Lolita is a 1955 novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Many authors consider it the greatest work of the 20th century, and it has been included in several lists of best books, such as Time List of the 100 Best Novels, Le Monde 100 Books of the Century, Bokklubben World Library, Modern Library's 100 Best Novels, and The Big Read. The novel is notable for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, a middle-aged literature professor under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, with whom he becomes sexually involved after he becomes her stepfather. "Lolita" is his private nickname for Dolores. The novel was originally written in English and first published in Paris in 1955 by Olympia Press. Later it was translated into Russian by Nabokov himself and published in New York City in 1967 by Phaedra Publishers.
Lolita quickly attained a classic status. The novel was adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, and another film by Adrian Lyne in 1997. It has also been adapted several times for the stage and has been the subject of two operas, two ballets, and an acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Broadway musical. Its assimilation into popular culture is such that the name "Lolita" has been used to imply that a young girl is sexually precocious.
The story starts with a fictional foreword by John Ray Jr., PhD, an editor of psychology books. In it, Ray writes that he is presenting the details of a memoir entitled The Confession of a White Widowed Male written by a literary scholar of mixed European ethnicity who died recently in an American jail of heart disease while awaiting his murder trial. The memoir's author uses the pseudonym Humbert Humbert to refer to himself in the manuscript. Humbert begins the memoir with his Parisian childhood and ends it with his incarceration. The story is told entirely from Humbert's perspective. Ray says he received the memoir from Humbert's lawyer, C.C. Clark, and adds that he (Ray) has changed the names of the people mentioned in it to protect their identities except for one: "Lolita"; the nickname Humbert used to refer to the young girl with whom he was sexually obsessed. Ray notes that Lolita died in 1952 while giving birth to a stillborn girl on Christmas Day while married to Richard Schiller, presumably the father of her child.
After losing his mother at a young age, Humbert has a rich childhood living in his wealthy father's hotel. At the age of 13 Humbert has a precocious relationship with a girl his age, Annabel Leigh, but her family moves away before they get the chance to have full sex. Annabel dies shortly thereafter of typhus. Following this, Humbert finds he has a hebephilic fixation with certain girls ages 9 to 14 whom he identifies as nymphets, citing his encounter with Annabel as the cause.
Humbert visited many prostitutes as a young adult but is unsatisfied unless they resemble a nymphet. He eventually marries a Polish woman named Valeria to allay suspicion of his hebephilia. Humbert plans on migrating to America and leaving her after several years of marriage, only for the marriage to dissolve anyway after she admits to having an affair. Later, Humbert suffers a mental breakdown and recovers in a psychiatric hospital. Upon his release, he moves to the United States to write, living off an allowance left by a wealthy uncle in return for writing perfume advertisements. After a year attached to an arctic expedition, the only time in his life he claims to have been free of his tortured yearning, Humbert suffers another mental breakdown, and learns to manipulate psychiatrists while he recovers.
Relieved of his perfume duties while still entitled to the allowance, Humbert plans to move to South America to take advantage of looser laws concerning the age of consent. However he is offered the opportunity to board and lodge with the McCoo family, living in the fictional New England town of Ramsdale, and he accepts purely because they have a 12 year-old daughter on whom he plans to spy. Upon his arrival he discovers that their house has burned down; Charlotte Haze, a wealthy Ramsdale widow, offers to accommodate him instead and Humbert visits her residence out of politeness. He initially plans to decline Charlotte's offer but agrees to rent when he sees her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores, whom Charlotte calls Lo. Humbert is instantly smitten, and fantasizes constantly about Lo. Charlotte and Dolores have a poisonous relationship and frequently argue, while Humbert finds himself growing infatuated with Dolores and privately nicknames her Lolita. Over the course of a single month Humbert's entire life comes to revolve around masturbating to thoughts of Lolita. He starts a diary in which he records his obsessive fantasies about Dolores, while also expressing his loathing for Charlotte whom he sees as an obstacle to his passion. One Sunday morning, while Charlotte is out of the house, Dolores and Humbert engage in a somewhat flirtatious interaction, ending with Lolita sitting on Humbert's knee. Humbert uses the interaction to bring himself to ejaculate, which Dolores does not apparently notice.
