A European literary scholar writing his memoir under the name Humbert Humbert narrates his life from his Paris childhood to his present incarceration. Growing up in a wealthy family, Humbert meets his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Annabel's family move away, and she dies shortly after from typhus.
As an adult, Humbert develops a paedophilic fixation with girls aged 9–14, whom he refers to as 'nymphets'. After a misadventure when he requests an underage girl from a pimp, Humbert marries an adult woman, Valeria, to allay suspicion. His marriage with Valeria dissolves after she admits to having an affair. After another visit to a psychiatric ward after a mental breakdown, he moves to America to write.
Humbert fantasizes about meeting and eventually molesting the 12-year-old daughter of an impoverished family, the McCoos, from whom he agrees to rent an apartment in the small New England town of Ramsdale. Upon his arrival in Ramsdale, however, he discovers that their house has burned down. A landlady named Charlotte Haze offers to accommodate him instead, and Humbert visits her residence out of politeness. Initially planning to decline the widowed Charlotte's offer, Humbert agrees to rent when he sees her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores. He quickly becomes infatuated with Dolores, in part because of her resemblance to Annabel, and privately nicknames her "Lolita". Humbert starts a diary in which he records his obsessive and sexual thoughts about Dolores, and also hateful comments towards Charlotte, who he sees as standing between him and her daughter. Charlotte and Dolores argue intensely and often, and Humbert finds himself growing closer to Dolores. One day, when left alone with her, Humbert has her sit on his lap and secretly ejaculates in his pants.
Charlotte drives Dolores to camp, where she will be staying for three weeks, and leaves Humbert a letter in which she confesses that she has fallen in love with him and tells him that if he does not love her back he must move out. To continue living near Dolores, Humbert returns Charlotte's adorations and the two are soon married. After Charlotte voices her plan to send Dolores to a boarding school when she returns from camp, Humbert contemplates murdering her to remain close to Dolores, but stops before carrying it out. A few days later, Charlotte finds and reads his diary and furiously confronts him, telling him he will never see Dolores again. Charlotte runs out of the house with the letters that she had just written, but is killed by a passing car before she can mail them. Humbert recovers the letters from the scene before they can be read by anyone else, and convinces Charlotte's friends and neighbors that he is Dolores's biological father from a previous affair.
Humbert retrieves Dolores from camp, lying that Charlotte has been hospitalized, and takes her to a hotel, where he plans to use a sleeping pill on Dolores and rape her while she is unconscious. As he waits for the pill to take effect, he wanders through the hotel and meets a playwright named Clare Quilty who inquires about Dolores. Humbert excuses himself from the conversation and returns to the hotel room. There, he finds that the sedative was too mild after seeing Dolores drifting in and out of sleep. He dares not touch her that night, but in the morning she initiates sex with him. On their way to the fake hospital at which Humbert claimed Charlotte is recovering, he suddenly tells Dolores that her mother is dead.
Humbert and Dolores begin travelling across the country, driving all day and staying in motels. To keep Dolores from going to the police or running away, Humbert threatens her with the prospect of her becoming ward of the state and losing all her clothes and belongings. He also manipulates and bribes her with food, money, and permission to attend events in return for sexual favors. Paranoid and jealous, Humbert controls Dolores' movements carefully and forbids her from associating with other children. After a year of touring the United States, Humbert takes Dolores to settle in Beardsley, another New England town, and enrolls her in a girls' school at the start of the school year. In the winter, Humbert reluctantly grants Dolores permission to join the school play, which, unknown to him, was written by Quilty. After an argument just before opening night, Humbert and Dolores again abandon New England and drive west.
Humbert becomes suspicious that a driver is following them, and begins noticing signs of Dolores contacting somebody by phone. Dolores falls ill and must convalesce in a hospital, while Humbert stays in a nearby motel. The hospital staff tells Humbert in the morning that her uncle checked her out. Embarking on a frantic search to find Dolores and her abductor, he retraces his steps to every hotel that they'd been to on their way from Beardsley, but fails to track their pursuer.
