Lolita (1955) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel was first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris, later translated by the author into Russian and published in 1967 in New York. The novel is both internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the book's narrator and protagonist Humbert Humbert becoming sexually obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze.

After its publication, the novel attained a classic status, becoming one of the best known and most controversial examples of 20th century literature. The name "Lolita" has entered pop culture to describe a sexually precocious young girl.

The novel has been adapted to film twice, once in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert, and again in 1997 by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons.

Plot summary

Lolita is a novel narrated by Humbert Humbert, a literature scholar born in 1910 in Paris, France, who is obsessed by what he refers to as 'nymphets' (defined as sexually desirable girls between the ages of nine and fourteen). This obsession with young girls appears to have been a result of his failure to consummate an affair with a childhood seaside sweetheart, Annabel Leigh, before her premature death from typhus. Shortly before the start of World War II, Humbert leaves Paris for New York. In 1947 he moves to Ramsdale, a small New England town, to write. When the house in which he is promised a room burns down, he ends up at the door of Charlotte Haze, a widow, who has a sexually charged interpretation of taking in a lodger. As the two make their way through Mrs. Haze's tour of the house, Humbert rehearses different ways of turning her down, but then, after being led out into the garden, he spies Haze's twelve-year-old daughter Dolores (variously referred to in the novel as Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, L) sunbathing in the garden. Humbert, seeing the Annabel Leigh in her, is instantly attracted to the daughter and eagerly agrees to rent the room.

Charlotte becomes his unwitting pawn in his quest to make Lolita a part of his living fantasy. When Mrs. Haze drives Lolita off to summer camp, she leaves an ultimatum for Humbert, saying that he must marry her (for she has fallen madly in love with him) or move out. He is absolutely horrified at first, but after much contemplation he warms himself to the idea of living with Charlotte for the sole reason of making Lolita his stepdaughter, intending to use heavy sedatives on both her and her mother so he can express his sexual desire on Lolita in her sleep. Although we never learn specifically what he plans to do, he does say he wishes to keep her purity intact. Humbert marries Charlotte and they live a domestic lifestyle, Charlotte completely oblivious to his distaste for her.

Humbert starts to write a diary in which he records his life in Ramsdale and, more specifically, his relationship with Lolita. He locks the diary in a drawer. While Lolita is away at camp and Humbert has gone into town, Charlotte (who expresses a morbid jealousy of, and interest in, her new husband's past love life) manages to open the drawer and finds his diary, which details his lack of interest in Charlotte and impassioned lust for her daughter. Horrified and humiliated, Charlotte decides to flee with her daughter. Before doing so, she writes three letters -- to Humbert, Lolita and a strict boarding school for young ladies to which she apparently intends to send her daughter. Charlotte confronts Humbert when he returns home. Retreating to the kitchen, he tells her that the diary entries are just notes for a novel. But Charlotte has already bolted from the house to post the letters. Crossing the street, she is struck and killed by a passing motorist. A child retrieves the letters and gives them to Humbert, who destroys them.

Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, telling her that her mother is desperately ill in a hospital, and takes her to The Enchanted Huntress, a hotel of regional repute, where he meets a strange man (later revealed to be Clare Quilty), who seems to know who he is. Humbert intends to use the sleeping pills on Lolita, but they have little effect. Instead, she seduces Humbert (the first of only two times she is recorded as doing so), and he discovers that he is not her first lover, as she had had a sexual affair at summer camp. After leaving the hotel, Humbert tells the now-troublesome Lolita that her mother is dead. Alone and frightened, Lolita has no choice but to accept Humbert into her life on his terms.

Driving Lolita around the country in Charlotte's car, moving from state to state and motel to motel, Humbert bribes the girl for sexual favours; he falls genuinely in love with her but is conscious that she is not attracted to him and shares none of his cultural interests. She is, in fact, a very crass and ordinary American adolescent, who merely puts up with him and is not above manipulating him sexually when she can. Eventually, the two settle down in another New England town, with Humbert posing as Lolita's father and Lolita enrolled in a private girls' school where the headmistress views Humbert's possessive supervision as that of a strict, old-world European parent.