Charlotte decides to send Dolores to summer camp, where she will stay for three weeks. On the day of leaving, Lolita runs back upstairs and kisses Humbert on the lips, before returning to the car. The housemaid gives Humbert a letter from Charlotte shortly thereafter, in which she confesses that she has fallen in love with him. She adds that if he does not love her back he must move out immediately. Humbert's solution to this dilemma is to marry Charlotte, for purely instrumental reasons - it will let him stay close to Dolores and even let him innocently fondle her out of feigned quasi-paternal love. Later, Charlotte voices her plan to send Dolores to a boarding school when she returns from camp. Humbert contemplates murdering Charlotte to remain close to Dolores, and even comes close to drowning her in the town lake, but stops before carrying it out. Humbert instead acquires strong sedatives from the town doctor, planning to put both Hazes to sleep so that he can molest Dolores in the night. A few days later however, Charlotte finds Humbert's diary and furiously confronts him, telling him he will never see Dolores again. While Humbert prepares a drink for her, Charlotte runs out of the house to mail letters she has written to friends about Humbert's lust for Dolores, but is killed by a swerving car. Humbert recovers the letters from the accident scene and destroys them. Later, he convinces Charlotte's friends and neighbors that he should look after Dolores as he is now her stepfather.
Humbert retrieves Dolores from camp and lies to her, telling her that Charlotte is ill and has been hospitalized. He then takes her to a high-end hotel that Charlotte had earlier recommended. Humbert feels guilty about consciously raping her, and so tricks her into taking the sedatives in her ice cream. As he waits for the pill to take effect he wanders through the hotel and meets an anonymous man who, unbeknownst to Humbert, is in fact famous playwright Clare Quilty, a friend of the now-deceased Charlotte. Quilty recognises Dolores, and without revealing anything talks ambiguously to Humbert about his "daughter". Humbert excuses himself from the conversation and returns to the hotel room. There, he discovers that the doctor fobbed him with a milder drug, as Dolores is merely drowsy and wakes up frequently, drifting in and out of sleep. He dares not touch her that night. In the morning, Lo reveals to Humbert that she actually has already lost her virginity, having engaged in sexual activity with an older boy at a different camp a year ago at age 11. Humbert tricks her into believing that he has no knowledge of sex play and it is not something that adults do. She wants to show him, and so the two have sex. While driving the next day, Dolores is ambiguously uncomfortable and insists on calling her mother from a pay phone; it is only then that Humbert finally reveals to Dolores that her mother is dead.
Humbert and Dolores begin traveling across the country, driving all day and staying in motels. To keep Dolores from going to the police or running away, Humbert points out she would likely wind up in a state-run orphanage if she leaves him, a prospect which terrifies her. He manipulates her with gifts of money and clothing in return for sexual favors. Completely paranoid about the situation and increasingly jealous of her flirtations with others, Humbert controls Dolores's movements carefully and forbids her from associating with other teenagers. After a year of touring the United States, Dolores pressures Humbert to settle, and so he takes her to the (fictional) New England town of Beardsley, where he enrolls her in the local girls' school. Humbert reluctantly grants Dolores permission to join the school play which, unbeknownst to Humbert, was written by Quilty. The living situation between the two grows increasingly tense, erupting into a row before the play's opening night. Humbert grabs Dolores by the wrist and injures her during the quarrel, and while he's distracted by a neighbour she flees the apartment. Humbert chases after her and finds her using a pay phone in a drug store. While talking to her, Humbert finds that Dolores has had a complete change of heart. She decides not to participate in the school play and asks Humbert to take her on another cross-country trip. Humbert eagerly agrees. Back at the apartment, Lo is unusually flirtatious and the two have sex once more.