Two years later, Humbert receives a letter from Dolores, now 17, telling him that she is married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. Humbert tracks down the address and finds Dolores and her husband, Dick Schiller, an engineer. Humbert promises to give her money in exchange for the name of the man who abducted her. She reveals that Clare Quilty checked her out of the hospital and tried to make her star in one of his pornographic films; but expelled her upon refusal. Quilty, an old friend of Charlotte's, had previously met with Dolores at camp and made the same offer. Humbert realizes that he still loves Dolores and repeatedly asks her to leave Dick and go with him, which she refuses. He gives her $4,000 and leaves. Planning to kill Quilty, Humbert tracks him down to his mansion. Arriving to find the front door unlocked and Quilty under the influence of drugs, Humbert reveals his identity and then shoots Quilty dead. Finally feeling regret for depriving Dolores of her childhood, Humbert allows himself to be captured. While awaiting trial for the murder of Quilty, Humbert writes his memoir and later dies of coronary thrombosis after completing the manuscript. A few months later, Dolores dies giving birth to a stillborn girl.
Lolita is frequently described as an "erotic novel", both by some critics but also in a standard reference work on literature Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia called Lolita "an experiment in combining an erotic novel with an instructive novel of manners". The same description of the novel is found in Desmond Morris's reference work The Book of Ages. A survey of books for Women's Studies courses describes it as a "tongue-in-cheek erotic novel". Books focused on the history of erotic literature such as Michael Perkins' The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature also so classify Lolita.
More cautious classifications have included a "novel with erotic motifs" or one of "a number of works of classical erotic literature and art, and to novels that contain elements of eroticism, like ... Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover".
However, this classification has been disputed. Malcolm Bradbury writes "at first famous as an erotic novel, Lolita soon won its way as a literary one—a late modernist distillation of the whole crucial mythology." Samuel Schuman says that Nabokov "is a surrealist, linked to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. Lolita is characterized by irony and sarcasm. It is not an erotic novel."
Lance Olsen writes: "The first 13 chapters of the text, culminating with the oft-cited scene of Lo unwittingly stretching her legs across Humbert's excited lap ... are the only chapters suggestive of the erotic." Nabokov himself observes in the novel's afterword that a few readers were "misled. [by the opening of the book] ... into assuming this was going to be a lewd book ... [expecting] the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored."
The novel is narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with word play and his wry observations of American culture. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet, a word that has since had a life of its own and can be found in most dictionaries, and the lesser-used "faunlet". Most writers see Humbert as an unreliable narrator and credit Nabokov's powers as an ironist. For Richard Rorty, in his interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity." Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person."
Critics have further noted that, since the novel is a first person narrative by Humbert, the novel gives very little information about what Lolita is like as a person, that in effect she has been silenced by not being the book's narrator. Nomi Tamir-Ghez writes "Not only is Lolita's voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader ... since it is Humbert who tells the story ... throughout most of the novel, the reader is absorbed in Humbert's feelings". Similarly Mica Howe and Sarah Appleton Aguiar write that the novel silences and objectifies Lolita. Christine Clegg notes that this is a recurring theme in criticism of the novel in the 1990s. Actor Brian Cox, who played Humbert in a 2009 one-man stage monologue based on the novel, stated that the novel is "not about Lolita as a flesh and blood entity. It's Lolita as a memory". He concluded that a stage monologue would be truer to the book than any film could possibly be. Elizabeth Janeway writing in The New York Times Book Review holds "Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh".
Clegg sees the novel's non-disclosure of Lolita's feelings as directly linked to the fact that her "real" name is Dolores and only Humbert refers to her as Lolita. Humbert also states he has effectively "solipsized" Lolita early in the novel. Eric Lemay writes:
The human child, the one noticed by non-nymphomaniacs, answers to other names, "Lo", "Lola", "Dolly", and, least alluring of all, "Dolores". "But in my arms," asserts Humbert, "she was always Lolita." And in his arms or out, "Lolita" was always the creation of Humbert's craven self ... The Siren-like Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song "Lolita". ... To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.
