The Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) wrote Lolita, his 12th published novel, between 1948 and 1953. Lolita is a reworking of an earlier version of the story The Enchanter (Volshebnik), written in 1939 in Paris. Writing the text on index cards, Nabokov worked on the novel in the time available to him when he was not teaching literature at Cornell and Harvard universities. He composed much of the novel in his and his wife Véra’s aging Oldsmobile as they traveled the United States on summertime butterfl y-gathering expeditions.
When the novel, which recounts a consummated love affair between a middle-aged college professor and a barely pubescent girl, was finished in 1953, it was rejected by American publishers because of its controversial subject matter. After Olympia Press published the novel in France in 1955, important critics such as Graham Greene hailed it as a masterpiece. When G. P. Putnam’s Sons finally brought out Lolita in the United States in 1958, the novel became a best seller and allowed its author to retire from teaching to concentrate on writing. Today many critics recognize Lolita as one of the best novels of the 20th century and a foundational text of postmodernist metafiction.
Like Nabokov’s earlier novels King, Queen, Knave and Laughter in the Dark, Lolita tells the story of a love triangle. As the novel opens, Professor Humbert Humbert, a teacher and scholar of French literature, becomes a tenant in the home of a widow, Charlotte Haze, and her 12-year-old, barely pubescent, “nymphet” daughter, Lolita. Having been obsessed with nymphets from an early age, Humbert quickly develops a passion for Lolita, eventually marrying her mother so that he can be close to her. After Charlotte finds about his obsession for her daughter and dies in a freak automobile accident, Humbert becomes Lolita’s guardian and attempts to control her through gifts, extended vacations throughout the United States, and parental decisions. For example, Humbert tries to prevent Lolita from dating boys her own age by enrolling her in an all-girls school. On their second vacation, Lolita escapes Humbert’s control and runs away with Claire Quilty, who writes and directs The Enchanted Hunters, a school play in which Lolita appears. Humbert searches for Lolita for two years, finds her pregnant and poor, and murders Quilty for depriving him of the love of his life. Humbert is arrested for his crime, and the text of Lolita is his memoir of the events leading up to the murder.
Because Nabokov constructs Lolita as a memoir, he is able to use metafictional strategies to explore the relationship between art and truth. The fictional psychologist John Ray, Jr.’s “Foreword” precedes the memoir, highlighting Humbert’s madness and acknowledging that many of the names in the text are pseudonyms, including “Humbert Humbert.” Knowing at the outset that the text is the fictional construct of a madman, the reader recognizes the way in which human consciousness distorts events. Despite the reader’s constant awareness that Humbert presents events in ways that make him look innocent, he or she is seduced by the text’s wit and beauty, so that Humbert becomes a sympathetic character. In effecting this literary seduction, Nabokov places the reader in Lolita’s position as an individual susceptible to Humbert’s linguistic charms.
Nabokov also uses the theme of susceptibility to language to explore the relationship between art and power. Like Paduk, the insane dictator in Nabokov’s anti-authoritarian novel Bend Sinister (1947), Humbert uses language as a means of attaining power. When he and Lolita begin living together after her mother Charlotte’s death, Humbert makes many rules that deprive her of her freedom, the most important of which is his decision to send her to the school for girls. In aesthetically admiring Humbert’s facility with language and not ethically evaluating his relationship with Lolita, the reader risks absolving the character of moral responsibility. One of Nabokov’s great triumphs in the novel is the way in which he uses the tension between Humbert’s aesthetic prowess and moral depravity to invoke an ethical response in the reader and make him or her evaluate the relationship between art and ethics.
Another of Nabokov’s triumphs in Lolita is his extended meditation on the dangers of nostalgia. At the novel’s outset, Humbert writes of his boyhood affair with a nymphet named, Annabel. When Humbert meets and seduces Lolita as a middle-aged man many years later, he attempts to relive an experience of childhood happiness. The violence and pedophilia that characterize the novel’s action demonstrate Nabokov’s contention that nostalgia can lead to unhappiness and destruction. Lolita has twice been made into a major motion picture. Stanley Kubrick’s version appeared in 1962, starring James Mason as Humbert, Sue Lyon as Lolita, and Peter Sellers as Quilty. In 1997 Adrian Lyne’s Lolita came out, featuring Jeremy Irons as Humbert, Dominique Swain as Lolita, and Frank Langella as Quilty.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Clegg, Christine, ed. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Nabokov, Vladimir: The Annotated Lolita. Edited by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Nafi si, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003.
O’Rourke, James. Sex, Lies, and Autobiography: The Ethics of Confession. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Pifer, Ellen, ed. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.