LOLITA (Vladimir Nabokov, published in Paris in 1955, in the U.S. in 1958)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

At the end of the twentieth century, a board assembled by the Modern Library compiled a list of the 100 best novels of the past century. Not surprisingly, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) topped the list, with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) coming in second. The next highest-rated American novel was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, coming in at fourth after Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Lolita is perhaps the American novel that comes closest to Joyce as a spectacular outburst of verbal pyrotechnics, used to deliver a barrage of clever allusions to art, literature, and the real world. Lolita also resembles Ulysses in that some have found its subject matter objectionable. Indeed, “John Ray, Jr.’s” faux foreword to Nabokov’s novel even explicitly cites Ulysses as a predecessor in this regard, noting the “monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey” in reference to the court ruling that first allowed Ulysses to be legally distributed inside the United States after it had initially been declared obscene and pornographic. But Lolita—like Ulysses initially publishable only in France due to censorship restrictions—surely goes beyond Joyce’s novelin the controversial nature of its subject matter, just as it exceeds Joyce’s novel in the extent to which every utterance in the text is charged with a self-parodic irony, a situation that begins to push the text beyond the literary modernism that is epitomized by Ulysses and toward the postmodernism that would ultimately be epitomized by Nabokov’s student Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Mostly because so many people are uncomfortable with the subject matter of Lolita and with the mismatch between this subject matter and the book’s stylistic brilliance, Lolita has been a bit difficult for scholars and critics to come to grips with. This situation is also complicated by the fact that the text is poised between modernism and postmodernism without quite belonging to either. It is clear that the novel’s incessant playfulness makes it a sort of literary game, and a very sophisticated one at that. At the same time, the novel’s subject central plot, involving child rape and sexual abuse, makes it impossible to treat merely as a comedy or as linguistic performance. In addition, all of the complexities involved in unpacking the relationship between the Lolita’s aesthetic achievement and its central plot have diverte attention from other important aspects of the book. For example, despite the book’s seeming attempts to couch itself as a purely aesthetic jaunt (much as Humbert Humbert claims his obsession with Lolita was a matter, not of sex, but of art), Lolita actually contains a great deal of trenchant commentary on 1950s America, commentary that gains energy from the fact that American society in this book is viewed from the perspective of a European outside, both in terms of its narrator and putative composer Humbert and its actual author Nabokov.

Lolita as Literary Game

Everything in Lolita is shot through with destabilizing ironies, but (ignoring these ironies for the moment) the novel is at its most fundamental level the story of a European immigrant who comes to America in search of the American dream, which ultimately become embodied for him in the person of young Dolores Haze. Humbert, of course, is anything but the prototypical working-class immigrant, coming to America in an attempt to escape poverty and oppression. Well-educated and relatively affluent, Humbert is instead a sophisticated intellectual who comes to America as did so many other European intellectuals (including Nabokov himself) in the 1930s and 1940s, as European descended toward and then became embroiled in world war. However, most of these intellectual immigrants were leftist thinkers—such as Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno—who were fleeing the German Nazi takeover of Europe, where they would have been in danger of being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Nabokov, the descendent of Russian aristocrats, had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution and was certainly no leftist, though his politics were complicated. Yet he had the distinction of fleeing the Nazis not once, but twice. After living in Berlin for more than a decade, he and his wife Vera, who was Jewish, found the climate there increasingly hostile, causing them to move to Paris in 1937. They were living in Paris when German troops advanced on the city in 1940, causing them to flee to America at that time.

Humbert, meanwhile, was born in Paris in 1910, the son of an English mother and a father who was “a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins” (9). Humbert insists (perhaps he doth protest too much) that his childhood was healthy and happy, though his mother died by when he was three years old, her accidental death related by Humbert in a bizarrely offhand manner with the simple parenthetical notation—“(picnic, lightning)” (9). Growing up in privileged surroundings, mostly on the French Riviera (where his father owned a luxury hotel) Humbert was exposed to literature early on. His idyllic life was then interrupted by World War II, during which he removed to America, worked for a while writing ads for a perfume company, spent nearly two years on an Arctic expedition and some more time in a mental asylum before finally arriving, in 1947, in the town of Ramsdale, where he rooms with a widow, Charlotte Haze, and her twelve-year-old daughter Dolores, aka Lolita.