Humbert nevertheless is persuaded to allow Lolita to take part in a school theatrical club (extracting additional sexual favours from her in exchange for his permission). Ominously, the title of the play -- The Enchanted Huntress -- is identical to the name of the hotel where they technically became lovers. Lolita is enthusiastic about the play and is said to have impressed the playwright, who attended a rehearsal, but before opening night she and Humbert have a ferocious argument, and she bolts from the house. Found by Humbert a few minutes later, Lolita declares that she wants to immediately leave town and resume their travels. Humbert is delighted, but increasingly guarded as they again drive westward, nagged by a feeling that they are being followed and that Lolita knows who the follower is. He is right. Clare Quilty, an acquaintance of Charlotte's, the nephew of the local dentist in Ramsdale, and the author of the play being performed at Lolita's school, is himself a pedophile and amateur pornographer. He is tailing the couple in accordance with a secret plan of escape devised with Lolita. While Humbert becomes increasingly paranoid, Lolita becomes ill and recuperates in a nearby hospital. One night she checks out with her "uncle", who has paid the hospital bill. Humbert, still clueless as to the identity of Lolita's "abductor", makes farcical and frantic attempts to find them by inspecting various motel-register aliases which have been laced by Quilty with insults and jokes flavored with literary allusions.

During this period, Humbert has a chaotic, two-year love-affair with a petite alcoholic named Rita who, at thirty, is ten years younger than him and a passable physical substitute for Lolita. By 1952, Humbert has settled down as a scholar at a small academic institute. One day, he receives a letter from Lolita, now 17, who tells him that she is married, pregnant and in desperate need of funds. Armed with a gun, Humbert, still driving Charlotte's car, visits his young obsession and turns over to her the money she was due from her mother's estate. He also asks her to leave with him, but she refuses. During their conversation, Lolita explains that her husband, a nearly deaf war-veteran and the father of her unborn child, was not her abductor, whereupon Humbert offers to give her all the money he has if she will reveal the man's identity. Lolita complies, saying that she had really loved Clare Quilty but that their affair ended when he threw her out after she refused to perform in a pornographic film he was making.

Leaving Lolita forever, Humbert surprises Quilty at his mansion. Quilty goes mad when he sees Humbert's gun. After a mutually exhausting struggle for it, Quilty, now insane with fear, merely responds politely as Humbert repeatedly shoots him. He finally dies with a comical lack of interest, expressing his slight concern in an affected English accent. Humbert is left exhausted and disoriented. Arrested for murder, he writes the book he entitles Lolita, or The Confessions of a White Widowed Male, while awaiting trial. According to the novel's fictional "Foreword," Humbert dies of coronary thrombosis upon finishing his manuscript. He is thus unaware that Lolita leaves with her husband for the remote Northwest, where she too dies, during childbirth, on Christmas Day, 1952.

Style and interpretation

The novel is a tragicomedy narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with wordplay and his wry observations of American culture. His humor provides an effective counterpoint to the pathos of the tragic plot. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by word play, 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". Nabokov's Lolita is far from an endorsement of pedophilia, since it dramatizes the tragic consequences of Humbert's obsession with the young heroine. Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person" (quoted in Levine, 1967).

Humbert is a well-educated, multilingual, literary-minded European émigré, as is Nabokov. But Humbert is also extraordinarily handsome, and he asks the reader to bear that fact in mind. He fancies himself a great artist, but lacks the curiosity that Nabokov considers essential. Humbert tells the story of a Lolita that he creates in his mind because he is unable and unwilling to listen to the actual girl and accept her on her own terms. In the words of Richard Rorty, from his famous interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity".

Some critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. 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".

