Literature / Lolita

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
— Opening lines

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov about the relationship between erudite pedophile Humbert Humbert and his stepdaughter/kidnappee Dolores Haze. The action takes place between 1947 and 1952, and is chock-full of convoluted wordplay, multilingual puns, and allusions to everything from entomology to Edgar Allan Poe. Originally written in English and set in the US, it had to be published in France as pornography because no one else would touch it. Nabokov himself pointed out that this is probably the main reason why parents don't name their daughters "Lolita" any more.

This is where we get the terms "Lolita Complex", or "Lolicon" in Japan, and the slang for "Lolita", meaning a sexually attractive and/or promiscuous young girl.

Adapted into two films, one by Stanley Kubrick (starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert), the other by Adrian Lyne.

Trope Namer for Comedic Lolicon and co-Trope Namer for Lolicon and Shotacon.

Lolita contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Apart from the obvious sexual abuse, Humbert has a bad habit of hitting his adoptive daughter Dolores when she fails to please him, in bed or otherwise. In one of the most disturbing scenes in a highly disturbing book, we learn that he routinely pays her for sex, after which he takes the money back by force so that she can't save up enough to run away.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Lots and lots. The title quote shows it well.
  • Affably Evil: Humbert Humbert in spades. There's at least one moment in the book (which also turns up in some form in the movie adaptations) in which he contemplates killing his wife and how easily he could get away with it, but finds that he really is just too nice to do it. In some ways, this actually makes him even worse, and the mid-story Diabolus ex Machina that puts her out of his way is made that much more bitterly ironic.
  • The Annotated Edition: The Annotated Lolita, with said annotations added by Alfred Appel, who had once been Nabokov's student at Cornell. It's funny how Alfred Appel added the annotations, given the author's affinity for alliteration. Given the author's fondness for bilingual puns, it's also fun to note that the French for "reference mark" is "appel de note". Does this man even really exist?

