Sue Lyon as Lolita
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Discovering the anti-heroines (Femme Fatales) Dolores Haze, Lola Montes, and Louise Brooks

The young woman with a troubled past is a cliche that appears frequently in both literature and film. Her enigmatic demeanor engages in conversation with the audience, providing them with the assurance of a steady presence as well as the fascination of a riddle.

She seems to exude a certain “je ne sais quoi” that distinguishes her from others. This “it” factor appears to be unique to her. Whether this quality is tangible or intangible, it is undeniable that this mysterious “je ne sais quoi” endows her with an air of mystique and a charm that sets her apart from the rest.

Anti-heroines serve as a reminder that tenacity is a feature of the human spirit and may be seen in people who confront insurmountable challenges. They also serve as a reminder that zeal is a trait that can be cultivated.

Femme fatales, also called “bad girls,” are a common type of anti-heroine because they encourage viewers to “fight the good fight.”

Our minds develop a stronger sense of connection to the individual as a result of the challenges they’ve faced, and we admire the character for her remarkable capacity to persevere in the face of adversity. They are emblematic of the latent inner strength that resides dormant in all of us, only waiting to be reawakened by individuals who exhibit it in an unapologetic manner.

Before the flappers of the 20th century, there was Lola Montez

In a case of art imitating life imitating art, the femme fatale archetype may have its origins in the notorious Lola Montez, a nineteenth-century European courtesan, and dancer who captured the imagination of a king and inspired scandalous rumors.

While reading about the historical Lola Montez, we can’t help but feel a kind of awe. Although the femme fatale made her way into some American literature around the same time that Lola Montez came to prominence, it was not until the twentieth century that the archetype proliferated.

Though the femme fatale is partly a personification of primal fears about feminine sexuality, there are also significant similarities between the real Lola Montez and her fictional descendants.

Notorious mid-19th century “It” Girl

Lola Montez was born in 1821 as Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland. While details of her early life remain somewhat obscure, it’s clear that she acquired considerable social skills and linguistic fluency before deciding to pursue a career as a dancer.

Working her way from Dublin to London, she eventually met Ludwig I of Bavaria and soon acquired a considerable reputation. She reinvented herself in various countries, changing her name to Donna Lola Montez, Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, and eventually just Lola Montez.

Although she doesn’t resemble the conventional storybook figure, the historical Lola Montez is undeniably a femme fatale – and a marvelous muse for film noir characters.

Lola Montez-circa-1850-Photography-Studio-Southworth-and-Hawes
This ca. 1850 image of Lola Montez by Southworth & Hawes is considered to be the first photograph showing a lady smoking.

From time immemorial, an examination of the muse mythos as it pertains to Lolita

By fusing together the themes of European fairy tales, sentimental literature from the seventeenth century, and Freudian theories around the sexuality of childhood and the oedipal complex, Vladimir Nabokov creates a novel that is as original as it is thought-provoking.

Mia Kirshner as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan.
Mia Kirshner as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan.

Nabokov’s novel Lolita is a fanciful and memorable character study in psychosexual and literary theory that, like “Lolita” herself, is provocative, original, and deeply disturbing. Ultimately, it seems that Lolita is a satire of sentimental fiction rather than an embodiment of it.

Mia Kirshner as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan.

For instance, the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, tried to coax young Dolores “Lolita” Haze into a daring affair, as if it would open the door to something remarkable. It’s no surprise that this idée fixe is as old as sin itself, yet Lolita finds a way to bring the story to life and paint it with its original vividness. Unbelievably, Nabokov was able to craft such an iconic work of art from timeless themes.

Because Nabokov penned Lolita as a reimagining of these canonical tales. He sought to address what he perceived as a moral issue in these stories: the treatment of young women by much older men. This allowed him to examine issues of power, objectification, and gender roles in innovative ways.

Humbert’s very first love wasn’t Dolores Haze—it was Annabel Leigh. The latter captivated his heart; the story in which Humbert, as a child, falls in love with the terminally ill Annabel Leigh “in a princedom by the sea” enthralled him to the core.  It is said that Nabokov’s “Annabel Leigh” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem entitled “Annabel Lee.”

Annabel Leigh represents a girl who, although fragile in the face of death, is strong in her will and passionate in her spirit. As such, she is a perfect foil to Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, who epitomizes power, wealth, and status.

Virginia, Poe’s wife, is commonly believed to be the inspiration for “Annabel Lee.”

In the same way, Humbert admits to having a dual nature, so he fulfills both the protagonist and antagonist roles appropriately. Despite Lolita‘s reputation as a controversial novel, Nabokov does not portray Humbert in an entirely negative light. Rather, he focuses on the psychological complexities that come with being human and having inner conflicts, particularly in relation to Humbert’s love for Lolita. To further emphasize his point, Nabokov chooses to narrate the novel from Humbert’s perspective, enabling the reader to better comprehend how he perceives his situation and his feelings for Lolita.

Consequently, Humbert weaves a web of lies and devious deeds, leaving his true intentions shrouded in mystery. His crafty ways are as cunning as they are sinister.

Dominique Swain as Dolores “Lolita” Haze in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 drama Lolita.

