What inspired or influenced Vladimir Nabokov to write 'Lolita'?

Lolita - Nabokov
Lolita - Nabokov. Olympia Press

Lolita is one of the most controversial novels in literary history. Wondering what inspired Vladimir Nabokov to write the novel, how the idea evolved over time, or why is the novel now considered one of the great fiction books of the 20th century? Here are some events and works that inspired the novel.

Origins

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita over a period of 5 years, finally finishing the novel on December 6, 1953.

The book was first published in 1955 (in Paris, France) and then in 1958 (in New York, New York). (The author also later translated the book back into his native tongue, Russian--later in his life.)

As with any other novel, the evolution of the work happened over many years. We can see that Vladimir Nabokov drew from many sources.

Author's Inspiration: In "On a Book Entitled Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov writes: "As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration 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: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage."

Music

There's also some evidence that music (classical Russian ballet) and European fairy tales may have had a strong influence. In "Ballet Attitudes," Susan Elizabeth Sweeney writes: "Indeed, Lolita echoes specific aspects of the plotting, characters, scenery, and choreography of The Sleeping Beauty." She develops upon the idea further in:

  • "Fantasy, Folklore, and Finite Numbers in Nabokov's 'A Nursery Tale'," Slavic and East European Journal 43, no. 3 (Fall 1999), 511-29.
  • Grayson, Jane, Arnold McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer, eds, "Looking at Harlequins: Nabokov, the World of Art, and the Ballets Russes," Nabokov's World (Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave, 2002), 73-95.
  • Shapiro, Gavriel, ed. "The Enchanter and the Beauties of Sleep," Nabokov at Cornell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press)

Specifically, we can draw correlatives with "La Belle au bois dormant," Perrault's 17th-century tale.

Fairy Tales

The novel's unreliable narrator, Humber Humbert, also seems to see himself as part of a fairy tale. He's on "an enchanted island," after all. And, he's "under a nymphet's spell." Before him is an "intangible island of entranced time," and he's enchanted with erotic fantasies--all focused on and revolving around his obsession with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. He specifically romanticizes his "little princess," as an incarnation of Annabel Leigh (Nabokov was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and there are a number of allusions to the life and works of the very-odd Poe in Lolita).

In his article for Random House, Brian Boyd says that Nabokov told his friend Edmund Wilson (April 1947): "I am writing two things now 1. a short novel about a man who liked little girls--and it's going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea--and 2. a new type of autobiography--a scientific attempt to unravel and trace back all the tangled threads of one's personality--and the provisional title is The Person in Question."

The allusion to that early working title ties in with Poe (once again) but would also have given the novel more of a fairy-tale feel...

Other elements of famous fairy tales also make their way into the text:

  • Lost slipper ("Cinderella")
  • "gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock" ("Beauty and the Beast")
  • She eats a red apple ("Sleeping Beauty")
  • Quilty also says to Humbert: "That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say."

Other Classic Literary Sources

Like Joyce and many other modernist writers, Nabokov is known for his allusions to other writers, and his parodies of literary styles. He later would pull the thread of Lolita through his other books and stories. Nabokov parodies  James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, he references many French authors (Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, François Rabelais, Charles Baudelaire, Prosper Mérimée, Remy Belleau, Honoré de Balzac, and Pierre de Ronsard), as well Lord Byron and Laurence Sterne.