The Golden Days (1944–1946), Balthus. A contemporary of Nabokov, Balthasar Klossowski, known as Balthus, depicted seemingly sexually aware pubescent girls of the type Nabokov would later describe in Lolita. Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the , 1966. Photo by
Lee Stalsworth

Lolita began as a novel and has become a code-word for the attractions of sexual girlhood. The novel titled Lolita was written by Vladimir Nabokov between 1949 and 1955, and published in France in 1955 and in the United States in 1958. Nabokov was born in Russia in 1899 and emigrated to the United States in 1940 after living in Europe since the Russian Revolution. He taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and Cornell University until the financial success of Lolita allowed him to stop teaching and move to Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977. Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls desperately in love with a young girl, Lolita, whom Nabokov famously described as a "nymphet." Humbert Humbert marries Lolita's mother in order to get close to her. After Lolita's mother's death, Humbert Humbert's passion is consummated during the course of an epic car trip, which ends in tragedy.

While Nabokov claimed his real subject matter was the esthetics of extreme erotic desire, the ostensibly pedophilic content of his novel rendered it scandalous. The book manuscript was first rejected by four United States publishers, then published, in English, by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press in France, and finally in an American edition by Putnam in 1958. The novel elicited outraged protests against its content, which did not lead to censorship in the United States, but caused the Olympia Press edition to be banned by the French Ministry of the Interior, at the request of the British Home Office. Having already generated brisk illicit sales, Lolita soared to the top of the United States' best-seller lists once it was officially published. Three days after publication, 62,500 copies were in print, and by 1964 the novel had sold 2.5 million copies in the United States alone. By the mid 1980s, Lolita had sold about 14 million copies aroundthe world.

Lolita's notoriety was magnified by its translation into film. The famed director Stanley Kubrick created his screen version in 1962, starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Sue Lyon (then fifteen years old) as Lolita, Shelley Winters as Lolita's mother Charlotte Haze, and Peter Sellars as Humbert's rival Clare Quilty. The film's screenplay was written by Nabokov himself. The film proved as controversial as the novel had been. After much debate and some editing of the film, it was released, but rated for adults only.

Kubrick's Lolita provided an image that resonated as widely as the novel's title. In an early scene, Lolita, reclining on the grass in a two-piece bathing suit, casts a sultry gaze at Humbert Humbert over her sunglasses. This image became conflated with a publicity still for the film showing a close-up of Lolita looking over red heart-shaped sunglasses while sucking on a red lollipop. Merged in the popular imagination, these two images have come to stand for Lolita, and, by extension, for the entire issue of whether precocious sexuality is an abusive adult fantasy, or the reality of incipient adolescence.

A sign of Lolita's ongoing relevance was the remake of the film by Adrian Lyne in 1997. The new film's screenplay was by Stephen Schiff and starred Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita (with a body double widely announced to be playing Lolita's sex scenes). Though Lyne had proved himself to be a commercially successful director in the past, he had great difficulty finding a U.S. distributor for the film. The problem of SEXUALITY in and with young girls, "nymphets," remains a troubled cultural terrain and the ambiguities of Lolita that connect PEDOPHILIA with sexual precocity incorporate and reflect that terrain.

See also: ; Theories of Childhood.


Boyd, Brian. 1991. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

LoBrutto, Vincent. 1997. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. New York: D. I. Fine Books.

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1964. "Interview: Vladimir Nabokov" Playboy 11 (January): pp. 35–41, 44–45.

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1991 [1955]. Lolita. Rev. ed., annotated and introduced by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: Vintage Books.

Phillips, Glen D., and Rodney Hill. 2002. The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Facts on File.