Lolita is a 1955 novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Many authors consider it the greatest work of the 20th century, and it has been included in several lists of best books, such as Time's List of the 100 Best Novels, Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, Bokklubben World Library and The Big Read. The novel is notable for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, a middle-aged literature professor under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, with whom he becomes sexually involved after he becomes her stepfather. "Lolita" is his private nickname for Dolores. The novel was originally written in English and first published in Paris in 1955 by Olympia Press. Later it was translated into Russian by Nabokov himself and published in New York City in 1967 by Phaedra Publishers.
Lolita quickly attained a classic status. The novel was adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, and again in 1997 by Adrian Lyne. It has also been adapted several times for the stage and has been the subject of two operas, two ballets, and an acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Broadway musical. Its assimilation into popular culture is such that the name "Lolita" has been used to imply that a young girl is sexually precocious.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Erotic motifs and controversy
- 3 Style and interpretation
- 4 Publication and reception
- 5 Sources and links
- 6 Nabokov on Lolita
- 7 Adaptations
- 8 References in media
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Cited sources
- 12 Further reading
- 13 Audiobooks
- 14 External links
The story starts with a fictional foreword by one John Ray Jr., PhD, an editor of psychology books. In it, Ray writes that he's presenting the details of a memoir entitled The Confession of a White Widowed Male written by a literary scholar of mixed European ethnicity who died recently in an American jail of heart disease while awaiting his murder trial. The memoir's author uses the pseudonym Humbert Humbert to refer to himself in the manuscript. Humbert begins the memoir with his Parisian childhood and ends it with his incarceration. The story is told entirely from Humbert's perspective. Ray says he received the memoir from Humbert's lawyer, C.C. Clark, and adds that he (Ray) has changed the names of the people mentioned in it to protect their identities except for one: "Lolita"; the nickname Humbert used to refer to the young girl with whom he was sexually obsessed. Ray notes that Lolita died in 1952 while giving birth to a stillborn girl on Christmas Day while married to Richard Schiller, presumably the father of her child.
After losing his mother at a young age, Humbert has a rich childhood living in his wealthy father's hotel. At the age of 13 Humbert has a precocious relationship with a girl his age, Annabel Leigh, but her family moves away before they get the chance to have full sex. Annabel dies shortly thereafter of typhus. Following this, Humbert finds he has a hebephilic fixation with certain girls ages 9 to 14 which he identifies as nymphets, citing his encounter with Annabel as the cause.
Humbert visits many prostitutes as a young adult but is unsatisfied unless they resemble a nymphet. He eventually marries a Polish woman named Valeria to allay suspicion of his hebephilia. Humbert plans on migrating to America and leaving her after several years of marriage, only for the marriage to dissolve anyway after she admits to having an affair. Later, Humbert suffers a mental breakdown and recovers in a psychiatric hospital. Upon his release, he moves to the United States to write, living off an allowance left by a wealthy uncle in return for writing perfume adverts. After a year attached to an arctic expedition, the only time in his life he claims to have been free of his tortured yearning, Humbert suffers another mental breakdown, and learns to manipulate psychiatrists while he recovers.
Relieved of his perfume duties while still entitled to the allowance, Humbert plans to move to South America to take advantage of looser laws concerning the age of consent. However he's offered to board and lodge with the McCoo family, living in the fictional New England town of Ramsdale, and he accepts purely because they have a 12 year-old daughter whom he plans to spy on. Upon his arrival he discovers that their house has burned down; Charlotte Haze, a wealthy Ramsdale widow, offers to accommodate him instead and Humbert visits her residence out of politeness. He initially plans to decline Charlotte's offer but agrees to rent when he sees her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores, whom Charlotte calls Lo. Humbert is instantly smitten, and fantasizes constantly about Lo. Charlotte and Dolores have a poisonous relationship and frequently argue, while Humbert finds himself growing infatuated with Dolores and privately nicknames her Lolita. Over the course of a single month Humbert's entire life comes to revolve around masturbating to Lolita. He starts a diary in which he records his obsessive fantasies about Dolores, while also expressing his loathing for Charlotte whom he sees as an obstacle to his passion. One Sunday morning, while Charlotte is out of the house, Dolores and Humbert engage in a somewhat flirtatious interaction, ending with Lolita sitting on Humbert's knee. Humbert uses the interaction to bring himself to ejaculate, which Dolores does not apparently notice.
