Category Archives: Nabokov, Lolita

On the Road with Lolita and Humbert Humbert: A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play

The most notorious road trip in American literature, live on Twitter!

24 hours only: THURSDAY, JUNE 5, 2014 (anywhere in the world)

Follow @LolitaRoadtrip, use hashtag #lolitatrip for details and updates

Join our Stanford Literature and Transgression class as we take to the road with two of American literature’s most famous characters, Lolita and Humbert Humbert. Follow and interact with them as they travel through America, meet many strange and interesting characters (some of whom may be on the run themselves), and stop at notorious sights and watering holes along the way. Embody your favorite character from Nabokov’s novel or tweet as an author or character of other scandalous literary works or films (road movies!), popular culture or history, or make up memorable characters of your own.

Make sure you include your character’s name at the start of each of your tweets so we know who “you” are. Feel free to switch your persona, include links and visuals, be creative and engage others directly. Make sure you include that hashtag so we see your tweet!

Sample tweets:

  • LOLITA: Daddy-O is getting on my nerves again about enchanted hunters and stuff. I’d rather hunt for cute clothes. #lolitatrip
  • MOTEL OWNER: Why did they not ask for a rollaway? Better keep my eyes on this guy. #lolitatrip
  • EMMA BOVARY to Lolita: I know of a really lovely county fair nearby. Worth a stop! #lolitatrip
  • Milton’s SATAN: Getting ready for you any day now, Humb. Hear you’re a smooth talker like myself. Enjoy that evil #lolitatrip while it lasts!
  • HAROLD (from Harold and Maude): You’re so young. Not my thing. #lolitatrip
  • RYAN GOSLING: Hey girl, look here … #lolitatrip

 More details:

Lolita is a 14-year-old, fully social-media-savvy teenager. She has a smartphone, secret thoughts and agenda, and lots of contact with other people as she travels with Humbert Humbert. She visits internet cafes, chat rooms, may sometimes even “borrow” strangers’ phones. She loves comics, fashion, pop culture, so she often also posts visuals or links to stuff she likes. Humbert Humbert is a true technophobe, so he mostly has no clue about Lolita’s electronic life as they travel–which may be one reason why he truly doesn’t know her. Through the Twitter role-play, we get a privileged insight into Lolita’s character and thoughts via her tweets, instant messages, and postings. Don’t forget that she may also be into emoticons …

You can invent new characters or expand existing ones in Nabokov’s novel, even dead ones (e.g. Charlotte Haze, the brawny mechanic who talks to Lolita at a gas station, a hotel chambermaid who makes up HH’s and Lolita’s room, a former student of HH’s, someone at a restaurant who looks at Lolita and HH and wonders what they are doing, etc.)  Is anybody back home wondering about Lo and her stepfather? Had she confided in any friends at school or camp? Are any friends, moms or teachers suspicious or worried?  What’s happening to the Hazes’ empty house?

Other characters, authors from literary texts, or authors or ideas from theoretical texts about transgression also tweet. E.g., what commentary or advice would Madame Bovary, Bataille, Madame Edwarda, Herod, Satan, or Sam Delany have for Humbert Humbert or Lolita? How would “the Limit” tweet? What would “Transgression” say?  How would “Carnival” chime in? etc.

Suggestions for intertextual tweeting:

Some transgressive works that our Stanford class has read and discussed as a class this quarter (besides Lolita) and that may enter our mix of tweets include the following–but feel free to add your own books, movies, or favorite authors to our transgressive road trip!

  • Ibsen’s Ghosts
  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost (Satan passages)
  • Wilde’s Salome
  • Bataille’s Madame Edwarda
  • Excerpts from Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Delany’s Hogg, Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
  • Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (and Valentine de Saint-Point’s Futurist-Feminist response)
  • Ionesco’s The Chairs
  • Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”



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Filed under Nabokov, Lolita, Twitter role-play

Rejecting Uniformity in Lolita

In 1937, J. Edgar Hoover declared a “War on the Sex Criminal,” arguing that “the sex fiend, most loathsome of all the vast army of crime, has become a sinister threat to the safety of American childhood and womanhood.” Ten years later, in a

"How Safe is Your Daughter?" accompanied Hoover's claim about sex offenders. From American Magazine, 144 (July 1947).

“How Safe is Your Daughter?” From American Magazine, Issue 144 (July, 1947).

popular magazine, he reiterated this fear, claiming “the most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders” and implying that they posted a threat to the whole social order, saying “Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove American almost at will” (Freedman, 1987 p. 94). Accompanying these claims was the image to the right, depicting three happy, young and innocent looking girls – the daughters of America – being unknowingly pursued by the dark, massive hand of the American sex offender. In the years surrounding Hoover’s calls to arms over the issue of the sex offender in America, the media became increasingly sensitive to stories of sexual violence and crime, often sensationalizing them, and ultimately creating a “sex crime panic,” which in turn led to the rounding up of “perverts”  in the name of children’s safety, leading to the detainment of many men, including minor offenders and homosexuals.