While on their second road trip, Humbert becomes suspicious that a driver is following them. He swears he sees Dolores talking to a man he barely recognizes driving a conspicuous red car, and on another occasion, Dolores seems to sabotage his effort to confront the man. Later, Humbert leaves Dolores in a Texas hotel to run errands, returning to discover Dolores's hair disheveled and her make up smudged. He strongly suspects she has had sex with another man while he was out but he has no way to prove it. In the Colorado mountains, Dolores falls ill and Humbert checks her into a hospital while he stays in a nearby motel. After several days, he contacts a nurse at the hospital to inquire about Dolores's condition; he is surprised when the nurse tells him that she has already checked out. An "uncle" has paid her bill and taken her to her "grandfather's" home; Humbert knows Lolita has no living relatives and he immediately embarks on a frantic search to find Dolores and her abductor, but ultimately fails.
For the next two years, Humbert barely sustains himself in a moderately functional relationship with a notorious Californian alcoholic named Rita. Deeply depressed, Humbert receives a letter from the residents of Ramsdale, who have learnt that Dolores has gone missing and are pressing for answers. Knowing that his situation is precarious and contemplating what to do, Humbert eventually receives another letter - it's from Dolores, now 17, telling him that she is married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. Dolores tells him to deliver $400 cash to her residence in the town of Coalmont, where she lives with her husband, Richard Schiller. She did not provide Humbert with her street address. Humbert nevertheless immediately leaves New York for Coalmont; he believes Schiller is the abductor and plans to murder him as soon as possible. He tracks down Dolores and finds her living in a clapboard house with her husband, who is not the abductor. Humbert and Dolores awkwardly discuss her new married life, Dolores passing off Humbert as her real father to her husband and cheerily pretending their past never happened. Humbert no longer feels any sexual attraction to the now-matured Dolores, but nevertheless realizes he's still in love with her. He gives her ten times as much money as she asked for, and then asks her to abandon this life and leave with him. She accepts the money but firmly declines the offer of a life together. As he is leaving, Dolores reveals to Humbert that it was Quilty who took her from the hospital, and that she willingly left because she was in love with him. After moving into a friend's ranch for a period, Quilty tried to make her star in one of his pornographic films. She refused, and so he expelled her from the ranch. Afterward, she supported herself by working as a waitress. Humbert leaves in tears, resolving to track down and kill Quilty.
Returning to Ramsdale, Humbert visits Quilty's uncle, who is a local dentist, and learns the location of Quilty's mansion. Humbert arrives at the mansion to find a hedonistic lair with the front door unlocked, and Quilty under the influence of drugs. Quilty at first thinks Humbert is a man from the phone company, then just another actor or socialite taking advantage of his generosity. Even after Humbert reveals himself and his purpose, Quilty still barely takes him seriously and only after a few tussles does he attempt to talk down Humbert from killing him. Eventually Humbert shoots Quilty in a chase around the mansion; he leaves as a large number of Quilty's guests arrive, who also do not take the idea of Quilty's murder seriously. Later, Humbert allows himself to be captured by police while driving recklessly in a daze.
In his closing thoughts, Humbert expresses his belief that he is guilty of statutory rape, but all other charges against himself should be dismissed. He reaffirms his love for Lolita, and asks for his Confession to be withheld from public release until after her death.
Lolita is frequently described as an "erotic novel", both by some critics but also in a standard reference work on literature Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story.The Great Soviet Encyclopedia called Lolita "an experiment in combining an erotic novel with an instructive novel of manners". The same description of the novel is found in Desmond Morris's reference work The Book of Ages. A survey of books for Women's Studies courses describes it as a "tongue-in-cheek erotic novel". Books focused on the history of erotic literature such as Michael Perkins' The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature also so classify Lolita.
More cautious classifications have included a "novel with erotic motifs" or one of "a number of works of classical erotic literature and art, and to novels that contain elements of eroticism, like ... Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover".
This classification has been disputed. Malcolm Bradbury writes "at first famous as an erotic novel, Lolita soon won its way as a literary one--a late modernist distillation of the whole crucial mythology." Samuel Schuman says that Nabokov "is a surrealist, linked to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. Lolita is characterized by irony and sarcasm; it is not an erotic novel."