Charlotte decides to send Dolores to summer camp, where she will stay for three weeks. On the day of leaving, Lolita runs back upstairs and kisses Humbert on the lips, before returning to the car. The housemaid gives Humbert a letter from Charlotte shortly thereafter, in which she confesses that she has fallen in love with him. She adds that if he doesn't love her back he must move out immediately. Humbert's solution to this dilemma is to marry Charlotte, for purely instrumental reasons – it will let him stay close to Dolores and even let him innocently fondle her out of feigned paternalism. Later, Charlotte voices her plan to send Dolores to a boarding school when she returns from camp. Humbert contemplates murdering Charlotte to remain close to Dolores, and even comes close to drowning her in the town lake, but stops before carrying it out. Humbert instead acquires strong sedatives from the town doctor, planning to put both Hazes to sleep so that he can molest Dolores in the night. A few days later however, Charlotte finds Humbert's diary and furiously confronts him, telling him he will never see Dolores again. While Humbert prepares a drink for her, Charlotte runs out of the house to mail letters she's written to friends about Humbert's lust for Dolores, but is killed by a swerving car. Humbert recovers the letters from the accident scene and destroys them. Later, he convinces Charlotte's friends and neighbors that he should look after Dolores as he is now her stepfather.
Humbert retrieves Dolores from camp and lies to her, telling her that Charlotte is ill and has been hospitalized. He then takes her to a high-end hotel that Charlotte had earlier recommended. Humbert feels guilty about consciously raping her, and so tricks her into taking the sedatives in her ice cream. As he waits for the pill to take effect he wanders through the hotel and meets an anonymous man who, unbeknownst to Humbert, is in fact famous playwright Clare Quilty, a friend of the now-deceased Charlotte. Quilty recognises Dolores, and without revealing anything talks ambiguously to Humbert about his "daughter". Humbert excuses himself from the conversation and returns to the hotel room. There, he discovers that the doctor fobbed him with a milder drug, as Dolores is merely drowsy and wakes up frequently, drifting in and out of sleep. He dares not touch her that night. In the morning, Lo reveals to Humbert that she actually has already lost her virginity, having engaged in sexual activity with an older boy at a different camp a year ago at age 11. Humbert tricks her into believing that he has no knowledge of sex play and it is not something that adults do. She wants to show him, and so the two have sex. While driving the next day, Dolores is ambiguously uncomfortable and insists on calling her mother from a pay phone; it is only then that Humbert finally reveals to Dolores that her mother is dead.
Humbert and Dolores begin traveling across the country, driving all day and staying in motels. To keep Dolores from going to the police or running away, Humbert points out she would likely wind up in a state-run orphanage if she leaves him, a prospect which terrifies her. He manipulates her with gifts of money and clothing in return for sexual favors. Completely paranoid about the situation and increasingly jealous of her flirtations with others, Humbert controls Dolores's movements carefully and forbids her from associating with other teenagers. After a year of touring the United States, Dolores pressures Humbert to settle, and so he takes her to the (fictional) New England town of Beardsley, where he enrolls her in the local girls' school. Humbert reluctantly grants Dolores permission to join the school play which, unbeknownst to Humbert, was written by Quilty. The living situation between the two grows increasingly tense, erupting into a row before the play's opening night. Humbert grabs Dolores by the wrist and injures her during the quarrel, and while he's distracted by a neighbour she flees the apartment. Humbert chases after her and finds her using a pay phone in a drug store. While talking to her, Humbert finds that Dolores has had a complete change of heart. She decides not to participate in the school play and asks Humbert to take her on another cross-country trip. Humbert eagerly agrees. Back at the apartment, Lo is unusually flirtatious and the two have sex once more.
While on their second road trip, Humbert becomes suspicious that a driver is following them. He swears he sees Dolores talking to a man he barely recognizes driving a conspicuous red car, and on another occasion, Dolores seems to sabotage his effort to confront the man. Later, Humbert leaves Dolores in a Texas hotel to run errands, returning to discover Dolores's hair disheveled and her make up smudged. He strongly suspects she has had sex with another man while he was out but he has no way to prove it. In the Colorado mountains, Dolores falls ill and Humbert checks her into a hospital while he stays in a nearby motel. After several days, he contacts a nurse at the hospital to inquire about Dolores's condition; he is surprised when the nurse tells him that she has already checked out. An "uncle" has paid her bill and taken her to her "grandfather"'s home; Humbert knows Lolita has no living relatives and he immediately embarks on a frantic search to find Dolores and her abductor, but ultimately fails.
For the next two years, Humbert barely sustains himself in a moderately-functional relationship with a notorious Californian alcoholic named Rita. Deeply depressed, Humbert receives a letter from the residents of Ramsdale, who have learnt that Dolores has gone missing and are pressing for answers. Knowing that his situation is precarious and contemplating what to do, Humbert eventually receives another letter – it's from Dolores, now 17, telling him that she is married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. Dolores tells him to deliver $400 cash to her residence in the town of Coalmont, where she lives with her husband, Richard Schiller. She did not provide Humbert with her street address. Humbert nevertheless immediately leaves New York for Coalmont; he believes Schiller is the abductor and plans to murder him as soon as possible. He tracks down Dolores and finds her living in a clapboard house with her husband, who is not the abductor. Humbert and Dolores awkwardly discuss her new married life, Dolores passing Humbert as her real father to her husband and cheerily pretending their past never happened. Humbert no longer feels any sexual attraction to the now-matured Dolores, but nevertheless realizes he's still in love with her. He gives her ten times as much money as she asked for, and then asks her to abandon this life and leave with him. She accepts the money but firmly declines the offer of a life together. As he is leaving, Dolores reveals to Humbert that it was Quilty who took her from the hospital, and that she willingly left because she was in love with him. After moving into a friend's ranch for a period, Quilty tried to make her star in one of his pornographic films. She refused, and so he expelled her from the ranch. Afterward, she supported herself by working as a waitress. Humbert leaves in tears, resolving to track down and kill Quilty.
