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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Context


1950s America

Lolita is clearly influenced by Nabokov's joyful and critical experience of 1950s America. The United States had just won World War II, and many émigrés or "displaced persons," such as Nabokov himself, had come to the United States from war-torn Europe; these émigrés brought certain dark memories of World War II to the country. During the years that Nabokov was writing Lolita, Dwight Eisenhower was president, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Russian Jews, were electrocuted for passing information about the atom bomb to Russia. By the 1950s the United States had begun its cold war with Russia; just as Lolita was published Senator Joseph McCarthy began to hold hearings to root out Communists from every part of the United States.

The novel also shows the pleasure people took in the vast new American highway system, which was being built in the 1950s and 1960s. One could travel the whole country by car, and many did. Nabokov and his wife enjoyed many road trips to the Western United States—they and Americans in general were in love with the West.

America at the time Lolita was being written was brimming with postwar optimism and reveling in materialism. Both Lolita and her mother, Charlotte, with their many movie and housekeeping magazines, reflect US society's romance with consumer culture, advertising, and celebrities. In Lolita Nabokov spoofs the 1950s' cheerful American materialism: biographers report that he regularly clipped advertisements from newspapers (particularly an ad he called "Adoration of Spoons"), studied American teenage slang of the era, and took notes on aspects of suburban life, which he both loved and disdained.

Literary Influences

Many different stories influenced Nabokov as he wrote Lolita. He had earlier translated Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into Russian, and some critics say that the love Carroll, John Ruskin, and Charlie Chaplin had for young girls was part of the impetus for Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. Others suggest that Nabokov had read about the notorious 1948 kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner by 50-year-old Frank LaSalle. Nabokov's friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, sent Nabokov a volume of Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which included a case study of a Ukrainian man very much like Humbert. But Nabokov had been working on a story like Lolita for a long time. Other, shorter versions of the story can be seen in some of his earlier writings, most particularly in his 1939 novella The Enchanter, in which the protagonist is in love with his stepdaughter.

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