Born: April 23, 1899? in St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: July 02, 1977 in Montreaux, Switzerland
Other Names: Sirin, Vladimir; Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich; Sirin, V.
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss. Vol. 2: The Great Depression and the New Deal to Future Times (1930s -). Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. p279-286.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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by Vladimir Nabokov

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A novel set in three fictional towns and on the road throughout the United States between 1947 and 1952; published in France in 1955, and in the United States in 1958.


A man abducts and sexually abuses his twelve-year-old stepdaughter after her mother dies. Later, in prison awaiting trial for murder, he composes a memoir devoted to his stepdaughter, in which he tries to explain his actions.

Vladimir Nabokov, a novelist, poet, playwright, and translator, as well as a collector of butterflies and inventor of chess problems, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. His idyllic childhood and adolescence were abruptly ended by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which forced his family to flee from Russia to Europe. From 1919 to 1922 Nabokov studied Slavic and Romance Languages at Cambridge University, then moved to Berlin, Germany, where he married his wife, Vera. In Berlin and later in Paris, he supported his family by giving lessons in tennis, boxing, and the English language as well as by publishing original works of literature in Russian. Because Nabokov’s wife and son were Jewish, however, the family eventually had to escape from Europe to the United States to avoid Nazi persecution. Lolita, the third novel that Nabokov wrote after arriving in America, is narrated by a European emigre with a terrible secret: he is attracted to little girls. Nabokov’s protagonist finds that in postwar America he can fulfill his darkest fantasies—with tragic consequences for himself as well as the child.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

European immigration

Millions of European citizens were displaced from their homes, their livelihoods, and their native countries by the Second World War. Many of these “displaced persons” were Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcast groups who were persecuted by the Nazis.

During the war, and immediately after it, various displaced persons tried desperately to leave Europe for the United States. Nabokov’s own family was a case in point. His younger brother Sergei, who was homosexual, died in a German concentration camp; Nabokov’s wife and son, who were Jewish, were also in jeopardy. The family fled first from Berlin to Paris in the late 1930s, and then to the United States in May 1940, immediately before German tanks rolled into Paris.

After the war, the proportion of American immigrants who were political refugees increased dramatically. The Displaced Persons Act, which Congress passed in 1948 and renewed in 1950, allowed over 400, 000 Europeans to become American citizens, relaxing the rigid quotas established after the First World War. As Americans

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grew anxious about international communism, however, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 returned to earlier quotas and barred entry to anyone who had ever be to an ganization seeking to overthrow the United States government. The following year, the Refugee Relief Act set aside the quota in the case of individuals who had been persecuted by communist regimes.


After Nabokov’s family fled Russia, that country established a communist government and became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By the time Nabokov wrote Lolita, the United States was engaged in a protracted “Cold War” with the Soviet Union, the only other dominant nation after the Second World War. Competing for world leadership, the two superpowers conducted their hostilities at a distance by supporting different sides in conflicts around the globe, engaging in espionage, and stockpiling nuclear weapons of mutual destruction. In 1948 the so-called Cold War heated up. The Soviet Union blockaded Berlin and took control of Czechoslovakia, while North Korea established a communist government. In 1949 China established a communist government and began a strategic alliance with the Soviets; in response, the United States joined forces with European countries to create the opposing North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Seeing the rapid rise of international communism, Americans were afraid that this political philosophy might spread to the United States as well. In 1947 hundreds of workers in the motion picture industry were threatened with being “blacklisted”—included on a list of individuals barred from employment—unless they cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee by acknowledging their guilt and naming other suspects. In 1950 Alger Hiss, a prominent lawyer, was convicted of perjury for denying his involvement with Whittaker Chambers, an admitted communist. That same year, Joseph McCarthy, a new Republican senator from Wisconsin, became famous overnight after announcing that he could name 205 communists who had infiltrated the State Department. McCarthy later claimed that he could identify over 30, 000 books by communists and communist sympathizers in American libraries. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage—a judgment that is still controversial—and sentenced to death by electrocution. Before long, many Americans were swept up in the belief that the country was rife with communist spies and secret agents. Jews, homosexuals, artists, people who had not been born in the United States, and anyone who had ever belonged to the American Communist Party fell under suspicion. Meanwhile, American popular culture became dominated by anticommunist themes in comic books, detective stories, spy novels, and science-fiction films.