Returning to Ramsdale, Humbert visits Quilty's uncle, who is a local dentist, and learns the location of Quilty's mansion. Humbert arrives at the mansion to find a hedonistic lair with the front door unlocked, and Quilty under the influence of drugs. Quilty at first thinks Humbert is a man from the phone company, then just another actor or socialite taking advantage of his generosity. Even after revealing himself and his purpose, Quilty still barely takes Humbert seriously and only after a few tussles does he attempt to talk down Humbert from killing him. Eventually Humbert shoots Quilty in a chase around the mansion; he leaves as a large number of Quilty's guests arrive, who also do not take the idea of Quilty's murder seriously. Later, Humbert allows himself to be captured by police while driving recklessly in a daze.
In his closing thoughts, Humbert expresses his belief that he is guilty of statutory rape, but all other charges against himself should be dismissed. He reaffirms his love for Lolita, and asks for his Confession to be withheld from public release until after her death.
Erotic motifs and controversy
Lolita is frequently described as an "erotic novel", both by some critics but also in a standard reference work on literature Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia called Lolita "an experiment in combining an erotic novel with an instructive novel of manners". The same description of the novel is found in Desmond Morris's reference work The Book of Ages. A survey of books for Women's Studies courses describes it as a "tongue-in-cheek erotic novel". Books focused on the history of erotic literature such as Michael Perkins' The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature also so classify Lolita.
More cautious classifications have included a "novel with erotic motifs" or one of "a number of works of classical erotic literature and art, and to novels that contain elements of eroticism, like ... Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover".
This classification has been disputed. Malcolm Bradbury writes "at first famous as an erotic novel, Lolita soon won its way as a literary one—a late modernist distillation of the whole crucial mythology." Samuel Schuman says that Nabokov "is a surrealist, linked to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. Lolita is characterized by irony and sarcasm; it is not an erotic novel."
Lance Olsen writes: "The first 13 chapters of the text, culminating with the oft-cited scene of Lo unwittingly stretching her legs across Humbert's excited lap ... are the only chapters suggestive of the erotic." Nabokov himself observes in the novel's afterword that a few readers were "misled. [by the opening of the book] ... into assuming this was going to be a lewd book ... [expecting] the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored."
Style and interpretation
The novel is narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with word play and his wry observations of American culture. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet, a word that has since had a life of its own and can be found in most dictionaries, and the lesser-used "faunlet". Most writers see Humbert as an unreliable narrator and credit Nabokov's powers as an ironist. For Richard Rorty, in his interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity." Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person."
Critics have further noted that, since the novel is a first person narrative by Humbert, the novel gives very little information about what Lolita is like as a person, that in effect she has been silenced by not being the book's narrator. Nomi Tamir-Ghez writes "Not only is Lolita's voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader ... since it is Humbert who tells the story ... throughout most of the novel, the reader is absorbed in Humbert's feelings". Similarly Mica Howe and Sarah Appleton Aguiar write that the novel silences and objectifies Lolita. Christine Clegg notes that this is a recurring theme in criticism of the novel in the 1990s. Actor Brian Cox, who played Humbert in a 2009 one-man stage monologue based on the novel, stated that the novel is "not about Lolita as a flesh and blood entity. It's Lolita as a memory". He concluded that a stage monologue would be truer to the book than any film could possibly be. Elizabeth Janeway writing in The New York Times Book Review holds "Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh".
Clegg sees the novel's non-disclosure of Lolita's feelings as directly linked to the fact that her "real" name is Dolores and only Humbert refers to her as Lolita. Humbert also states he has effectively "solipsized" Lolita early in the novel. Eric Lemay writes:
The human child, the one noticed by non-nymphomaniacs, answers to other names, "Lo", "Lola", "Dolly", and, least alluring of all, "Dolores". "But in my arms," asserts Humbert, "she was always Lolita." And in his arms or out, "Lolita" was always the creation of Humbert's craven self ... The Siren-like Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song "Lolita". ... To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.
In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. In an NPR interview Nafisi contrasts the sorrowful and seductive sides of Dolores/Lolita's character. She notes "Because her name is not Lolita, her real name is Dolores which as you know in Latin means dolour, so her real name is associated with sorrow and with anguish and with innocence, while Lolita becomes a sort of light-headed, seductive, and airy name. The Lolita of our novel is both of these at the same time and in our culture here today we only associate it with one aspect of that little girl and the crassest interpretation of her." Following Nafisi's comments, the NPR interviewer, Madeleine Brand, lists as embodiments of the latter side of Lolita, "the Long Island Lolita, Britney Spears, the Olsen twins, and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita".
