Lolita Historical Context

Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ has since its publication been regarded as one of the finest books in the English language. Lolita’s lack of clear, objective moral stance and the paradox that marries Humbert’s aesthetically pleasing, persuasive writing with his evil acts have continued to both confuse, shock, and astound readers to this day.

Lolita’s post-modernist focus on the subjective experience, maximalist writing, intertextuality, and the cautionary but masterful display of the powers of language to enchant has opened the literary world to a form of artistic expression that defied contemporary norms and expectations.

The maximalist writing, intertextuality, and meta-fiction are hallmarks of the post-modernist idea that literature should contain a more fluid, organic creation that was interconnected with other media rather than being a fixed work of art. In refraining from adopting a strong, clear objective moral position in favor of presenting Humbert’s subjective experience, Nabokov signals his subscription to the post-modernist emphasis on the fragmentary nature of the human experience.

Lolita Historical Context



Publication and Legacy

Nabokov finished writing Lolita on December 6, 1953. He initially proposed to publish the novel under a pseudonym but was discouraged by publishers. Fearful that the book may be banned due to its controversial subject, several publishers that Nabokov pitched the book to refused to take on the project.

However, Nabokov was able to publish the book under Olympia press, a French company, in September 1955. Nabokov did not realize that his book was being published because of its erotic contents, as Olympia press specialized in publishing erotica. The book was given some attention when Graham Greene named it as one of the best books of 1955, in the Christmas edition of the London Sunday Times. The review attracted criticism from critics, some of whom reduced Lolita to “pornography” and denounced it as an obscene and filthy work. However critical opinion gradually shifted and when the Novel was published in the United States by Putnam on August 18, 1958, most of the reviews were positive.

The book sold over a million copies within a month and stayed at the top of the best sellers list for seven weeks. The name Lolita has become synonymous with a sexualized child, while Nabokov’s book sparked discussions about the sexualization and fetishization of children and women in general.

Nabokov himself undertook the translation of Lolita to Russian in 1967, feeling that another person might mistranslate several complicated parts of the book. Nabokov made a number of additions to the translation to help Russian readers better understand some of his allusions. His translation received mixed reviews; While some saw it as stilted, others praised it as a work of perfection.

The severity of Humbert Humbert’s crimes is still being debated, with critics and commentators disagreeing on how best to characterize his sexual acts with Lolita. Lolita continues to be a focal point for discussions about the place of taboo in literature. Both the book and film adaptations have sparked conversations about the sexual objectification of underaged children in the media.

Stanley Kubrick directed the first movie adaptation of Lolita in 1962, although he made significant changes to the plot script Nabokov himself co-wrote. The film starred James Mason, Sue Lyons, and Peter Sellers and was generally well-received, despite garnering flak for its darkly comical treatment of pedophilia.  Adrian Lyne directed the second adaptation of Lolita in 1997, starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, and Frank Langella. The film attracted criticism after it featured sex involving an underaged Swain.

Lolita has been included in several lists of best books, such as Time‘s List of the 100 Best Novels, Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century, Bokklubben World Library, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, and The Big Read. Lolita has not only found literary acclaim, but it has also claimed a large share of scholarly appraisals on Nabokov’s art. In 2008, Zoran Kuzmanovich noted that one-fifth of the approximately 2500 scholarly pieces written on Nabokov was focused on Lolita.

Lolita has featured heavily in pop culture, with artists like Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey making references to the titular character in their music. Lolita has also inspired several musical adaptations, ballets, stage adaptations, an opera, spin-off novels, fashion subcultures, and memorabilia.

Critical Responses

Since its publication, Lolita has spurned hundreds of critical responses. These publications, essays, and reviews form part of a long-running debate about themes in the book. While some had dismissed Lolita as obscene pornography or immoral work, an opposite view that sees the book as a moral tragedy has come to dominate. Critics have also debated on Nabokov’s purpose in writing the book, disagreeing on how much he was motivated by stylistic or didactic motivations. The character Lolita has been dissected to discover how innocent she truly was, and Humbert’s seeming repentance at the end has sparked debate about how genuine it really was and how much it should redeem the character.

Feminist readings of the novel have criticized seemingly masculinist reflections that adopted Humbert’s framing of Lolita and follow that character’s habit of overlooking Lolita’s suffering, and newer perspectives seem to uncover a metaphysical purpose to Nabokov’s writing that reimagines characters like Charlotte for instance as a haunting supernatural presence that contributes in directing Humbert’s fate. Other literary excavators have utilized seeming discrepancies in dating within the work to hypothesize that certain critical parts of the book like Humbert’s visit to Dolly, and the killing of Quilty might have really been Humbert’s creative fabrications.

Lolita‘s Screenplay

Having acquired the film rights for Lolita, Stanley Kubrick and James Harris offered Nabokov the chance to write the film’s screenplay in 1959. Nabokov refused the offer, being unwilling to make the alterations to his novel that the producers demanded. However, he regretted this decision and when he was offered a second chance to take the offer in January 1960, he took it.

After several revisions that trimmed the screenplay to standard movie length, Nabokov finally submitted a version that Kubrick approved. After the film was released, Nabokov was surprised by how much Kubrick altered his work. The screenplay began with Humbert’s murder of Quilty and seemed to emphasize Humbert’s status as a murderer more than a pedophile. Nabokov would describe the film as “first-rate” in public, although he described the experience of seeing the film in private as equivalent to a “scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance”.

About Israel Njoku
Israel has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication. He loves entertainment, pop-culture and the arts and tries to extract themes with wider reaching implications from them through rigorous analysis.
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