The bulk of Lolita involves Humbert’s doomed quest for ideal happiness with Lolita, whom he has transformed into a sort of embodiment of the American dream, as filtered through his literary background and his psychosis. Meanwhile, if his attempt to realize happiness with Lolita reads like an obscene parody of the attempts of immigrants in general to find a better life in America, Humbert himself often reads like an obscene exaggeration of the worst suspicions that Americans hold toward both Europeans and intellectuals as elitist snobs and sexual degenerates. Nabokov, as a sophisticated European intellectual living in America, would have been very aware of these sorts of stereotypes, an awareness that adds considerable irony to his depiction of Humbert as a stereotypical decadent, who embodies the worst fears of ordinary Americans with regard to European intellectuals.

Lolita supposedly consists of a written statement prepared by Humbert as he awaits trial for the murder of playwright and rival pedophile Clare Quilty, which certainly makes it surprising that it turns out to be one of the most meticulously crafted novels ever written, even though the extensive (some would say excessive) literariness of the text is partly justified by the fact that Humbert is a professional scholar of literature, an expert on French poetry. But, of course, scholars of French poetry don’t generally write like French poets—or like Nabokov. After “Ray’s” foreword, the text figurately explodes in a pyrotechnical performance of wordplay, beginning with Humbert’s opening fondling of Lolita’s name as a sort of magic linguistic talisman. This opening celebration of the poetic rhythms of Lolita’s name are quite telling, though—partly because it announces Humbert’s love of words, but mostly because it demonstrates the way in which he has made the girl Dolores into an object of his own linguistic domination. After all, “Lolita” is not really the girl’s name, and no one (with the exception of Humbert himself calls her that. The name, we will soon learn, is really just part of his effort to ignore the reality of the girl Dolores and to create his own literary fantasy girl, whom he names “Lolita.”

Humbert’s effacement of the reality of Dolores Haze runs throughout the text, and Humbert’s frequent admissions that he is a monster and that he destroyed her life are tossed off in such a fashion that they seem designed to win sympathy more for Humbert than for Dolores. Thus, precisely because Humbert controls the narrative and remains the point-of-view character throughout, Dolores never gets a chance to tell the story from her point of view. Some might see this aspect of the novel as a shortcoming, but I think one could also argue that it is a quite effective way of indicating Humbert’s lack of appreciation that Dolores even has a legitimate point of view.

In addition, Humbert almost immediately calls attention to the irony of his linguistic shenanigans, given the situation. “You can always,” he assures us, “count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (9). In point of fact, of course, you can almost never count on a murderer for a fancy prose style (certainly not this fancy), and Nabokov is surely counting on his readers to know this and thus to appreciate the irony of Humbert’s “explanation” for his prose style, which actually does nothing but call attention to how incongruous it is. This misleading claim that his literary style is perfectly in keeping with this status as a murderer is only the first of what will eventually be a cascade of signs identifying Humbert as a spectacularly unreliable narrator, and in all kinds of different ways[1]. For one thing, he is a psychopath who clearly does not profit from his multiple stays in mental asylums. Attentive readers will thus realize that much of what Humbert relates might simply derived from his own lurid imagination. And, of course, there is the supposed rhetorical situation, in which Humbert is motivated to try to make himself look better in front of his putative audience, which is the jury that is tasked with delivering a verdict in his murder trial. In addition, he is composing, from memory and without access to research materials, a complex narrative that spans roughly five years (not counting the flashback to his childhood and then to his first marriage), so that he might certainly be expected to misremember some details. Yet there are other details in the text that clearly seem suspect, but in ways that can be attributed neither to inaccurate memory or psychopathology.