For Nafisi, the essence of the novel is Humbert's solipsism and his erasure of Lolita's independent identity. She writes: "Lolita was given to us as Humbert's creature […] To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own ... Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert's attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses."
One of the novel's early champions, Lionel Trilling, warned in 1958 of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with so eloquent and so self-deceived a narrator: "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents ... we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."
A minority of critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. In 1958, Dorothy Parker described the novel as "the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls" and Lolita as "a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered". In 1959, novelist Robertson Davies excused the narrator entirely, writing that the theme of Lolita is "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar."
|Presentation by Martin Amis at the New York Public Library, "Lolita and American Morality", February 10, 1998, C-SPAN|
In his essay on Stalinism Koba the Dread, Martin Amis proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov's childhood (though Nabokov states in his afterword that he "[detests] symbols and allegories"). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. "Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies," he says. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny."
Publication and reception
Nabokov finished Lolita on 6 December 1953, five years after starting it. Because of its subject matter, Nabokov intended to publish it pseudonymously (although the anagrammatic character Vivian Darkbloom would tip off the alert reader). The manuscript was turned down, with more or less regret, by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. After these refusals and warnings, he finally resorted to publication in France. Via his translator Doussia Ergaz, it reached Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, "three-quarters of [whose] list was pornographic trash". Underinformed about Olympia, overlooking hints of Girodias's approval of the conduct of a protagonist Girodias presumed was based on the author, and despite warnings from Morris Bishop, his friend at Cornell, Nabokov signed a contract with Olympia Press for publication of the book, to come out under his own name.
Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks "swarming with typographical errors". Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the very end of 1955, Graham Greene, in the London Sunday Times, called it one of the three best books of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the London Sunday Express, whose editor John Gordon called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography". British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, France followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita; the ban lasted for two years. Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London in 1959 was controversial enough to contribute to the end of the political career of the Conservative member of parliament Nigel Nicolson, one of the company's partners.
Despite initial trepidation, there was no official response in the U.S., and the first American edition was issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons in August 1958. The book was into a third printing within days and became the first since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. Orville Prescott, the influential book reviewer of the New York Times, greatly disliked the book, describing it as "dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion". This review failed to influence the book's sales.
The novel continues to generate controversy today as modern society has become increasingly aware of the lasting damage created by child sexual abuse. In 2008, an entire book was published on the best ways to teach the novel in a college classroom given that "its particular mix of narrative strategies, ornate allusive prose, and troublesome subject matter complicates its presentation to students". In this book, one author urges teachers to note that Dolores' suffering is noted in the book even if the main focus is on Humbert. Many critics describe Humbert as a rapist, notably Azar Nafisi in her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, though in a survey of critics David Larmour notes that other interpreters of the novel have been reluctant to use that term. Near the end of the novel, Humbert accuses himself of rape. Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd denies that it was rape on the grounds that Dolores was not a virgin and seduced Humbert in the morning of their hotel stay. This perspective is vigorously disputed by Peter Rabinowitz in his essay "Lolita: Solipsized or Sodomized?".
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Links in Nabokov's work
In 1928 Nabokov wrote a poem named Lilith (Лилит), depicting a sexually attractive underage girl who seduces the male protagonist just to leave him humiliated in public. In 1939 he wrote a novella, Volshebnik (Волшебник), that was published only posthumously in 1986 in English translation as The Enchanter. It bears many similarities to Lolita, but also has significant differences: it takes place in Central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide. The theme of hebephilia was already touched on by Nabokov in his short story "A Nursery Tale", written in 1926. Also, in the 1932 Laughter in the Dark, Margot Peters is 16 and already had an affair when middle-aged Albinus becomes attracted to her.
In chapter three of the novel The Gift (written in Russian in 1935–37) the similar gist of Lolita's first chapter is outlined to the protagonist, Fyodor Cherdyntsev, by his landlord Shchyogolev as an idea of a novel he would write "if I only had the time": a man marries a widow only to gain access to her young daughter, who resists all his passes. Shchyogolev says it happened "in reality" to a friend of his; it is made clear to the reader that it concerns himself and his stepdaughter Zina (15 at the time of Shchyogolev's marriage to her mother) who becomes the love of Fyodor's life.
In April 1947, Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson: "I am writing ... a short novel about a man who liked little girls—and it's going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea". The work expanded into Lolita during the next eight years. Nabokov used the title A Kingdom by the Sea in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographical novel Look at the Harlequins! for a Lolita-like book written by the narrator who, in addition, travels with his teenage daughter Bel from motel to motel after the death of her mother; later, his fourth wife is Bel's look-alike and shares her birthday.
In Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, the titular poem by fictional John Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita coming up the American east coast in 1958, and narrator Charles Kinbote (in the commentary later in the book) notes it, questioning why anyone would have chosen an obscure Spanish nickname for a hurricane. There were no hurricanes named Lolita that year, but that is the year that Lolita the novel was published in North America.
The unfinished novel The Original of Laura, published posthumously, features the character Hubert H. Hubert, an older man preying upon then-child protagonist, Flora. Unlike those of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Hubert's advances are unsuccessful.
Literary pastiches, allusions and prototypes
The novel abounds in allusions to classical and modern literature. Virtually all of them have been noted in The Annotated Lolita, edited and annotated by Alfred Appel, Jr. Many are references to Humbert's own favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe.
Humbert Humbert's first love, Annabel Leigh, is named after the "maiden" in the poem "Annabel Lee" by Poe; this poem is alluded to many times in the novel, and its lines are borrowed to describe Humbert's love. A passage in chapter 11 reuses verbatim Poe's phrase ...by the side of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride. In the opening of the novel, the phrase Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied, is a pastiche of two passages of the poem, the winged seraphs of heaven (line 11), and The angels, not half so happy in heaven, went envying her and me (lines 21–2). Nabokov originally intended Lolita to be called The Kingdom by the Sea, drawing on the rhyme with Annabel Lee that was used in the first verse of Poe's work. A variant of this line is reprised in the opening of chapter one, which reads ...had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Humbert Humbert's double name recalls Poe's "William Wilson", a tale in which the main character is haunted by his doppelgänger, paralleling to the presence of Humbert's own doppelgänger, Clare Quilty. Humbert is not, however, his real name, but a chosen pseudonym. The theme of the doppelgänger also occurs in Nabokov's earlier novel, Despair.
Humbert Humbert's field of expertise is French literature (one of his jobs is writing a series of educational works that compare French writers to English writers), and as such there are several references to French literature, including the authors Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, François Rabelais, Charles Baudelaire, Prosper Mérimée, Remy Belleau, Honoré de Balzac, and Pierre de Ronsard.
Vladimir Nabokov was fond of the works of Lewis Carroll, and had translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. He even called Carroll the "first Humbert Humbert". Lolita contains a few brief allusions in the text to the Alice books, though overall Nabokov avoided direct allusions to Carroll. In her book, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, Joyce Milton claims that a major inspiration for the novel was Charlie Chaplin's relationship with his second wife, Lita Grey, whose real name was Lillita and is often misstated as Lolita. Graham Vickers in his book Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again argues that the two major real-world predecessors of Humbert are Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin. Although Appel's comprehensive Annotated Lolita contains no references to Charlie Chaplin, others have picked up several oblique references to Chaplin's life in Nabokov's book. Bill Delaney notes that at the end Lolita and her husband move to the fictional Alaskan town of "Gray Star" while Chaplin's The Gold Rush, set in Alaska, was originally set to star Lita Grey. Lolita's first sexual encounter was with a boy named Charlie Holmes, whom Humbert describes as "the silent...but indefatigable Charlie." Chaplin had an artist paint Lita Grey in imitation of Joshua Reynolds's painting The Age of Innocence. When Humbert visits Lolita in a class at her school, he notes a print of the same painting in the classroom. Delaney's article notes many other parallels as well.
The foreword refers to "the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933 by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoken book"—that is, the decision in the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in which Woolsey ruled that James Joyce's Ulysses was not obscene and could be sold in the United States.
In chapter 29 of Part Two, Humbert comments that Lolita looks "like Botticelli's russet Venus—the same soft nose, the same blurred beauty", referencing Sandro Botticelli's depiction of Venus in, perhaps, The Birth of Venus or Venus and Mars.
Other possible real-life prototypes
In addition to the possible prototypes of Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin mentioned above in Allusions, Alexander Dolinin suggests that the prototype of Lolita was 11-year-old Florence Horner, kidnapped in 1948 by 50-year-old mechanic Frank La Salle, who had caught her stealing a five-cent notebook. La Salle traveled with her over various states for 21 months and is believed to have raped her. He claimed that he was an FBI agent and threatened to "turn her in" for the theft and to send her to "a place for girls like you." The Horner case was not widely reported, but Dolinin notes various similarities in events and descriptions.
While Nabokov had already used the same basic idea – that of a child molester and his victim booking into a hotel as father and daughter—in his then-unpublished 1939 work The Enchanter (Волшебник), he mentions the Horner case explicitly in Chapter 33 of Part II of Lolita:
Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?
