Lo. Lee. Ta.

Un ensayo que escribí para mi clase de American Writes, perdonen mi inglés 🙈💙

By Linette Cozaya Otto

American Writers’ Partial Exam

Dr. Vivian Antaki

Lolita, a love story according to many, a disturbing novel, concurring with my friends in class. It is more like an obsession tale: a forty-year-old man fixated on his twelve-year-old daughter. It is Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous work, considered the greatest novel of the 20thcentury by many authors. Published in 1955 in France, arrived to America in 1958 and quickly became a cultural icon, attaining a classic status. The novel was adapted into a film twice: first, in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick; then, in 1997 by Adrian Lyne.

Let us talk about the story: Humbert Humbert is our protagonist, the man tormented by loving the ones he cannot have: nymphets. “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demonic); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’.” (Lolita, Nabokov). Dolores Haze, Lolita, is the nymphet he has wanted the most, being the daughter of his landlady, he would do anything to see her, to stay close. Including marrying this woman, who, of course he does not even care about, he actually kind of loathes her. H. H. is constantly criticizing everything the Haze woman does, to the point that one, as a reader, dislikes her too.

To Humbert’s (good) fortune, Charlotte Haze finds his diary, reads it and faces death while trying to send some letters. Just like that, he can have Lo for himself, so he takes her on a yearlong road trip, visiting motel after motel; they take the road and leave everything behind. Humbert rapes her regularly, Dolly cries for her dead mother, and herself, I guess. What is it about Lolita that feels so attractive to readers all over the world? “It is the horrific rather than the comic aspect of the novel that has captured critical attention.” (Lo, the Poor Nymphet, Donald Malcom), the human necessity to learn about morbid affairs, the astonishment of learning someone else’s thoughts, not regular or acceptable ones.

In 1962 Nabokov wrote a screenplay for Kubrick’s film, which was not used because it was way too long, so Kubrick and Harris rewrote it, omitting parts of the book, such as the sexually implicit innuendos, or the sexual relationship between Lolita and Humbert, which is implied but never depicted on screen, because of the strict censorship in the 1960s. Starring fourteen-year-old Suellyn Lyon, James Mason as Humbert Humbert and Peter Sellers (of course) as Quilty, Lolita polarized the critics: many of them seemed uninterested while others gave it glowing reviews.

It is a great film, it has great music, composed by Nelson Riddle, although the main theme was by Bob Harris. Frames are of course perfect, the Kubrick way. The movie is so good it was nominated for a number of awards: An Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, an Outstanding Directional Achievement in Motion Pictures, the Venice Film Festival for Best Director; the actors were nominated too for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress (Shelley Winters) and Actor (James Mason), and won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer which went to Sue Lyon.

In 1997 Adriane Lyne directed the second screen adaptation of Lolita. Written by Stephen Schiff, it stars Dominique Swain as Dolores Haze, Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Frank Langella as Clare Quity. This version is more faithful to the text of the novel than Kubrick’s one: “Right from the beginning, it was clear to all of us that this movie was not a “remake” of Kubrick’s film. Rather, we were out to make a new adaptation of a very great novel. Some of the filmmakers involved actually looked upon the Kubrick version as a kind of “what not to do.” I had somewhat fonder memories of it than that, but I had not seen it for maybe fifteen years, and I didn’t allow myself to go back to it again.” (An Interview with Stephen Schiff, Schiff).

Lyne’s Lolita had trouble finding an American distributor, hence its premiere in Europe before being released in America. The film was The New York Times “Critics Pick” on July 31, 1998, with its critic Caryn James saying, “Rich beyond what anyone could have expected, the film repays repeated viewings… it turns Humbert’s madness into art.” (Television Review: Revisiting a Dangerous Obsession, Caryn James).

I also found a comment by Charles Taylor comparing the film and the novel: “[f]or all of their vaunted (and, it turns out, false) fidelity to Nabokov, Lyne and Schiff have made a pretty, gauzy Lolita that replaces the book’s cruelty and comedy with manufactured lyricism and mopey romanticism”. (“Recent Movies: Home Movies: Nymphet Mania”, Charles Taylor). Extending Taylor’s observation, Keith Phipps concludes: “Lyne doesn’t seem to get the novel, failing to incorporate any of Nabokov’s black comedy—which is to say, Lolita’s heart and soul.” (“Lolita”, Keith Phipps). I have to differ with both of them, I do feel the film represents the novel, even better than Kubrick’s version, because we are indeed seeing what Humbert wants us to see. Lolita is pictured like that, with super tight and short clothes because H. H. sees her like that. Just like in the novel, we only learn about hisfeelings, hispoint of view and hisperception about everything.

