Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Lolita what is the difference between Humbert's interpretation of his first fully sexual encounter with Lolita (in The Enchanted Hunters hotel) and Lolita's interpretation of that same encounter?

In his telling of the story Humbert suggests that Lolita seduced him. She takes him in her hand, seeming fully in control of the situation. The tables soon turn, however, and Humbert slips up when he says Lolita is taken aback by "certain discrepancies between a kid's life and mine," suggesting she thought sex was an act that fell short of penetration. Later, in Chapter 13 of Part 2 where the reader begins to see events more in the way that Lolita must have perceived them, Lolita asks if the Enchanted Hunters is the name of "the hotel where you raped me." Humbert tries to persuade the reader, and himself, that the encounter was not completely inappropriate. ("I was not even her first lover.") Later we see that in Lolita's view she was raped; and certainly in the eyes of the law, she was.

What is the significance of Part 1, Chapter 33 in Lolita?

In this very brief chapter we see Humbert's heartlessness. We see how he focuses on the "gay town of Lepingville" right after he has told Lolita, in Chapter 32, that her mother is dead; we see how he showers her with trappings of the consumer culture, thinking that all of these objects—clothes, sports equipment, comics, sanitary pads—will somehow soothe or placate her. For some reason he gives her a separate room in this hotel, but she comes in sobbing to him in the middle of the night. What seems to be important to Humbert is not her sorrow but how he and she "made it up very gently." The words that end this short chapter, "she had absolutely nowhere else to go," are significant not only for their melancholy but also because in Part 2 of the novel, Lolita and Humbert will be "going" most of the time. Lolita will be trapped, and neither she nor Humbert will be getting anywhere.

How does Humbert's attitude toward Lolita begin to change in the first chapter of Part 2 of Lolita?

Humbert is disappointed by the real girl Lolita is. He finds her exasperating, disorganized, and conventional. He bemoans her enthrallment with the popular culture he disdains. He feels she has "cultivated" an attitude of boredom, conveniently overlooking the similarity in appearance between boredom and despair. He disparages the treats and trinkets she sees in advertisements and then avidly consumes, never making the connection that such tokens may make her abnormal situation feel somewhat normal. He complains that he had to give each day a destination of interest in order "for her to survive till bedtime." He sees these demands as a sign of her growing brattiness, not as a desperate need to distract herself from the horror that her life has become.

In Part 2, Chapter 2 of Lolita how does Humbert manipulate Lolita into staying with him, and how do his actions undermine his view of himself as an enchanted hunter?

He says that he wants to protect her, that he is the "therapist" and that Charlie Holmes was "the rapist" (a very Nabokovian play on words). He says that he is her father, and that Sicilians accept sex between a father and daughter as "a matter of course." He also tells her that no one will believe her if she tells anyone he raped her, and that she will be sent to a correctional school or a reformatory in a "dirty dormitory" under the care of "hideous matrons." In short Humbert threatens Lolita with a form of jail if she tries to leave him. He convinces her of her complicity in his crime. He lies to her. He also watches her constantly, trying to keep her isolated, away from other people. Humbert's manipulations show how in control he is and are hardly the actions of someone who is under a spell—someone who is "enchanted." The phrase enchanted hunter is romanticizing what Humbert really is—an obsessed, terrorizing kidnapper. The fact that he has to manipulate and lie to Lolita to keep her with him suggests that neither Humbert nor Lolita is really "enchanted." Seeing himself as enchanted allows him to think of himself as a victim of Lolita's beauty. But Lolita, not Humbert, is the victim here, much as Humbert tries to hide that fact. In spite of his admission that he has basically "terrorized" her into submission, Humbert, in this section, wonders that she is in a bad mood.

In what ways is Lolita, a book about the United States written by a Russian émigré who grew up in Europe, a very American book?