Most writers, however, have given less credit to Humbert and more to Nabokov's powers as an ironist. Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, 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. "All of Nabokov's books are about tyranny", he says, "even Lolita. Perhaps Lolita most of all".

In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. 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".

Publication and reception

Due to its subject matter, Nabokov was unable to find an American publisher for Lolita. After four refused, he finally resorted to the Olympia Press in Paris, September 1955. Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the end of 1955, Graham Greene, in an interview with the (London) Times, called it one of the best novels of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the (London) Sunday Express, whose editor 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 the French followed suit and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita (the ban lasted for two years). Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson caused a scandal which contributed to the end of the political career of one of the publishers, Nigel Nicolson.

By complete contrast, American officials were initially nervous, but the first American edition was issued without problems by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1958, and was a bestseller, the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication.

Today, it is considered by many one of the finest novels written in the 20th century. In 1998, it was named the fourth greatest English language novel of the 20th century by the Modern Library. Nabokov rated the book highly himself. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962 he said,

Lolita is a special favourite 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.
Two years later, in 1964's interview for Playboy, he said,
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.

At the same year, in the interview for Life, Nabokov was asked, "Which of your writings has pleased you most?". 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.

Sources and links

Links in Nabokov's work

In 1985, The Enchanter, an English translation of a Nabokov novella originally titled Volshebnik was published posthumously. Volshebnik was written in Russian, while Nabokov was living in France in 1939. It can be seen as an early version of Lolita but with significant differences: the action takes place in central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide. The theme of ephebophilia 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 when a middle age man (Albert Albinus) is attracted to her.

In chapter 3 of the novel The Gift (written in Russian in 1935-1937) the similar gist of Lolita's first chapter is outlined to the protagonist Fyodor Cherdyntsev by Zina's obnoxious father-in-law named Schegolev as an idea of novel he would like to write. According to Schegolev, the episode took place "in reality" and involved one of his acquaintances.

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 latter work eventually was expanded into Lolita during the next eight years. The title A Kingdom by the Sea was later used to refer in his pseudo-autobiographic novel Look at the Harlequins! to a Lolita-like book written by the protagonist who, in addition, travels with his teenage daughter Bel from motel to motel, after the death of her mother; later, his fourth wife is a look-alike of Bel and shares her birthday.

Allusions/references to other works

Possible real-life prototype

According to Alexander Dolinin, the prototype of Lolita was 11-year-old Florence Horner, kidnapped in 1948 by a 50-year-old pedophile mechanic, Frank La Salle, who had caught her stealing a five-cent notebook. La Salle travelled with her over various states for 21 months and is believed to have had sex with 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 adduces various similarities in events and descriptions.

The problem with this suggestion is that Nabokov had already used the same basic idea -that of a child molester and his victim booking into a hotel as man and daughter- in his then-unpublished 1939 work Volshebnik . This not to say, however, that Nabokov could not have drawn on some details of the Florence Horner case in writing Lolita, and the La Salle case is mentioned explicitly in Chapter 33 of Part II:

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 Eschwege's "Lolita"

German academic Michael Maar's book The Two Lolitas (ISBN 1-84467-038-4) describes his recent discovery of a 1916 German short story titled "Lolita" about a middle-aged man travelling abroad who 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 (a "hidden memory" of the story that Nabokov was unaware of) 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 in ''Harper's Magazine'' on this story.

Nabokov's afterword

In 1956, Nabokov penned an afterword to Lolita ("On a Book Entitled Lolita") that was included in every subsequent edition of the book.

In the afterword, Nabokov wrote 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 wrote that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct."

Nabokov concluded 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 tongue for a second-rate brand of English."

Russian translation

Nabokov translated Lolita into Russian; the translation was published by Phaedra in New York in 1967.

The translation includes a "Postscriptum" in which Nabokov reconsiders his relationship with his native tongue. 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."

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

See also


External links

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