Heinz von Lichberg's "Lolita"
German academic Michael Maar's book The Two Lolitas describes his recent discovery of a 1916 German short story titled "Lolita" whose middle-aged narrator describes travelling abroad as a student. He takes a room as a lodger and instantly becomes obsessed with the preteen girl (also named Lolita) who lives in the same house. Maar has speculated that Nabokov may have had cryptomnesia ("hidden memory") while he was composing Lolita during the 1950s. Maar says that until 1937 Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin as the author, Heinz von Eschwege (pen name: Heinz von Lichberg), and was most likely familiar with his work, which was widely available in Germany during Nabokov's time there. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in the article "Lolita at 50: Did Nabokov take literary liberties?" says that, according to Maar, accusations of plagiarism should not apply and quotes him as saying: "Literature has always been a huge crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast... Nothing of what we admire in Lolita is already to be found in the tale; the former is in no way deducible from the latter." See also Jonathan Lethem's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" in Harper's Magazine on this story.
Nabokov on Lolita
One of the first things Nabokov makes a point of saying is that, despite John Ray Jr.'s claim in the Foreword, there is no moral to the story.
Nabokov adds that "the initial shiver of inspiration" for Lolita "was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage". Neither the article nor the drawing has been recovered.
In response to an American critic who characterized Lolita as the record of Nabokov's "love affair with the romantic novel", Nabokov writes that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct".
Nabokov concludes the afterword with a reference to his beloved first language, which he abandoned as a writer once he moved to the United States in 1940: "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 language for a second-rate brand of English".
Nabokov rated the book highly. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962, he said:
Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.
Over a year later, in an interview for Playboy, he said:
No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.
In the same year, in an interview with Life, Nabokov was asked which of his writings had most pleased him. He answered:
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.
The Russian translation includes a "Postscriptum" in which Nabokov reconsiders his relationship with his native language. Referring to the afterword to the English edition, Nabokov states that only "the scientific scrupulousness led me to preserve the last paragraph of the American afterword in the Russian text..." He further explains that the "story of this translation is the story of a disappointment. Alas, that 'wonderful Russian language' which, I imagined, still awaits me somewhere, which blooms like a faithful spring behind the locked gate to which I, after so many years, still possess the key, turned out to be non-existent, and there is nothing beyond that gate, except for some burned out stumps and hopeless autumnal emptiness, and the key in my hand looks rather like a lock pick."
Lolita has been filmed twice, been a musical, four stage-plays, one completed opera, and two ballets. There is also Nabokov's unfilmed (and re-edited) screenplay, an uncompleted opera based on the work, and an "imagined opera" which combines elements of opera and dance.
- Lolita was made in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick, and starred James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon as Lolita; Nabokov was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film's adapted screenplay, although little of this work reached the screen; Stanley Kubrick and James Harris substantially rewrote Nabokov's script, though neither took credit. The film greatly expanded the character of Clare Quilty, and removed all references to Humbert's obsession with young girls before meeting Dolores. Veteran arranger Nelson Riddle composed the music for the film, whose soundtrack includes the hit single, "Lolita Ya Ya."
- The book was adapted into a musical in 1971 by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry under the title Lolita, My Love. Critics praised the play for sensitively translating the story to the stage, but it nonetheless closed before it opened in New York.
- Nabokov's own re-edited and condensed version of the screenplay (revised December 1973) he originally submitted for Kubrick's film (before its extensive rewrite by Kubrick and Harris) was published by McGraw-Hill in 1974. One new element is that Quilty's play The Hunted Enchanter, staged at Dolores's high school, contains a scene that is an exact duplicate of a painting in the front lobby of the hotel, The Enchanted Hunter, at which Humbert allows Lolita to seduce him.
- In 1982 Edward Albee adapted the book into a play, Lolita. It was savaged by critics, Frank Rich notably predicting fatal damage to Albee's career. Rich noted that the play's reading of the character of Quilty seemed to be taken from the Kubrick film.
- In 1992 Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin adapted Lolita into a Russian-language opera Lolita, which premiered in Swedish in 1994 at the Royal Swedish Opera. The first performance in Russian was in Moscow in 2004. The opera was nominated for Russia's Golden Mask award. Its first performance in German was on 30 April at the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden as the opening night of the Internationale Maifestspiele Wiesbaden in 2011. The German version was shortened from four hours to three, but noted Lolita's death at the conclusion, which had been omitted from the earlier longer version. It was considered well-staged but musically monotonous. In 2001, Shchedrin extracted "symphonic fragments" for orchestra from the opera score, which were published as Lolita-Serenade.
- The 1997 film Lolita was directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, and Melanie Griffith.
- In 1999, the Boston-based composer John Harbison began an opera of Lolita, which he abandoned in the wake of the clergy child abuse scandal in Boston. He abandoned it by 2005, but fragments were woven into a seven-minute piece, "Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera". Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov, is a character in Lolita.
- In 2003, Russian director Victor Sobchak wrote a second non-musical stage adaptation, which played at the Lion and Unicorn fringe theater in London. It drops the character of Quilty and updates the story to modern England, and includes long passages of Nabokov's prose in voiceover.