In some cases, Humbert himself calls attention to the fact that some details have been intentionally falsified. His name, for example, is not “Humbert Humbert” at all: Ray tells us in the foreword that Humbert’s “bizarre cognomen is his own invention” (3). Other names of people and places are clearly invented as well, as are certain suspicious numerical coincidences, such as the fact that the Hazes live at 342 Lawn St., Humbert first rapes Lolita in Room 342 of the Enchanted Hunters Lodge, and Humbert and Lo supposedly register at 342 motels and hotels during their year-long cross-country road trip. And, of course, Humbert’s repeated boasts of his ability to mislead and outsmart the psychiatrists who have tried to treat him is a pretty clear hint that he believes he can mislead and outsmart his other readers as well.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the spectacular literary style of Lolita is incongruous is the mismatch between that style and the dark nature of the story of rape and abuse that is being told. Among other things, the novel in this sense can be read as a thoroughgoing demonstration of the inadequacy and absurdity of the New Critical method that was, in the 1950s, the dominant mode of American literary criticism. According to this approach, literature involves a special sort of language use in which specific literary strategies (such as irony and ambiguity) are far more important than the actual subject matter of the text. Indeed, the New Criticism essentially implies that the subject matter of a text is irrelevant because literature exists in its own separate realm and has nothing to do with reality. Many of Nabokov’s own extensive comments on the nature of literature would seem to endorse this notion, incidentally, but Lolita (and a great deal of his other fiction) would seem to make just the opposite point. It is perfectly fine to appreciate the richness and humor of the literary language of Lolita as a performance in its own right, but to say that it doesn’t matter that the book, at the level of plot, is about the destruction of the childhood world of an innocent girl by a monstrous pedophile and murderer would seem incredibly insensitive and irresponsible. Claiming that literature has nothing to do with anything in the real world would also seem greatly to diminish the power and importance of literature as a whole.

At the same time, whole generations of readers have fallen in love with the language of Lolita, often at the expense of ignoring the book’s subject matter. And one reason, I would argue, is that the New Criticism was, in fact, so dominant at the time the book was published and really remained so for at least a couple of decades afterward, even though its dominance began to decline amid the political turmoil of the 1960s. I would argue, though, that Lolita actually becomes a much more interesting—and powerful—novel if one does not ignore its subject matter. Indeed, relishing the literary shenanigans of this narrative without paying attention to the way Humbert has destroyed an innocent girl’s life puts readers very much in the position of Humbert himself, glorying in what he sees as the aesthetics of nymphets but completely ignoring the fact that these nymphets, including Dolores Haze, are not mythical creatures but innocent children[2].

Nabokov and the Politics of Literature

Focusing only on the style of Lolita and ignoring its content not only effaces its lessons about the horrors of pedophilia; it also ignores the extent to which the book presents us with a compelling picture of the entire sweep of American culture in the 1950s, as seen through the defamiliarized perspective of Humbert Humbert. Amid all the discussion of Lolita’s linguistic virtuosity and formal brilliance and all the concern with the controversial nature of its central subject matter, relatively little attention has been paid to the social and political dimensions of this novel (or of Nabokov’s work in general), partly because of Nabokov’s own denials that his work even had such dimensions. Yet some of Nabokov’s works are overtly political, as in the case of the Russian-language dystopian novel Invitation to a Beheading (1938) and the dystopian novel Bend Sinister (1947), Nabokov’s second novel to have been written in English. As is typical of the dystopian genre, both of these novels depict in excruciating detail the horrifying human cost of totalitarian political regimes. Yet we have Nabokov’s own disclaimer of political interests in his author’s introduction to Bend Sinister:

“I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment. … I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent” (vi).

Nabokov, apparently sitting atop the Olympus of “pure art,” here denies that he has any interest in real-world events at all. Indeed, he goes on to proclaim that Bend Sinister bears no relationship to the political and historical context within which it was written:

“Similarly, the influence of my epoch on my present book is as negligible as the influence of my books, or at least of this book, on my epoch. There can be distinguished, no doubt, certain reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life: worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons. No doubt, too, without those infamous models before me I could not have larded this fantasy with bits of Lenin’s speeches, and a chunk of the Soviet constitution, and gobs of Nazist pseudo-efficiency” (vii).

This disingenuous denial is a curious one that calls specific attention to the “reflections” of specific totalitarian regimes in his book, even signaling the reader to be on the alert for specific allusions to the authoritarian practices of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Clearly, Nabokov’s work is not so entirely divorced from its historical context as Nabokov would apparently like us to believe. Indeed, one of the positive critical trends of the past few decades of literary studies, as we have finally gotten beyond the New Criticism, has been a growing recognition that no work is entirely independent of the social, political, and ideological context of its specific historical moment. In the case of works such as Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, the dialogue with totalitarianism, especially Stalinism, is so direct that the political intonation of the works is quite obvious.