As an émigré who had left Russia over 30 years earlier, Nanokov disavowed both communism and the Soviet Union. In 1950 he even volunteered to write a series of articles on Soviet culture for the New Yorker, explaining that “I think I am the right man for it since I know exactly all the moves in the Soviet anti-American game” (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 108). At a time when most American academics protested government inquiries into a possible communist presence on campus, Nabokov, who was teaching at Cornell University, “befriended the FBI agent assigned to Cornell and declared he would be proud to have his son join the FBI in that role” (Boyd, p. 311). Themes of paranoia, detection, espionage, and political assassination dominate Nabokov’s fiction from this period. In addition, many of his major characters—such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita—are political refugees, members of oppressed ethnic and religious groups, social misfits, or sexual deviants.

Child-molestation laws

Lolita, which features a protagonist who sexually abuses his stepdaughter, Page 281  |  Top of Articlereflects trends in American popular culture as well as Nabokov’s own writing during these years. Case studies and legislative changes suggest that at least some Americans at the time were concerned about child molestation. In a 1953 study of young adults, for example, 35 percent of female college students reported that they had been sexually molested in childhood. “The mean age at the time of the molestation was 11.7 years,” which is the girl’s approximate age in 1947 in Lolita, when she is first abused (Luandis in de Young, p. 6). Recognizing the extent of the problem, some states passed laws to address it. Utah, for example, in 1953 made it “a felony to engage in sexual penetration or sexual contact with a person who is under eighteen where the offender is the victim’s parent, stepparent, adoptive parent, of legal guardian, or occupies a position of special trust in relation to the victim” (de Young, p. 125). In Lolita, the main characters travel through a number of states with similar statutes. Indeed, the child’s stepfather refers knowingly to various local and federal laws, especially those that forbid statutory rape and the transportation of minors across state lines for immoral purposes.

America at the wheel

Meanwhile, during the period of unprecedented economic growth that followed the Second World War, the United States consolidated its position as the richest country in the world. The gross national product rose from about $200, 000 million in 1940, to $300, 000 million in 1950, to over $500, 000 million in 1960. As their earnings increased, more and more Americans joined the middle class. With the aid of the G.I. Bill, expanded credit, and federal housing loans, even young couples with little money could buy a house. Many bought low-cost homes in the surburbs. In 1947, William J. Levitt began to produce “Levit-towns,” enormous housing developments that contained thousands of similar homes laid out on identical plots in new residential streets. These houses were so popular that 14, 000 were sold to individual families on a single day in 1949. In addition to owning their own homes, more Americans than ever before could now afford such luxuries as a college education, household appliances, and one or more automobiles.

Even as Americans were settling down in suburbia, they were also spending more time in cars. In the suburbs, after all, automobiles were necessary for husbands to commute to work and for wives to shop, run errands, and chauffeur children. Owning a new car became an important status symbol, and traveling by automobile a common leisure activity. More and more families chose—in the words of a popular advertisement of the time, sung by Dinah Shore—“to see the U.S.A. from [their] Chevrolet.” Service stations, road maps, and tour books helped make such travel possible. At the same time, a host of other products and pastimes organized around the automobile sprang up: fast-food restaurants, diners, and drive-in restaurants; motels; roadside attractions; drive-in movie theatres; billboards and other highway advertisements. It was in 1949 that Richard and Maurice McDonald devised the cheap, quick hamburger sandwich that eventually dominated fast food franchises from coast to coast. In 1952, the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Four years later, the federal government introduced the Interstate Highway System, which was constructed for national defense purposes but made long car trips easier and faster for everyone. Driving became a national pastime, celebrated in “road movies,” chase scenes, and novels set on the American highway. During three weeks in the spring of 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote, on a scroll of paper 120 feet long, one lengthy, single-spaced paragraph about his travels across America, which was published six years later as the underground classic On the Road (also in Literature and Its Times).

