What happens to Nabokov's Lolita?

Untersuchung der Rezeptionsgeschichte des 'Lolita'-Begriffes in kulturellen Produktionen der Hoch- und Populärkultur

Term Paper 2011 16 Pages

Literature - Modern Literature


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Who is Nabokov's Lolita?

2.1 Aim, Problems and Method

2.2 Approximation on Lolita

3. What happens to Nabov's Lolita?

3.1 TheoreticalBasis

3.2 Alizee:“Moi...Lolita”

3.3 Rodion Shchedrin: Lolita

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Vladimir Nabokov's famous Novel ‘Lolita’ gives many opportunities to approximate. It is a work with a lot of facets and opportunities to interpret. In the majority of cases you will find this (hidden) facets and ways of approximation just if you are re-reading the Novel. This is the danger of Nabokov's masterpiece. He has a lot of fun playing with the reader and let him think of references to other pieces of literature and art.1 In addition to that he plays with the perspective of narration. He lets his Novel being introduced by a Doctor of Philosophy, John Ray, Jr. His main narrator is Humbert Humbert a French Scholar for Literature and the afterword he is writing as himself.

Already for that reasons - there could be a list of several more - one can imagine, that the reception of this Novel is also varies a lot. Though, this paperwork will focus on the reception of the image of Lolita. In the everyday speech it is common to call girls who dress themselves up in a seductive but also childish and innocent way ‘Lolita’. Rarely the history of origin or the root of this appellation is questioned. Not everybody knows that there does exist a book entitled ‘Lolita’ but just very few are conscious about the fact that this Novel is the origin of the appellation. The image of a Lolita became independent from the Novel.

This paperwork will now focus on a special effect. It will show two different examples which are both dealing with an explicit adaptation of Nabokov's Novel. They are both aware of the origin of Lolita, but they are adapting in a very diverse style. The popular-culture adaptation, the pop-song ‘Moi...Lolita’ by French-singer Alizée, will show how the image of a Lolita as a seductive girl-child is demonstrated and becomes manifest. On the other hand shows the second example, the opera ‘Lolita’ by Rodion Shchedrin, a much differentiated picture of Lolita, which reads the Novel very close.

The special effect is also my thesis: The reception of the popular culture, exemplified in the pop-song “Moi...Lolita”, is misreading Nabokov's Novel in consideration of Lolita's Image. In contrast to that the avant-garde culture, exemplified in the opera by Rodion Shchedrin and the staging by Konstanze Lauterbach, is reading the Novel very mindful and is creating in this way a holistic and multilayer picture of Lolita2

To answer this thesis I will analyze the image of Lolita and her relationship to Humbert Humbert in the first step just text-immanent in the chapter “Who is Lolita?”. I will continue with a theoretical excurse to give my thesis a scientific background (chapter 3.1) and to illuminate the problem with some other views. Following I will analyze the two examples (chapter 3.2, 3.3) and come to a conclusion where I will summarize the results and evaluate them (chapter 4).

2. Who is Nabokov's Lolita?

2.1 Aim, Problems and Method

Is she a “disgustingly conventional3 little girl”, who likes “sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth”?4 Is she “Lo (...) standing four feet ten in one sock?” Is she Dolly, or Dolores? Is she “Lo-lee-ta”, a twelve-year-old pre-pubescent girl, who likes to be the “light of life”, the “fire of loins” for grown-up-men?5 Or is she a desperate and innocent child-victim of a mad Professor?

The aim of this chapter is to give an overview about the character of Lolita, how she appears in Nabokov's Novel. It is an attempt to approximate at the complexity of her character and the relationship between her and Humbert Humbert. This should be done very carefully and with mentioning all the problems there are, because both following analysis’s base upon this characterization.

The main problem which occurs is a problem of reliance. This problem is able to keep a whole seminar over a long time very busy and affects the task of this chapter either.

Hence, the reader sees Lolita always through the glasses of Humbert Humbert, the narrator of this novel. The introduction-sentences to this chapter try to illustrate, how Humbert Humbert finds different characterizations to describe ‘his’ Lolita. According to that it is neither possible to rely on Humbert Humbert's description of situations, which are very important to discover and evaluate the behavior of Lolita. For example it is kind of important, if Lolita seduced Humbert Humbert (“I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.”6 ) or if it is more complex and ambivalent.