Even a work such as Lolita, a spectacular demonstration of verbal dexterity without obvious references to any particular political programs, can have strong political implications, as critics have gradually come to see. Dana Brand, for example, notes the way the treatment of popular culture (especially advertising) in Lolita provides a powerful commentary on American consumer society. And Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth notes certain parallels between Nabokov’s verbal experiments and the work of French theorist Julia Kristeva, in that both unsettle traditional notions about language and subjectivity. Neither Brand nor Ermarth makes reference to Marxist political theory, but both point toward an understanding of the political significance of Nabokov’s work that can be greatly enhanced by an appeal to the work of such Marxist theorists as Theodor Adorno and Louis Althusser, who focus much of their critiques of bourgeois society on the formation and functioning of the human subject within the ideological context of that society, and it is in this same area that a work like Lolita functions most powerfully as a social and political statement.

Nabokov’s own critical attitude toward bourgeois society shows through in his Cornell lecture notes on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, itself an important source and model for Lolita. Beginning the lecture with a typical Nabokovian proclamation that “literature is of no practical value whatsoever” (Lectures 125), Nabokov goes on to explain Flaubert’s use of the term bourgeois as a synonym for ‘philistine,’ people preoccupied with the material side of life and believing only in conventional values” (126). From the tone here and from his comments elsewhere one can surmise that Nabokov endorses what he sees as Flaubert’s critique of philistinism, a critique that would also seem to be central to the description of American society in Lolita. In this case, however, the critique is complicated by the fact that it comes to use, not directly from Nabokov, but from Humbert, who is hardly an admirable or reliable source.

Humbert Humbert’s America

The most memorable aspect of Lolita’s portrayal of American society occurs in the vivid depiction of the American countryside during the cross-country (pre-Interstate) road trip of Humbert and Dolores Haze. This depiction, though from the point of view of an outsider such as Humbert, reads very much like a snapshot of important aspects of American life at the beginning of the 1950s. After all, the content of these descriptions derives from Nabokov’s own yearly cross-country auto trips from his residence in New York to Colorado, where he hunted butterflies, so its vividness is not accident. At the same time, these cross-country trips also suggest the growing homogenization of America even before the advent of Interstate highways, as Humbert and Dolly continually encounter the same ads, the same brands, and the same attitudes wherever they go.

Humbert’s critique of American culture is aimed primarily at what he sees as the banal and highly commercialized nature of that culture, with advertising functioning as the most obvious example[3]. For Humbert, advertising does not merely seduce Americans: it literally creates them. When Humbert first arrives in America, he takes a job with a New York ad agency, a job that consists mainly of thinking up and editing perfume ads. America, then, is immediately associated with advertising, and with an especially telling form of advertising at that: advertising acts as a sort of rhetorical perfume, so perfume advertising would seem to be a quintessential form of that discourse. This job, of course, is also associated with Humbert’s misogynistic disgust with the mature female physicality adult women, which makes them harder to aestheticize in the way he does Lolita. He thus notes his disgust at the “deodorized career girls” he meets in New York, just as he will later be horrified by the physicality of Charlotte Haze. He is so unhappy during these years in New York, in fact, that he suffers a mental breakdown and is forced to spend more than a year in a sanatorium.

When Humbert later meets Lolita he is taken by her “twofold nature,” consisting of a “dreamy childishness. ..stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures” and an “eerie vulgarity” like that of “very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels” (44). Already, then, advertising has been linked with artificiality (perfume), with insanity, and with prostitution, and these themes will continue to echo throughout the book. And when Lolita indicates (at least to the narcissistic Humbert) her infatuation with him by posting on the wall above her “chaste bed” pictures of models in magazine ads that roughly resemble Humbert, we are reminded of the stark contrast between the appearance of the glossy ads and the reality of the depraved Humbert (69).

