reused the anagram, publishing his own annotations to a later novel, Ada (1969), under the name “Vivian Darkbloom.”
matters” (Lolita, p. 283). At this point, readers who accepted Humbert’s earlier portrait of Dolores as sexually experienced, spoiled, shallow, uncooperative, ungrateful, and faithless must confront the fact that they too were indifferent to her suffering. Nabokov’s novel thus forces readers to acknowledge their own prurient curiosity and smug condemnation, in response to a case that evokes many sensational news stories about troubled teens and poor parents in the 1950s.
Humbert’s skillful and deceptive presentation of his case suggests an acute awareness of his audience. In fact, he continually interrupts his memoir to address readers directly. He asks for their pity, remarks that they will be disappointed to learn of his psychological instability, and teases them by promising to describe various sexual encounters and then skipping over such scenes, explaining that he does not want to “bore [his] learned readers with a detailed account” (Lolita, p. 133). (Significantly, masturbation is the only sexual act that the novel does describe in detail.)
In addition, because his memoir outlines his legal defense, Humbert often invokes his readers as jurors—“ladies and gentleman of the jury”—who will decide his fate (Lolita, p. 3). At the end of the novel, Humbert’s readers must indeed determine his guilt or innocence. At a time when the United States was obsessed with charges of espionage, subversion, sexual deviancy, “un-American activities,” and other forms of suspicious behavior, it is significant that Lolita takes the form of a criminal trial. Nabokov carefully constructed the novel, however, so that readers cannot settle for the simple, easy distinctions between right and wrong that most Americans accepted at the time. Rather than merely identifying Humbert as a sexual pervert, readers must decide for themselves the exact nature of his crime, whether he has truly acknowledged, repented, and atoned for it, and whether he really did love Dolores Haze. Indeed, Nabokov’s attempt to make his readers ponder the moral, psychological, social, therapeutic, and legal implications of Humbert’s behavior parallels contemporaneous efforts to understand sexual crime better. In 1950, for example, the California state legislature gave the Department of Mental Hygiene $100, 000 to plan and perform scientific research into the reasons and cures for sexual deviation, including deviation that led to sex crimes against children. According to a sociologist at the time, “passage of the California Sexual Deviation Research Act . . . was most significant in that it highlights a new era in our thinking about human sexuality” (Mangus, p. 177).
Sources and literary context
Vladimir Nabokov disliked approaches to literature that focus on an imagined narrative’s relation to real events, and claimed that his own novels were works of fiction, rather than social history or autobiography. Nevertheless, there are suggestive parallels between Humbert’s romance with Annabel Leigh and Nabokov’s own childhood infatuation with a little girl he calls “Colette”—whom he met at a seaside resort on the French Riviera—which he describes in his memoir, Speak, Memory.
Otherwise, Lolita seems most indebted to an earlier novella, The Enchanter, which Nabokov wrote (in Russian) in 1939, but which was neither published nor translated into English until after his death in 1977. More generally, Lolita derives from an international tradition of avant-garde, experimental, often sexually shocking fiction—such as James Joyce’s Ulysses—that depicts an artist’s social alienation. In America in the late 1940s and 1950s, in particular, such works included plays like Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), novels like J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), and poems like Allen Ginsburg’s revolutionary and sexually explicit “Howl”(1956). (At the same time that Lolita resembles such works, its exuberant wordplay, parody, and subversive humor also led the way for American literature of the 1960s and 1970s.) While there is no evidence that Lolita is based on any actual people, it does reflect Nabokov’s fascination with and detailed observations of American popular culture and codes of behavior in the decade after the Second World War.
Although the 1950s are often considered a period of great social conformity, important changes were afoot. Two such changes were the burgeoning youth culture—exemplified by the musical, social, and sexual rebellion of rock and roll—and the concerns that it prompted about disobedient or criminal teenagers. According to one social historian, “the teenager [came to replace] the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding” (Friedenberg in Breines, p. 8). Between 1946 and 1960, the number of teens in the United States more than doubled, from 5.6 million to 11.8 million. And with the increase in adolescents came an increase in delinquency: between 1948 and 1953, the number of juveniles charged with crimes rose 45 percent. In 1955 Benjamin Fine chose 1,000,000 Delinquents as his title for a book on this phenomenon, because he believed that there were already one million adolescent criminals in the United States and would be twice that number by the decade’s end. Although male hoodlums and gang members caused the most concern, female delinquents were also a source of worry. By 1949, girls accounted for one out of four juvenile court cases. In 1958, the year that Lolita finally appeared in the United States, Americans were especially horrified by the case of 14-year-old Caril Ann Fúgate. After Caril Ann’s boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, killed her entire family, the young couple embarked on a crime spree that left a trail of bodies throughout the Midwest. Charles Starkweather was executed for murder; Caril Ann, who maintained her innocence, was sentenced to life in prison but eventually paroled.