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As the two main characters of Lolita cross the country by car, Humbert describes the advertisements and other sights that he and Dolores glimpse with the remark: “The Bearded Woman read our jingle and now she is no longer single” (Nabokov, Lolita, p. 158). This sentence parodies the over 7,000 red-and-white signs advertising Burma Shave shaving cream that were common on American highways at the time. The Burma Shave Company divided such an lines into a series of six signs spaced along the road for a mile. In 1953, as he finished Lolita, Nabokov composed another such rhyme—“He passed two cars; then five; then seven: and then he beat them all to Heaven”—and ended it with the usual refrain, “Burma Shave.’’ He offered to sell it to Burma Shave, but the company replied that it already had more jingles than it could use (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 137).

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Nabokov knew firsthand many of the aspects of America’s automotive culture that appear in Lolita. Every summer from 1949 to 1959, as soon as his teaching duties at Cornell University were over, he and his family would set off on butterfly-hunting expeditions that took them all over the United States. Indeed, Nabokov completed the manuscript of Lolita in various motels and assorted cars (his wife did all the driving) during such automotive tours in the summers of 1951, 1952, and 1953.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Lolita takes the form of a two-part memoir written by Humbert Humbert, a child molester, to help his attorney defend him against a murder charge. As Part One opens, Humbert recalls his happy childhood on the French Riviera, where at 13 he met Annabel Leigh, a young girl his own age. They fell in love, but Annabel died a few months later. Humbert cites this tragic romance as the reason for his sexual attraction to little girls, whom he calls “nymphets.”

Humbert struggles to both satisfy and control his urges over the next 25 years, at one point even marrying a woman who dresses and acts like a little girl. The marriage does not last, however, and as the Second World War begins Humbert leaves France for America. He ends up in Ramsdale, a small New England town, where he decides to rent a room from Charlotte Haze, a young widow, because her 12-year-old daughter Dolores—whom he calls “Lolita”—resembles Annabel.

Humbert seizes every opportunity to be alone with Dolores; meanwhile, the girl’s mother tries to seduce him. Charlotte, a middle-class housewife bored with a life of gossip, shopping, and social clubs, used to dream about being “a career girl” before Humbert became her lodger (Lolita, p. 56). She now believes that marrying Humbert will make her happy. However, because she envies Dolores’s youth and vaguely senses Humbert’s interest in her, she sends the child to camp for the summer. After Dolores leaves, Humbert consents to marry Charlotte—who declares her love in a letter—because he thinks that he will have more access to the girl as her stepfather. He begins to collect sleeping pills in order to drug both his wife and his stepdaughter, so that he can fondle Dolores without anyone’s knowing. Although Charlotte learns of Humbert’s intentions, she dies in a car accident before she can do anything to stop him.

After the funeral, Humbert picks up Dolores at camp. Hiding the news of her mother’s death, he takes her to the glamorous Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where he coaxes her to swallow some sleeping pills and then locks her in their room until they take effect. It turns out that the pills are placebos, and Humbert doesn’t dare touch the girl in case she is not asleep. When Dolores wakes up the next morning, however, she herself suggests that they have sex—and Humbert agrees.

At the beginning of Part Two, Humbert recounts his year-long automobile trip with Dolores throughout America, during which he uses both promises and threats to force her to engage in various sexual acts several times a day. Most of his bribes involve the opportunity to visit a particular motel, diner, or tourist attraction—“a lighthouse in Virginia, a natural cave in Arkansas converted to a café, a collection of guns and violins somewhere in Oklahoma … anything whatsoever-anything, but it had to be there, in front of us, like a fixed star” (Lolita, pp. 151-52).

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dogeared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

(Lolita, pp. 175-76)

After he runs out of money, Humbert takes Dolores back to New England, where he has a temporary teaching job at Beardsley, a women’s college. There she attends school, makes friends, flirts with boys her own age, and even stars in the school play—which has the same name as the Enchanted Hunters Hotel because, as it turns out, the playwright Clare Quilty stayed there the night that Humbert and Dolores did.