The sophisticated Humbert, a former insider in the advertising business, presumably sees through the false veneer offered by advertising, but the Americans he meets (most notably Charlotte and Lolita) seem to have their visions of reality constituted almost totally by advertising and related commercial genres. Indeed, Humbert uses his superior insight to manipulate Charlotte’s advertising-induced expectations, creating for her consumption a narrative of his past that involves a series of past mistresses “all nicely differentiated, according to the rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are cute as pictured in a subtle ratio of races, with one—only one, but as cute as they make them—chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in the very middle of the front row” (79). In this way, the invidious effects of advertising are linked not only with the exploitation of women but also with the ideology of racism, and in similar fashion the contents of the ads mentioned by Humbert throughout the book are worth considering carefully. Advertising interposes itself between individuals and reality; racism and sexism do the same, resulting in the treatment of persons of other races or genders not as real individuals but as representatives of the kind of stereotypical formulations associated with advertising, just as Humbert treats Lolita not as a real little girl but as a member of the mythical species of nymphets.

The most telling evocations of advertising in Lolita occur as Humbert and Lolita travel across the country, encountering an America that has already been pre-packaged for marketing purposes, even in the most provincial of realms. Humbert, of course, continues to enjoy his position of lofty superiority, not only regarding the ads they encounter as misleading and mendacious but also taking considerable delight in subjecting them to the kinds of close readings that one might associate with literature. Thus, his own penchant for double entendre leads him to derive “a not exclusively economic kick from such roadside signs as TIMBER HOTEL, Children under 14 Free” (147). But Lolita religiously believes the ads that she reads, lobbying to stay at various hotels and motels or to visit various restaurants on the basis of their descriptions in travel ads:

“If a roadside sign said: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy. The words ‘novelties and souvenirs’ simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt. If some café sign proclaimed lcecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks every-where were ice-cold. She it was to whom the ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster” (148).

Humbert’s mention of the “trochaic lilt” of ad slogans again suggests a certain complicity between literature and advertising. But, most importantly, his depiction of Lolita as the “ideal consumer” indicates that she has been constituted as a subject by the culture in which she lives, created by American consumer society specifically as a buyer of goods. It takes one to know one, as they say, and this this fact accounts for much of Humbert’s antipathy toward American popular culture, which thereby becomes his rival for power in creating Lolita as its own idealized product.

Numerous other elements of American culture contribute to Lolita’s and Charlotte’s constitution as ideal consumers. According to Humbert, for example, Charlotte’s view of the world is derived from “soap operas, psychoanalysis and cheap novelettes” (80). Lolita is particularly susceptible to ads appearing in movie magazines, and movies figure prominently in the formation of the stereotypical expectations of the characters in the book. Humbert, however, supposedly sees through all this nonsense, though, attempting to use it to his advantage. When he first sees Lolita, he attempts to impress her with his “movieland manhood” (39). Later, he muses that Lolita might be responsive to his advances because of the romantic expectations common to “a modern child, an avid reader of movie magazines, an expert in dream-slow close-ups” (49). And he comments on the inaccurate depiction of reality in movies when he compares his scuffle with Quilty late in the book to “the obligatory scene in the Westerns,” except that this real fight lacks many of the special effects that have come to be associated with movie fisticuffs. At the end of the inconclusive tussle, “both of us were panting as the cowman and the sheepman never do after battle” (299).

Clearly, much of Lolita can be read as a scathing condemnation of the misleading view of reality derived from advertising, film, magazines, and other elements of popular culture in America. But Nabokov does not hold up “high” art as a privileged alternative to popular culture. Though Humbert appears to see through the way the Americans he encounters are being duped by their culture, his own view of reality (derived mainly from French “high” literature) is at least as distorted as theirs, and this distortion leads in his case to even more horrific results. As Ellen Pifer notes, “If Lolita is the victim of American pop culture, she is even more cruelly the victim of Humbert’s aesthetic proclivities (170). Indeed, there is a close correlation between Humbert’s belief that he can possess in reality what his imagination has envisioned as the ideal nymphet and Lolita’s belief that she can possess the idealized consumer goods presented in advertising. As Brand notes, “Belief in the possibility of the actual possession of an image is … the means by which advertisements reduce people to thralldom” (19).