    Appel's preface to the annotated edition goes out of its way on this point: "Of course, the annotator and editor of a novel written by the creator of Kinbote and John Ray, Jr., runs the real risk of being mistaken for another fiction, when at most he resembles those gentlemen only figuratively. But the annotator exists; he is a veteran and a grandfather, a teacher and taxpayer, and has not been invented by Vladimir Nabokov." Of course, that's just what a character would say. . . and before the Introduction is over, Appel is saying that you, gentle reader, are "manipulated by Nabokov's dizzying illusionistic devices to such an extent that [you] too can be said to become, at certain moments, another of Vladimir Nabokov's creations."
  • Author Avatar: Oddly, given his crimes and Nabokov's own opinion toward him, Humbert could count for this, being one of a number of Nabokov protagonists who, like the author himself, is a highly cultured emigre. This is tidily averted in one aspect: Nabokov was a respected lepidopterist. H.H. sees hawk-moths in the Arizona twilight and thinks they are hummingbirds. It is also interesting to note how Humbert discredits his journal as being a work of fiction using people he knows as archetypes and putting them into extreme situations. He even says that this is part of the trade of the author as well.
  • Bear Trap Bed: Film only.
  • Black Comedy: The blackest.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Humbert tries to kill Quilty this way, but fails gruesomely.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Lolita, or so Humbert would want us to believe.
  • Break the Cutie: The entire book could be considered one for Lolita, considering her childhood is essentially destroyed.
  • Chick Magnet: Humbert, according to himself. It's a source of some irritation, given that he isn't all that interested in grown women.
  • Children Are Innocent: Subverted; Humbert is astonished by how much Lo already knows, even though a large part of his worldview revolves around the existence of a class of pubescent girls that are non-innocent by nature. Most likely due to Unreliable Narrator.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Read the novel closely and you'll note the very disturbing contrast between the rosy, carefree surface of postwar American society and its rotten, vicious core. Lolita herself a good example: on the surface, she's a cheerful 12-year old girl who loves milkshakes, movies and other innocent pleasures; inside, she is deeply miserable.
  • Death by Childbirth: Mrs. Richard F. Schiller AKA Lolita.
  • Deliberately Bad Example: Clare Quilty, although he barely makes Humbert look any better by comparison.
  • Detective Drama: Parodied.
  • Domestic Abuse: Humbert hits his first wife after she tells him she wants to leave him. He cheerfully admits that he would have gone much further if he'd managed to get her alone after that.
  • Drive-In Theater: One scene takes place there in the Stanley Kubrick film.
  • Dysfunction Junction
  • Eagleland: Flavour two. The novel is a very scathing portrayal of postwar American society: philistinism, kitsch pop culture, hypocrisy and all manner of vice behind a cheerful facade rule the day. Possibly a case of Unreliable Narrator (Humbert is a European snob, after all).
  • Erotic Eating: In Adrian Lyne's version, Lo erotically sucks on bananas in the car to distract Humbert from Quilty.
  • Evil Is Petty: In addition to being another child molester, Quilty's pettier vices (rudeness, chronic drunkenness, being an Upper-Class Twit, etc.) make him so disgusting to everyone that even his fellow revelers don't like him very much. One of them mentions at one point that they've all thought of killing him at some time or other, though never really very seriously. Both movie adaptations do a very good job of portraying him this way as well.
  • Fille Fatale: Lolita in the book, at least according to Humbert. H.H. even suspects her of trying to pimp her classmates to him.
  • The Film of the Book: Twice.
  • The '50s: More like end-40s (Humbert meets Lolita in 1947), but hits many chords associated with the period.
  • Foil: Quilty to Humbert (also a writer, also a pedophile).
  • Freudian Excuse: H.H. has one of these, but neither he nor the author really think it excuses him. He is a pedophile because he fell in love when he was 12, but his 12-year-old girlfriend died and he never got over it. Considering the author's loathing of psychological literary criticism (he would later refer to Freud as "that Viennese witch-doctor"), Humbert Humbert's gleeful attacks on future attempts to psychologically profile him, and also the entire prologue, much of the book is spent destroying this trope. In addition, H.H.'s alleged excuse is basically a prose interpretation of Poe's Annabell Lee. Is it real, or is H.H. mocking you with a ready-made Freudian excuse?
  • Girls Are Really Scared of Horror Movies: Lolita and her mother grasp Humbert's hands during a scary moment of The Curse of Frankenstein.
  • Gratuitous French:
    • Thanks to a combination of several years in Paris and his own colossal pretentiousness, Humbert tends to litter the story with this.
    • Charlotte in her letter to Humbert takes Everything Sounds Sexier in French to an extreme in an attempt to show her affection for him.
  • Happily Adopted: Subverted
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Rita, an alcoholic whom Humbert once described as "amiably drunk".
  • Harmful to Minors
  • I Didn't Mean to Turn You On
  • I Have Many Names: "Lolita" is Humbert's nickname for Dolores. Her mother calls her "Lo" (to which she responds, "And behold!"); everyone else calls her, and she signs herself, "Dolly". Humbert also often refers to her as "Lo" and sometimes "Lola".
  • In Medias Res: The Kubrick film begins with Humbert shooting Quilty.
  • Insistent Terminology: Humbert is not attracted to children, but nymphets. It's made abundantly clear that the distinction exists only within his own head.