In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. In an NPR interview Nafisi contrasts the sorrowful and seductive sides of Dolores/Lolita's character. She notes "Because her name is not Lolita, her real name is Dolores which as you know in Latin means dolour, so her real name is associated with sorrow and with anguish and with innocence, while Lolita becomes a sort of light-headed, seductive, and airy name. The Lolita of our novel is both of these at the same time and in our culture here today we only associate it with one aspect of that little girl and the crassest interpretation of her." Following Nafisi's comments, the NPR interviewer, Madeleine Brand, lists as embodiments of the latter side of Lolita, "the Long Island Lolita, Britney Spears, the Olsen twins, and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita".
For Nafisi, the essence of the novel is Humbert's solipsism and his erasure of Lolita's independent identity. She writes: "Lolita was given to us as Humbert's creature […] To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own ... Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert's attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses."
One of the novel's early champions, Lionel Trilling, warned in 1958 of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with so eloquent and so self-deceived a narrator: "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents ... we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."
A minority of critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. In 1958, Dorothy Parker described the novel as "the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls" and Lolita as "a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered". In 1959, novelist Robertson Davies excused the narrator entirely, writing that the theme of Lolita is "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar."
In his essay on Stalinism Koba the Dread, Martin Amis proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov's childhood (though Nabokov states in his afterword that he "[detests] symbols and allegories"). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. "Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies," he says. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny."
Nabokov finished Lolita on 6 December 1953, five years after starting it. Because of its subject matter, Nabokov intended to publish it pseudonymously (although the anagrammatic character Vivian Darkbloom would tip off the alert reader). The manuscript was turned down, with more or less regret, by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. After these refusals and warnings, he finally resorted to publication in France. Via his translator Doussia Ergaz, it reached Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, "three-quarters of [whose] list was pornographic trash". Underinformed about Olympia, overlooking hints of Girodias's approval of the conduct of a protagonist Girodias presumed was based on the author, and despite warnings from Morris Bishop, his friend at Cornell, Nabokov signed a contract with Olympia Press for publication of the book, to come out under his own name.
Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks "swarming with typographical errors". Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the very end of 1955, Graham Greene, in the London Sunday Times, called it one of the three best books of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the London Sunday Express, whose editor John Gordon called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography". British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, France followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita; the ban lasted for two years. Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London in 1959 was controversial enough to contribute to the end of the political career of the Conservative member of parliament Nigel Nicolson, one of the company's partners.
The novel then appeared in Danish and Dutch translations. Two editions of a Swedish translation were withdrawn at the author's request.
Despite initial trepidation, there was no official response in the U.S., and the first American edition was issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons in August 1958. The book was into a third printing within days and became the first since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.
The novel continues to generate controversy today as modern society has become increasingly aware of the lasting damage created by child sexual abuse. In 2008, an entire book was published on the best ways to teach the novel in a college classroom given that "its particular mix of narrative strategies, ornate allusive prose, and troublesome subject matter complicates its presentation to students". In this book one author urges teachers to note that Lolita's suffering is noted in the book even if the main focus is on Humbert. Many critics describe Humbert as a rapist, notably Azar Nafisi in her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, though in a survey of critics David Larmour notes that other interpreters of the novel have been reluctant to use that term. Near the end of the novel, Humbert accuses himself of rape; however, after noting this, Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd denies that it was rape on the grounds that Dolores was not a virgin and seduced Humbert in the morning of their hotel stay. This perspective is vigorously disputed by Peter Rabinowitz in his essay "Lolita: Solipsized or Sodomized?".
In 1998, Lolita came fourth in a list by the Modern Library of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.
In 1956, Nabokov wrote an afterword to Lolita ("On a Book Entitled Lolita"), that first appeared in the first U.S. edition and has appeared thereafter.
One of the first things Nabokov makes a point of saying is that, despite John Ray Jr.'s claim in the Foreword, there is no moral to the story.
Nabokov adds that "the initial shiver of inspiration" for Lolita "was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage". Neither the article nor the drawing has been recovered.
In response to an American critic who characterized Lolita as the record of Nabokov's "love affair with the romantic novel", Nabokov writes that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct".