Commentators proposed various explanations for juvenile crime. In 1955, the United States Senate even formed a committee to investigate whether aspects of popular culture marketed to children and adolescents, including rock and roll, television shows, movies, comic books, and pulp fiction, were responsible for the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency. Most Americans believed, however, that the problem stemmed from a lack of guidance and discipline in the home. Hollywood films like The Wild One (1953) or Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the Broadway musical West Side Story (1957) expressed parents’ fears that they could not understand or control their own children. (In retrospect, these fears anticipated the “generation gap” that would divide the United States in the 1960s.) Sociologists associated female juvenile delinquency, in particular, with a troubled father-daughter relationship, and urged men to acknowledge their daughters’ sexual maturity so that the girls would learn to become appropriately feminine.
The feminine mystique
Most women in the 1950s sought fulfillment in marriage rather than a career. Once married, they kept house, raised children, and participated in civic organizations and social clubs while their husbands worked. Popular television shows, such as Í Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver, suggested that women were happier at home than in the workplace. In 1963, though, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that analyzed the psychological cost of women’s attempts to model themselves after a “mystique” of femininity that stressed passivity and consumption.
During the 15 years after the Second World War, according to Friedan, American culture taught women to find happiness through marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. By the end of the 1950s, she points out, the average age of American brides had dropped into the teens. The proportion of female college students sank from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. Of those women who did attend college in the 1950s, 60 percent dropped out, either to marry or because they feared that too much education would make them undesirable. The pressure to marry early led girls to start “going steady” at 12 or 13 and become engaged a few years later. Girls’ clothing became more seductive, and advertisements emphasized youthful attractiveness. Meanwhile, adult women began dieting in an attempt to took like thin, young models; department store buyers reported that the average American woman had become three of four dress sizes smaller since 1939.
Friedan singles out the suburban housewife, in particular, as that generation’s feminine ideal:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor.
(Friedan, p. 16)
NABOKOV CALLS LOLITA “TRAGEDY”, NOT “PORNOGRAPHY”
I know that Lolite is my test book so tar, I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be “lewd and libertine.” All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a tine poet may have its “lewd” side: but Lolita is a tragedy. ’Pornography” is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic: and the obscene exclude each other. (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 184)
Friedan rejects this notion of the happy home-maker, arguing instead that being a housewife can make a woman feel a sense of inner emptiness, which she calls “the problem that has no name” (Friedan, p. 18). The Feminine Mystique led the way for the second wave of feminism—“women’s liberation”—which became powerful in the early 1970s. In Lolita, Nabokov anticipates Friedan’s analysis by revealing Charlotte Haze’s boredom, frustration, and despair, as well as by tracing various experiences that Charlotte has. Meeting older men who find her sexually appealing and attending a school that stresses “the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating” lead Dolores to marry as soon as she can. Tellingly, for both mother and daughter in Nabokov’s novel, marriage seems to lead to death; the fictional foreword to the book indicates that Lolita dies in childbirth.
Because of its controversial subject, Nabokov was initially unable to publish Lolita in the United States. When the novel first appeared in print in 1955, it was as two slim green volumes in the “Traveller’s Companion” series of pornography and avant-garde literature published by the Olympia Press in Paris. Lolita was considered obscene and could not be legally purchased in England or America, although readers managed to smuggle in copies from France. Only after critics published an excerpt and essays on the novel in the Anchor Review, without facing obscenity charges, did publication in the United States seem possible. Lolita was brought out by Doubleday, and American press, in 1958, and became an immediate bestseller as well as a critical success. Although a few schools, libraries, and townships banned the book, most readers apparently agreed with critic Lionel Trilling, who remarked at the time that “Lolita is not about sex, but about love” (Trilling, p. 15).
Since its initial publication, Lolita has been recognized as a major work of American literature. It has inspired a Broadway musical, two film adaptations, and a host of imitations. The Modern Library recently named it one of the five best novels of the twentieth century. Although Lolita has become a classic, however, it remains controversial. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaptation was not distributed for two years because companies were wary of being charged with disseminating child pornography. The novel remains timely, too, as Americans continue to grapple with the nature and treatment of child abuse. By means of its subtle and intricate design, Lolita forces readers to confront lasting questions about crime, punishment, and redemption in all their moral complexity.
—Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
Breines, Wini. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties. Boston: Beacon, 1992.
