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Lolita on Page and Screen
In class tomorrow, we'll be looking at a few scenes from the two movies
(each notorious in its own right) that have been made of Lolita:
Kubrick's 1962 film and Adrian
Lyne's 1997 version, as well as (I hope) devoting a bit of time
to the further discussion of the plot, suspense, romantic and ludic
elements of the novel. I'll be interested to hear from you (online or
in class) about how you're enjoying Part Two (and why). N.B.: I will
also be asking you to fill out class evaluations tomorrow, soin
the interests of the continued health of the Core Curriculumplease
make every effort to be in class. Your comments on the written part
of the evaluation are read carefully by the Director of the Core Curriculum,
although I can't vouch for the bubble-form portion (which goes straight
to the Deans).
Study Questions (optional)
The following study questions are largely taken from a Random
House website devoted to Lolita, with my own additions, emendations,
and general editing. Normally I don't find other people's study questions
very usefulthey often seem pitched rather below your levelbut
these are quite good, I think. I am still trying to preserve the mystery
of "what happens at the end" for those of you who haven't
read all the way through yet, so I've left a few of the Random House
questions outand in your online discussion, those of you who have
read the book before, please try to limit yourself to discussing the
plot through p.247 only!
Humbert's confession is written
[as all of you have noted] in an extraordinary language. It is by
turns colloquial and archaic, erudite and stilted, florid and sardonic.
It is studded with French expressions, puns in several other languages,
and allusions to authors from Petrarch to Joyce. Is this language
merely an extension of Nabokov's ownwhich the critic Michael
Wood describes as "a fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of
or is Humbert's
language appropriate to his circumstances and motives? In what way
does it obfuscate as much as it reveals? And if Humbert's prose is
indeed a veil, at what points is this veil lifted and what do we glimpse
Humbert attributes his "nympholepsy" to
his tragically aborted childhood romance with Annabel Leigh. How far
can we trust this explanation? How do we reconcile Humbert's reliance
on the Freudian theory of psychic trauma with his corrosive disdain
In the early stages of his obsession Humbert sees
Lolita merely as a new incarnation of Annabel, even making love to
her on different beaches as he tries to symbolically consummate his
earlier passion. In what other ways does Humbert remain a prisoner
of the past? Does he ever succeed in escaping it? What is Lolita's
relationship to her own past, and how does it compare to Humbert's?
How does Humbert's marriage to Valeria foreshadow
his relationships with both Charlotte and Lolita? How does the revelation
of Valeria's infidelity prepare us for Lolita's? Why does Humbert
respond so differently to these betrayals?
Humbert Humbert is an émigré. Not
only has he left Europe for America, but in the course of Lolita he
becomes an erotic refugee, fleeing the stability of Ramsdale and Beardsley
for a life in motel rooms and highway rest stops. How does this fact
shape his responses to his environment (including other characters)
and its responses to him? To what extent is the America of Lolita
an exile's America? What is his America like? Is it possible to see
Lolita as Nabokov's veiled meditation on his own exile? Does
the novel change your awareness of your own perspective on America?
We also learn that Humbert is madmad enough,
at least, to have been committed to several mental institutions, where
he took great pleasure in misleading his psychiatrists. How does this
colour our reception of his narrative? How reliable do you find him,
as a narrator?
What makes Charlotte Haze so repugnant to Humbert?
Does the author appear to share Humbert's antagonism? Does he ever
seem to criticize it?
To describe Lolita and other alluring young girls,
Humbert coins the word "nymphet." The word has two derivations:
the first from the Greek and Roman nature spirits, who were usually
pictured as beautiful maidens dwelling in mountains, waters, and forests;
the second from the entomologist's term for the young of an insect
undergoing incomplete metamorphosis. Note the book's numerous allusions
to fairy tales and spells; the proliferation of names like "Elphinstone,"
"Pisky," and "The Enchanted Hunters," as well
as Humbert's repeated sightings of moths and butterflies. Also note
that Nabokov was a passionate lepidopterist, who identified and named
at least one new species of butterfly. How does the character of Lolita
combine mythology and entomology? In what ways does Lolita resemble
both an elf and an insect? What are some of this novel's themes of
enchantment and metamorphosis as they apply both to Lolita and Humbert,
and perhaps to the reader as well?
Before Humbert actually beds his nymphet, there
is an extraordinary scene, at once rhapsodic, repulsive, and hilarious,
in which Humbert excites himself to sexual climax while a (presumably)
unaware Lolita wriggles in his lap. How is this scene representative
of their ensuing relationship? What is the meaning of the sentence
"Lolita had been safely solipsized" [p. 60], "solipsism"
being the epistemological theory that the self is the sole arbiter
Does Humbert "really love" Lolita? Does
he ever perceive her as a separate being? Is the reader ever permitted
to see her in ways that Humbert can/does not?
Humbert meets Lolita while she resides at 342 Lawn
Street, seduces her in room 342 of The Enchanted Hunters, and in one
year on the road the two of them check into 342 motels. These are
just a few of the coincidences that make Lolita so profoundly unsettling.
Why might Nabokov deploy coincidence so liberally in this book? Does
he use it as a convenient way of advancing plot or in order to call
the entire notion of a "realistic" narrative into question?
How do Nabokov's games of coincidence tie in with his use of literary
allusion and self-reference ?
A related questions: Having plotted Charlotte's
murder and failed to carry it out, Humbert is rid of her by means
of a bizarre, and bizarrely fortuitous, accident. Is this the only
time that fate makes a spectacular intrusion on Humbert's behalf?
Are there occasions when fate conspires to thwart him? Is the fate
that operates in this novela fate so preposterously hyperactive
that Humbert gives it a nameactually an extension of Humbert's
will, perhaps of his unconscious will? Is Humbert in a sense guilty
of Charlotte's death? Discuss the broader questions of fate and culpability
as they resonate throughout the novel [in a Dostoevskian manner that
many of you have already commented on...]..
If we accept Humbert at his word, Lolita initiates
their first sexual encounter, seducing him after he has failed at
violating her in her sleep. Yet later Humbert admits that Lolita sobbed
in the night"every night, every nightthe moment I
feigned sleep" [p. 176]. Should we read this reversal psychologically:
that what began as a game for Lolita has now become a terrible and
inescapable reality? Or has Humbert been lying to us from the first?
What is the true nature of the crimes committed against Lolita? Does
Humbert ever genuinely repent them, or is even his remorse a sham?
Does Lolita forgive Humbert or only forget him?
Humbert is not only Lolita's debaucher but her stepfather
and, after Charlotte's death, the closest thing she has to a parent.
What kind of parent is he? How different is his style of parenting
As previously mentioned, Lolita abounds with games
the games Humbert plays with his psychiatrists, his games of chess
with Gaston Godin, the transcontinental games of tag and hide-and-go-seek
that "Trapp" plays with Humbert, and (still to come) the
slapstick game of the murder. There is Humbert's poignant outburst,
"I have only words to play with!" [p. 32]. In what way does
this novel itself resemble a vast and intricate game, a game played
with words? Is Nabokov playing with his readers or against them? How
does such an interpretation alter your experience of Lolita? Do its
detract from its emotional
seriousness or actually heighten it?
Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts:
Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1995, p. 5.