Lolita Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov started writing Lolita while teaching at Cornell University in 1949. He continued writing the novel while traveling with his wife around the country on summer butterfly hunting trips (Nabokov was an esteemed lepidopterist, or butterfly specialist), and completed the novel in 1954. Publishers were predictably skittish about a story narrated by a pedophile, and it did not find its way into European print until 1955 (it was published in America in 1958). Controversy over the subject matter only inspired a wider readership; sales of the critically-acclaimed book and a 1962 cinematic translation (directed by Stanley Kubrick) enabled Nabokov to retire from teaching and concentrate on writing in Montreaux, Switzerland, in 1960.

For all its hype as a sexual novel, Lolita is less concerned with physical, and more with verbal, eroticism. Nabokov maintained that "'sex as an institution'" bored him, and the salacious reader expecting a crassly graphic tale is in for disappointment; Humbert's overwhelming, turgid lust for Lolita soon turns into an overwhelming, tragic love. Limning all his desires is Nabokov's exquisite prose, making Lolita arguably one of the most beautiful books in the English language. Nabokov made his mark on English in other ways, introducing two neologisms to English: "nymphet," to describe the young girls Humbert adores, and of course "Lolita," the paragon of this breed.

Indeed, Nabokov preferred the notion that Lolita was "the record of my love affair with the?English language," rather than a record of his European views of America. Still, Lolita is a museum of 1950s America, from Lolita's bobby-sox adoration of popular movies to Charlotte Haze's bourgeois values.

Regardless of what the reader takes from Lolita, it remains Nabokov's most popular novel with readers and scholars alike. It also remains controversial; a 1997 film version directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert had difficulty finding a theatrical release in the U.S.