Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*United States. In the course of the novel, the narrator, Humbert traverses the highways, towns, roadside attractions, hotels, motels, and tourist camps of most, if not all, of the forty-eight states of the United States, from Maine to California, as well as Alaska (which was not yet a state at the time the story is set). He does this first with Lolita, then alone, in search of her, after she is taken away from him. Humbert contrasts the canvas of America, with its natural landscapes of true beauty, dotted with garish billboards, gift shops, and gas stations, with what he calls “sweet, mellow, rotting Europe.”
Early in his narrative, Humbert outlines his first journey with Lolita, from east to west and back again, through New England, past “corn belts and cotton belts,” caverns and cabins, through mountains and deserts, and the “pale lilac fluff or flowering shrubs along forest roads” of the Pacific Northwest, and back to New England.
Their second trip, several years later, begins at Beardsley and takes them slowly through the Midwest and West, with stops in Kasbeam, where Humbert first becomes aware that they are being followed, and Wace, where they attend a summer theater with a play by Humbert’s rival, Clare Quilty, another pedophile who is following their trail through the West, and finally to Elphinstone, a western town “on the flat floor of a seven-thousand-foot-high valley.” There,...
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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...
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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.
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By allowing Humbert to tell his own story, Nabokov places Lolita in the hands of a narrator whose values and proclivities the reader, presumably, cannot accept. (A great deal of the controversy surrounding the novel was due to the fact that some readers assumed the author did accept them.) However, because the reader is forced to some extent to share Humbert's point of view, he comes to understand, if not to share, his obsession. An excellent example of this phenomenon is the chapter in which Humbert explains the peculiar charms of the nymphet: His explanation is remarkably convincing, considering that the sort of relationship he describes may be, as Lionel Trilling pointed out, America's last inviolable sexual taboo. In addition, because Humbert's reminiscences are set down after the fact, he has the benefit not only of hindsight but also of penitence. By displaying a retrospective understanding of the full horror of his actions, Nabokov's narrator is able to arouse the reader's compassion.
Another of Nabokov's devices in Lolita is the double in the figure of Quitty. In the plot of the novel, of course, Quilty is a real character with an independent existence. On another level, however, Quilty represents a sort of exteriorization of Humbert's guilt, of the brutal and uncaring side of his personality. Quilty's function as a double for Humbert is emphasized by his shadowy presence throughout the novel, and his murder represents a sort of...
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In general, Nabokov's fiction is not chiefly concerned with social commentary. While his settings and characters are carefully and vividly constructed, and often carry a certain amount of satirical weight, Nabokov is always concerned not so much with the accurate reproduction of social reality as with the creation of an artistic reality in his works. As one of the characters remarks in his novel Pale Tire (1962), "'reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art, which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality' perceived by the communal eye."
In terms of geographical setting, Lolita is one of Nabokov's most wide-ranging novels. Its narrator and his young charge (or, perhaps, prisoner) crisscross America, taking in its sights, its roadside diners, and its cheap motels. Thus, on one level, the novel represents a satire of middle-class America as seen through the eyes of the novel's European narrator, of the kitschy ideals it holds out to its inhabitants through advertising, movies, and magazines.
Certainly, the controversy surrounding the publication of Lolita stemmed from the social mores attached to lust, and particularly the sexual affection of a male guardian to his pubescent step daughter. Puritanical, sexually oppressed America of the mid-1950s regarded Lolita as a frontal assault on family values. Read literally, the plotting of an older man who murders his new...
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Topics for Further Study
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.
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Although Nabokov's novels abound in literary allusions and parody, they do not fit in easily among general literary trends or traditions. Nabokov himself disliked questions of "influences" and "models," saying in one interview that the only author who influenced him was Pierre Delalande — a fictional creation of Nabokov himself. The very number and variety of authors and works which have been mentioned in connection with Lolita alone is telling: Critics have compared it to Dante, Poe, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), Robert Louis Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), to name only a few. Each of these comparisons has some basis, for Nabokov's novel does recall each of these works in one way or another; however, none of them gives a complete understanding of the work as a whole.