Lance Olsen writes: "The first 13 chapters of the text, culminating with the oft-cited scene of Lo unwittingly stretching her legs across Humbert's excited lap ... are the only chapters suggestive of the erotic." Nabokov himself observes in the novel's afterword that a few readers were "misled. [by the opening of the book] ... into assuming this was going to be a lewd book ... [expecting] the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored."
The novel is narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with word play and his wry observations of American culture. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by 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". Most writers see Humbert as an unreliable narrator and credit Nabokov's powers as an ironist. For Richard Rorty, in his interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity." Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person."
Critics have further noted that, since the novel is a first person narrative by Humbert, the novel gives very little information about what Lolita is like as a person, that in effect she has been silenced by not being the book's narrator. Nomi Tamir-Ghez writes "Not only is Lolita's voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader ... since it is Humbert who tells the story ... throughout most of the novel, the reader is absorbed in Humbert's feelings". Similarly Mica Howe and Sarah Appleton Aguiar write that the novel silences and objectifies Lolita. Christine Clegg notes that this is a recurring theme in criticism of the novel in the 1990s. Actor Brian Cox, who played Humbert in a 2009 one-man stage monologue based on the novel, stated that the novel is "not about Lolita as a flesh and blood entity. It's Lolita as a memory". He concluded that a stage monologue would be truer to the book than any film could possibly be. Elizabeth Janeway writing in The New York Times Book Review holds "Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh".
Clegg sees the novel's non-disclosure of Lolita's feelings as directly linked to the fact that her "real" name is Dolores and only Humbert refers to her as Lolita. Humbert also states he has effectively "solipsized" Lolita early in the novel. Eric Lemay writes:
The human child, the one noticed by non-nymphomaniacs, answers to other names, "Lo", "Lola", "Dolly", and, least alluring of all, "Dolores". "But in my arms," asserts Humbert, "she was always Lolita." And in his arms or out, "Lolita" was always the creation of Humbert's craven self ... The Siren-like Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song "Lolita". ... To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.
In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. In an NPR interview Nafisi contrasts the sorrowful and seductive sides of Dolores/Lolita's character. She notes "Because her name is not Lolita, her real name is Dolores which as you know in Latin means dolour, so her real name is associated with sorrow and with anguish and with innocence, while Lolita becomes a sort of light-headed, seductive, and airy name. The Lolita of our novel is both of these at the same time and in our culture here today we only associate it with one aspect of that little girl and the crassest interpretation of her." Following Nafisi's comments, the NPR interviewer, Madeleine Brand, lists as embodiments of the latter side of Lolita, "the Long Island Lolita, Britney Spears, the Olsen twins, and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita".
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."
A minority of critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. In 1958, Dorothy Parker described the novel as "the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls" and Lolita as "a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered". 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. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar."
|Presentation by Martin Amis at the New York Public Library, "Lolita and American Morality", February 10, 1998, C-SPAN|
In his essay on Stalinism Koba the Dread, Martin Amis 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. "Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies," he says. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny."
Nabokov finished Lolita on 6 December 1953, five years after starting it. Because of its subject matter, Nabokov intended to publish it pseudonymously (although the anagrammatic character Vivian Darkbloom would tip off the alert reader). The manuscript was turned down, with more or less regret, by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. After these refusals and warnings, he finally resorted to publication in France. Via his translator Doussia Ergaz, it reached Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, "three-quarters of [whose] list was pornographic trash". Underinformed about Olympia, overlooking hints of Girodias's approval of the conduct of a protagonist Girodias presumed was based on the author, and despite warnings from Morris Bishop, his friend at Cornell, Nabokov signed a contract with Olympia Press for publication of the book, to come out under his own name.
Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks "swarming with typographical errors". Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the very end of 1955, Graham Greene, in the London Sunday Times, called it one of the three best books of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the London Sunday Express, whose editor John Gordon called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography".British Customs officers were then instructed by the Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, France followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita; the ban lasted for two years. Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London in 1959 was controversial enough to contribute to the end of the political career of the Conservative member of parliament Nigel Nicolson, one of the company's partners.
