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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In the novel Lolita how does Humbert's relationship to Lolita resemble Charlotte's relationship to Dolores?

Humbert is not a very attentive father—at least, not in the right way. He does not pay attention to the play Lolita is in, The Enchanted Hunters. He is only interested in the friends he sees as "nymphets." He chooses her school partly because he can look at nymphets on the playground through his binoculars. When the headmistress, Miss Pratt, calls him in to discuss Lolita's status as a student, he is mostly interested in not being caught as a child molester. He is frustrated by Lolita: he even says, "Charlotte, I began to understand you!" Like Charlotte he is overly strict and yet essentially uninterested in Lolita. While Charlotte seems jealous of "Lo" as a potential rival, Humbert seems jealous of her growing individuality—her assertion of her self over his construction of "Lolita." He had earlier thought that Charlotte talked about Lolita as if she were a servant; yet now Lolita is, essentially, his slave.

What is the effect of the varied kinds of figurative language and wordplay found in Lolita?

The novel is full of puns, foreshadowing, literary allusions, clichés, wordplay, French, and American slang from the 1950s. It contains parodies of certain kinds of language, like the parody of academic writing in the foreword, the parodies of tough-guy detective and mystery novels that occasionally occur when Humbert is chasing Quilty in Part 2 (see the moody paragraph early in Chapter 35), and Humbert's continual high-flown romantic language, which in some cases becomes so over-the-top as to be parodic itself. Literary allusions include quotations and near-quotations from Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" and imitations of T.S. Eliot, like the poem Humbert makes Quilty read aloud, an imitation of "Ash-Wednesday." There are puns, like the parenting book Humbert reads, Know Your Own Daughter. There is wordplay in many place and character names; for example, Dolores, Lolita's real name, means "pain or sorrow." We know that Nabokov studied American slang assiduously as he wrote the book, listening to his son's friends, and Lolita's talk is evidence of this: she uses the words swank and fast, for example, as well as the phrase big shot. Nabokov has created a great work in which language of many kinds enfolds readers in a "haze" making them question what is true and real, right and wrong. Humbert comes close to clichés then backs off from them; he uses gorgeous poetic language that doubles back on itself reflexively and contrasts sharply with the pedantic, academic language of the foreword or of Miss Pratt. The book is in part about language, about what it can do. After all it is a novel about the ugliest, most despicable acts, written in beautifully controlled language. Nabokov forces readers to wonder whether the language of a pedophile will win over a jury or whether a writer can turn a sordid tale into high art.

What is the significance of the focus on games in the novel Lolita?

There are many games in the novel Lolita—Humbert's games of chess with Gaston Godin, the tennis games Humbert tries to teach Lolita, the games he watches children play and keeps Lolita from, as well as the hide-and-seek game with Quilty that they play in Part 2 of the novel. At one point Humbert says, "I suppose I am especially susceptible to the magic of games." In the novel games are both playful, childish fun and ways to manipulate people and hide from reality. Lolita's love of games reminds us that she's a child who needs entertaining. Gaston Godin and Humbert use games in a more grown-up way: they never talk about their shared sexual perversity; they play chess instead. Humbert uses games as manipulation, teaching Lolita tennis as if she were his real daughter. Humbert and Lolita play hide-and-seek with Quilty, a dangerous man. Humbert sees the world as a kind of cynical game—he plays games of a sort with his psychiatrists, with his wives, and with Lolita. Even the murder of Quilty is presented as a type of slapstick game. This use of games serves to underline both Humbert's cynical worldview and the innocence of Lolita in the early parts of the novel.

What is the significance of Lolita's seduction of Humbert at the end of Part 2, Chapter 14 in Lolita?

At the end of Part 2, Chapter 14 Lolita asks Humbert to carry her upstairs, saying, "I feel sort of romantic tonight." This seduction on Lolita's part is the enactment of a typical romantic scenario, like Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the stairs in the movie Gone with the Wind, and she uses it to dupe Humbert. Nabokov shows that even his narrator—who has so ably manipulated his readers through the skillful deployment of narrative clichés—is susceptible to manipulation by those same clichés. (Humbert has taught Lolita well.) Typically Humbert has to manipulate and bribe Lolita for sex; this is the first time she asks him for it, and he is completely taken in. Through her play-acting, Lolita succeeds in distracting Humbert from her true intentions: she loathes him and is scheming to run away from him.

What are some of the roles that theater plays in Lolita?

Lolita includes many references to theater. Humbert thinks that Lolita has changed in a negative way because of her experiences in the school play. He believes that by indulging her desire to be in the play, "I had, fond fool, suffered her to cultivate deceit." He is not wrong; through her involvement in The Enchanted Hunters she meets Clare Quilty, the playwright, who will be the vehicle for her escape from Humbert. In a broader sense both Humbert and Lolita play roles intended to deceive throughout the novel—Humbert, especially, is trying to persuade his readers by playing the role of an "enchanted traveler" taken in by a "nymphet." To escape from Humbert Lolita "plays" that she is love-struck, having him carry her up the stairs in a lushly romantic set-up. Humbert sees himself as the hero of his own drama; by the end of the novel, his role slips into self-parody. The scene where he murders Quilty reads like a spoof of a gangster movie.

