Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
Nabokov's Lolita was originally published in 1955 and immediately became embroiled in its own censorship battles. The story is admittedly, purposefully, a shocking one: Humbert Humbert, an emigré academic, has a thing for young girls. Nymphets, he calls them, prepubescent girls who betray some precocious awareness of their own sensuality. Upon accepting a position at a new college, Humbert rents a room in town and falls madly, passionately, horrifyingly in love with his landlady's 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, the Lolita of the novel's title. He marries Dolores's mother in order to maintain proximity to Dolores herself, and his relationship with her very quickly exceeds the bounds of stepfatherly affection.
There are several upsetting things about this story, not the least of which is that, it appears, Lolita herself is the seducer, and Humbert the seducee. Hence the ubiquitous comparisons of any precociously sexual, slightly dangerous girl to this character (for example, the "Long Island Lolita"). These comparisons—and the moral censorship to which the novel has been subject—are, however, based on a most superficial reading of the book, one that overlooks a basic literary concept: the unreliable narrator.
Humbert Humbert is the one who tells us the story. From an insane asylum. He's a child molester and, ultimately, a murderer. Why on earth should we take his word for how it happened?
This, in fact, is the real story of Lolita. The novel is about the ways in which a reader can be manipulated to feel sympathy for—even to identify with—the most horrifying person imaginable. That early readers of the novel were so shocked by Dolores's behavior—so shocked, in fact, that governments moved to ban the book—is precisely Nabokov's point: Rather than acknowledge the ultimate evil that lies under the otherwise charming persona, we as a culture are more inclined to turn him into a tragic hero, a victim. (From the editors at Barnes and Noble.)
• Birth—April 23, 1899
• Where—St. Petersburg, Russia
• Death—July 02, 1977
• Where—Montreux, Switzerland
• Education—Trinity College, Cambridge
The eldest son of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife Elena, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, he was born to a prominent and aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, where he also spent his childhood and youth. Nabokov's childhood, which he called "perfect", was remarkable in several ways. The family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, much to his father's patriotic chagrin, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian. In Speak, Memory Nabokov recalls numerous details of his privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past was a boon to him during his permanent exile, as well as providing a theme which echoes from his first book Mary all the way to later works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
The Nabokov family left Russia in the wake of the 1917 February Revolution for a friend's estate in Crimea, where they remained for 18 months. At this point the family did not expect to be out of Russia for very long, when in fact they would never return. Following the defeat of the White Army in Crimea in 1919, the Nabokovs left Russia for exile in western Europe. The family settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge and studied Slavic and Romance languages where his experiences would later help him to write the novel Glory.
In 1923, Nabokov graduated from Cambridge and relocated to Berlin, where he gained a reputation within the colony of Russian émigrés as a novelist and poet, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir Sirin. He married Véra Slonim in Berlin in 1925. Their son, Dmitri, was born in 1934.
In 1922, Nabokov's father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists as he tried to shelter their real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. This episode of mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in the author's fiction, where characters would meet their violent deaths under mistaken terms. In Pale Fire, for example, the poet Shade is mistaken for a judge who resembles him and is murdered.
Nabokov was a synesthete* and described aspects of synesthesia in several of his works. In his memoir Speak, Memory, he notes that his wife also exhibited synesthesia; like her husband, her mind's eye associated colors with particular letters. They discovered that Dmitri shared the trait, and moreover that the colors he associated with some letters were in some cases blends of his parents' hues—"which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle".
Nabokov left Germany with his family in 1937 for Paris and in 1940 fled from the advancing German troops to the United States. It was here that he met Edmund Wilson, who introduced Nabokov's work to American editors, eventually leading to his international recognition.
Nabokov came to Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley's Russian Department. His lecture series on major nineteenth-century Russian writers was hailed as "funny," "learned," and "brilliantly satirical." During this time, the Nabokovs resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944-45 academic year as a lecturer in Russian. He served through the 1947–48 term as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was curator of lepidoptery at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Biology. After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University. In 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Also in 1945, Vladimir Nabokov was told by a relative that his homosexual brother, Sergei, who had lived most of his adult life in Paris and Austria, had died in a Nazi concentration camp at Neuengamme, Germany.
Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita while traveling in the Western United States. In June, 1953 he and his family came to Ashland, Oregon, renting a house on Meade Street from Professor Taylor, head of the Southern Oregon College Department of Social Science. There he finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin. He roamed the nearby mountains looking for butterflies, and wrote a poem "Lines Written in Oregon". On October 1, 1953, he and his family left for Ithaca, New York.
After the success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to move to Europe and devote himself to writing. From 1960 to the end of his life he lived in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. (From Wikipedia)
*Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are coupled. In one common form, known as color synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. (From Wikipedia.)
Lolita has achieved iconic status as a literary masterpiece. But it's disturbing, highly disturbing, because of its subject matter, pedophilia. Even worse, you find yourself taking the side of...rooting for... identifying with...ohgod-ohgod...a pedophile. And you find yourself laughing. The pedophile is a wickedly funny narrator. How does Nabokov do it?