At the end of the school year, Humbert discovers that Dolores has been skipping her piano lessons and lying about it. They have a bitter fight, during which he twists her arm, and she accuses him of both molesting her and murdering her mother. Afterwards, though, Dolores suddenly forgives him and suggests that they go on another cross-country trip, asking if this time she can plan the itinerary. During their journey, Humbert keeps thinking that they are being followed. Although the color, make, and license plate of the car changes, Humbert believes that the same mustachioed man is always at the Page 283  |  Top of Articlewheel—and that he has managed to establish communication with Dolores. At any rate, this second trip ends abruptly after Dolores develops a fever and enters the hospital. When Humbert goes to pick her up, he learns that she checked out the day before, on Independence Day, in the care of a man claiming to be her uncle.

Over the next several months Humbert retraces their steps, looking for clues to the man’s identity in the registration books at motels where they stayed. Although he finds many entries that seem suspicious, he can’t figure out who the man is. Eventually he gives up. Three years pass, which Humbert spends pining for Dolores—until suddenly he receives a letter from her. She is now 17, married, and pregnant, and has written to ask for money so that she and her husband can move to another state where he can get a better job. When Humbert sees Dolores again, he notices how much she has grown. Now that she is no longer a child, he even decides that he loves her for herself instead of her appeal as a nymphet. He is still determined, however, to find the man who stole her from him. When Dolores reveals the man’s name (Clare Quilty), Humbert realizes that he should have known it all along. Indeed, Humbert explains that he has scattered clues throughout his narrative so that readers, at this point, will enjoy the same feeling of sudden comprehension.

As Humbert prepares to track the man down and kill him, he recalls the entire saga of his relationship with Dolores, now acknowledging, for the first time, various incidents that demonstrated how unhappy she had been. And after Humbert murders Quilty—in a climactic scene that parallels the rape in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel at the end of Part One—he waits quietly to be arrested. Humbert concludes his memoir by stating that he feels guilty of committing rape, not murder. He now realizes that he and Dolores can never be together except in the pages of his memoir, which he wishes to be published only after her death.

Humbert’s case

Except for a foreword by John Ray, Jr., the memoir’s fictitious editor, the entire novel is told from Humbert’s point of view. This device is crucial to the overall design and meaning of Lolita. Humbert is an exceptionally unreliable first-person narrator. He is biased, deceptive, manipulative, and mentally unstable, and his testimony relies on his poor recall of past events. Although he often cites evidence that supports his case—such as a photograph of himself and Annabel, a journal detailing his relationship with Dolores, and a love letter from Charlotte—he admits that these items exist only in his memory. In addition, Humbert’s account of his early infatuation with Annabel Leigh, which he uses to explain his sexual attraction to little girls, is transparently modeled on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee.” Poe’s speaker recalls how, even though “I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea,” he and Annabel enjoyed “a love that was more than love” until “the winged seraphs of Heaven” envied them and killed her (Poe, pp. 957-58). Humbert describes the childhood romance with his Annabel, which also began at the seaside and ended with her sudden death, in similar imagery. Such blatant allusions to “Annabel Lee” seem especially suspicious because it turns out that Humbert is a Poe scholar.

Despite his unreliability, however, Humbert is a witty, amusing, and charming narrator. The fact that readers know only his version of events makes it easy to accept them on his terms. Indeed, Nabokov has designed Lolita so that readers cannot help but identify with Humbert, even though he is a child molester. The novel achieves this effect by suppressing Dolores’s own point of view almost completely. Only at the end of his memoir does Humbert acknowledge that he deliberately tried to conceal her utter misery. “In order to enjoy my phantasms in peace,” he now admits, “I firmly decided to ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn—to mention only mentionable

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Although Nabokov considered Lolita his best novel, he was afraid that it could never appear in print because of its subject matter. At one point he even decided to burn the manuscript in the backyard, but his wife stopped him at the last minute. Nabokov thought that if Lolita were published, it would have to be anonymously or under a pseudonym. In order to encode his actual authorship within the text, therefore, he introduced a minor character whose name, “Vivian Darkbloom,” is an anagram of “Vladimir Nabokov.” After Alfred Appel’s edition of The Annotated Lolita appeared, Nabokov playfully reused the anagram, publishing his own annotations to a later novel, Ada (1969), under the name “Vivian Darkbloom.”

