If I Redesigned Lolita


Nearly every cover of Lolita has an evocative image of a young girl, or a young girl’s body parts. At first glance this seems natural since Lolita is a book about an evocative young girl. 1

But that’s always bothered me. Not for moral reasons, although I am definitely and obviously against the exploitation and over sexualization of young girls (and girls the age of Lolita are over sexualized in our culture without a realistic grounding of what sexuality is. We set them adrift with pushup bras, bare midriffs and pointed heels while laughable visions of chaste vampires dance in their heads), but none of these images cross the line of inappropriateness. This doesn’t bother me the way, say, Law & Order: SVU bothers me — where they show sexually titillating crime victims while decrying sexual titillation of crime victims.

No, they bother me for two other reasons:

  1. They’re too damn obvious. Talk about going for the simple cliché.
  2. They ignore the irony and message of the text. Nabokov builds his monster Humbert on layers of pious education and self-justification. Lolita is evocative, but the implicit irony is that men like Humbert make her so, and she rises to please them as a substitute father, and so she presents to Humbert in an evocative way, and he is smitten with her and there is your abuse cycle. In other words, that Lolita is sexualized is part of the layers of irony and cultural criticism Nabokov wrote, and to focus on a sexualized cover image is to exploit the text of the story without understanding the subtext. Even worse are the covers that try to moralize by showing a sad Lolita, or a broken Lolita. Those covers miss the point that the book is about Humbert’s desire and love more than about the girl. Lolita is a metaphor, and to overly humanize her and feel pity for her may be part of the reading process, but, I think, is simpering when used for a cover design.

So, in a conversation I had with a friend over about the book, I was struck by this problem with the designs. In wondering what I would do for the cover, I came up with the idea (that I tooted about) that instead of a girl’s lips or eyes or legs, a better cover for an edition of Lolita would be a wood-paneled motel room.

Lolita is about transience. The primary locations are motel rooms, and Humbert is fascinated and repelled with motor America. The initial seduction takes place in a motel room, as does the escape and constant movement to avoid detection. Only when they settle down do things start to go sour.


So, as a proof-of-concept I designed the above cover. I found the image on Flickr (searching for ‘Motel Postcard’ is pretty entertaining). I wanted a wood paneled room, austere and simple. This showed the prim bed, the simple chair, and the mirror which reflected the sunlight outside. It’s cropped so that it feels confined.

I set it in Goudy Old Style to impart a bit of traditional seriousness, and brought in red and white for their inherited symbolic meanings.

Is this cover successful? I might argue that it’s slightly ironic and better for people who have already read the book then for those who have never heard of it. I also think that it evokes a more accurate picture of the text than a girl’s lips or legs or eyes. Is it commercial? Probably not — and therein lies the rub. People are more apt to pick up a book with a titillating sexualized girl on the cover to feel morally superior to the words about a monster sexualizing a girl. There’s a reason Law & Order: SVU has been on the air ten years running.


A more comprehensive index of covers can be found here.

  1. 0140188223.01._SY190_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgOnly one of the covers I linked to uses the titillating image but gets it right: the Penguin edition that uses Balthus’ Girl and Cat from 1937 as the cover image. Balthus and Nabokov mined the same metaphor in their art in their different mediums. Balthus’ image is every bit as disturbing as reading about Lolita’s sexual knowledge and aggression, and this understated cover is the best of the lot by far.


Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: December 5, 2009 11:24 AM
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