Nabokov, however, is not suggesting that we somehow put aside all representations of reality in exchange for the thing itself. On the contrary, everywhere in his fiction Nabokov makes clear his belief that there is no unmediated access to reality. As he writes in his postscript to Lolita, “reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes” (312). Our access to reality is always belated, always filtered through our own expectations of reality. Pifer has discussed in some detail this aspect of Nabokov’s work as part of her strong argument for Nabokov’s ethical and moral commitment. She notes that it is not mediation to which Nabokov objects, but rather mediation that attempts to pass itself off as a direct access to reality. This attitude explains Nabokov’s antipathy toward realistic fiction and the highly artificial, often metafictional quality of his own work. As Pifer puts it, “Nabokov, who found that even recorded history may be a kind of romance, or fiction, was understandably averse to any literary method that aspires to the authenticity of ultimate and objective reality” (129).

Indeed, Nabokov stated that “I do not believe that ‘history’ exists apart from the historian” (Strong 138). Pifer’s assessment of Nabokov’s ethical and moral dimension is probably accurate, but this dimension has a specifically political aspect as well. As Brand suggests, Nabokov’s treatment of the consumerist bovarysme of American society in Lolita suggests that “the society which claims to have freed itself from traditional forms of coercive authority has evolved new and more covert forms to replace the old” (14). The stereotypes promulgated by advertising, pop culture, and various other forces (particularly psychoanalysis) exert a control over human lives that is potentially as damaging as that which is exerted in more overt ways by totalitarian governments. Thus, Nabokov suggests that we not rest too comfortably on the democratic reputation of bourgeois society, since that reputation is itself a product of advertising and propaganda. Ultimately, if Lolita clearly warns us not to be taken in by the fancy language used by Humbert Humbert, it also advises us to resist the seductive promises offered by advertising and popular culture.

The Film Adaptations

At first glance, Lolita would not seem to be a good candidate for adaptation to film. On the one hand, the richness and humor of its literary language are quite difficult to capture on film. On the other hand, the subject matter, divorced from this language, would seem in danger of descending into a lurid tale, indeed. There are, however, two different film adaptations of the novel, which together tell us a great deal about it. Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version, made with the Hollywood Production Code still imposing strict limitations on the representations of sexuality in American film, de-emphasizes the actual content of Nabokov’s narrative and tries instead to capture the style and comic spirit of the narrative. And it does so quite successfully, though divorcing the style from the style from the content in this way seriously detracts from the effectiveness of the narrative as a tragic critique of the sexual abuse of children. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version then takes the opposite tack, emphasizing the tragedy of the story’s content, but almost entirely losing the comedy of its style.

Kubrick’s adaptation is based on a screenplay written by Nabokov, though Kubrick seems to have paid relatively little attention to the script in shooting the film. In any case, Kubrick’s film, with distinguished British actor James Mason in the Humbert role, gets off to a quick start with an opening scene that announces its comic intent. The scene features Humbert’s killing of Clare Quilty (played brilliantly by British comic actor Peter Sellers) and is conveyed largely through slapstick comedy. It is also amusing allusive, very much in the spirit of the original novel. When Humbert first encounters the inhabitant of the bizarre mansion he has invaded, he asks the man whether he is Quilty. “No, I’m Spartacus,” responds Quilty, in an obvious reference to Kubrick’s very serious 1960 film Spartacus, the most famous scene of which is one in which numerous participants in a slave revolt all claim to be their leader Spartacus, so that the real Spartacus cannot be identified by the Romans.

In the Kubrick film, Mason does his best to portray Humbert sympathetically, thus mimicking the role played by the language itself in the novel. The whole film is highly sanitized due to the censorship restrictions of the time (which reportedly placed severe limitations on what Kubrick was able to do with the adaptation and may account for the fact that this seems one of his least “Kubrickian” films). For one thing, Sue Lyon’s Dolores Haze is made slightly older and seems much less of a helpless victim than she is in the novel (or in Lyne’s film). Meanwhile, comic highlights are provided by Sellers as Quilty and by Shelley Winters as Lo’s blowsy mother Charlotte, who speaks almost entirely in double entendre and practically trips all over herself at Humbert’s sophisticated charm, much to his horror. One could argue, though, that these comic touches, together with the censorship restrictions brought about by the Code, somehow make the film even more obscene and disturbing, because of the way they sugar-coat what is going on in the story in ways that are much less interesting than those residing in Humbert’s language in the novel. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Catholic Legion of Decency loomed and leered over the film, concerned at its possible negative moral impact, providing an especially stark reminder of the role played by such religious forces in American culture as a whole.