A LitLovers LitPick (Sept. '08)
[Lolita's] illicit nature will both shock the reader into paying attention and prevent sentimentally false sympathy from distorting his judgment. Contrariwise, I believe, Mr. Nabokov is slyly exploiting the American emphasis on the attraction of youth and the importance devoted to the “teen-ager” in order to promote an unconscious identification with Humbert’s agonies. Both techniques are entirely valid. But neither, I hope, will obscure the purpose of the device: namely, to underline the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us.
Elizabeth Janeway - The New York Times, 1958
1. Lolita begins with an earnest foreword, purportedly written by one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., author of Do the Senses Make Sense? (whose initials—"J.R., Jr."— echo as suspiciously as "Humbert Humbert"). Why might Nabokov have chosen to frame his novel in this fashion? What is the effect of knowing that the narrative's three main characters are already dead—and, in a sense, nonexistent, since their names have been changed?
2. Why might Nabokov have chosen to name his protagonist "Humbert Humbert"? Does the name's parodic double rumble end up distancing us from its owner's depravity? Is it harder to take evil seriously when it goes under an outlandish name? What uses, comic and poetic, does Nabokov make of this name in the course of Lolita?
3. Humbert's confession is written in an extraordinary language. It is by turns colloquial and archaic, erudite and stilted, florid and sardonic. It is studded with French expressions, puns in several other languages, and allusions to authors from Petrarch to Joyce. Is this language merely an extension of Nabokov's own—which the critic Michael Wood describes as "a fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English" (Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 5.) — or is Humbert's language appropriate to his circumstances and motives? In what way does it obfuscate as much as it reveals? And if Humbert's prose is indeed a veil, at what points is this veil lifted and what do we glimpse behind it?
4. Humbert attributes his pedophilia (or "nympholepsy") to his tragically aborted childhood romance with Annabel Leigh. How far can we trust this explanation? How do we reconcile Humbert's reliance on the Freudian theory of psychic trauma with his corrosive disdain for psychiatrists?
5. In the early stages of his obsession Humbert sees Lolita merely as a new incarnation of Annabel, even making love to her on different beaches as he tries to symbolically consummate his earlier passion. In what other ways does Humbert remain a prisoner of the past? Does he ever succeed in escaping it? Why is Lolita singularly impervious to the past, to the extent that she can even shrug off the abuse inflicted on her by both Humbert and Quilty?
6. How does Humbert's marriage to Valeria foreshadow his relationships with both Charlotte and Lolita? How does the revelation of Valeria's infidelity prepare us for Lolita's elopement with Quilty? Why does Humbert respond so differently to these betrayals?
7. On page 31 we encounter the first of the "dazzling coincidences" that illuminate Lolita like flashes of lightning (or perhaps stage lightning), when Humbert flips through a copy of Who's Who in the Limelight in the prison library. What is the significance of each of the entries for "Roland Pym," "Clare Quilty," and "Dolores Quine." In what ways do their names, biographies, and credits prefigure the novel's subsequent developments? Who is the mysterious "Vivian Darkbloom," whose name is an anagram for "Vladimir Nabokov"? Where else in Lolita does Nabokov provide us with imaginary texts that seem to lend verisimilitude to Humbert's narrative and at the same time make us question the factuality of the world in which it is set?
8. Humbert Humbert is an émigré. Not only has he left Europe for America, but in the course of Lolita he becomes an erotic refugee, fleeing the stability of Ramsdale and Beardsley for a life in motel rooms and highway rest stops. How does this fact shape his responses to the book's other characters and their responses to him? To what extent is the America of Lolita an exile's America? In what ways is Humbert's foreignness a corollary of his perversion? Is it possible to see Lolita as Nabokov's veiled meditation on his own exile?
9. We also learn that Humbert is mad—mad enough, at least, to have been committed to several mental institutions, where he took great pleasure in misleading his psychiatrists. Is Humbert's madness an aspect of his sexual deviance or is it something more fundamental? Can we trust a story told by an insane narrator? What is Humbert's kinship with the "mad" narrators of such works as Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Gogol's Diary of a Madman?
10. What makes Charlotte Haze so repugnant to Humbert? Does the author appear to share Humbert's antagonism? Does he ever seem to criticize it? In what ways does Charlotte embody the Russian word poshlust which Nabokov translated as "not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive?" (Cited by Alfred Appel, Jr., in The Annotated Lolita. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970, pp. xlix-1.)
11. To describe Lolita and other alluring young girls, Humbert coins the word "nymphet." The word has two derivations: the first from the Greek and Roman nature spirits, who were usually pictured as beautiful maidens dwelling in mountains, waters, and forests; the second from the entomologist's term for the young of an insect undergoing incomplete metamorphosis. Note the book's numerous allusions to fairy tales and spells; the proliferation of names like "Elphinstone," "Pisky," and "The Enchanted Hunters," as well as Humbert's repeated sightings of moths and butterflies. Also note that Nabokov was a passionate lepidopterist, who identified and named at least one new species of butterfly. How does the character of Lolita combine mythology and entomology? In what ways does Lolita resemble both an elf and an insect? What are some of this novel's themes of enchantment and metamorphosis as they apply both to Lolita and Humbert, and perhaps to the reader as well?