These are the cultural understandings of the pedophile and sex offender that persist when Nabokov writes Lolita (published 1955). He is, above all, violent, a “wild beast,” “more savage than beasts,” shadowy and always on the prowl. And, indeed, John Ray, Jr., PhD conjured up precisely this image for me when he describes H.H. in the foreword:

No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. he is abnormal. He is not a gentleman (p. 5).

And yet… the Humbert Humbert of the novel – or, at least the early Humbert Humbert whom Lolita has not yet seduced – seems a particularly moral and gentlemanly pedophile (if such a thing can exist at all). Before his description of the scene in which he is utterly blissful as Lolita puts her legs across his lap, he explains:

I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to reply; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, “impartial sympathy” (p. 57).

Here, as in other places, H.H. explicitly understands himself as “chaste.” Fearing for the moral integrity and psychological development  of Lolita, he navigates the situation in a discreet, “careful” way in an attempt to protect her from knowing about or consciously participating in his sexual gratification. In the early part of the novel, the balance he creates (or at least attempts to create) between preserving Lolita’s sexual purity and satisfying his own sexual desires sets him apart from Hoover’s sex offender, who is brutally violent and understands his victims as disposable objects designed to satisfy his perverse desires. It can at least be said that Humbert denies this terrifying psychology, instead seeking to achieve outlets for his pedophilic desires that cause no damage by their being unobserved.

In this way, Nabokov seems to reject the requirement of moral degeneracy in pathologized pedophiles. In perhaps a less severe example, Nabokov rejects the physicality of the pedophile. Humbert constantly describes himself as beautiful and “virile,” and, moreover, he considers his virility helpful in passing as a normal man (i.e., not a pedophile). He sees his

Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert in the 1997 adaptation of Lolita

Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert in the 1997 adaptation of Lolita

virility and beauty as seducing Charlotte Haze and Jean Farlow, and both of these seductions help him to distract the women from his interest in Lolita. The significance of his good looks, for me, was lost in reading the book, as the way I evaluated his actions and self-admittedly pathetic speeches informed the image I had of him. However, comparing the Humbert Humbert of Adrian Lyne’s film version of Lolita (1997) to the depiction of the pedophile in, say, Boys, Beware! (1961, just five years after the publication of Lolita), I find the physical appearance of H.H. an especially important rejection of the standardized image of the pedophile that was culturally relevant as Nabokov wrote.

With these examples, I want to emphasize the way Nabokov denies the sweeping generalizations of modern American psychiatry. From dream symbols that he mocks to the ridiculous pseudo-psychological speech given by Mrs. Pratt (p. 194-195), Nabokov rejects the uniformity that American psychiatry fabricates. Neither H.H. nor Lolita are mass-produced characters, but instead are intentionally difficult to understand. Lolita, through the eyes of Humbert, is an utterly enigmatic nymphet, while Humbert, though often a sympathetic character, has desires and motivations that throughout the novel are difficult to relate to both for the way they affront the reader’s sense of morality. By creating characters that resist mainstream, recognizable “diagnoses,” Nabokov undermines the legitimacy of psychiatric institutions that tend to apply blanket terms and definitions to the unique situations of individuals.


Freedman, Estelle B. “Uncontrolled Desires: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960.” The Journal of American History, 74.1 (Jun. 1987): 88-106. Print.

Lolita. Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. Pathé, 1997. DVD.

Nabokov, Vladimir, and Alfred Appel. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.

Youtube user shaggylocks. “Boys Beware (1961).” Youtube, 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 May 2014.

Posted by ER [word count: 969]

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May 13, 2014 · 10:41 PM

Lolita and Advertisement

Among many things, Nabokov’s Lolita has been lauded for its “rich, elaborate verbal textures” (Appel, The Annotated Lolita, xi). His skill with language pervades each sentence of the novel: from punning to wordplay to poetry. The effect of this linguistic play, however, often goes beyond mere aesthetic pleasure. In several places, Nabokov touches on the idea of advertisement: language used to depict a product or service in an alluring way. This theme of advertisement-language creates an additional layer of meaning in Lolita. It suggests that language can be used to depict objects or realities in a way that adds artificial value. Indeed, on closer examination, it can be seen that Humbert Humbert uses this language not merely for his depictions of American culture but for Lolita herself. Understanding Humbert’s depictions of Lolita as moments of advertisement-language will helps us to understand the presentation of his relationship with her as something rendered more beautiful or valuable than it actually may be.