- Also in 2003, a stage adaptation of Nabokov's unused screenplay was performed in Dublin adapted by Michael West. It was described by Karina Buckley (in the Sunday Times of London) as playing more like Italian commedia dell'arte than a dark drama about paedophilia. Hiroko Mikami notes that the initial sexual encounter between Lolita and Humbert was staged in a way that left this adaptation particularly open to the charge of placing the blame for initiating the relationship on Lolita and normalizing child sexual abuse. Mikami challenged this reading of the production, noting that the ultimate devastation of events on Lolita's life is duly noted in the play.
- In 2003, Italian choreographer Davide Bombana created a ballet based on Lolita that ran 70 minutes. It used music by Dmitri Shostakovich, György Ligeti, Alfred Schnittke and Salvatore Sciarrino. It was performed by the Grand Ballet de Génève in Switzerland in November 2003. It earned him the award Premio Danza E Danza in 2004 as "Best Italian Choreographer Abroad".
- American composer Joshua Fineberg and choreographer Johanne Saunier created an "imagined opera" of Lolita. Running 70 minutes, it premiered in Montclair, New Jersey in April 2009. While other characters silently dance, Humbert narrates, often with his back to the audience as his image is projected onto video screens. Writing in The New York Times, Steve Smith noted that it stressed Humbert as a moral monster and madman, rather than as a suave seducer, and that it does nothing to "suggest sympathy" on any level of Humbert. Smith also described it as "less an opera in any conventional sense than a multimedia monodrama". The composer described Humbert as "deeply seductive but deeply evil". He expressed his desire to ignore the plot and the novel's elements of parody, and instead to put the audience "in the mind of a madman". He regarded himself as duplicating Nabokov's effect of putting something on the surface and undermining it, an effect for which he thought music was especially suited.
- In 2009 Richard Nelson created a one-man drama, the only character onstage being Humbert speaking from his jail cell. It premiered in London with Brian Cox as Humbert. Cox believes that this is truer to the spirit of the book than other stage or film adaptations, since the story is not about Lolita herself but about Humbert's flawed memories of her.
- Four Humors created and staged a Minnesota Fringe Festival version called "Four Humors Lolita: a Three-Man Show," August 2013. The show was billed as "A one hour stage play, based on the two and a half hour movie by Stanley Kubrick, based on the 5 hour screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on the 300 page novel by Vladimir Nabokov, as told by 3 idiots."
Derivative literary works
- The Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco published a short parody of Nabokov's novel called "Granita" in 1959. It presents the story of Umberto Umberto (Umberto being both the author's first name and the Italian form of "Humbert") and his illicit obsession with the elderly "Granita".
- Published in 1992, Poems for Men who Dream of Lolita by Kim Morrissey contains poems which purport to be written by Lolita herself, reflecting on the events in the story, a sort of diary in poetry form. Morrissey portrays Lolita as an innocent, wounded soul. In Lolita Unclothed, a documentary by Camille Paglia, Morrisey complains that in the novel Lolita has "no voice". Morrisey's retelling was adapted into an opera by composer Sid Rabinovitch, and performed at the New Music Festival in Winnipeg in 1993.
- Gregor von Rezzori's Ein Fremder in Lolitaland. Ein Essay ("A Stranger in Lolitaland. An Essay", 1993), first published in English by Vanity Fair.
- The 1995 novel Lo's Diary by Pia Pera retells the story from Lolita's point of view, making a few modifications to the story and names. (For example, Lolita does not die, and her last name is now "Maze".) The estate of Nabokov attempted to stop publication of the English translation (Lo's Diary), but it was protected by the court as "parody". "There are only two reasons for such a book: gossip and style", writes Richard Corliss, adding that Lo's Diary "fails both ways".
- Steve Martin wrote the short story "Lolita at Fifty," included in his collection Pure Drivel of 1999, which is a gently humorous look at how Dolores Haze's life might have turned out. She has gone through many husbands. Richard Corliss writes that: "In six pages Martin deftly sketches a woman who has known and used her allure for so long—ever since she was 11 and met Humbert Humbert—that it has become her career."
- Emily Prager states in the foreword to her novel Roger Fishbite that she wrote it mainly as a literary parody of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, partly as a "reply both to the book and to the icon that the character Lolita has become". Prager's novel, set in the 1990s, is narrated by the Lolita character, thirteen-year-old Lucky Lady Linderhoff.
References in media
- Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir about teaching government-banned Western literary classics to women in the world of an Islamic Iran, which author Azar Nafisi describes as dominated in the 1980s by fundamentalist "morality squads". Stories about the lives of her book club members are interspersed with critical commentary on Lolita and three other Western novels. Lolita in particular is dubbed the ultimate "forbidden" novel and becomes a metaphor for life in Iran. Although Nafasi states that the metaphor is not allegorical (p. 35), she does want to draw parallels between "victim and jailer" (p. 37). She implies that, like the principal character in Lolita, the regime in Iran imposes their "dream upon our reality, turning us into his figments of imagination." In both cases, the protagonist commits the "crime of solipsizing another person's life." February 2011 saw the premiere of a concert performance of an opera based on Reading Lolita in Tehran at the University of Maryland School of Music with music by doctoral student Elisabeth Mehl Greene and a libretto co-written by Iranian-American poet Mitra Motlagh. Azar Nafasi was closely involved in the development of the project and participated in an audience Q&A session after the premiere.