This question is leading to the choice of methods for this chapter. In a chronological order important scenes between Humbert Humbert and Lolita are mentioned and discussed. It is very important to note every single evidence, which describes a situation out of a different angle. The researcher has to be like a detective in the mind, or the confessions, of Humbert Humbert. Furthermore insightful passages of Humbert Humbert's monologues or thoughts are going to be reviewed. There will be a focus on several “nerves”7 of the Novel, special situations which allow us to get a meaningful insight in her character and her relationship to Humbert Humbert. Lolita's own autonomous voice, who doesn't have one in the novel, who is just talking to us through the voice of Humbert Humbert is tried to be reconstructed in the small frame this paperwork and the competences of the writer allows it.

2.2 Approximation on Lolita

In order to describe the character of Lolita and her relationship to Humbert Humbert it could be helpful to make one step back and to start with Annabel, a thirteen year old half-English, half-Dutch girl, which Humbert Humbert met 25 years before he is meeting Lolita during her summer vacation in a villa near the Hotel of Humbert's father. He describes Annabel as the precursor of Lolita and goes even little further: “In point offact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.”8 The short but sexually intense relationship between young Humbert Humbert and Annabel could be pictured as a stormy pre-pubescent love: “All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.”9 Continuative Humbert Humbert described this love in an emphatic and emotional way: “The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the (...) youngsters of today.”10 So it is not a pure sexual relationship, they are connected on more levels, even on an intellectual level. This unfulfilled love (Annabel died four months later of typhus11 ) “made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of [Humbert’s] youth”12 This description of Humbert's first love situation is valuable for the understanding of Lolita's major antagonist, in the way, that his development on the field of “matters of love” stopped abrupt. His archetype of a counterpart in a relationship between man and woman was built in the relationship with Annabel and he wasn't able to let his values on that score develop and grow, parallel to his progress being an academic adult. He freezes his picture of a love attachment, but he unfortunately abstracted the emphatic component or lost the access to these feelings he showed in his “prototype-relationship” with Annabel; there was just left the physical archetype.13

After finding a copy of his prototype-nymphet named Lolita in a house in Ramsdale, Humbert Humbert went after long observations (“Humbert the spider”), straight to his first stage win: an orgasm triggered by a foot of this girl-child. This first culmination is described by Humbert Humbert like an epiphany: “I had ceased to be Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, beyond the possibilities of retribution. (...) I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”14


1 For example Annabel Leigh, the first Love of Humbert, refers to the poem “Annabel Lee” by Nabokov's favorite poet Edgar Allen Poe.

2 I am aware that this classification in popular culture and avant-garde culture would need a more detailed theoretical background. It would need an own chapter, which is within the frame of this paperwork not possible.

3 I will call Dolores Haze for reasons of contextualization Lolita. As the title of the novel mentions this name as well and both analyzed works (pop song and opera) are dealing with the name Lolita I will follow this “branding”. I can relegate to the work of Lea Irmisch, who is analyzing the use of the different names of Dolores Haze by Humbert Humbert. There you can read that Humbert Humbert always uses Lolita in special “intimate” situations. For reasons offrame I have to let out this discourse, but I am aware of the problems which are appearing by calling Dolores Haze Lolita.

4 Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997, p. 148. (I will quote this source in the following with V.N.)

5 Cf: V.N.: p. 9.

6 V.N.: p. 132.

7 This is a reference to Nabokov, who describes in the afterword several “nerves of the novel” which come up when he is thinking of Lolita (p 316). According to that the following characterization is also more like a connection of important nerves than a totally all-embracing and “clinical” definition of the character. As I mentioned in this chapter, there are problems (reliability) which do not allow this approach.

8 V.N.: p. 9.

9 V.N.: p. 13.

10 V.N.: p. 14.

11 V.N.: p. 13.

12 V.N.: p. 14.


According to what was stated in 2.1 it is possible, that Humbert Humbert is not telling the truth about his relationship to Annabel. It could be that he is romanticizing this love attachment. For me and for the continuation of these paperwork the fact is important, that he is able to communicate sensible and emphatic feelings, contrary what he is communicating in the relationship with Lolita, as it will be shown in the following work.

14 V.N.: p. 60, 61.


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ISBN (Book)
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Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Lolita Nabokov Literaturwissenschaft rezeptionsgeschichte



Title: What happens to Nabokov's Lolita?