12. Before Humbert actually beds his nymphet, there is an extraordinary scene, at once rhapsodic, repulsive, and hilarious, in which Humbert excites himself to sexual climax while a (presumably) unaware Lolita wriggles in his lap. How is this scene representative of their ensuing relationship? What is the meaning of the sentence "Lolita had been safely solipsized" [p. 60], "solipsism" being the epistemological theory that the self is the sole arbiter of "reality"? Is all of Lolita the monologue of a pathological solipsist who is incapable of imagining any reality but his own or of granting other people any existence outside his own desires?
13. Can Humbert ever be said to "love" Lolita? Does he ever perceive her as a separate being? Is the reader ever permitted to see her in ways that Humbert cannot?
14. Humbert meets Lolita while she resides at 342 Lawn Street, seduces her in room 342 of The Enchanted Hunters, and in one year on the road the two of them check into 342 motels. Before Lolita begins her affair with Clare Quilty, her mother mentions his uncle Ivor, the town dentist, and sends Lolita to summer at Camp Q (near the propitiously named Lake Climax). These are just a few of the coincidences that make Lolita so profoundly unsettling. Why might Nabokov deploy coincidence so liberally in this book? Does he use it as a convenient way of advancing plot or in order to call the entire notion of a "realistic" narrative into question? How do Nabokov's games of coincidence tie in with his use of literary allusion (see Questions 4, 15, and 16) and self-reference (see Question 7)?
15. Having plotted Charlotte's murder and failed to carry it out, Humbert is rid of her by means of a bizarre, and bizarrely fortuitous, accident. Is this the only time that fate makes a spectacular intrusion on Humbert's behalf? Are there occasions when fate conspires to thwart him? Is the fate that operates in this novel—a fate so preposterously hyperactive that Humbert gives it a name— actually an extension of Humbert's will, perhaps of his unconscious will? Is Humbert in a sense guilty of Charlotte's death? Discuss the broader question of culpability as it resonates throughout this book.
16. Quilty makes his first onstage appearance at The Enchanted Hunters, just before Humbert beds Lolita for the first time. Yet rumors and allusions precede him. Does the revelation of Quilty's identity come as a surprise? Is it the true climax of Lolita? How does Nabokov prepare us for this revelation? Since the mystery of Quilty's identity turns this novel into a kind of detective story (in which the protagonist is both detective and criminal), it may be useful to compare Lolita to other examples of the genre, such as Poe's The Purloined Letter, Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" stories, or Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced, all of which are alluded to in the text.
17. Among our early clues about Quilty is his resemblance to Humbert (or Humbert's resemblance to him). This resemblance is one of the reasons that Lolita finds her mother's boarder attractive, and we are reminded of it later on when Humbert believes for a brief time that Quilty may be his uncle Trapp. How does Quilty conform to the archetype of the double or Doppelgänger? In its literary incarnations, a double may represent the protagonist's evil underself or his higher nature. What sort of double is Quilty? Are we ever given the impression that Humbert may be Quilty's double?
18. If we accept Humbert at his word, Lolita initiates their first sexual encounter, seducing him after he has balked at violating her in her sleep. Yet later Humbert admits that Lolita sobbed in the night—"every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep" [p. 176]. Should we read this reversal psychologically: that what began as a game for Lolita has now become a terrible and inescapable reality? Or has Humbert been lying to us from the first? What is the true nature of the crimes committed against Lolita? Does Humbert ever genuinely repent them, or is even his remorse a sham? Does Lolita forgive Humbert or only forget him?
19. Humbert is not only Lolita's debaucher but her stepfather and, after Charlotte's death, the closest thing she has to a parent. What kind of parent is he? How does his behavior toward the girl increasingly come to resemble Charlotte's? Why, during their last meeting, does Lolita dismiss the erotic aspect of their relationship and "grant" only that Humbert was a good father?
20. As previously mentioned, Lolita abounds with games: the games Humbert plays with his psychiatrists, his games of chess with Gaston Godin, the transcontinental games of tag and hide-and-go-seek that Quilty plays with Humbert, and the slapstick game of Quilty's murder. There is Humbert's poignant outburst, "I have only words to play with!" [p. 32]. In what way does this novel itself resemble a vast and intricate game, a game played with words? Is Nabokov playing with his readers or against them? How does such an interpretation alter your experience of Lolita? Do its game-like qualities detract from its emotional seriousness or actually heighten it?
21. The last lines of Lolita are: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita" [p. 309]. What is the meaning of this passage? What does art offer Humbert and his beloved that sexual passion cannot? Is this aesthetic appeal merely the mask with which Humbert conceals or justifies his perversion, or is the immortality of art the thing that Humbert and his creator have been seeking all along? In what ways is Lolita at once a meditation on, and a re-creation of, the artistic process?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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