Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D.


Nabokov, Lolita, Goethe, Faust, American


Goethe's Faust and Nabokov's Humbert both are erudite, middle-aged European scholars who, experiencing a convergence of academic and existential ennui, set eyes upon a young girl and instantly are consumed with lust. In both works the girls' widowed mothers die as a result of the protagonists' lustful intentions; a cross-country flight ensues; the once-respected scholars are wanted for murder; and Gretchen and Lolita each suffer from their sexual and emotional objectification. But the connections between Goethe's play and Nabokov's novel extend far beyond plot points, or even their decidedly different receptions in early 19th century Germany versus mid-20th century America. Each incorporates thematic elements of temptation, sin, moral versus societal law, and perhaps, most important, damnation versus possible redemption.

Combined, these striking thematic and textual similarities raise the compelling argument that Nabokov consciously and deliberately was reworking the Faust legend for a modern American audience. Moreover, this hidden compositional structure to a novel that many have called one of the greatest works of twentieth century American literature was one of Nabokov's most jealously guarded secrets, one he took deliberate measures to ensure never would be uncovered. And until now, that has been the case.Part of the reason may lie in Nabokov's often kaleidoscopic use of Goethe's famous play. In Goethe's version of the legend, for instance, the wager for Faust's soul between the Lord and Mephisto is rendered explicitly in the "Prologue in Heaven" scene. In Lolita, however, this soul-battle is rendered implicitly.

Humbert makes repeated references to the dual forces of "God" or "winged gentlemen of the jury," for example, or else to the demonic element personified by what he calls "McFate." At any moment, he fears one or the other may steal from him his life's deepest hunger: to possess a nymphet. Through an examination of both primary and secondary texts, this dissertation connects and illustrates the hidden structure of Goethe's Faust in Nabokov's Lolita. Furthermore, it is argued that this structure allowed Nabokov to rhetorically address issues of deepest concern to him, most notably the future immortality of the human soul.