Vladimir Nabokov called Lolita, his third novel composed in English, a record of his "love affair" with the "English language" (Nabokov, Lolita, 316). It is generally regarded, along with Pale Fire, as his masterpiece and as one of the major novels of the 20th century. At once a penetrating study of the psychology of sexual obsession, a poignant if bizarre love story, and a trenchant social satire, Lolita is stylistically complex and richly intertextual, drawing upon the conventions of "the confessional mode, the literary diary, the Romantic novel that chronicles the effects of a debilitating love, the Doppelganger tale," and the detective story (Appel, l). The novel takes the form of the posthumously published confessions of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European emigre living in the United States who becomes emotionally and sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old American girl named Dolores Haze.
After a mock "Foreword" by moralizing psychiatrist John Ray Jr. (or J. R. Jr., one of many "double" names in the novel), the narrative proper begins with an account of an ill-fated childhood romance between Humbert and a girl he calls by the Poesque name of Annabel Leigh. Annabel's premature death from typhoid fever offers itself as a likely source of Humbert's subsequent obsession with pubescent girls (he calls them nymphets), but Humbert repeatedly dismisses this explanation as facile. Nevertheless, Annabel's sudden death (as well as that of Humbert's mother, under freakish circumstances--"picnic, lightning"--which Humbert reports with cool, parenthetical detachment) sets the tone for a narrative that is repeatedly punctuated by casual catastrophes. After moving to the United States, Humbert becomes infatuated with 12-year-old Dolores Haze and marries her bridge-playing, book-clubbing mother, Charlotte. When Charlotte is killed, Humbert becomes Lo's guardian and, afterward, her lover. They spend the next two years moving from place to place throughout the United States. Lo grows depressed and restless under the authority of the possessive and paranoid Humbert, who believes he is being shadowed by a mysterious double. When at last Lo contrives to escape with another man, Humbert plays detective, tracking their movements across America so that he can carry out an awful vengeance.
Structurally and thematically, Lolita, a novel that is divided into two parts and begins and ends with the same word, is a literary hall of mirrors. The narrative is highly self-referential and reflexive, marked by multilingual puns, literary allusions, comic names, and other wordplay that call attention to the artifice of the text itself. (For example, Nabokov repeatedly reminds us of the fictiveness of Humbert's absorbing narrative by inserting his own name into the text, anagrammatically, as the name of Vivian Darkbloom.) Moreover, the novel is full of images of doubleness and mirrors. Humbert's double name evokes both Edgar Allan POE's "William Wilson," a tale whose narrator is haunted by an enigmatic double, and the sneering Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, who chides young Alice for not remaining frozen forever at the age of seven. (Both Poe and Carroll are in fact historical doubles for the fictional Humbert; each famously developed strong attachments to pubescent or prepubescent girls.) Most poignantly, in the hotel room in which Humbert first seduces Lolita on a double bed, mirrors mirror mirrors ad infinitum. This motif of the mirror reflects the fundamentally narcissistic nature of Humbert's desire for Lo, a little girl he can see only obliquely through the distorting mirror of his solipsistic fantasies. As Humbert himself remarks early in the novel, the "Lolita" he loves is not Dolores Haze, "but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita--perhaps, more real than Lolita; . . . and having no will, no consciousness--indeed, no life of her own" (62).
It is appropriate that the solipsistic universe Humbert inhabits seems to him to be crowded with copies of himself: Everywhere he travels in America, he encounters a host of doubles, from the chess-playing pederast Gaston Godin to the decadent playwright Clare Quilty to Charlotte's first husband, Harold Haze. Though Humbert, in a moment of self-reproach, accuses himself of having polluted America, the America Humbert describes--with rapier wit--is no shining city on a hill, but rather a tawdry cultural wasteland, where everything is for sale, and where racists, anti-Semites, sexual predators, and simpletons wear masks of middle-class respectability. Though Lo is utterly free from such hypocrisy, Humbert nevertheless regards her as the embodiment of American consumerism: She is the "ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster" (148). Yet, paradoxically, even as Old World Humbert sees hamburger-and-movie-loving Lo as an emblem of America's culture of consumption, he cannot suppress his desire to possess her. Humbert turns out to be the novel's consummate consumer, imaginatively converting the flesh-and-blood Dolores into the phantasmic "Lolita," a commodity for his enjoyment, utterly evacuated of substance or will. When Lo dies giving birth to a stillborn daughter (an incident reported, indirectly, in the "Foreword"), the novel's "theme of ruined life, abortive childhood . . . culminates in the dramatic image of Lolita's stillborn baby" (Pifer, 315).
After writing Lolita, Nabokov wrote that he considered it his "best thing in English," but he feared that his "pure and austere work" would be dismissed as "a pornographic stunt" (Letters, 285, 296). Indeed, five American publishers rejected Lolita before Nabokov found a publisher willing to assume the legal and financial risks of its publication: Olympia Press in Paris, which specialized in erotica and English editions of books censored in England and the United States. A storm of controversy followed the initial publication of Lolita in 1955, and it was not until 1958 that G. P. Putnam's Sons produced the first American edition of the novel, making Lolita generally available to English-speaking readers for the first time. Reviews ranged from the effusive ("a great book," cheered Dorothy Parker) to the punishing ("dull," "pretentious," "florid," "archly fatuous," "highbrow pornography," sniffed Orville Prescott in the New York Times). Far from scorched by the controversy surrounding its publication, Lolita proved to be a success de scandal, selling 100,000 copies within three weeks of its first American publication--the first book to do so since Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (Boyd, 364-365).
Nabokov consistently named Lolita as his favorite among his own works, and it remains the best known of his novels. Lolita has been filmed twice: first by the director Stanley Kubrick (1962) and more recently by Adrian Lyne (1997). Nabokov was credited with writing the screenplay for the 1962 film, although only "ragged odds and ends" of his original script were used (Nabokov, Lolita: A Screenplay, 674-75). Nabokov's translation of Lolita into his native Russian was published in 1967. Nabokov also supervised Alfred Appel's The Annotated Lolita, an indispensable guide to the novel's punning and allusive complexities, first published in 1970.
Appel, Alfred, Jr. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971. Edited by Simon Karlinsky. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita: A Screenplay. Novels 1955-1962. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Pifer, Ellen. "Lolita." In The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Vladimir E. Alexandrov. New York: Garland, 1995.
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