Rather than understanding advertisement conventionally – that is, as an overt sales pitch – understanding it as a subtle function of language can give us a deeper insight into Lolita’s literary technique. Take, for instance, Herbert Tucker’s definition of advertisement:

The strategy, for which another name of course is advertising, entails a re-description of the commodity in terms that boost its value by deepening its mystique, a property that is ordinarily associated with the exotic in space or time. In the mind of a customer who can be brought to fancy that a piece of fruit bears within it, somehow, the whole climate and landscape in which it grew, it becomes not fruit but produce. (Tucker 120)

While Tucker is a critic of the nineteenth-century and not the twentieth, his view of advertisement as an effect of “descriptive” language can apply well to both eras. At bottom, he defines advertisement language as that which artificially adds value to an otherwise non-valuable (or less-valuable) object. It takes this object and, by linguistic association with more desirable ideas and descriptors, reorients the audience’s desire the object in question. In the case of Lolita, the object of description – the fruit, so to speak – is not an item of produce but Lolita herself.

In Humbert’s road trip with Lolita through America, Nabokov highlights the central role of advertisement as a theme of the novel. Specifically, he emphasizes the way advertisement-language manipulates its audience into desiring an otherwise mundane object. See, for instance, the advertisements Humbert Humbert encounters on their trip:

The would-be enticements of their repetitious names – all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts [ . . . ] There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as “Children welcome, pets allowed.” (Nabokov146)

Humbert identifies the names of each lodging as what makes them “enticing” to the traveler. The “Sunset” Motel, for instance, uses the visual pleasure and relaxation of a sunset to impart the same ideas onto a residential motel. “Pine View Courts” uses the promise of pine-forest imagery in its name to make it a scenically appealing location. What’s more, the label of “courts” likens it to an aristocratic space – a place with luxury above that of a more common lodge. With the term “courts” in particular, the advertisement imparts characteristics onto the residence that are not objectively part of it. A motel, for instance, can very easily have pines or mountains in the surrounding area, but calling it a “court” takes a purely abstract qualifier and uses it to make the place more appealing. Language functions here, in other words, solely to add ephemeral value to the object. In an advertising capacity, then, language works with an eye to its audience. Rather than functioning as a sincere representation of its object, advertisement-language aims to construct an external aura around an object that will lure audiences to it. The same may be said, then about Humbert Humbert’s representation of Lolita.

Humbert Humbert describes Lolita in an alluring way that transforms her from a child into an object of erotic desire. Throughout his account, Humbert displays a keen awareness of audience – even going so far as to address the reader directly. He knows that this audience is likely to be unsympathetic to the idea of lusting after a twelve-year-old child. Accordingly, he depicts the child in a way that actively counteracts this audience’s disgust. Take, for instance, his alluring portrayal of Lolita early in the book:

As she bent her brown curls over the desk at which I was sitting, [ . . . ] her adorable profile, parted lips, warm hair were some three inches from my bared eyetooth; and I felt the heat of her limbs through her rough tomboy clothes. All at once I knew I could kiss her throat. (Nabokov 48)

The description of Lolita’s body and face here are notably sensuous. Humbert emphasizes her “parted lips,” as well as her “brown curls” and “warm hair.” Both are erotic images. A female’s hair in particular is often considered attribute of beauty, but curled and warm it also takes on more intimate connotations. Including a mention of warmth adds a synesthetic descriptor that prompts audiences into a more vividly pleasant experience of the Lolita Humbert sees. The same is replicated with the “heat” of her limbs. Breaking Lolita down into these sensuous body parts – parts that can be found in not just a child but a desirable adult woman – has the effect of distracting the audience from Lolita’s problematic youth. Lips, hair, and limbs all remain relatively constant objects of desire as a girl ages. Hence, Humbert uses these parts in a way that a standard adult audience can appreciate. Humbert’s portrayal of Lolita therefore plays specifically on the qualities and sensations that an audience can buy into. Like advertisement-language, his description imparts a universalized external value onto an object that, on its own, might not be naturally desirable. The reader – who plays the role of the consumer here – is persuaded to regard Lolita in this alluring linguistic light.

Embedded in Nabokov’s most famous ‘American’ novel, then, is a critique of America’s advertisement culture. When mass audiences can manipulated by language, a tale like Lolita can become not only palatable but attractive. Indeed, we see the victims of this manipulation in characters like Charlotte – the “artless” woman attracted by the fads of “soap operas, psychoanalysis, and cheap novelettes” (75). She, like the audience of Lolita, falls for the romance Humbert constructs for her consumption. Or even Lolita herself, the indiscriminate consumer who wants to buy everything she sees, simply because it appears in her magazines. Such people are very the targets of Humbert’s market language.

