Introduction to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

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First edition of "Lolita"

Welcome to Introduction to Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita".

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov is one of his most famous and successful novels. It was written in English and first published as a two-volume edition in 1955 in Paris. It was published in 1958 in the United States and in 1959 in England. "Lolita" is not only an acclaimed classic and one of the best literary works written in the 20th century, but also definitely one of the most controversial and most misunderstood novels of all times.

Course summary[edit | edit source]

This course is intended to provide help for students studying the novel "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov. The project's aim is to create a framework for further analysis of the story, characters or themes from the book. It presents information about Nabokov's biography, his writing style and his novels, written both in Russian and English. Later, the history of "Lolita"'s publication and its reception are introduced. The course may also serve as an introduction to other works written by Nabokov.

Learning goals[edit | edit source]

At the end of this course, students should:

  • know basic facts about Vladimir Nabokov and his novel "Lolita"
  • be aware of numerous allusions made in the novel
  • be able to analyse fragments of literary texts
  • be prepared for further analysis of "Lolita" and other Nabokov's books

Learning materials[edit | edit source]

Basic information[edit | edit source]

Biography of the author[edit | edit source]

Monument of Vladimir Navokov in Montreux

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 22 April 1899 (10 April 1899 Old Style) and died in Montreux, Switzerland on 2 July 1977. He was a Russian-American novelist, poet, translator, scholar, critic and lepidopterist. After he had fleed Russia in 1919, he studied Russian and French literature at Trinity College, Cambridge. Then he lived in Berlin and Paris. In 1940 he moved to the United States where he achieved renown as a writer. He taught literature at Wellesley College and Cornell University. After an enormous financial success of his novel "Lolita", which was published in 1955, Nabokov was able to abandon teaching and devote himself entirely to writing. To do so, he decided to return to Europe and in 1961 he moved to Montreux, where he died in 1977. Vladimir Nabokov is considered to be one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century thanks to his distinctive elaborate prose style and extraordinary usage of English. If you want to learn more about Vladimir Nabokov's biography click here.

Nabokov's novels[edit | edit source]

During his life Nabokov wrote eight novels in Russian and eight in English (the ninth one is unfinished).

Russian novels:

English novels:

Characteristics of Nabokov's style[edit | edit source]

Vladimir Nabokov is famous for his ornamental prose style, challenging metaphors, brilliant word play and ability of creating texts which are both parodic and intensely lyrical at the same time. "Lolita", his most notable novel, serves as a great example of his artistry and talent. Let's focus on four main stylistic devices used in "Lolita". They are[1]:

Publication and reception[edit | edit source]

Analysis of the book[edit | edit source]

"Lolita" in popculture[edit | edit source]

Lana del Rey, New York City, 2011

"Lolita" is a book which immediately entered audience's consiousness after its publication in the fifties. It has interested, inspired and intrigued people since that time to the prestent. Therefore, it is not surprising that allusions to "Lolita" in popculture are frequent and numerous. Let's see the examples below:

"Lolita" in popular music[edit | edit source]

  • "Moi… Lolita'" - Alizée (watch the music video here)
  • "One of the boys" - Katy Perry (watch the life performance here)
  • "Lolita" - Lana del Rey (you can watch an amateur music video here)
  • "Off to the Races" - Lana del Rey, where she quotes "Lolita"'s opening sentence: "Light of my life, fire of my loins"[2]

Film adaptations of "Lolita"[edit | edit source]

  • Stanley Kubrick's adaptation (1962) - you can watch it here
  • Adrian Lyne's adaptation (1997) - you can watch it here

Activities for the students[edit | edit source]

This subsection includes activities for the students of this course; most of them are suitable tools for self-study. However, in this subsection you can also find some classroom activities which require teamwork. If you are a student who is currently discussing "Lolita" at school, you can suggest doing them in your class with other students. If you are a teacher, you can use them as teaching materials in your lessons.

Task 1[edit | edit source]

Taking into consideration what you have learnt during the course (especially about characteristics of Nabokov's style) try to analyse the given passage from Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita":

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

While analysing the fragment, consider:

  • stylistic devices used
  • type of narration
  • what we learn from the fragment about the narrator and what we learn about Lolita

Task 2[edit | edit source]

Please watch one of the film adaptations of "Lolita" and answer the questions below:

  1. How the main characters are presented in the book and in the film? What are the differences between them Lolita (or Humbert) from the book and Lolita (or Humbert) from the film?
  2. Why the directors decided to avoid presenting some scenes in their adaptations? Are there any fragments in the book you consider difficult (or improper) to present on the screen?
  3. Film vs. book. Which one you liked more? Why?

Classroom activities[edit | edit source]

NOTE: These are activities which require teamwork. If you are doing self-study, please skip these tasks. However, if you have the opportunity to work in a bigger group of students, you should definitely try them out. The tasks may also serve as a help for the teachers.

Go to court. Choose people who will play the roles of Humbert, Lolita, Humbert’s and Lolita’s lawyers, the judge, the jury, the witnesses and open the trial. Together decide who is the victim in "Lolita".

Discussion. Discuss together the morality of the book. Is it demoralizing? Should people feel offended by it? Does it have an impact on readers and on the society? If does so, what kind of impact it is?

Topics for essays[edit | edit source]

  1. Analyse and compare characters of Humbert and Quilty. Are they doubles? Are they similar or completey different? What role does Quilty play in the novel?
  2. Analyse the genre of the novel. Do you agree with Nabokov's statement that "Lolita" is a tragedy?
  3. Lolita - was she a temptress or a victim?

Quizzes[edit | edit source]

Do you want to check whether you remember important facts from the plot? Or maybe you need more revision? Take the quiz!

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Lokrantz, Jessie Thomas. The Underside of the Weave: Some Stylistic Devices Used by Vladimir Nabokov. Uppsala. Doctoral dissertation at Uppsala University, 1973. Print