Nabokov concludes the afterword with a reference to his beloved first language, which he abandoned as a writer once he moved to the United States in 1940: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian language for a second-rate brand of English".
Nabokov rated the book highly. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962, he said:
Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.
Over a year later, in an interview for Playboy, he said:
No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.
In the same year, in an interview with Life, Nabokov was asked which of his writings had most pleased him. He answered:
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.
The Russian translation includes a "Postscriptum" in which Nabokov reconsiders his relationship with his native language. Referring to the afterword to the English edition, Nabokov states that only "the scientific scrupulousness led me to preserve the last paragraph of the American afterword in the Russian text..." He further explains that the "story of this translation is the story of a disappointment. Alas, that 'wonderful Russian language' which, I imagined, still awaits me somewhere, which blooms like a faithful spring behind the locked gate to which I, after so many years, still possess the key, turned out to be non-existent, and there is nothing beyond that gate, except for some burned out stumps and hopeless autumnal emptiness, and the key in my hand looks rather like a lock pick."
Lolita has been filmed twice, been a musical, four stage-plays, one completed opera, and two ballets. There is also Nabokov's unfilmed (and re-edited) screenplay, an uncompleted opera based on the work, and an "imagined opera" which combines elements of opera and dance.Lolita was made in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick, and starred James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon as Lolita; Nabokov was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film's adapted screenplay, although little of this work reached the screen; Stanley Kubrick and James Harris substantially rewrote Nabokov's script, though neither took credit. The film greatly expanded the character of Clare Quilty, and removed all references to Humbert's obsession with young girls before meeting Dolores. Veteran arranger Nelson Riddle composed the music for the film, whose soundtrack includes the hit single, "Lolita Ya Ya."
The book was adapted into a musical in 1971 by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry under the title Lolita, My Love. Critics praised the play for sensitively translating the story to the stage, but it nonetheless closed before it opened in New York.
Nabokov's own re-edited and condensed version of the screenplay (revised December 1973) he originally submitted for Kubrick's film (before its extensive rewrite by Kubrick and Harris) was published by McGraw-Hill in 1974. One new element is that Quilty's play The Hunted Enchanter, staged at Dolores' high school, contains a scene that is an exact duplicate of a painting in the front lobby of the hotel, The Enchanted Hunter, at which Humbert allows Lolita to seduce him.
In 1982 Edward Albee adapted the book into a play, Lolita. It was savaged by critics, Frank Rich notably predicting fatal damage to Albee's career. Rich noted that the play's reading of the character of Quilty seemed to be taken from the Kubrick film.
In 1992 Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin adapted Lolita into a Russian-language opera Lolita, which premiered in Swedish in 1994 at the Royal Swedish Opera. The first performance in Russian was in Moscow in 2004. The opera was nominated for Russia's Golden Mask award. Its first performance in German was on 30 April at the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden as the opening night of the Internationale Maifestspiele Wiesbaden in 2011. The German version was shortened from four hours to three, but noted Lolita's death at the conclusion, which had been omitted from the earlier longer version. It was considered well-staged but musically monotonous. In 2001, Shchedrin extracted "symphonic fragments" for orchestra from the opera score, which were published as Lolita-Serenade.
The 1997 film Lolita was directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, and Melanie Griffith. It received mixed reviews. It was delayed for more than a year because of its controversial subject matter, and was not released in Australia until 1999. Multiple critics noted that this film removed all elements of dark comedy from the story. In Salon, Charles Taylor wrote that it "replaces the book's cruelty and comedy with manufactured lyricism and mopey romanticism."
In 1999, the Boston-based composer John Harbison began an opera of Lolita, which he abandoned in the wake of the clergy child abuse scandal in Boston. He abandoned it by 2005, but fragments were woven into a seven-minute piece, "Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera". Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov, is a character in Lolita.
In 2003, Russian director Victor Sobchak wrote a second non-musical stage adaptation, which played at the Lion and Unicorn fringe theater in London. It drops the character of Quilty and updates the story to modern England, and includes long passages of Nabokov's prose in voiceover.
