Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Modern Language Association of America


The late 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in ethics and literature, with the publication of new books on the subject by major scholars like J. Hillis Miller and Wayne Booth. In recent years, many critics and theorists (including some Nabokov scholars) have (re)turned to ethical questions about literature: Does literature imitate life, and will readers, in turn, imitate the actions (whether virtuous or ignoble) of characters in literary texts? How and why can literary works be ethically beneficial or harmful for their readers? Are authors responsible for any ethical effects-positive or negative-their works may produce in readers? What are the relations between aesthetics and ethics?

Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant, funny, and poignant novel Lolita foregrounds such questions. After years of teaching Lolita occasionally in courses on contemporary American literature, I decided a few years ago to make it the centerpiece of a new course I was designing as a senior seminar for English majors, Ethics and Literature. The novel might have seemed a strange choice to students and even colleagues who had heard about but not read Lolita, whose reputation always precedes it. After all, the novel is about and narrated by a grown man who repeatedly proclaims his lust and, finally, love for a barely pubescent girl who becomes his legal stepdaughter and with whom he has frequent and often nonconsensual sex. To put it more bluntly, this is a novel "about" pedophilia and (pseudo) incest. Yet Lolita may also be, in John Hollander's formulation, the "record" of its authorsr's "love affair with the romantic novel" (559), or, as Nabokov prefers, with the English language ("On a Book" 316). Or is Lolita "both a love story and a parody oflove stories" (Appel, Notes 395) or both a romance and a parody of romance (Frosch)? Is it a novel about the (im)possibility of love or the wages of solipsism (and sexism) or "aesthetic bliss," as Nabokov himself suggests in the afterword to Lolita ("On a Book .. 314), or the quest for immortality through art (if not eternal youth through sex with nymphets)?

Chapter of

Approaches to Teaching Nabokov's Lolita

Part of

Approaches to Teaching World Literature


Zoran Kuzmanovich
Galya Diment



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