Devlin, Rachel. “Female Juvenile Delinquency and the Problem of Sexual Authority in America, 1945-1965,” in Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century Girls’ Cultures. Ed. Sherrie In-ness. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
de Young, Mary, corp. Child Molestation: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987.
Fine, Benjamin. 1,000,000 Delinquents. Cleveland, Ohio: World, 1955.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.
Mangus, A. R. “Sexual Deviation Research in California,” in Sociology and Social Research 37, no. 3 (Jan.-Feb. 1953): 175-81.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appeljr. Rev. edition. New York: Vintage, 1991.
_____. Selected Letters 1940-1977. ed. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
_____. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Annabel Lee,” in Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Vintage, 1975.
Trilling, Lionel. “The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita,” in Encounter 11 (October 1958): 9-19.
"Lolita." Literature and Its Times Supplement 1. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/lolita
"Lolita." Literature and Its Times Supplement 1. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/lolita
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Lolita, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov (first published in Paris in 1955; published in the United States in 1958), details the sexual obsession of its narrator with his young stepdaughter. The novel's depiction of a sexually abusive relationship between an older man and a young girl generated a great deal of controversy in both the United States and in Europe, leading to its banning in France and England and to confrontations between those who lauded its artistic integrity and those who deemed it pornographic. Lolita achieved great success worldwide and, in the United States, shot to the top of the bestseller list within weeks of publication. In 1962, Stanley Kubrick released a film version of the novel, with a screenplay credited to Nabokov himself; Adrian Lyne directed a second adaptation in 1997. In popular culture, the name Lolita has come to refer to any sexually precocious young girl.
In 1950, Nabokov, having relocated to the United States and taken a teaching job at Cornell University, began working in earnest on the manuscript that would eventually become Lolita. The novel details the pursuit, conquest, and subsequent sexual abuse of twelve-year-old Lolita by Humbert Humbert, the debonair European boarder her mother takes in. Humbert is immediately obsessed with Lolita, whom he identifies as a "nymphet": a young girl of no more than fourteen in whom Humbert can discern a preternatural sexual power and allure. In an effort to gain continual access to Lolita, Humbert seduces and marries her mother, who dies (rather conveniently) shortly thereafter. Fearing any interference with his custody of Lolita—and indeed, anything at all that might divert her attention from him—Humbert isolates Lolita to a great degree from her peers and other adults. Though Humbert casts himself as a dutiful parent figure, his every worry for Lolita's health, safety, and upbringing is underwritten by his concern that she remain sexually available to him at all times. Lolita eventually makes her escape, and Humbert is reduced to a fanatical search for both Lolita and the man whom he believes stole her away.
Controversial as the storyline may be, Lolita is notable both for its aesthetic commitments and its ethical stance. Though many have read Humbert's often ecstatic and beautiful narration as evidence of a Nabokovian project to aestheticize child abuse, both the narration and the novel are much more subtle and complex. While Humbert is disturbing for the degree to which he is able to charm and placate his readers in spite of the increasingly unsavory behaviors in which he engages, both Humbert's fundamental unreliability as a narrator and his sorrow, despair, and self-disgust at the novel's end suggest that, as Nabokov once claimed, Lolita is indeed "a highly moral affair."
PUBLICATION AND RECEPTION
Nabokov was well aware of the controversy that his novel might incite. For many years, he showed no one at all his manuscript and, when he began searching for a publisher, he seriously considered publishing the novel anonymously. Most American editors who saw the manuscript responded favorably, but publishers were deeply concerned about getting embroiled in a costly obscenity trial. After rejections by five American publishing houses, the manuscript made its way to Maurice Girodias, the owner of the newly founded Olympia Press in France. Olympia Press, though it had several titles of literary repute, primarily produced cheap English-language pornography. In 1955, Girodias offered to publish the novel, and Lolita was quietly published in France that same year.
While Lolita's publication initially went largely unnoticed by both reviewers and the public, British novelist Graham Greene, in the London Sunday Times, listed it as one of the three best books of 1955. Shortly thereafter, John Gordon, editor of a London weekly, took issue with Greene's choice of best books and devoted a column to an attack on Lolita. Greene retaliated, and the beginnings of a controversy began to stir in London. In February 1956, an American paper picked up the story, igniting American interest in Lolita. Papers began receiving letters about the novel, critics began speaking out in favor of its literary qualities, and American publishers began expressing interest in the book. In France, a well-respected, mainstream publishing house noted the controversy and offered to bring out a French translation. Other countries also began inquiring about rights to the book.