  • Kill 'em All: In the end, Dolores escapes from her abusers and marries a man she actually loved. When she becomes pregnant, she contacts Humbert to ask for support, and tells him the story from her point of view. Humbert then leaves her his money and goes off to kill Quilty, ends up in jail, and dies of illness there. Dolores dies in childbirth, along with her child.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: The book is presented as a memoir written by the main character written while he was in prison and published posthumously with names changed to protect the innocent. In the Jeremy Irons version, Quilty lampshades this, saying "You are a foreigner, you are an agent of a foreign power, you're a foreign literary agent."
  • Little Miss Snarker: Dolores, who is quite sarcastic.
  • Lolicon and Shotacon: Partial Trope Namer (the first part of the word is a Japanese portmanteau/shorthand of "Lolita Complex"). The book is also a brutal avant-la-lettre deconstruction of Comedic Lolicon.
  • Look Both Ways: When Charlotte finds Humbert's diary, detailing his disdain for her and lust for her daughter, she confronts him with the evidence and tells him she intends to take Lolita to a strict year-round boarding school and away from his grasp forever. However, while crossing the street to post letters setting this plan in motion, she is killed by a passing motorist, leaving Humbert as Lolita's sole guardian.
  • The Lost Lenore: Annabell for Humbert. Lampshaded with many references to Edgar Allan Poe in her description.
  • Love at First Sight: One-way.
  • Love Hurts: Annabell Leigh and Poe references embodied by her.
  • Love Triangle: One of the Squickiest ones in all of modern literature. Worse because Charlotte has no idea her own daughter is her romantic rival.
  • Madness Mantra: Chapter 26, where the daily headache in the opaque air of the tombal jail is disturbing. The paragraph describes how he can't go on, and ends with Lolita repeated 10 times, followed by "Repeat till the page is full, printer".
  • Making a Spectacle of Yourself: The 1962 film's advertising has Delores wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. However, she doesn't wear these in the film.
  • Meaningful Name: Everywhere.
    • Dolores, conceived in Mexico, was named for Nuestra Señora de Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows. "Haze", of course, is an obscuring cloud or fog (after he and Dolores part, Humbert realizes that "I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind").
    • "Dolly" is a pretend person, a human-shaped thing to play with, which is all that Dolly Haze ever is to Humbert.
    • Quilty = Guilty.
    • Richard Schiller- Friedrich Schiller was an 18th century philosopher who wrote on ethics and morals. Notably relevant is his writing on the moral value of 'play' on moral/aesthetic experience. And of course, Richard is referred to as "Dick".
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Humbert is a literature professor, poet, and an aspiring novelist. His foil Quilty is a well-known playwright.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse
  • Nice Hat: In the 1962 film, Delores is first seen wearing a hat with feathers trimming the brim.
  • Not Allowed to Grow Up: Metaphorically, because Humbert needs to keep perceiving Dolores as his little "nymphet" even as she grows into her teens. And, heartbreakingly, literally: "Mrs. Richard F. Schiller" never achieves adulthood, dying in childbirth exactly one week before her eighteenth birthday.
  • Oh, and X Dies: The book begins with a foreword, which tells us that Humbert died in prison from coronary thrombosis and Lolita died in childbirth. However, it refers Lolita as "Mrs. Richard F. Schiller", her married name, which we don't learn until the end of the book.
  • Overprotective Dad: A very grim variation. The reason why Humbert's keeping others boys (and men) away from his little girl is that he wants her himself.
  • Precocious Crush: It's noted that Lo had a bit of a crush on Humbert on account of him looking like one of her favorite movie stars. She probably wasn't expecting he'd reciprocate...
  • Repetitive Name: Humbert Humbert. Alliterative Name as well.
  • Road Trip Romance: Well, sort of.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Everywhere you look, but notably near the book's end, when we learn that Dolly has taken refuge in a community where everyone seems to have a disability. Her husband is deaf, their next-door neighbor an amputee. Like her, they're all in some sense broken, and like her, they are survivors. Dick Schiller's deafness is particularly significant, because no one will ever hear Dolly's story.
  • Shout-Out: At the beginning of the 1962 film, Humbert asks a man if he's Quilty. Quilty jokingly replies "No, I'm Spartacus", a celebrated line from Kubrick's previous work.
  • Significant Anagram: The character of Vivian Darkbloom anagrams the author's name. Probably also a case of Awesome McCoolname.
  • Tastes Like Diabetes: Humbert's in-universe reaction to the girly magazines and corny music that Lolita enjoys.
  • The Unpronounceable: It seems nobody can get "Humbert Humbert" right. He is addressed to as Humbug, Hamburg, and whatnot.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • This is a book you need to read twice, just to appreciate how horribly screwed up everybody is. And we mean everybody. As Nabokov noted in his afterword, one publisher rejected the manuscript on the grounds that Lolita had no good people in it. Thanks to the Unreliable Narrator, however, the extent of just how screwed up they are is not immediately apparent.
    • H. H. gives multiple, mutually incompatible "explanations" for his actions with Dolores: It wasn't his fault, his "pederosis" is a disease. And besides, it's normal for grown men to be sexually interested in preteen girls. And besides, she wasn't even a virgin. And besides, he was still sexually hung up on Annabel Leigh after a quarter century. And besides, Dante fell in love with Beatrice when she was nine. And besides, it was Lolita who seduced Humbert.
  • Wife Husbandry: On several levels. Humbert actually muses on the possibility of impregnating Lolita with Lolita: The Next Generation. Ideally really soon, as in before she grows up and gets uninteresting.
  • Villain Protagonist: Humbert Humbert.