Lolita can be considered an American book in many ways. First it parodies American literary genres—the Western (in a gunfight like the one Quilty and Humbert have), the detective novel (when Detective Trapp follows Lolita and Humbert and then when Humbert plays detective himself, finding clues about Quilty in hotels), the romance, and the road novel. Second Nabokov includes allusions to American literature—primarily to Edgar Allan Poe. Third Lolita provides a detailed description of American roadside culture of the 1950s. Fourth it continues a tradition of American literature—the flight from the city to the freedom of the country or the flight from constricting civilization out to the wilds of nature—as in, for example, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

How does the novel Lolita compare and contrast to the novel The Catcher in the Rye?

J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye is, like Lolita, told in the first person by a white male. The Catcher in the Rye is also about someone concerned with the phoniness or the fakeness of middle-class life, someone who is concerned about what traditional institutions do to the people involved in them. Like Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield has an important attachment to a young girl. Both books were published in the 1950s, and both had troubled publishing histories. Most significantly, both books feature unreliable narrators addressing readers from within the walls of institutions (Humbert from jail and then, posthumously, from the desk of a psychiatrist; Holden from a psychiatric ward). Both narrators trace a journey in which they try to escape society's restrictions but end up confined by them.

What is the significance of the line, "We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing" in Part 2, Chapter 3 of Lolita?

Humbert has flashes of insight, periods when he sees beyond the aesthetically pleasing construction he has made of his time with Lolita. In these sentences he is casting his journey in a different light, realizing that in all of their frenetic traveling they have seen nothing, just the insides of dreary motels and hotels. On another level Humbert associates his relationship with Lolita to all of America. Humbert, the old European, knows that he has defiled Lolita—once an innocent, trusting, wide-eyed child—with his depravity, just as their journey "defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country."

In Lolita in what way is Miss Pratt's presentation of the educational philosophy at the Beardsley School for girls a parody?

A parody is defined the imitation of a style exaggerated for humorous effect. Lolita is full of parodies, including the scene with Miss Pratt. Nabokov uses the scene to parody the manner and language that educators often use, particularly in describing a certain kind of private education for girls. As the headmistress of the Beardsley School for girls, Miss Pratt explains that the school is most concerned with "the adjustment of the child to group life." The school focuses on Dramatics, Dance, Debating, and Dating—an absurd juxtaposition of lofty and limited goals. They are more interested in "communication than in composition," and they don't think Shakespeare or book learning are important. Of course this philosophy goes directly against Humbert's values as the product of an elite education.

In what ways are Gaston Godin and Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita similar and different?

Humbert is like Gaston in that they are both European émigrés to the United States, both teachers and academics, both chess players, both interested in art and literature, and both sexually obsessed with children. In these ways Gaston is a sort of double of Humbert. Gaston's first and last names even start with the same letter, just as Humbert's do. Although Gaston's involvement with children is suspicious, he seems to belong to the community of Beardsley and to be appreciated by the people there—unlike Humbert. However, Humbert looks down on Gaston, calling him "a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar." Humbert's disdain for Gaston may stem from resentment; Gaston is beloved while Humbert is viewed with suspicion. Gaston shares Humbert's attraction to children but not Humbert's "brutal" good looks, which may make the latter seem more of a threat to the parents in a community centered on schoolchildren.

In what ways is the pedophile character of Humbert Humbert in Lolita sympathetic, charming, and even likable?

Nabokov probably did not want either of his main characters to be simple or one-dimensional. Humbert is a complicated character, clearly mentally troubled and morally corrupt in multiple ways, as well as clearly an intelligent, sensitive, and a thoughtful lover of beauty. If readers of Lolita can be persuaded or seduced into empathizing with Humbert through his use of language, then they are in some ways complicit with him. Like Humbert they are guilty of "solipsizing" or "cancelling" Lolita. Through this complicity Nabokov reveals the power of language to persuade or seduce. Nabokov demonstrates to readers the complexity of human character—not only Humbert's but their own.

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