People have the wrong idea about Lolita, and Lolita. Today, the name is widely used as a synonym for a sexually precocious young girl. But the most important fact of the novel is that Lolita is a 12-year-old girl. Even Humbert admits that what he does to her is rape. What's more, Humbert is one of literature's most unreliable narrators. Does Lolita ever really lure him? That much is unclear.
This makes the oversexed, hyper-titillating cover art that has been repeatedly slapped on Lolita incredibly bizarre—not to mention disturbing. We aren't meant to find Lolita sexy. We shouldn't find Lolita sexy. Nabokov himself said that readers were "misled" by the book's repuation "into assuming this was going to be a lewd book." I'm not so naïve as to imagine book covers always faithfully replicate the literary intentions of their authors. But Lolita covers aren't simply exaggerated or oversimplified representations. They're downright creepy. Are they meant to be from Humbert Humbert's point of view? Are we meant to see what he sees when he looks at little Dolores? It's no wonder the novel is so fundamentally misunderstood.
The ubiquitous 2005 American version is all mouth.
A British illustration on this 2006 cover is strangely come-hither.
The ubiquitous 1962 poster for Stanley Kubrick's film.
A 2005 French cover (which is oddly Miley Cyrus-esque)
A reappropriation of one of Balthus' oversexualized girls
Weirdly erotic dangling cherries on a 2009 British version
Again, just lips.
This 1964 cover from Turkey illustrates Lolita completely naked—and decidedly older than 12.
This 1970 cover is decidedly groovy and shamefully upskirt-ish.
This Dutch cover from 1970 is straight-up pornographic.
Not even a trace of subtlety or context for the Finnish version.
*This post was updated for clarity. Two of the images originally in this gallery have been removed. They were not books for sale but, rather, commissioned specifically for the book The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design by John Bertram and Yuri Leving. We regret the error.