Moreover, Nabokov was able to demonstrate how traditional tales could be read in new ways by presenting a character who had to deal with these issues in a 20th-century setting. This risk helped distinguish Lolita from other literary works and establish it as a literary classic. It also struck a chord with readers and provided them with a fresh perspective on issues of authority and sexual objectification.

Jane March as "The Young Girl" in The Lover (French: L'Amant), a 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Jane March as “The Young Girl” in The Lover (French: L’Amant), a 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

The Allure of an Enigma

Critics have often remarked on the fact that Lolita does not merely satirize sentimental fiction; it is a reflection of its own absurdity. This is especially true because the main character, Humbert Humbert, attempts to present the novel in a sentimental light. In doing so, Humbert reveals that his love for Lolita is only an imitation of true emotion. For example, in his love notes to Lolita, he says things like, “I can’t wait any longer to tell you that I am the happiest man alive because I love you madly,” and “It is impossible for me to tell you how.”

Additionally, since its publication in 1955, Lolita has been seen as a classic example of the muse mythos, a trope in which male characters are inspired by their female counterparts. In this case, Humbert Humbert is infatuated with Lolita and uses his love for her to create a narrative that he hopes will be accepted as genuine emotion. However, his words are full of irony and sarcasm; they are attempts to cover up his true feelings while simultaneously mocking the concept of “true love.”

Vladimir Nabokov discusses "Lolita" part 2 of 2

When Love Dies, So Does the Muse

When love dies, the muse dies, or so Vladimir Nabokov may have thought. This is illustrated very well in Lolita. An allegory of this can be drawn from the novel. Love, often seen as a muse or an inspiration for people, is a powerful emotion that can lead to great achievements or terrible misdeeds.

Clearly, then Nabokov explored this idea by demonstrating the devastating consequences of letting love die with Humbert’s descent into depression, obsession, and ultimately despair. When Lolita leaves him, she took the only source of joy he knew with her.

I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes. 

Vladimir Nabokov

Following this further, Humbert’s actions throughout the novel—his objectification of Lolita and disregard for any other perspective—exemplify how love in its purest form can be distorted, leading to unhealthy relationships.

Thus, Lolita provides an interesting commentary on the nature of love and relationships, serving as a timeless reminder that sometimes things aren’t always what they seem.

The Lulu Cycle, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita

The results of reading Diary of a Lost Girl (1905) by Margarete Böhme and the “Lulu” cycle, a two-play series—Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904)—by Frank Wedekind, which were both adapted by G.W. Pabst and starred Louise Brooks, lend credence to the hypothesis that Nabokov drew inspiration from these works for Lolita.

In a similar vein, Wedekind’s “Lulu cycle” introduces a young woman named Lulu who resembles Lolita in many ways. Lulu, for example, is a mysterious nymph with a propensity for seducing and controlling men.

Furthermore, during the time when Pabst’s films were being shown, Nabokov was a big fan of German silent films. Given these connections, it’s safe to assume Nabokov saw or read Pandora’s Box. Indeed, because Pabst’s films were widely available in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nabokov was very likely aware of Wedekind’s work.

Also, Wedekind’s “Lulu cycle” and Böhme’s Diary of a Lost Girl, both feature strong sexual undertones. The young female protagonists were also victims of the men with whom they were involved, particularly the older men. They addressed issues of rape, prostitution, pregnancy, and childbirth. Despite these similarities, Nabokov’s work is distinct from that of Wedekind and Böhme. Nabokov’s work more clearly explored the implications of female sexual autonomy and agency, whereas Böhme and Wedekind seemed more interested in exploring the consequences of older men preying on young women.

Lulu, played by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's 1929 film Pandora's Box.
Lulu, played by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box.

The Lulu mythos surrounding Louise Brooks

It is probable that silent film star Louise Brooks was another likely source of inspiration for the name “Lolita,” which is a form of Dolores, Louise, and Lola.

Although Dolores “Lolita” Haze doesn’t share the same physical description as the historical personage Louise Brooks, she does evoke memories of Brooks’ Lulu persona, which demonstrates that Nabokov may have disguised a homage to Brooks, in plain sight. Not only are you able to foresee the connection between these two, but also an alternative title for Lolita, if that’s at all possible.

Hence, Lolita, at the center, is about a young girl’s life falling apart and can be difficult to follow. Nabokov’s decision to name his novel “Lolita” was a clever and appropriate one. Lolita shows not only the story of an abused young girl and her ruin but a reference to the “Lulu mythos” surrounding the historical Louise Brooks.

Discover the ties that bind Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita together. Just what parallels do you see?

In conclusion, the femme fatale is a timeless archetype in both cinema and literature. She is a complex character who uses her beauty and sexuality to entice those around her. While she may be dangerous, she is also fascinating and alluring.

In light of the interrelationships between the three books: Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita. Just what parallels do you see? How would you characterize the variations? Thus, Lulu, Thymian, and Lolita become a sort of spider’s web in which the author’s and reader’s minds become entangled in an intricate game of wits.

An interesting tidbit: According to Delia Ungureanu, assistant director of the Harvard Institute for World Literature, another source of inspiration for Lolita was Salvador Dali’s character, Dullita, who appears in both Reverie: An Erotic Daydream and The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.

Hence, this notion is fascinating because it exemplifies the pervasiveness of intercultural exchange in the first decades of the twentieth century.

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