In spite of the increase in its publicity and renown, Lolita still faced a number of obstacles to publication in the United States. Both Britain and France had banned the book. Several American publishers were eager to publish Lolita but were still concerned that it would ultimately be banned in the United States as well. Additionally, Nabokov and Girodias were embroiled in a dispute over copyright that made it difficult for Nabokov to negotiate a contract with another publisher. In 1957, Nabokov published an essay called "On a Book Entitled Lolita," which argued for the artistic merit of the novel and attempted to lay the groundwork for a defense against any obscenity charges that might be leveled against the book. In spite of brisk American black-market sales of the book and numerous favorable reviews, however, it was not until March 1958 that a contract for publication in the United States was negotiated and signed.
G.P. Putnam's Sons finally published Lolita in mid-August 1958, almost five years after Nabokov had completed the manuscript. Public response to the novel was overwhelming. Advance reviews of the book were primarily favorable, though occasionally outraged. Sales were high, and Lolita went into a second printing almost immediately. Many were offended or outraged by the book's subject matter and some localities went so far as to ban it, but these adverse reactions seemed only to fan its popularity. By the end of September, Lolita had topped the bestseller list and its author had become a celebrity.
Even before Lolita was published in the United States, Harris-Kubrick Pictures had expressed interest in attaining the movie rights. In late 1959, after rejecting an early version of the screenplay written by Calder Willingham, Kubrick approached Nabokov about writing the script for Lolita. Though Kubrick and producer James B. Harris professed complete admiration for the script that Nabokov eventually submitted, his screenplay was gutted during the film's production and the final product bore little relationship to either Nabokov's novel or his screenplay. The film, which premiered in June 1962, starred James Mason, Peter Sellers, and Sue Lyon as Lolita. Lyon looked decidedly older than the actual Lolita's twelve years, and she portrayed Lolita as a young woman rather than as a mix of child and adolescent. Due to pressure from censors, the physical relationship between Lolita and Humbert could only be hinted at. Kubrick did, however, translate some of the linguistic play of the novel into a darkly comic, often farcical scenario. For both Kubrick and Nabokov, the film was a disappointment. In 1974, Nabokov published his original, unaltered screenplay of the film.
Kubrick's movie, although severely constrained by the requirements of the Production Code, was brought to the screen with minimal difficulty. Lyne's 1997 version of Lolita, however, faced much the same problem that Nabokov's original novel did. Starring Jeremy Irons, with Dominique Swain as Lolita, the film was financed independently, but Lyne was unable to find an American distributor for the film. Ultimately, the cable channel Showtime purchased the distribution rights to the film and, after a one-week limited theatrical release meant to enable Academy Award consideration for the film, Lolita premiered on Showtime in 1998. The furor over the film's release—already somewhat surprising in a era when young women are routinely sexualized and commodified in popular culture and when the onscreen depiction of sexuality is increasingly graphic—is all the more notable for the tepidness of Lyne's actual film. Though it does depict more physical contact between Humbert and Lolita than Kubrick's film was ever able to do, Lyne's Lolita is a lyrical, pretty film that portrays Humbert's love for Lolita as more befuddled and passive than the overwhelming lust and passion of Nabokov's Humbert.
LOLITA IN POPULAR CULTURE
Although Humbert Humbert gives a quite specialized meaning to his term nymphet, in popular culture the name Lolita has come to signify very generally a sexually precocious pubescent or, more often, adolescent girl. Cultural critics have often invoked the term Lolita in the context of child pornography, the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and the sexualized depiction of young females in film and television. Most famously, perhaps, the name Lolita was linked with the 1992 attempted murder of Mary Jo Buttafuoco by her husband's teenaged lover, Amy Fisher, whom the media quickly dubbed "the Long Island Lolita."
Often the banning of books by groups or governments appears in retrospect as a somewhat hysterical overreaction to a text that later audiences consider tame. Lolita, on the other hand, still generates controversy, and that it takes pedophilia as its subject continues to bother even those who venerate the novel for its artistic and aesthetic achievement. The continuing controversy over Lolita and the widespread application of the term to issues of child sexuality and the depiction of women and girls in popular culture suggest the degree to which Lolita, even as it forces its audience to grapple simultaneously with Humbert's compelling personality and perverse sexuality, forces society to confront its own complicity in enabling the Lolita phenomenon.
Adams, Sam. 1998. "Girl Trouble." Philadelphia City Paper July 30-August 6. Available from http://citypaper.net/articles/073098/movies.lolita.shtml.
Alexandrov, Vladimir E. 1991. Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Appel, Alfred, Jr., ed. 1970. The Annotated Lolita. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Nafisi, Azar. 2003. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House.