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matters” (Lolita, p. 283). At this point, readers who accepted Humbert’s earlier portrait of Dolores as sexually experienced, spoiled, shallow, uncooperative, ungrateful, and faithless must confront the fact that they too were indifferent to her suffering. Nabokov’s novel thus forces readers to acknowledge their own prurient curiosity and smug condemnation, in response to a case that evokes many sensational news stories about troubled teens and poor parents in the 1950s.

Humbert’s skillful and deceptive presentation of his case suggests an acute awareness of his audience. In fact, he continually interrupts his memoir to address readers directly. He asks for their pity, remarks that they will be disappointed to learn of his psychological instability, and teases them by promising to describe various sexual encounters and then skipping over such scenes, explaining that he does not want to “bore [his] learned readers with a detailed account” (Lolita, p. 133). (Significantly, masturbation is the only sexual act that the novel does describe in detail.)

In addition, because his memoir outlines his legal defense, Humbert often invokes his readers as jurors—“ladies and gentleman of the jury”—who will decide his fate (Lolita, p. 3). At the end of the novel, Humbert’s readers must indeed determine his guilt or innocence. At a time when the United States was obsessed with charges of espionage, subversion, sexual deviancy, “un-American activities,” and other forms of suspicious behavior, it is significant that Lolita takes the form of a criminal trial. Nabokov carefully constructed the novel, however, so that readers cannot settle for the simple, easy distinctions between right and wrong that most Americans accepted at the time. Rather than merely identifying Humbert as a sexual pervert, readers must decide for themselves the exact nature of his crime, whether he has truly acknowledged, repented, and atoned for it, and whether he really did love Dolores Haze. Indeed, Nabokov’s attempt to make his readers ponder the moral, psychological, social, therapeutic, and legal implications of Humbert’s behavior parallels contemporaneous efforts to understand sexual crime better. In 1950, for example, the California state legislature gave the Department of Mental Hygiene $100, 000 to plan and perform scientific research into the reasons and cures for sexual deviation, including deviation that led to sex crimes against children. According to a sociologist at the time, “passage of the California Sexual Deviation Research Act … was most significant in that it highlights a new era in our thinking about human sexuality” (Mangus, p. 177).

Sources and literary context

Vladimir Nabokov disliked approaches to literature that focus on an imagined narrative’s relation to real events, and claimed that his own novels were works of fiction, rather than social history or autobiography. Nevertheless, there are suggestive parallels between Humbert’s romance with Annabel Leigh and Nabokov’s own childhood infatuation with a little girl he calls “Colette”—whom he met at a seaside resort on the French Riviera—which he describes in his memoir, Speak, Memory.

Otherwise, Lolita seems most indebted to an earlier novella, The Enchanter, which Nabokov wrote (in Russian) in 1939, but which was neither published nor translated into English until after his death in 1977. More generally, Lolita derives from an international tradition of avant-garde, experimental, often sexually shocking fiction—such as James Joyce’s Ulysses—that depicts an artist’s social alienation. In America in the late 1940s and 1950s, in particular, such works included plays like Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), novels like J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), and poems like Allen Ginsburg’s revolutionary and sexually explicit “Howl”(1956). (At the same time that Lolita resembles such works, its exuberant wordplay, parody, and subversive humor also led the way for American literature of the 1960s and 1970s.) While there is no evidence that Lolita is based on any actual people, it does reflect Nabokov’s fascination with and detailed observations of American popular culture and codes of behavior in the decade after the Second World War.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Troubled teens

Although the 1950s are often considered a period of great social conformity, important changes were afoot. Two such changes were the burgeoning youth culture—exemplified by the musical, social, and sexual rebellion of rock and roll—and the concerns that it prompted about disobedient or criminal teenagers. According to one social historian, “the teenager [came to replace] the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding” (Friedenberg in Breines, p. 8). Between 1946 and 1960, the number of teens in the United States more than doubled, from 5.6 million to Page 285  |  Top of Article11.8 million. And with the increase in adolescents came an increase in delinquency: between 1948 and 1953, the number of juveniles charged with crimes rose 45 percent. In 1955 Benjamin Fine chose 1,000,000 Delinquents as his title for a book on this phenomenon, because he believed that there were already one million adolescent criminals in the United States and would be twice that number by the decade’s end. Although male hoodlums and gang members caused the most concern, female delinquents were also a source of worry. By 1949, girls accounted for one out of four juvenile court cases. In 1958, the year that Lolita finally appeared in the United States, Americans were especially horrified by the case of 14-year-old Caril Ann Fúgate. After Caril Ann’s boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, killed her entire family, the young couple embarked on a crime spree that left a trail of bodies throughout the Midwest. Charles Starkweather was executed for murder; Caril Ann, who maintained her innocence, was sentenced to life in prison but eventually paroled.