In Lolita how does Lolita's relationship with Humbert Humbert change when they take their second road trip?

On the first road trip Humbert is wholly in charge, controlling both the readers' perceptions of Lolita and also Lolita herself. She speaks only to people Humbert allows her to speak to, and readers only hear snippets of her own language. On the second road trip Lolita is in charge. She secretly arranges contacts with people other than Humbert, contacts so slyly made that Humbert just barely notices her talking to these people. (She speaks to "a girl from Beardsley" and to the man at the gas station; she plays doubles tennis with strangers, and she has explanations for and reassurances about these contacts, which she supplies to Humbert.) She mocks Humbert more often, and readers see longer excerpts of dialogue between the two. The longer the dialogue the more deceived Humbert is: Take for example the scene where Lolita claims she went off to talk to a girl from Beardsley; Lolita's growing autonomy is also evident in her ability to start the car.

In Part 2 Chapter 20 of Lolita how does Lolita's tennis game affect Humbert's understanding of her?

He sees her doing an "absolutely perfect imitation" of tennis form and concludes that if he had not "broken" something in her she would have "the will to win, and would have become a real girl champion." She has the appearance, and only the appearance, of a competitive tennis player. At this point in the novel, with this observation Humbert has created the perfect metaphor for what he has done to Lolita. Only later in the novel will he understand the profound significance of this metaphor: Lolita has learned to play the dual roles of Humbert's lover and of a normal school girl, but both roles are false ones; neither role is real because of Humbert's control over her.

In what ways are the many butterfly references throughout Lolita significant?

Nabokov was a butterfly collector, and some of his finds were significant enough to be added to the collections at Cornell and Harvard. It's not surprising then that butterflies should appear as a symbol in Lolita: Humbert sees butterflies at Camp Q, which are "still alive, safely pinned to the wall." The name Lepingville, where Humbert shops for Lolita the morning after he rapes her, sounds like lepping—lepidopterists' slang for butterfly hunting. A butterfly passes between Humbert and Lolita as they are playing tennis: "An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us." The only way to preserve a butterfly's fragile beauty is to trap and kill it—which, in some ways, is what Humbert is trying to do with Lolita, to stop her growth, to keep her young, thus preserving in her the kind of beauty only "nymphets" can possess. Humbert wants to stop time, to prevent growth; but paradoxically, stopping growth brings death.

How do the appearances of Clare Quilty throughout the second road trip in Lolita correspond to Humbert's mental state?

As Humbert becomes convinced he is being followed by a man in a red convertible who resembles his cousin, he becomes increasingly paranoid; he cannot comprehend the intrusion of this shadow. Clare Quilty can be found, unidentified, in these different sections: Part 2, Chapter 18: Humbert Humbert first notices that an "Aztec Red Convertible" has been following them, but he doesn't yet know that Quilty is the driver. Humbert and Lolita glimpse Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom at the playhouse in Wace, where they are watching a play Quilty has written; Lolita obfuscates the situation by claiming Quilty is the woman and Vivian is the man. Part 2, Chapter 19: Lolita has probably spoken to Quilty in Wace, and Humbert has part of his license plate number; in that same chapter Humbert sees Quilty in a Dominion Blue sedan, and it stops behind them on a mountain pass between Snow and Champion. Part 2, Chapter 21: He is probably the man playing tennis with Lolita, who runs away. Part 2, Chapter 22: He is Lolita's "uncle," Mr. Gustave, who takes her out of the hospital. It's hard to say whether Quilty is a cause or an effect of Humbert's increasing paranoia. In the past he has identified McFate as a force that brings his imaginings to life. Following that logic Quilty is a manifestation of Humbert's guilt. He is the basest part of Humbert, coming to steal Lolita from his aesthetically perfect, solipsistic world.

What evidence supports the view that Lolita can be seen as a comment on the relationship between Europe and America, especially during the 1950s?

The character Lolita is young and rootless; like America she has only a short history and does not seem to care much about it. Readers do not often see her yearning for her mother or her home in Ramsdale, for example. She's attracted to new forms of popular art—advertisements, magazines, and movies. In fact she is attracted to whatever is new, which partially explains her precocity. On the other hand the character Humbert, the European, wants to move back into the past, to the perfection of his love with Annabel on the Riviera. Part of his attraction to Lolita is that she reminds him of Annabel. Furthermore while Lolita is provincial (she has only lived in small towns), Humbert is cultured and sophisticated. He cares about art, associates himself with the cultural achievements of old Europe, and despises popular culture and middle-class conventionality.

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