‘My Poor Little Girl’: Lolita and Nabokov’s Faulkner

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Vladimir Nabokov’s disdain for the work of William Faulkner is well documented. In Strong Opinions, Nabokov asserted that Faulkner’s ‘corncobby chronicles’ cannot be ‘considered “masterpieces”’, and that Faulkner’s work as a whole ‘mean[t] absolutely nothing to’ Nabokov, who preferred the work of, for example, Henry James and James Joyce. This paper, however, makes the case that Nabokov’s Lolita, one of the most transgressive postmodern novels ever published, was written, at least in part, under the influence of three Faulkner masterworks: The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, and Absalom, Absalom!.

In this paper, I argue that Humbert Humbert is a distillation of Quentin Compson, Popeye, and Wash Jones, and that Dolores “Lolita” Haze is, herself, an amalgamation of Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, and Milly Jones. Humbert, Quentin, Popeye, and Wash are each driven by base, transgressive instincts and desires for their ‘heart’s darling’, with devastating consequences. My paper will be divided into three sections which outline parallels between Humbert and Dolores, Quentin and Caddy, Wash and Milly, and Popeye and Temple. The first section will elaborate upon the shared focus on incest, destructive desire, and loss that permeates Lolita and The Sound and the Fury. In other words, the first section reads Humbert and Dolores as a partial rewriting of Quentin and Caddy Compson respectively. The second section will focus on Humbert and Dolores in relation to Wash and Milly. Here, I examine the possibility that Wash, in his trafficking of Milly to Sutpen, not only exhibits undertones of incestuous sexual desire for Milly, but also murders Sutpen in similar circumstances to Lolita’s seducer, Clare Quilty. The third and final section will outline the relentless sexual abuse and trauma that Dolores and Temple suffer at the hands of Humbert and Popeye throughout their journey across Mississippi and the wider United States.

Lolita was published in 1955, the year Faulkner won his first Pulitzer Prize. The 1950s was the moment when Faulkner’s reputation as a master of world letters was solidified, and also coincides with Nabokov’s tenure at Cornell University (1948-1959). As Nabokov’s statements in Strong Opinions makes clear, he was certainly familiar with Faulkner’s work. However, the possibility that Lolita was, in fact, highly influenced by Faulkner, has been virtually unacknowledged in the scholarly literature on these authors. E. A. Malone published a notable, albeit brief, account of Nabokov’s contempt for Faulkner’s work in 1990, but there have been no substantive comparisons published in over thirty years. This essay could begin a re-evaluation of Faulkner’s influence upon Nabokov. Despite Nabokov’s vehement protestations to the contrary, this paper works to prove that Nabokov was indebted to Faulkner, and that the similarities between Lolita and aspects of The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, and Absalom, Absalom! must finally be acknowledged.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-91
JournalThe Faulkner Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2022

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