Nolan, Abby McGanney; Elliott Stein; et al. 1998. "Looking for Lolita: On the Nature of Nymph Mania." The Village Voice July 15-21. Available from http://www.villagevoice.com/news/9829,mich,142,1.html.
Pifer, Ellen. 2005. "The Lolita Phenomenon from Paris to Tehran." In The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, ed. Julian W. Connolly. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
"Lolita." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lolita
"Lolita." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lolita
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Penned by Russian émigré turned American novelist Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977), Lolita ranks high among twentieth-century fictional works that have achieved literary acclaim as a result of controversy and censorship. Indeed, the initial rejection of this book by international and American readers produced so much focus on Lolita that rather than being abandoned as obscene pornography, its ideas and theme have survived and continue to influence American popular culture through the millennium.
Briefly, the novel details the tragic yet amusing tale of Humbert Humbert, a dubious European émigré who harbors an obsession for young girls. Upon receiving an inheritance from an uncle, he moves to a small New England town to accept an academic position. Seeking lodging, Humbert rents a room from Charlotte Haze after he encounters her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores. In time, consumed by his secret passion to be near Dolores, or Lolita as he affectionately calls her, Humbert marries Charlotte. Shortly thereafter, Charlotte dies in a car accident after reading Humbert's diary entries revealing his obsession for Lolita. Relieved at this turn of events, Humbert takes Lolita on an extended journey across America during which time she seduces him and they become lovers. Eventually, Lolita becomes weary of Humbert's possessiveness and leaves him for another, whom Humbert later seeks out and murders.
As noted in his essay, "On a Book Entitled Lolita, " Nabokov was aware that his treatment of incest in Lolita was one of three themes considered taboo by American publishers. In order to maintain his tenured status as a professor at Cornell University, he initially elected to publish the novel anonymously. After being rejected by American publishers Simon & Schuster, The Viking Press, New Directions, and others because of its alleged pornographic content, Lolita was finally published under Nabokov's own name in late 1955 by the Olympia Press in Paris. The initial printing of 5,000 copies sold immediately and brought Nabokov recognition in Europe. A December 1955 article written by Graham Greene in England's Sunday Times soon focused international attention on the novel. Greene's praise of the novel as "one of the three best works of 1955" aroused members of the British press to obtain copies and to proclaim alarm about the safety of young girls. Subsequently, a heated debate among British literati concerning the novel's immorality in May 1956 captured the interest of G. P. Putnam & Sons of New York, who later published the first American edition in August 1958.
Once Lolita became available in American bookstores, its commercial success soared due to book reviews read by a more literate public as well as censorship practiced by a moral, conservative public. Within book reviews the repetitive use of words such as obscene, immoral, pornography, scandal, and incest, among others, likely nurtured the public's focus on the perceived lurid or immoral theme of the novel. Moreover, in September 1958, the Public Library of Cincinnati, Ohio, banned Lolita from its bookshelves, and other libraries and school systems nationwide followed suit. In a much-publicized event, the citizens of Lolita, Texas, (named after resident Lolita Reese in 1910), debated whether to change the town's name to avoid the scandal associated with the book. Collectively, these and other incidents focused attention on Lolita such that it maintained the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller List for the last eleven weeks of 1958 and well into 1959. Additionally, in 1962, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film version of the novel (screenplay by Nabokov) produced a renewed interest in Lolita and subsequently increased its profits from book and movie ticket sales. A few decades later, in 1996, an updated film version was made that attracted more publicity than the 1962 version due to its purported sexual content.
The fact that Lolita has had uninterrupted publication since 1958 provides ample evidence of its longevity and popularity. Its theme, language, and commercial value continue to impact American and international culture. For example, in psychoanalysis such phrases as the "Lolita Syndrome" and "Lolita Complex" have been used to describe a middle-aged male's secret lust for prepubescent females or the unhealthy desire for young females. In Sweden, an opera based on the novel was produced and Lund University's electronic library was named Lolita. During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, an article in the Washington Post referred to a young female gymnast as "Lolita of the balance beam." Moreover, an Olympia Press first edition copy of Lolita, priced high at $12.50 in 1956, is valued in excess of $4,000 in 1998.
—Marlena E. Bremseth
Baker, George. "Lolita: Literature or Pornography?" Saturday Review. June 1957, 18.
Bloom, Harold, editor. Lolita. New York, Chelsea House, 1993.
——, editor. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. New York, Chelsea, 1987.
DeGrazia, Edward. Girls Lean Back Everywhere. New York, Random House, 1992.
"Lolita." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lolita
"Lolita." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lolita