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Lolita is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first published in 1955. The novel is famous both for its innovative style and for its controversial subject. The novel's unreliable narrator and main character, Humbert Humbert, becomes sexually obsessed with a pubescent girl.
Lolita is also the title of two motion pictures based on the novel; Nabokov was involved in the writing of the 1962 film by Stanley Kubrick. The name has also become a slang term for a sexually attractive or precocious young girl. For more about these non-literary meanings of the term, see the end of this article.
A scholar, Humbert leaves Europe for the United States and moves into a rented room in the home of Charlotte Haze, after seeing her twelve-year-old daughter (Dolores Haze, affectionately shortened to Lo, or Lolita) sunbathing in the garden. Haze, a lonely widow, becomes Humbert's unwitting pawn in his silent quest to be near her young daughter. The elder Haze and Humbert soon marry. Some time later, while searching Humbert's room, she finds his diary, containing Humbert's written confessions of indifference to his new wife and impassioned lust for her daughter. She runs away in disgust and, in fleeing the home, is hit and killed by a passing car.
Humbert begins traveling around the United States, from one motel to another, in the company of Lolita, with whom he is now having a sexual relationship. This relationship ends when a rival adult suitor, Clare Quilty, convinces Lolita to leave Humbert and run away with him.
At the end of the novel, Humbert briefly reunites with Lolita. He had intended to kill her husband, but on meeting him realises this is not the character Lo had been seeing during their travels years ago. He persuades Lo to reveal the name of the mystery man and she eventually does so. HH gives Lo 4000 dollars, thus allowing her to go to Alaska with her husband. Humbert realizes that he still wants her: she is no longer one of those compelling young girls he refers to as "nymphets," but he has truly fallen in love with her. Of course, it is too late, and all HH can do now is track down CQ and kill him.
Lo will later die in Alaska while giving birth to a child who also dies.
Style and interpretation
The novel is a tragicomedy narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with 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, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet, a word which has since had a life of its own and can be found in most dictionaries.
Humbert is a well-educated, multilingual, literary-minded European émigré, and his clever, humorous narrative style immediately endears him to the reader. Humbert is both lovable and reprehensible, and the combination of sympathy and repulsion that he evokes in the reader is at the core of the book's genius. Humbert fancies himself a great artist, but he lacks something that Nabokov himself characterizes as essential: curiosity. Humbert tells the story of a Lolita that he creates in his mind because he is unable and unwilling to actually listen to the 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".
Publication and reception
Because of the subject matter, Nabokov had difficulty finding a publisher, eventually resorting to Olympia Press , a publisher of "erotica" in Paris, which published Lolita in 1955. A favorable notice by English author Graham Greene led to widespread critical admiration for the book, and its eventual U.S. publication on August 18, 1958, by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Today, it is considered by many one of the finest novels written in the 20th century.
- Humbert Humbert's first love, Annabel, is named after the woman in the poem "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, their young love is described in phrases borrowed from Poe's poem.
- Humbert Humbert's double name recalls Poe's "William Wilson", a tale in which the main character is haunted by his doppelgänger.
- In March 2004 the German researcher Michael Maar discovered a short story named "Lolita" published in Germany in 1916. It was written by a certain Heinz von Lichberg . While the plot of this story resembles the summarized plot of Nabokov's Lolita, most scholars regard charges of plagiarism as completely overblown.
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 discovered; however, there has been some speculation that photographs by an ape could have been influential .
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."
Lolita has been filmed twice: the the first adaptation was made in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick, and starred James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and, as Lolita, Sue Lyon; and in 1997 by Adrian Lyne, starring Dominique Swain, Jeremy Irons and Melanie Griffith. Nabokov was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the earlier film's adapted screenplay, although little of this work reached the screen.
The term lolita has come to be used to refer to an adolescent girl considered to be very seductive, especially one younger than the age of consent. In the marketing of pornography, it has been used to refer to any attractive woman who has only recently reached, or is still younger than, the age of consent, or sometimes to refer to women who only appear to be younger than the age of consent. For this reason, it is especially worth noting that 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 hateful person" (see Humbert Humbert). In Strong Opinions, Nabokov opines that he is "probably responsible" for parents not naming their children "Lolita" anymore.
In the book itself, "Lolita" is specifically the name of the girl, and "nymphet" is the general term for the type of young girl to whom Humbert is attracted. However, commerce has preferred to use the girl's name, and to make "lolitas" attractive (in film adaptations and pornography) to a much wider audience than the small number of "nympholepts" which Humbert Humbert believes to exist. This is despite the fact that, in the book, Dolores's mother describes the child's looks as plain at best.
The case of Amy Fisher, whom in 1992 the press dubbed the "Long Island Lolita", helped popularize the term among a new generation. Screenwriter Alan Ball considered writing a play based on the Fisher case, but the story soon got away from him and mutated into the screenplay which became American Beauty (1999). The narrator, played by Kevin Spacey, falls for a teenage girl, who is a "lolita" in the mainstream or pornographic sense but is too old to be a Nabokovian nymphet. His name, Lester Burnham, is an anagram of "Humbert learns".
Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) provides an early example of the modern "nymphet" usage entering the literary canon. Serge, a teenage rock singer, loses his girlfriend to a middle-aged lawyer. At one point he expresses his angst in song:
What chance has a lonely surfer boy For the love of a surfer chick, With all these Humbert Humbert cats Coming on so big and sick? For me, my baby was a woman, For him she's just another nymphet.
Pynchon, one should note, was a student at Cornell University, where he may have audited Nabokov's Literature 312 class.
In the Woody Allen film Manhattan, when Mary discovers Isaac is dating a 17-year-old, she says, "Somewhere Nabokov is smiling."
- Appel, Alfred Jr. (1991). The Annotated Lolita (revised ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-72729-9.
- One of the best guides to the complexities of Lolita. First published by McGraw-Hill in 1970. (Nabokov was able to comment on Appel's earliest annotations, creating a situation which Appel described as being like John Shade revising Charles Kinbote's comments on Shade's poem Pale Fire. Oddly enough, this is exactly the situation Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd proposed to resolve the literary complexities of Nabokov's Pale Fire.)
- Nabokov, Vladimir (1955). Lolita. New York: Vintage International. ISBN 0-679-72316-1.
- The original novel.
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