Despite initial trepidation, there was no official response in the U.S., and the first American edition was issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons in August 1958. The book was into a third printing within days and became the first since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.Orville Prescott, the influential book reviewer of the New York Times, greatly disliked the book, describing it as "dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion". This review failed to influence the book's sales.
The novel continues to generate controversy today as modern society has become increasingly aware of the lasting damage created by child sexual abuse. In 2008, an entire book was published on the best ways to teach the novel in a college classroom given that "its particular mix of narrative strategies, ornate allusive prose, and troublesome subject matter complicates its presentation to students". In this book, one author urges teachers to note that Dolores' suffering is noted in the book even if the main focus is on Humbert. Many critics describe Humbert as a rapist, notably Azar Nafisi in her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, though in a survey of critics David Larmour notes that other interpreters of the novel have been reluctant to use that term. Near the end of the novel, Humbert accuses himself, as noted in the above plot synopsis, of statutory rape. Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd denies that it was rape on the grounds that Dolores was not a virgin and seduced Humbert in the morning of their hotel stay. This perspective is vigorously disputed by Peter Rabinowitz in his essay "Lolita: Solipsized or Sodomized?".
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In 1928 Nabokov wrote a poem named Lilith (), depicting a sexually attractive underage girl who seduces the male protagonist just to leave him humiliated in public. In 1939 he wrote a novella, Volshebnik (), that was published only posthumously in 1986 in English translation as The Enchanter. It bears many similarities to Lolita, but also has significant differences: it takes place in Central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide. The theme of hebephilia 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 and had already had an affair when middle-aged Albinus becomes attracted to her.
In chapter three of the novel The Gift (written in Russian in 1935-37) the similar gist of Lolitas first chapter is outlined to the protagonist, Fyodor Cherdyntsev, by his landlord Shchyogolev as an idea of a novel he would write "if I only had the time": a man marries a widow only to gain access to her young daughter, who resists all his passes. Shchyogolev says it happened "in reality" to a friend of his; it is made clear to the reader that it concerns himself and his stepdaughter Zina (15 at the time of Shchyogolev's marriage to her mother) who becomes the love of Fyodor's life.
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 work expanded into Lolita during the next eight years. Nabokov used the title A Kingdom by the Sea in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographical novel Look at the Harlequins! for a Lolita-like book written by the narrator who, in addition, travels with his teenage daughter Bel from motel to motel after the death of her mother; later, his fourth wife is Bel's look-alike and shares her birthday.
In Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, the titular poem by fictional John Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita coming up the American east coast in 1958, and narrator Charles Kinbote (in the commentary later in the book) notes it, questioning why anyone would have chosen an obscure Spanish nickname for a hurricane. There were no hurricanes named Lolita that year, but that is the year that Lolita the novel was published in North America.
The unfinished novel The Original of Laura, published posthumously, features the character Hubert H. Hubert, an older man preying upon then-child protagonist, Flora. Unlike those of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Hubert's advances are unsuccessful.
The novel abounds in allusions to classical and modern literature. Virtually all of them have been noted in The Annotated Lolita, edited and annotated by Alfred Appel, Jr. Many are references to Humbert's own favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe.
Humbert Humbert's first love, Annabel Leigh, is named after the "maiden" in the poem "Annabel Lee" by Poe; this poem is alluded to many times in the novel, and its lines are borrowed to describe Humbert's love. A passage in chapter 11 reuses verbatim Poe's phrase ...by the side of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride. In the opening of the novel, the phrase Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied, is a pastiche of two passages of the poem, the winged seraphs of heaven (line 11), and The angels, not half so happy in heaven, went envying her and me (lines 21-2). Nabokov originally intended Lolita to be called The Kingdom by the Sea, drawing on the rhyme with Annabel Lee that was used in the first verse of Poe's work. A variant of this line is reprised in the opening of chapter one, which reads ...had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Humbert Humbert's double name recalls Poe's "William Wilson", a tale in which the main character is haunted by his doppelgänger, paralleling to the presence of Humbert's own doppelgänger, Clare Quilty. Humbert is not, however, his real name, but a chosen pseudonym. The theme of the doppelgänger also occurs in Nabokov's earlier novel, Despair.