Commentators proposed various explanations for juvenile crime. In 1955, the United States Senate even formed a committee to investigate whether aspects of popular culture marketed to children and adolescents, including rock and roll, television shows, movies, comic books, and pulp fiction, were responsible for the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency. Most Americans believed, however, that the problem stemmed from a lack of guidance and discipline in the home. Hollywood films like The Wild One (1953) or Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the Broadway musical West Side Story (1957) expressed parents’ fears that they could not understand or control their own children. (In retrospect, these fears anticipated the “generation gap” that would divide the United States in the 1960s.) Sociologists associated female juvenile delinquency, in particular, with a troubled father-daughter relationship, and urged men to acknowledge their daughters’ sexual maturity so that the girls would learn to become appropriately feminine.

The feminine mystique

Most women in the 1950s sought fulfillment in marriage rather than a career. Once married, they kept house, raised children, and participated in civic organizations and social clubs while their husbands worked. Popular television shows, such as Í Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver, suggested that women were happier at home than in the workplace. In 1963, though, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that analyzed the psychological cost of women’s attempts to model themselves after a “mystique” of femininity that stressed passivity and consumption.

During the 15 years after the Second World War, according to Friedan, American culture taught women to find happiness through marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. By the end of the 1950s, she points out, the average age of American brides had dropped into the teens. The proportion of female college students sank from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. Of those women who did attend college in the 1950s, 60 percent dropped out, either to marry or because they feared that too much education would make them undesirable. The pressure to marry early led girls to start “going steady” at 12 or 13 and become engaged a few years later. Girls’ clothing became more seductive, and advertisements emphasized youthful attractiveness. Meanwhile, adult women began dieting in an attempt to took like thin, young models; department store buyers reported that the average American woman had become three of four dress sizes smaller since 1939.

Friedan singles out the suburban housewife, in particular, as that generation’s feminine ideal:

In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor.

(Friedan, p. 16)

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I know that Lolite is my test book so tar, I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be “lewd and libertine.” All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a tine poet may have its “lewd” side: but Lolita is a tragedy. ’Pornography” is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic: and the obscene exclude each other. (Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 184)

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Friedan rejects this notion of the happy home-maker, arguing instead that being a housewife can make a woman feel a sense of inner emptiness, which she calls “the problem that has no name” (Friedan, p. 18). The Feminine Mystique led the way for the second wave of feminism—“women’s liberation”—which became powerful in the early 1970s. In Lolita, Nabokov anticipates Friedan’s analysis by revealing Charlotte Haze’s boredom, frustration, and despair, as well as by tracing various experiences that Charlotte has. Meeting older men who find her sexually appealing and attending a school that stresses “the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating” lead Dolores to marry as soon as she can. Tellingly, for both mother and daughter in Nabokov’s novel, marriage seems to lead to death; the fictional foreword to the book indicates that Lolita dies in childbirth.


Because of its controversial subject, Nabokov was initially unable to publish Lolita in the United States. When the novel first appeared in print in 1955, it was as two slim green volumes in the “Traveller’s Companion” series of pornography and avant-garde literature published by the Olympia Press in Paris. Lolita was considered obscene and could not be legally purchased in England or America, although readers managed to smuggle in copies from France. Only after critics published an excerpt and essays on the novel in the Anchor Review, without facing obscenity charges, did publication in the United States seem possible. Lolita was brought out by Doubleday, and American press, in 1958, and became an immediate bestseller as well as a critical success. Although a few schools, libraries, and townships banned the book, most readers apparently agreed with critic Lionel Trilling, who remarked at the time that “Lolita is not about sex, but about love” (Trilling, p. 15).