- In "The Missing Page", one of the most popular episodes (from 1960) of the British sitcom Hancock's Half Hour, Tony Hancock has read virtually every book in the library except Lolita, which is always out on loan. He repeatedly asks if it has been returned. When it is eventually returned, there is a commotion amongst the library users who all want the book. This specific incident in the episode is discussed in a 2003 article on the decline of the use of public libraries in Britain by G. K. Peatling.
- In the movie Irma la Douce (1963), perky Parisian streetwalker Irma has a co-worker named Lolita, who is middle-aged. A throwaway gag has Lolita running down the street wearing the heart-shaped sunglasses worn by her film counterpart.
- In the Woody Allen film Manhattan (1979), when Mary (Diane Keaton) discovers Isaac Davis (Allen) is dating a 17-year-old (Mariel Hemingway), she says, "Somewhere Nabokov is smiling". Alan A. Stone speculates that Lolita had inspired Manhattan. Graham Vickers describes the female lead in Allen's movie as "a Lolita that is allowed to express her own point of view" and emerges from the relationship "graceful, generous, and optimistic".
- In the 1999 film American Beauty, the name of protagonist Lester Burnham—a middle-age man with a crush on his daughter's best friend—is an anagram of "Humbert learns". The girl's surname is Hays, which recalls Haze. Tracy Lemaster sees many parallels between the two stories including their references to rose petals and sports, arguing that Beauty's cheerleading scene is directly derived from the tennis scene in Lolita.
- In the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers, Bill Murray's character comes across an overtly sexualized girl named Lolita. Although Murray's character says it's an "interesting choice of name", Roger Ebert notes that "Neither daughter nor mother seems to know that the name Lolita has literary associations."
- In the 2009 film The Good Guy, Beth (Alexis Bledel) and her friends read Lolita for their book club. Beth later asks Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) if he knows Lolita, to which he replies "Lolita, my sin, my soul, standing four feet ten in one sock."
- "Moi... Lolita" (English: "Me... Lolita") is the debut single of the French singer Alizée, which was released on her debut album Gourmandises (2000) when she was 15.
- In The Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me", about a schoolgirl's crush on her teacher, the final verse states that the teacher "starts to shake and cough / just like the old man in / that book by Nabokov", a direct reference to the male protagonist in Lolita.
- In the title song of her mainstream debut album, One of the Boys, Katy Perry says that she "studied Lolita religiously", and the cover-shot of the album references Lolita's appearance in the earlier Stanley Kubrick film.
- The Love Language's song "Lolita" is about lead singer (and band frontrunner) Stuart McLamb's reflections on his problematic and failed relationship with a younger girl; he wrote the song about "Nabokov... I was reading Lolita at the time, and I was also dating a girl that was a lot younger than me. Oh God, that's going to... sound like some pedophile. It wasn't that bad. She was legal. Our age difference just caused a lot of problems."
- Rolling Stone has noted that Lana Del Rey's 2012 album Born to Die has "loads of Lolita references", and it has a bonus track entitled "Lolita". She has herself described the album's persona to a reviewer from The New Yorker as a combination of a "gangster Nancy Sinatra" and "Lolita lost in the hood." Their reviewer notes that "Her invocations of Sinatra and Lolita are entirely appropriate to the sumptuous backing tracks" and that one of the album's singles, "Off to the Races", repeatedly quotes from the novel's opening sentence: "light of my life, fire of my loins."
- In the Counterfeit song "Romeo", the lyrics state "You can call her what you want but she will always be mine. My Lolita, my seductress, poison, my cyanide. I can't wait to drink her in." This particular lyric is thought to be in reference to the relationship the lead singer Jamie Campbell Bower, entered with fashion model Matilda Lowther, who was in her late teens when the two began dating and is seven years his junior.
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- Nabokov, Vladimir (1997). Lolita. New York: Vintage International. ISBN 0-679-72316-1.
- Nafisi, Azar (2008). Reading Lolita in Tehran (paper reissue ed.). Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 0-8129-7930-3.
- Appel, Alfred, Jr. (1974). Nabokov's Dark Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501834-6. A pioneering study of Nabokov's interest in and literary uses of film imagery.
- Connolly, Julian W. (2005). The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-53643-X. Essays on the life and novels.
- Johnson, Kurt, & Coates, Steve (1999). Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-137330-6. The major study of Nabokov's lepidoptery, frequently mentioning Lolita.
- Lennard, John (2008). Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks. ISBN 978-1-84760-097-4. An introduction and study-guide in PDF format.
- Nabokov, Vladimir (1955). Lolita. New York: Vintage International. ISBN 0-679-72316-1. The original novel.
- Wood, Michael (1994). The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04830-4. A widely praised monograph dealing extensively with Lolita
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