Also in 2003, a stage adaptation of Nabokov's unused screenplay was performed in Dublin adapted by Michael West. It was described by Karina Buckley (in the Sunday Times of London) as playing more like Italian commedia dell'arte than a dark drama about paedophilia. Hiroko Mikami notes that the initial sexual encounter between Lolita and Humbert was staged in a way that left this adaptation particularly open to the charge of placing the blame for initiating the relationship on Lolita and normalizing child sexual abuse; however, Mikami challenged this reading of the production, noting that the ultimate devastation of events on Lolita's life is duly noted in the play.
In 2003, Italian choreographer Davide Bombana created a ballet based on Lolita that ran 70 minutes. It used music by Dmitri Shostakovich, György Ligeti, Alfred Schnittke and Salvatore Sciarrino. It was performed by the Grand Ballet de Génève in Switzerland in November 2003. It earned him the award Premio Danza E Danza in 2004 as "Best Italian Choreographer Abroad".
American composer Joshua Fineberg and choreographer Johanne Saunier created an "imagined opera" of Lolita. Running 70 minutes, it premiered in Montclair, New Jersey in April 2009. While other characters silently dance, Humbert narrates, often with his back to the audience as his image is projected onto video screens. Writing in The New York Times, Steve Smith noted that it stressed Humbert as a moral monster and madman, rather than as a suave seducer, and that it does nothing to "suggest sympathy" on any level of Humbert. Smith also described it as "less an opera in any conventional sense than a multimedia monodrama". The composer described Humbert as "deeply seductive but deeply evil". He expressed his desire to ignore the plot and the novel's elements of parody, and instead to put the audience "in the mind of a madman". He regarded himself as duplicating Nabokov's effect of putting something on the surface and undermining it, an effect for which he thought music was especially suited.
In 2009 Richard Nelson created a one-man drama, the only character onstage being Humbert speaking from his jail cell. It premiered in London with Brian Cox as Humbert. Cox believes that this is truer to the spirit of the book than other stage or film adaptations, since the story is not about Lolita herself but about Humbert's flawed memories of her.
Four Humors created and staged a Minnesota Fringe Festival version called "Four Humors Lolita: a Three-Man Show," August 2013. The show was billed as "A one hour stage play, based on the two and a half hour movie by Stanley Kubrick, based on the 5 hour screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on the 300 page novel by Vladimir Nabokov, as told by 3 idiots."
The Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco published a short parody of Nabokov's novel called "Granita" in 1959. It presents the story of Umberto Umberto (Umberto being both the author's first name and the Italian form of "Humbert") and his illicit obsession with the elderly "Granita".
Published in 1992, Poems for Men who Dream of Lolita by Kim Morrissey contains poems which purport to be written by Lolita herself, reflecting on the events in the story, a sort of diary in poetry form. Morrissey portrays Lolita as an innocent, wounded soul. In Lolita Unclothed, a documentary by Camille Paglia, Morrisey complains that in the novel Lolita has "no voice". Morrisey's retelling was adapted into an opera by composer Sid Rabinovitch, and performed at the New Music Festival in Winnipeg in 1993.
The 1995 novel Lo's Diary by Pia Pera retells the story from Lolita's point of view, making a few modifications to the story and names. (For example, Lolita does not die, and her last name is now "Maze".) The estate of Nabokov attempted to stop publication of the English translation (Lo's Diary), but it was protected by the court as "parody". "There are only two reasons for such a book: gossip and style", writes Richard Corliss, adding that Lo's Diary "fails both ways".
Steve Martin wrote the short story "Lolita at Fifty," included in his collection Pure Drivel of 1999, which is a gently humorous look at how Dolores Haze's life might have turned out. She has gone through many husbands. Richard Corliss writes that: "In six pages Martin deftly sketches a woman who has known and used her allure for so long—ever since she was 11 and met Humbert Humbert—that it has become her career."
Emily Prager states in the foreword to her novel Roger Fishbite that she wrote it mainly as a literary parody of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, partly as a "reply both to the book and to the icon that the character Lolita has become". Prager's novel, set in the 1990s, is narrated by the Lolita character, thirteen-year-old Lucky Lady Linderhoff.