The clearest literary precedent is to Edgar Alan Poe's poem "Annabelle Lee." In the opening paragraphs, Humbert Humbert likens Lolita to Annabelle Lee, thus setting up the gothic tradition of death coming to claim purity (the virgin) before it could become corrupted by maturity. The romantic ideal of the beautiful Annabelle Lee is set is stark contrast to the spoiled, bratty Lolita who has no purity or innocence, even if she is a virgin.
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Many of Nabokov's novels are similar to one another in a variety of ways. Characters, props, and other plot details often reappear in various works; many of them were originally "borrowed" from the author's own life. More importantly, there is a continuity of theme and technique in the author's constant exploration of time, memory, identity, and the creation of literature.
The first "incarnation" of Lolita was a short work in Russian called Volshebnik (The Enchanter, discovered and published only after Nabokov's death), written between 1939 and 1940. It is little more than a rudimentary sketch for the novel, in which the protagonist ends by throwing himself under the wheels of a truck. Nabokov was displeased with it ("the little girl wasn't alive," he said later), and he thought — or claimed — that he had destroyed it shortly after his arrival in the United States.
There are similarities between Humbert and the narrators of Despair (1937) and Ada (1969); all three are unsympathetic characters whose values differ sharply from the author's. However, Nabokov grants to Humbert a measure of redemption, and even sympathy, which are denied to Hermann (of Despair) and Van Veen (of Ada). Of the latter he said simply, "I loathe Van Veen," and of the former, "There is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann." Moreover,...
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Several of Nabokov's novels have been made into films: Laughter in the Dark (1969, directed by Tony Richardson, starring Nicol Williamson, Anna Karina, and Sian Phillips); King, Queen, Knave (1972, starring David Niven and Gina Lollobrigida); and Despair (1978/ 79, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, screenplay by Tom Stoppard, starring Dirk Bogarde and Andrea Ferreol). These films are generally shown very little.
Not surprisingly, the most often adapted of Nabokov's novels is Lolita. A British film was made in 1962, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason as Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, Sue Lyon as Lolita, and Peter Sellers as Quilty. Although it required a substantial suspension of disbelief to conceive of the fifteen-year-old Lyon as a prepubescent nymphet, the film was nevertheless appropriately controversial; in fact, it was instrumental in the creation of the MPAA ratings system for films. However, it received mixed reviews and was criticized by those who had read the novel as a weak and pale adaptation. Although Nabokov was credited in the film as author of the screenplay, Kubrick further adapted the script; while Nabokov professed to have liked the film, he maintained that it was not what he wrote. Nabokov published his own version, Lolita: A Screenplay, in 1974, with an introduction detailing the actual extent of his participation in the film.
There were also two stage...
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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.
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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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
For Further Study
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....
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Bloom, Harold, ed. Lolita. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1993. Contains nine essays on such topics as the effect of America on Humbert, necrophilia, the attacks on Freud, the parodic elements, the treatment of women, and Humbert as a writer.
Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. Explains how Lolita grew out of an unsuccessful short story Nabokov wrote in 1939. Also finds similarities to other Nabokov works in Russian. Excellent analysis of how Humbert and Quilty are psychological doubles.
Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov’s Novels in English. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983. Interprets the novel as an anatomy of an obsession, with Humbert romanticizing Lolita and America and discovering that both are flawed yet still endearing.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Edited by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. The text of the novel, followed by notes explaining the allusions and translating the French passages, with occasional comments by Nabokov.
Proffer, Carl. Keys to Lolita. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. Argues that Nabokov’s works require especially close readings because of the elaborate linguistic and literary games. Identifies allusions and stylistic devices, such as alliteration, rhyme, puns, and image patterns.
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