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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Nabokov's statement that a good reader is an "active and creative re-reader" and a good writer an "enchanter" relate to the reading of Lolita?

In the essay "Good Readers and Good Writers" Nabokov writes that a good reader is an active and creative re-reader. This is certainly what a good reader of Lolita must be—many of the puns and jokes in this dense novel can only be understood as the book is read a second time. In "Good Readers and Good Writers" Nabokov says a good reader uses his or her imagination and delight in language to understand a novel. A good writer, according to the same essay, must have imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. A good writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. It's interesting that the word enchanter is used here, as it is used often in the novel Lolita. It's also interesting to note that Nabokov's narrator in Lolita, Humbert Humbert, is himself a sort of enchanter who weaves an unreliable narrative that attempts to convince his audience that his rape of a 12-year-old was justifiable.

What traits of John Ray Jr., PhD and his writing make him an appropriate writer of Lolita's foreword?

A foreword suggests how the work to follow should be read. This foreword is a framing device for the novel—a story outside of the main story. By beginning his novel with a foreword written by an imaginary character, Nabokov is playing, as he will throughout the novel, with ideas about imagination and reality. The foreword is one of many texts in the novel—like the copy of Who's Who in the Limelight, which Humbert finds in the prison library—that both lend a sense of reality to the novel and detract from it. The language in the foreword is also a parody—a satirical imitation—of the language of academics. The stuffy, formal language of the foreword stands in marked contrast with the poetic language of the novel's first chapter.

In Lolita in what ways does John Ray Jr.'s foreword speak to theme and purpose in the text?

A foreword is usually a word by the author or a critic before the fiction begins; by creating a fictional foreword Nabokov points out that all language is a construction of reality. The quotation marks around words such as real and true call into question the meanings of those words, suggesting that the people in the story may not be "real" and the story may not be "true." Dr. Ray, by announcing Lolita's grim death in childbirth at 17, punctures the romanticized narrative about obsessive love that Humbert Humbert has tried to create. By the same token Nabokov punctures the authority of professorial, critical language by presenting an entirely fictional foreword.

What might be a reason that, in the novel Lolita, Humbert Humbert explains how to say "Lo-lee-ta" by describing how the tongue works on the teeth to pronounce the name?

Through Humbert Nabokov is helping the reader feel the physicality of words, connecting language with the body. He may want his readers to try out pronouncing the name. This strategy also signals that the reader will need to actively make judgments about the characters and sort out truth from fiction in the novel. In some ways Humbert, as well as Nabokov, is trying to seduce the reader to agree with Humbert's perception of reality, and having readers sound out the name is one part of his attempt to do this. It's also true that this bit of the first chapter shows readers that Humbert loves the sound of his own voice and enjoys not just the sensuality of saying Lolita's name but also the play of language. We'll see through the novel that Nabokov loves to play with language, too, but Nabokov uses language to create art while Humbert uses it to obscure or defend his cruelty.

How do Dolores's various names provide clues regarding Lolita's identity in Chapter 1 of Lolita?

The different names for Dolores Haze—Lo, Lola, Dolly, Dolores, Lolita—correspond to the way different people see her at different times. Her mother calls her Lo, a child of 4'10". She appears to be a Lola—a more mature version of Lo, perhaps—when she is dressed in pants; her friends at school call her Dolly (a plaything, just as Lolita is a plaything for Humbert); in the eyes of the law ("on the dotted line") she is Dolores. When Humbert is molesting her—when he is forcing her to act out his fantasies—she is Lolita. The girl's lack of a fixed name reinforces the slippery nature of identity and reality, as well as the power Humbert assumes over her by naming her.

What is the significance of the first parenthetical "(picnic, lightning)" that appears in Lolita in Chapter 2 as a description of the death of Humbert's mother?

A mother's death is usually described with more emotion; it would seem to merit at least a full sentence, not two words in parenthesis. By having Humbert only briefly note his mother's death, Nabokov reveals Humbert's heartlessness and self-absorption. His mother's death seems no more than an aside, an offstage event, in Humbert's autobiographical drama. Nabokov is also playing against expectations, as he will do throughout the novel. He sets readers up for cultural or literary cliché—a son's reaction to his mother's death—and delivers the opposite. Finally a memoirist might find in a mother's death rich material for self-analysis; Humbert (and Nabokov), however, despise the Freudian influence in modern psychological theory. Deliberately minimizing a mother's death underscores this disdain.

How does Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee compare and contrast with Humbert Humbert's Annabel Leigh in the novel Lolita?

Humbert Humbert could almost serve as the narrator of "Annabel Lee." Many lines of the poem ("I was a child and she was a child"/"In a kingdom by the sea") are repeated, sometimes slightly changed, in Lolita. Humbert writes that "we loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives" in Lolita. Because the poem "Annabel Lee" was written by an American poet, connecting characters Annabel Leigh and Lolita to it also connects them to America. Connecting Annabel Leigh the character to the poem also connects Humbert's love of Annabel Leigh to a certain kind of romantic cliché. We learn through the course of the novel how much Humbert loves and lives through literary tropes, texts, and clichés. The possessiveness, darkness, and obsessiveness of the narrator of Poe's Annabel Lee is similar to Humbert's obsessive, dark fixation on the girl Lolita. Nabokov's Lolita is made from similar, though more sensational, material than Poe's Annabel Lee.

How does the recurring sunglasses motif in Lolita connect to the symbolism of doppelgangers or doubles?

When Humbert and Annabel are about to have sex in the cave on the beach, their first witness is "somebody's lost pair of sunglasses." The first time Humbert lays eyes on Lolita she is wearing sunglasses. These doubled sunglasses may suggest the connection Humbert imagines between Annabel and Lolita. Through the repetition of the word glass, sunglasses can also be connected to "Hourglass Lake," the reminder that time's running out. In Chapter 11 Humbert imagines going out to the lake with mother and daughter and "at some appropriate moment" going to look for his wrist watch (a reminder of time again) or sunglasses and then going "with my nymphet into the wood." He calls this, in a sardonic tone, the "Quest for the Glasses" that turns into a "quiet little orgy." Sunglasses are primarily connected with doubling, the connection between Annabel and Lolita. The glasses connect Humbert's two great loves across time and space.

In Lolita what does Humbert reveal about himself when he discusses the kind of person who can tell the difference between a true "nymphet" and a pretty young girl?

Humbert writes that "you have to be an artist and a madman" and someone acquainted with melancholy to tell a "little deadly demon" from other girls of the same age. He says that nymphets are not necessarily the same as other little girls but have attributes that "despair and shame and tears of tenderness" forbid him to mention. Humbert says that other children do not see her as a nymphet; she herself is "unconscious" of her "fantastic power." It's clear from this response that Humbert sees himself dramatically; it's equally clear that that he is proud of his own sadness and the "hot poison" in his body. His careful construction of the effect that nymphets have on people like him allows Humbert to explain away his role as predator and to place the blame for what follows, at least partially, on the victim.

What is striking about the names and works listed in the book Who's Who in the Limelight that Humbert finds at the end of Chapter 8 of Lolita?

Who's Who in the Limelight is another one of Nabokov's imaginary texts within the novel that provide both a sense of reality and a sense of unreal coincidence. In the text Humbert finds someone called "Clare Quilty" who has written plays about children, and one, repeated twice, is called Little Nymph. Also someone who has Lolita's real name, Dolores, has "disappeared" since she was in a play called Never Talk to Strangers. (Since Humbert is transcribing the entries from memory, he admits that writing "disappeared" instead of "appeared" was "a slip of my pen.") These titles and names foreshadow events to come in the novel.

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