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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Lolita is many things: a tragedy, comedy, detective story, and love letter to language. Known for his intricate writing style, Vladimir Nabokov indulges in word play, creates one of the the most unreliable narrators in literature, and takes readers on a cross-country journey that is at once horrifying and lyrical. Beyond that, however, Nabokov develops a character in Humbert Humbert for whom the reader can't help but feel fascination—though he is a child molester.

Banned in countries around the world, the novel wasn't published in the United States until 1958, some five years after Nabokov had finished the manuscript. Today Lolita still creates controversy. It's a tale one reviewer called "one of the most beautiful love stories you'll ever read," while others still find it shocking and appalling.

1. Nabokov almost burned the manuscript of Lolita.

Tortured by uncertainty, Nabokov was only stopped from setting fire to his manuscript by his wife. He describes the scene:

One day in 1950, at Ithaca, New York, she was responsible for stopping me and urging delay and second thoughts as, beset with technical difficulties and doubts, I was carrying the first chapters of Lolita to the garden incinerator.

2. American publishers told Nabokov he'd be sent to jail if Lolita was published.

Upon finishing Lolita in 1953, Nabokov sent it to five American publishers: Viking; Simon & Schuster; New Directions; Farrar, Straus; and Doubleday. He also submitted it to The New Yorker. The editor at Viking said that anyone who published the book risked a fine or jail, and Nabokov's editor at The New Yorker claimed the book made her "thoroughly miserable." It was finally published in 1955 in France; its American publication didn't come until three years later.

3. Nabokov purposely wanted readers to feel empathy for the novel's sexual predator.

While it seems that most readers would easily condemn Humbert Humbert—a character guilty of child molestation and murder—Nabokov denies them this moral stance and demands instead a kind of empathy for a social monster. Author and NPR contributor Bret Anthony Johnston suggests, "Readers always read ... [to find] another soul on the page ... in addition to finding Humbert's soul on the page, we also find, like it or not, a little of our own."

4. Lolita has been banned in at least nine countries.

Number 3 on Time magazine's Top Ten Censored Books list, Lolita was banned for a time in at least France, England, Argentina, Australia, Burma, Belgium, Austria, New Zealand, and South Africa. It was also banned in many communities in the United States, including Cincinnati, Ohio, which rejected it a week before it hit the best-seller list.

5. Nabokov chose the names of his main characters because of how they sounded.

In an interview, Nabokov claimed that the name Lolita has "a lyrical lilt to it," that the "most limpid and luminous letter is l," and that "-ita [has] a lot of Latin tenderness." About Humbert Humbert's name, he said that "the double rumble" of it is "very nasty, very suggestive."

6. Nabokov wrote himself into the novel—and was almost in the 1962 film.

The character of Vivian Darkbloom in Lolita is an anagram for Vladmir Nabokov, and her looks—described as "hawklike, black-haired, strikingly tall"—are similar to the author's. In the film, the screenplay included a cameo role for Nabokov, but that scene was never filmed.

7. Nabokov had mixed feelings about the 1962 film adaptation of Lolita.

About the movie—for which he wrote the screenplay—Nabokov said, "the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during the six months I worked in a Los Angeles villa." But he also had positive words, saying, "I thought the movie was absolutely first-rate. The four main actors deserve the very highest praise."

8. The 1962 film adaptation was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

In 1962 the Catholic Legion of Decency, which rated films for Catholic viewers, condemned the film. This was a problem for director Stanley Kubrick, whose contract demanded that the legion accept his work. He cut several scenes, and the film was limited to viewers 18 and older. Ultimately, the Legion put the film in a separate category from other movies, warning that it should be restricted to "mature audiences."

9. Two reviews of Lolita in the New York Times contradicted one another.

Writing for the Times in 1958, book critic Orville Prescott stated:

There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.

And a day later in the Sunday Times, author and critic Elizabeth Janeway, said:

This is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year.

10. During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy suggested a reader cover it in brown paper.

Actress Shelley Winters, who played Lolita's mother Charlotte in the 1962 film, was campaigning for John F. Kennedy while she was being considered for the part. When Kennedy saw her reading the novel in preparation, he laughed and sent an aide over to suggest that she cover it in brown paper in public places.

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