Since its initial publication, Lolita has been recognized as a major work of American literature. It has inspired a Broadway musical, two film adaptations, and a host of imitations. The Modern Library recently named it one of the five best novels of the twentieth century. Although Lolita has become a classic, however, it remains controversial. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaptation was not distributed for two years because companies were wary of being charged with disseminating child pornography. The novel remains timely, too, as Americans continue to grapple with the nature and treatment of child abuse. By means of its subtle and intricate design, Lolita forces readers to confront lasting questions about crime, punishment, and redemption in all their moral complexity.

—Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

For More Information

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Breines, Wini. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

Devlin, Rachel. “Female Juvenile Delinquency and the Problem of Sexual Authority in America, 1945-1965,” in Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century Girls’ Cultures. Ed. Sherrie In-ness. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

de Young, Mary, corp. Child Molestation: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987.

Fine, Benjamin. 1,000,000 Delinquents. Cleveland, Ohio: World, 1955.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

Mangus, A. R. “Sexual Deviation Research in California,” in Sociology and Social Research 37, no. 3 (Jan.-Feb. 1953): 175-81.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appeljr. Rev. edition. New York: Vintage, 1991.

_____. Selected Letters 1940-1977. ed. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

_____. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Annabel Lee,” in Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Vintage, 1975.

Trilling, Lionel. “The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita,” in Encounter 11 (October 1958): 9-19.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. "Lolita." Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them, by Joyce Moss, vol. 2: The Great Depression and the New Deal to Future Times (1930s -), Gale, 2003, pp. 279-286. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 24 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875200097

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  • Art, artists, and intellectuals
    • pseudonyms
      • S1.2: 283 (sidebar)
  • Automobiles
    • S1.2: 281
  • Censorship and banning of literary works
  • Chambers, Whittaker
    • S1.2: 280
  • Cold War
  • Crime
    • by teenagers
      • S1.2: 284-5
  • Entertainment
  • Feminine Mystique, The, and Betty Friedan
    • S1.2: 285-6
  • Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique
    • S1.2: 285-6
  • Highway System, America’s Interstate
  • Hiss, Alger
  • House on Mango Street, The, Cisneros, Sandra
    • Levittowns
      • S1.2: 281
  • HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) and McCarthyism
  • Imagism
    • relaxation, then tightening of quotas
  • Interstate Highway System
  • Kerouac, Jack
    • S1.2: 281
  • Law and legal systems
    • child molestation laws
      • S1.2: 280-1
      • S1.2: 284
  • Levittowns
    • S1.2: 281
  • Lolita, Nabokov, Vladimir
    • S1.2: 279-86
  • McCarthy, Joseph and McCarthyism and HUAC
  • Motion picture industry
    • “blacklist”
      • S1.2: 280
    • reflecting and influencing teenagers and generation gap
      • S1.2: 285
    • “road movies”
      • S1.2: 281
  • Music
    • reflecting generation gap
      • S1.2: 285
  • Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita
    • S1.2: 279-86
  • Novels
    • Lolita, Nabokov, Vladimir
      • S1.2: 279-86
    • On the Road, Kerouac, Jack
  • On the Road, Kerouac, Jack
  • Pornography
    • Lolita as tragedy
      • S1.2: 285 (sidebar)
  • Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel
  • Sexual dimension of life
    • child molestation laws
      • S1.2: 280-1
      • S1.2: 284
    • in Lolita
      • S1.2: 279-86
  • Transportation
    • automobiles
      • S1.2: 281
  • Public
    • Burma Shave roadside signs
      • S1.2: 281 (sidebar)
    • Interstate Highway System
  • United States in 20th century: 1946-1959
    • teenagers and juvenile crime
      • S1.2: 284-5
  • Women’s rights movement (and feminism)
    • impact of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique
      • S1.2: 285-6
    • Friedan’s Feminine Mystique
      • S1.2: 285-6
  • Women’s rights movement (and feminism)
    • “women’s liberation”
      • S1.2: 286
  • World War II
    • Nazi persecutions leading to immigration to America
      • S1.2: 279-80
  • Postwar issues
  • Youth
    • crime by teenagers
      • S1.2: 284-5
    • generation gap
      • S1.2: 285
    • motion picture industry influencing teenagers
      • S1.2: 285