Humbert Humbert's field of expertise is French literature (one of his jobs is writing a series of educational works that compare French writers to English writers), and as such there are several references to French literature, including the authors Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, François Rabelais, Charles Baudelaire, Prosper Mérimée, Remy Belleau, Honoré de Balzac, and Pierre de Ronsard.
Vladimir Nabokov was fond of the works of Lewis Carroll, and had translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. He even called Carroll the "first Humbert Humbert".Lolita contains a few brief allusions in the text to the Alice books, though overall Nabokov avoided direct allusions to Carroll. In her book, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, Joyce Milton claims that a major inspiration for the novel was Charlie Chaplin's relationship with his second wife, Lita Grey, whose real name was Lillita and is often misstated as Lolita. Graham Vickers in his book Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again argues that the two major real-world predecessors of Humbert are Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin. Although Appel's comprehensive Annotated Lolita contains no references to Charlie Chaplin, others have picked up several oblique references to Chaplin's life in Nabokov's book. Bill Delaney notes that at the end Lolita and her husband move to the fictional Alaskan town of "Gray Star" while Chaplin's The Gold Rush, set in Alaska, was originally set to star Lita Grey. Lolita's first sexual encounter was with a boy named Charlie Holmes, whom Humbert describes as "the silent...but indefatigable Charlie." Chaplin had an artist paint Lita Grey in imitation of Joshua Reynolds's painting The Age of Innocence. When Humbert visits Lolita in a class at her school, he notes a print of the same painting in the classroom. Delaney's article notes many other parallels as well.
The foreword refers to "the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933 by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoken book"--that is, the decision in the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in which Woolsey ruled that James Joyce's Ulysses was not obscene and could be sold in the United States.
In chapter 29 of Part Two, Humbert comments that Lolita looks "like Botticelli's russet Venus--the same soft nose, the same blurred beauty", referencing Sandro Botticelli's depiction of Venus in, perhaps, The Birth of Venus or Venus and Mars.
In addition to the possible prototypes of Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin mentioned above in Allusions, Alexander Dolinin suggests that the prototype of Lolita was 11-year-old Florence Horner, kidnapped in 1948 by 50-year-old mechanic Frank La Salle, who had caught her stealing a five-cent notebook. La Salle traveled with her over various states for 21 months and is believed to have raped 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 notes various similarities in events and descriptions.
While Nabokov had already used the same basic idea - that of a child molester and his victim booking into a hotel as father and daughter--in his then-unpublished 1939 work The Enchanter (), he mentions the Horner case explicitly in Chapter 33 of Part II of Lolita:
Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?
German academic Michael Maar's book The Two Lolitas describes his recent discovery of a 1916 German short story titled "Lolita" whose middle-aged narrator describes travelling abroad as a student. He 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 ("hidden memory") 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's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" in Harper's Magazine on this story.
One of the first things Nabokov makes a point of saying is that, despite John Ray Jr.'s claim in the Foreword, there is no moral to the story.
Nabokov adds 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 writes that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct".
Nabokov concludes 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 language for a second-rate brand of English".
Nabokov rated the book highly. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962, he said:
Lolita is a special favorite 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.
Over a year later, in an interview for Playboy, he said:
No, 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.
In the same year, in an interview with Life, Nabokov was asked which of his writings had most pleased him. 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.
The Russian translation includes a "Postscriptum" in which Nabokov reconsiders his relationship with his native language. 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."
Lolita has been adapted as two films, a musical, four stage-plays, one completed opera, and two ballets. There is also Nabokov's unfilmed (and re-edited) screenplay, an uncompleted opera based on the work, and an "imagined opera" which combines elements of opera and dance.