It makes sense that Humbert would harness the power of advertisement to portray Lolita in the light he does. After all, stripped of this allure, the facts of his story paint a criminal tale: a man lusts after and kidnaps a twelve-year-old child. His language and stylistic form work against this incrimination. They perform the same magic over Lolita as advertisement does over the novel’s cheap American attractions. In the end, there is perhaps little difference between the hyped-up “Sunset Motel” and Humbert’s dazzling prose about an illicit love affair. For it is only through a great mastery of linguistic style that a story about pedophilia can become not only palatable but, at times, intensely beautiful.


Works Cited:

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita, New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

Tucker, Herbert F. “Rosesetti’s Goblin Marketing: Sweet to Tongue and Sound to Eye,” Representations Vol. 82, No. 1, Spring 2003, Web. 14 March 2013. 


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The Reader’s Power Dilemma in Lolita

When reading Lolita, many struggle with their enjoyment of the novel.  “Who am I,” thoughtful readers wonder, “that I can take pleasure in a story about a pedophile?”  Just before the initial sex scene that manifests the narrator’s desires, the text’s speaker teases conflicted readers on this point, acknowledging his own iniquity and self-consciously confusing the distinction between perverse protagonist and distant reader.  In doing so, the narrator places himself in a position where he is at once manipulative towards and at the mercy of the reader, much as he portrays himself in relationship to Lolita.

Before the first sex scene, the narrator acknowledges his own perversity, then obscures the boundary between himself and the reader such that the true source of degeneracy becomes unclear.  Having just gotten into bed next to the sleeping Lolita, he pleads, “Please reader, no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages!”  (131). Here, he establishes his awareness of the frustration readers likely feel.  He admits that the next few pages—where it is clear that the sex scene will occur—are the part that the reader has been dreading. In this way, he assumes responsibility for what he knows are immoral actions, but asks the reader for sympathy and patience.  He draws upon the readers’ compassion by describing himself as “tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, [and] infinitely circumspect” with a touch of irony as if to make clear that he knows he is none of those things.  On the basis of his confession, it seems, he asks the reader to continue.  He has firmly established himself as someone worth being exasperated towards, assuming the responsibility for what he knows are immoral actions.

Soon, however, he muddles the distinction between himself and his audience, transferring some of the blame o readers.  When he exhorts, “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me,” he implies that everything he is depends upon the readers’ imaginations (131).  The suggestion here is uncomfortable.  If he would not exist without us, then we are in fact supplying the perversity that gives him life.  If that is so, then we are the guilty ones.  If we judge him as immoral, as many do, yet we keep reading, then we are to blame for keeping something immoral alive.

What the narrator does by befuddling the source of culpability for the perversity of the sex about to come is disorient the locus of power between reader and text.  Typically, stories are thought to exist whether we read them or not, and we cannot therefore be responsible for their content.  However, Lolita’s narrator makes it unclear whether we are controlling him or he us.  On the one hand, he pleads that he would not exist without us, so it seems we readers are in control.  Meanwhile, many readers would like to attribute their enjoyment of a book that is in plain terms immoral to something powerful about the text.  Many would like to say that the story simply whisked them away or that the power of the language was what compelled them to keep reading.  Those appeals locate control within the text.

Later in the same passage, the narrator deepens the confusion of power by putting himself and reader on the same plane, as if both were equally responsible.  Continuing with his plea that the reader imagine him in a particular way, he says, “let’s even smile a little” (131).  In this way, he implies that reader and protagonist-narrator act together.  Though in one sense this is comforting if we had been convinced before that it the animation of the action was entirely our fault, in another this is entirely disturbing.  Does this mean that each time the speaker has a compromising thought about Lolita, we do too?  It is one thing to breathe life into a degenerate and quite another to be one.

The passage leaves the question of power unresolved.  We find here a crystallization of some of the questions that surround the relationship of the protagonist and Lolita.  Who seduces whom?  In one sense, the narrator is at the mercy of Lolita as he is at the behest of the reader.  He certainly feels powerless over his sexual feelings towards her.  At the same time, he controls Lolita’s story.  He is older than she; he drives the car; he rents the hotel room. He declares the conditions of their relationship in the same way that he creates the setting and narrative arc for readers.  In other ways, the two seem equals.  When they ride in the car and Lolita jokes about her experiences at camp, they speak as longtime friends.

The confusion of power in the protagonist’s relationship to Lolita manifests in his relationship to the reader, and this reiteration is part of what makes the novel at once so compelling and so frustrating.

posted by Deviant

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