Critical Evaluation

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Before the publication of Lolita, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov was not widely known in English-speaking literary circles; most of his early work had not yet been translated from Russian. After Lolita was rejected by four American publishers, Nabokov’s French agent sent it to Olympia Press in Paris, which quickly published it. Although Olympia published many controversial works by writers such as Jean Genet, it was notorious for cheap editions of pornographic books, a fact of which Nabokov was ignorant at the time. The novel went virtually unnoticed until novelist Graham Greene praised it in London’s Daily Express. When Putnam published the first American edition in 1958, it became a best seller. Many readers, expecting salacious fun, were disappointed by the book’s lack of overt sexual content and dismayed by its demanding style. Still others attacked it as immoral. Nabokov’s fiction is not for passive readers who resist being drawn into the author’s linguistic games. Lolita is considered one of this highly acclaimed writer’s two greatest novels—Pale Fire (1962) is the other—and a masterpiece of American comic fiction.

Lolita is a highly literary work, filled with allusions to famous and little-known novels, poems, and plays. Many of the allusions are to Edgar Allan Poe, who, at twenty-seven, married his thirteen-year-old cousin. Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” (1849), a poem about a child love dead by the seaside. He also wrote “William Wilson” (1839), a tale of a psychological double, and invented the detective story. Nabokov works these and other allusions to Poe into his novel. There are also many references to Carmen (1845; English translation, 1878), not the Georges Bizet opera but the Prosper Mérimée novella about love, loss, and revenge and an imprisoned narrator. Another strong influence is James Joyce, whose ornate, self-aware, stylistic whimsy is reflected in Lolita. Joyce pioneered heavily allusive fiction, full of word games, and Lolita is full of puns, coinages (such as “nymphet”), neologisms, and foreign, archaic, and unusual words. It also features jokes such as the appearance of Vivian Darkbloom, the letters of whose name may be rearranged, changing one o to an a, to spell Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is drunk on language; a typical sentence reads, “I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors.” In his afterword, Nabokov says the novel is about his love affair with the English language.

Lolita can be seen as a parody of such literary forms as autobiography, the confessional tale, the Romantic novel, the tale of the doppelgänger or double, and the detective story. As for the last of these, the reader knows from the beginning that Humbert has murdered someone but does not know more. Hints of the victim’s identity are scattered throughout the novel, and Humbert even warns his readers to keep their eyes on the clues. Nabokov has fun with the detective element by having Quilty appear to Humbert wearing a Dick Tracy mask.

The doppelgänger device is central to the novel. Humbert Humbert sees the old lecher Clare Quilty as his evil double. Lolita has her double in Annabel Leigh (herself a reference to another and a joke about the youth of Edgar Allan Poe’s wife). Humbert Humbert has two wives, both, in his eyes, contemptible. One dies in childbirth, as does Lolita. The three main characters have a multitude of names. Humbert thinks of the mysterious stranger as Trapp and McFate, Quilty’s friends call him Cue, Humbert calls him Punch (as in Punch and Judy), and Lolita tries to convince Humbert that the playwright is a woman. Dolores Haze is Lo, Dolly, Lolita, Lola, and Mrs. Richard...

(This entire section contains 1062 words.)

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F. Schiller. She is a girl and a woman, a victim and a manipulator. Humbert’s name is a double; he uses it for wordplay. It is mispronounced numerous ways by those he encounters (and once by him), and he is frequently called “Mr. Haze.” His calling himself Edgar H. Humbert is typical of Nabokov’s jokes within jokes. Humbert’s editor is another double: The initials of John Ray, Jr., are J. R., or Jr. Beyond the gamesmanship, however, the novel conveys the pain the protagonists suffer.

One of the main targets of Nabokov’s satire is Freudian psychology. Humbert admits, but glosses over, his mental instability and refuses to see himself as a stereotype or a case study. Lolita is thus a parody of the psychiatric simplicity of a case study, with Humbert sneering at those who would see his affair with Lolita as an attempt to rid himself of his obsession with Annabel, laughing at those who interpret the incestuous relationship in Oedipal terms. Humbert’s attacks on Sigmund Freud can be taken seriously, for Humbert is not just a comic figure but also a tormented, guilt-ridden soul.

Humbert is a complex figure because he changes from a self-centered sexual pervert to something of a caring father. Even as Lolita loses her nymphet charms, he falls more deeply in love with her. Pregnant by another and worn out by poverty, she remains his ideal. His moral growth is shown by his lament over his having robbed Dolly Haze of the stable family life to which every child is entitled and having stolen her childhood for his selfish pleasures. He must kill Quilty, his double, to destroy the evil side of his nature. His confession, far from being pornography, is an attempt at a moral cleansing and illustrates the healing power of art.

This double-edged approach can also be seen in Nabokov’s treatment of his adopted country. He satirizes the vulgar, commercialized side of American life through Lolita’s love of junk food, trashy movies, and bland popular singers. Humbert writes of Lolita, “She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” Nabokov makes fun of such topics as American progressive education: “What we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life,” says Miss Pratt. Humbert is more amused at than appalled by these excesses and sincerely loves the American landscape, the West in particular. Lolita was partially inspired by the summer trips Nabokov and his wife took over several years through forty-six U.S. states in pursuit of rare butterflies (the writer was also a prominent lepidopterist). The novel is a comic valentine to “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country.”

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Critical Overview