Given the restrictions of the Code and the demands if such religious groups, it is not surprising that many of the details included in the novel were unmentionable in American film in 1962, so it is also not surprising that Lyne’s 1997 adaptation includes much material that Kubrick’s doesn’t, including a much more extensive dosage of direct quotations from the text via Humbert’s voiceover monologue, clearly intended to try to recreate the effect of his narration in the novel. In any case, Lyne’s Lolita produces a totally different effect than does Kubrick’s adaptation, though its frank treatment of the subject matter led to the film being almost totally repressed in the U.S., even in 1997. Much of the difference comes purely from casting. Humbert Humbert is still a suave European literary scholar, but now he’s played by British dramatic actor Jeremy Irons, a performer who conveys depths of damaged and sinister strangeness perhaps better than any other, thus making it much more clear that Humbert is a sick man, even if he remains oddly sympathetic. That there is something seriously wrong with Humbert is also reinforced by the fact that Charlotte Haze, now played by Melanie Griffith, is so attractive in her own right in this version, making Humbert’s preference for her young daughter seem all the more perverse. Lo, meanwhile, is played brilliantly by newcomer Dominique Swain, who is represented as both much more childlike and much sexier than Sue Lyon had been in the 1962 Kubrick film, with implications that have caused considerable controversy. Still, that it is possible to be both is, again, something American culture has trouble dealing with and something that is key to the power of this film. Finally, Clare Quilty is now played by Frank Langella, famously for playing Dracula, among other things, making Quilty far more serious and sinister than he had been when played by Peter Sellers, which again contributes to the overall tone of this film, which is lyrical, somber, and virtually bereft of comedy. As a result, the Lyne film fails to capture much of the spirit of the novel, despite the voiceover narration that is taken straight from the book.

Not surprisingly, neither film adaptation (even with significant stretches of verbiage taken straight from the novel, especially in Lyne’s adaptation) quite captures the special linguistic power of the original narrative. However, when taken together, the two films constitute something like an adequate representation of at least the basic story of the original novel, even if each one is incomplete in itself in even this basic sense. Kubrick’s film supplies the comic style, while Lyne’s supplies the tragic content, even if this content still focuses more on Humbert than on Lolita. If nothing else, these two films together demonstrate the immense achievement of Nabokov’s novel, even the basic spirit of which requires two very different films to capture. Meanwhile, even the two films together still focus only on the personal aspects of the story and leave out its social dimension almost entirely, including its critique of the banal materialism of 1950s American culture.

Works Cited

Brand, Dana. “The Interaction of Aestheticism and American Consumer Culture in Nabokov’s Lolita.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 17, Spting 1987, pp. 14–21.

Emery, Jacob. “Humbert Humbert as Mad Man: Art and Advertising in Lolita.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 51, no. 4, Winter 2019, pp. 546–68.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. “Conspicuous Construction; or, Kristeva, Nabokov, and the Anti-Realist Critique.” Novel, vo. 21, 1988, 330–39.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr., McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. Henry Holt, 1947.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. Translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration

with the author. Putnam, 1959.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Edited by Fredson Bowers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Newman, Danile Aureliano. “Nabokov’s Gradual and Dual Blues: Taxonomy, Unreliability, and Ethics in Lolita.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 48, no. 1, Winter 2018, pp. 53-83 .

Pifer, Ellen. Nabokov and the Novel. Harvard University Press, 1980.

Rakhimova-Sommers, Elana, ed. Teaching Nabokov’s Lolita in the #MeToo Era. Lexington Books, 2021.


[1] For more on Humbert as an unreliable narrator, see Newman.

[2] Much, of course, has been written about the relationship between Lolita and real-world sexual abuse. For an updated exploration of this topic, see the essays in the volume edited by Elena Rakhimova-Sommers.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of advertising in Lolita, see Emery.