For your banned book club: Lolita

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for moral authority, and sexually explicit, emotionally disturbing scenes, including pedophilia, violence, murder, drug and alcohol use. The novel was banned in France (1956-1959), in England (1955-59), in Argentina (1959), and in New Zealand (1960).

This was the book that challenged and disturbed us most.

On top of everything else, it is very complicated and difficult to read.

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. – Vladimir Nabokov

Who is this Vladimir Nabokov?

  • Born Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, on or about April 23, 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia.
  • Eldest of five children in wealthy, aristocratic family; moved between family’s home in St. Petersburg and countryside estate.
  • Father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was controversial, liberal politician imprisoned in 1908 for ninety days for signing political manifesto.
  • Mother, Elena Ivanova, raised three boys and two girls as aristocrats, with governesses and tutors to teach children French and English and Russian.
  • Wrote first poem at the age of 15 and privately published two books of poetry before leaving Tenishev school.
  • With Bolshevik revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Nabokov family left Russia for England in 1919.
  • Father murdered in 1922 in trying to stop an assassination attempt on politician Pavel Miliukov.
  • Married Russian émigré Vera Slonim in 1925.
  • First Russian novel, “Mary,” was published that year, but received little attention.
  • Rise of the Nazi movement interrupted growing literary career and forced him to move to Paris, where he continued to write and publish.
  • Eruption of World War II caused him to flee Paris for New York in 1940, with his son, Dmitri, born in 1934, where he worked at the Museum of Natural History in New York in Lepidoptera studies.
  • While collecting butterflies in Rocky Mountains, in 1950s, composed masterpiece, Lolita, published in 1955.
  • Book was initially difficult to sell to publishers, but within a decade was such a success that the novel sales, movie rights and screenplay allowed Nabokov to focus exclusively on writing.
  • In 1961 moved to Montreux, Switzerland, to escape American publicity, spending his last years publishing several novels, including Pale Fire in 1962.
  • Died in 1977 of viral infection.
  • Before death, published eighteen novels, eight books of short stories, seven books of poetry and nine plays.
  • English editor John Gordon wrote that Lolita was “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” All copies of book entering the United Kingdom were seized and on December 20, 1956, Paris police followed suit, with Lolita remaining banned in France for two years.
  • Film versions have been challenged much more actively than the text, likely because the difficulty of the book prevents unsuitable readers from attempting to read it.
  • The Police song “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” refers to the Humbert-Lolita relationship in the line “It’s no use/He sees her/He starts to shake and cough/Just like the/Old man in/That book by Nabokov.”

What do you think about Lolita?

  1. Where do you see signs of comedy in Lolita? Why does Nabokov tell such a dark, disturbing tale in such a flippant voice? And what is its effect on you?
  2. Why does Nabokov give Humbert such strange, complicated, academic language? How does it affect you as you read it?  What do you think of Humbert’s confession as a result?
  3. Humbert Humbert is an émigré and an exile. Why does Nabokov send him traveling across America, with no home?
  4. We learn that Humbert has been committed to several mental institutions, where he enjoyed tricking his psychiatrists. Is Humbert’s madness part of his sexual deviance?  Part of his intelligence?  Part of his foreignness?  Can we trust any part of a story told by an insane narrator?
  5. What makes Charlotte Haze so disgusting to Humbert? What does Nabokov’s description tell us about her, or about Humbert?
  6. Does Humbert ever “love” Lolita? Does he ever see her as a real person? Is he capable of it? Why or why not?
  7. 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. Before Lolita begins her affair with Clare Quilty, her mother sends Lolita to summer at Camp Q (near Lake Climax). What is the role of all this coincidence? What is the role of coincidence in life?
  8. Humbert says Lolita seduces him after he has resisted violating her in her sleep. Yet later Humbert admits that Lolita sobbed in the night–“every night, every night–the moment I feigned sleep” [p. 176]. What has truly happened between them?  What do you think of this?  What does Humbert truly think about this?
  9. Is the strange, upsetting, immoral relationship between Humbert and Lolita at all related to the much more common phenomenon of older males choosing younger females? (and vice versa)  Why or why not?
  10. What is the effect on you as a teenager of reading material like this?  Why?

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