Lolita, generally considered Nabokov’s greatest novel, unites wildly grotesque parody, farce, and pathos with two powerful, shocking subjects: the passionate feelings of a grown man toward a pubescent girl and the complex nature of romantic love, which is not only tender and generous but also ruthless and even totalitarian.
The novel’s middle-aged, middle-European narrator “writes” this book as his confession while in a prison cell awaiting trial for murder. His double-talk name, Humbert Humbert, sets the tone of punning parody that pervades the text, as various people address him as Humberg, Herbert, Humbird, Humberger, and Humbug. Humbert Humbert traces his sexual obsession for “nymphets”—girls between the ages of nine and fourteen—to a case of interrupted coitus when he was thirteen years old; he and a certain Annabel Leigh had the beginnings of their first affair, forever aborted by her premature death of typhus. (The allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and life number at least twenty; Nabokov refers to many other writers, including Shakespeare, John Keats, Flaubert, James Joyce, Proust, and T. S. Eliot.) After his marriage to a “life-sized” woman in Paris ends ridiculously, Humbert emigrates to the United States.
Here Humbert discovers Lolita Haze, a twelve-year-old, gum-chewing, Coke-gurgling, comic-book-addicted, blatantly bratty schoolgirl. Humbert agrees to marry Charlotte, her vapid, pretentious, widowed mother, in order to be near the irresistible daughter. When Charlotte learns of his pedophilia through reading his diary, she runs distractedly out of the house and conveniently is killed by a passing car before she can publicize his perversion.
Having laid his wife to rest, the widower undertakes the clumsy...
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Vladimir Nabokov was already a widely respected Russian American novelist when his third novel in English, Lolita, was published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1955. It had been rejected by five American publishers and was not published in America until 1958. Although Lolita is now widely regarded as a classic, in the 1950’s it was regularly denounced, even generating calls for the deportation of its author. Although the novel became a best-seller, many libraries refused to keep it on the shelves. The 1962 film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick, retreated from the novel’s most disturbing aspects. Later adaptations—a musical comedy by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry and a dramatic version by Edward Albee—failed promptly.
The elegant first-person narrative of an émigré professor writing under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert is still often mistaken for an endorsement of pedophilia, particularly by those who have not actually read it. In the book, Nabokov mocks the moralizing smugness and pretensions to family values of the 1950’s United States, and parodies his own difficulties in coming to terms with American culture. Lolita is comic, tragic, and, ultimately, highly moral, not because it carries a simplistic message, but because it painfully evokes, as Humbert notes, that “the moral sense is the duty mortals have to pay, on the mortal sense of beauty.”
Generally regarded as Nabokov’s most important work, Lolita opens with a foreword, ostensibly written by a psychiatrist, reporting that the narrator of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, died while awaiting trial. Several other characters treated in the text, including Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, have also died.
Humbert Humbert proves to be an elusive and ambiguous narrator, apologizing for yet celebrating his love for the underage Lolita. He describes his early years in Europe; his love for Annabel Leigh, who died soon after he met her, instilling in him an attraction to “nymphets”; and his immigration to the United States after World War II. In New England he rents a room from widowed Charlotte Haze after laying eyes on her twelve-year-old daughter Lolita. Humbert eventually marries Haze in order to remain near Lolita, and then he plots to kill his new wife—an act he is prevented from carrying out when she dies by accident. Humbert removes Lolita from her summer camp and takes her to a hotel named The Enchanted Hunters. In an ironic twist, the young woman seduces the older man.
There follows a description of Humbert and Lolita’s long journey across the United States by automobile, a trip in which the girl is essentially Humbert’s willing prisoner. After a year the pair return to New England, where Humbert places his stepdaughter in a private boarding school. After taking the lead in a play called The Enchanted...
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