The novel is using a technique that we have to talk about (and applaud): mise en abyme, literally meaning “placed into abyss”, is the presentation of a representation in a mirror, the copy of an image within itself, the story inside a story. It is used to make the spectator think about the way something has been made. In Lolita, we have a frame that leads us to meet the protagonist through his lawyers eyes first. This we don’t have in any of the films, it jumps right to Part One of the book, and I think it was important to know that Nabokov is mocking all of us, that he is writing a satire where Humbert Humbert is just an invention and J. R. Jr., the one who “writes” the foreword is also a joke. He is not trying to teach us anything, or give a significance to the story: “Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy is the norm.” (pp. 315, Lolita, Nabokov).

Lolita is also a road novel, and both of the films are consequently, road movies: film genre in which the main characters leave home on a road trip, typically altering the perspective from their everyday lives. In both the films and the novel, the characters start at one point, with a point of view, with some specific dreams, and end up somewhere else, somewhere unexpected and different: Lolita lives with her mother, a really difficult relationship, yet a good life for both, she does not know what to expect from life apart from happiness and fulfilled whims; in the end she is nowhere near that Lolita we knew when it all started. Humbert is a man with really creepy desires (needs?), thinking he will not be able to satisfy them; he ends up having Lo for himself for more than two years.

Nabokov describes the road, the places Lo and H. H. visit with such grace and musicality, that one forgets he is reading a story of abuse. There is so much of the writer in his novel: the tennis, chess games, the background of Humbert is similar to his, a nomad, relearning all about this new place: “I was faced by the task of inventing America.” (pp. 312, Lolita, Nabokov), and he did. Pages and pages of America through his eyes were printed: “I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states. (…) There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background.” (pp. 152, Lolita, Nabokov). He paints motels and their runaway journey so beautifully that one may think he was born and raised there, however, he was just trying to be an American writer.

Lolita is more like a tragedy, where the artist, the poet, is also the criminal, thus, he ends up being limitless, free to do and think whatever he wants, unafraid of being judge, he does not even care about being judge. He can see through all of this, outside of human condition. “His tone, however, is not the characteristic whine of the penitent but an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity that quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity.” (Lo, the Poor Nymphet, Donald Malcom). But we must not let the novel seduce us, we must not abandon reason, better said in Nabokov’s words:“That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions.” (pp. 316, Lolita, Nabokov). We can read and be participants on Humbert’s actions, and that does not mean we are agreeing nor applying it to our lives too.

“Literature is a wonderful toy” said Nabokov, and it is. It led a marvellous novel to deliver two great films too. Even though they are both so different from each other, the heart-breaking story lingers: a girl abused over and over, psychologically, sentimentally and physically by this man, the manipulation is almost palpable, for example: “I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child. (..) I am your dadum, Lo. Look, I’ve a learned book here about young girls. Look darling, what it says. I quote: the normal girl – normal, mark you – the normal girl is usually extremely anxious to please her father. (…) While I stand gripping the bars of various dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays. You will go there, Lolita – my Lolita, this Lolita will leave her Catullus and go there, as the wayward girl you are.” (pp. 150-151, Lolita, Nabovkov).

And we can actually see that: terrorized Lolita, in both films and novel, trying to find herself within the four walls she knows: “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” (pp. 142, Lolita, Nabokov). It doesn’t matter how flirty the kid was, we must not forget the story in all three outputs is through the stalker’s point of view. Dolly cries every night, she is not happy, she is lost, sad, and all alone.

The novel didn’t save Lolita, nor Humbert, but it ended up freeing Nabokov: after its success, he was able to focus on his writing. To pursue his passion for butterflies, making road trips, discovering new species, he said: “Every serious writer, I dare say, is aware of this or that published book of his as of a constant comforting presence. Its pilot light is steadily burning somewhere in the basement and a mere touch applied to one’s private thermostat instantly results in a quiet little explosion of familiar warmth.” (pp. 315, Lolita, Nabokov). And though he had to explain he was not H. H. and had no interest in nymphets whatsoever, I feel he was proud of his work, with its resonance and cultural meaning it has reached.

“In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party.” (Lolita, Nabokov), reads the novel, still leaving the reader with a sour taste. How many girls go through similar situations? How many boys? Abused, tortured, deprived of their freedom? We should not feel sorry for Humbert. We should be aware and share that awareness about abusive relationships, they are real, and they are happening right this very moment. How are we going to make the difference?


  • “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Second Vintage International Edition, June 1997.
  • “Lo, the Poor Nymphet” by Donald Malcom on The Newyorker’s 1958 issue (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1958/11/08/lo-the-poor-nymphet)
  • “An Interview with Stephen Schiff” by Suellen Stringer-Hye. Penn State University Libraries, 1996.
  • “Television Review: Revisiting a Dangerous Obsession”. The New York Times.
  • “Recent Movies: Home Movies: Nymphet Mania” by Charles Taylor, Salon.
  • “Lolita” by Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club (2002-03-29)

xx linette

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