Places Discussed

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*United States

*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, Lolita falls ill, is hospitalized, and leaves the hospital with Quilty. Maddened with grief, Humbert follows their trail, stopping at hundreds of hotels, motels, and tourist homes, checking registers for the clues, which he finds in the form of mocking false names left by Quilty.

While the ironic vision and mocking voice of the novel’s European narrator are turned upon many aspects of twentieth century American civilization to comic effect, Humbert does not mock when he describes the epic beauty of the American wilderness—a beauty to which native-born Lolita, who is bored by “scenery,” is blind.

Hotel Mirana

Hotel Mirana. Luxurious, palm-shaded hotel on the French Riviera owned by Humbert’s father and the place where Humbert, at thirteen, met his first love, Annabel Leigh, the precursor to Lolita. The hotel remains, for Humbert, an enchanted childhood memory, a world of “clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces.” He searches for its twin in America but never finds it. The closest he comes is in a picture postcard in a museum devoted to hobbies at a Mississippi resort. The Mirana is a lost, graceful world that can never be regained, representing both Humbert’s lost innocence and pre-World War II Europe.

Ramsdale

Ramsdale. New England town, the “gem” of an unnamed eastern state, where Humbert meets Lolita and her mother. Through a series of chance referrals, Humbert rents a room there from the widow Charlotte Haze and meets her twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita. Humbert initially finds the Haze house, at 342 Lawn Street, unappealing; it is a shabby, grayish white-framed suburban house with mismatched furniture and a rubber tube attached to the tub faucet instead of a shower. However, the moment he glimpses the pubescent Lolita in the garden, he decides to stay—a decision ultimately fatal to all.

Vladimir Nabokov’s descriptions of Ramsdale, its citizens, and its social life are satirical, highlighting the pretentiousness, snobbery, and cultural vacuity of the American middle-class suburb. From the fuzzy pink cozy covering the toilet seat in Charlotte’s house to disparaging remarks her friends make about Italian tradesmen, Nabokov skewers with perfect, telling detail the false gentility and provincialism of suburban life.

Hourglass Lake

Hourglass Lake. Lake near...

(This entire section contains 926 words.)

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Ramsdale, whose name Humbert mishears as “Our Glass Lake.” Humbert contemplates using the lake to drown Charlotte, whom he marries in order to be near Lolita, but cannot do it. Ironically, Charlotte dies shortly after his failed murder attempt when, blinded by tears after learning of Humbert’s true reason for marrying her, she rushes into the street, where she is struck by a car and killed.

Beardsley

Beardsley. Sleepy New England town where Humbert resettles with Lolita after her mother dies. The town is home to Beardsley College, where Humbert teaches. Lolita attends the Beardsley School for Girls, as she and her lover, Humbert, pretend to be a normal daughter and father.

Enchanted Hunters

Enchanted Hunters. New England country inn to which Humbert takes Lolita after her mother dies and where, he claims, Lolita seduces him. Located in Briceland, a secluded town of “phony colonial architecture, curiosity shops and imported shade trees,” the inn plays an important role in the fatalistic twistings of the novel’s plot. On its dark veranda Humbert first encounters Clare Quilty, the decadent playwright who later takes Lolita away from him. Quilty also later writes a play called The Enchanted Hunters, in which Lolita is to star at her school.

Murals in the inn’s dining room depict a fantasy scene of hunters and dryads in a forest. Later, Humbert notices similarities between the unknown muralist’s work and the plot of Quilty’s play; however, he imagines them both to be based on some common New England legend. It is not until the novel’s end that he learns of Quilty’s earlier presence at the inn and his role in Lolita’s disappearance.

Gray Star

Gray Star. Settlement in Alaska, described as “the remotest Northwest,” where eighteen-year-old Dolores Haze, now Mrs. Richard Schiller, dies in childbirth on Christmas Day in 1952, a little more than a month after Humbert dies in prison.

Historical Context

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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 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' 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.

Literary Style

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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.

Setting
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.

Structure
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.

Symbolism
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 be cause of all I did not you have to die." Humbert, of course, has proven himself to be guilty of all these crimes.

Literary Techniques

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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 parodic expiation of Humbert's guilt. (The true expiation comes only after the murder, with Humbert's realization that he has deprived Lolita of her childhood.)

Another important element of the construction of Lolita, as in all of Nabokov's novels, is the implicit presence of the author as artificer, as a force distinct from the narrator, in Nabokov's own words, "an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me" who orders the events and the reality of the novel. Nabokov perceived time as a spiral, where patterns might be discerned and superimposed on one another. Lotita is full of such repeated figures, details which acquire significance in the course of the novel, which prefigure future events or signal the presence of characters whom neither the reader nor the narrator is yet aware of. Although Humbert is aware of these patterns because of his hindsight, he gives nothing away until the end — that is, he pretends ignorance of the clues so that the reader's retroactive discovery of Quilty's presence throughout the novel comes at the same time as Humbert's own.

Social Concerns

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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 wife so that he can kidnap and molest an adolescent is horrifying, but as in many of his books, Nabokov is exploring the "appearance of reality" in contradiction to the absurdity of absolutes. So, what may seem like social commentary on abhorrent behavior and child abuse becomes Nabokov's satirical vehicle for exploring the deception of appearance reality.

Literary Precedents

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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.

Adaptations

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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 productions of Lolita: a musical, Lolita, My Love (1971, by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry, starring John Neville, Leonard Frey, and Dorothy Loudon), closed during out-of-town tryouts, and an adaptation by Edward Albee and starring Donald Sutherland as Humbert opened on Broadway in March 1981. It was not well received, however, and it closed after only twelve performances.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Rex Werner, "Lolita Gets Old Waiting for a Date," Variety, June 2, 1997. Discusses the controversy surrounding the distribution of the 1997 film version of Lolita.

Bibliography

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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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