In his study of butterflies Vladimir Nabokov was fascinated by mimicry, the techniques of camouflage and defense that the prey uses to protect itself from the predator. Writing to a publisher on Nabokov’s behalf in 1952, his wife Véra confirmed his longstanding interest in this subject: “the question of mimicry is one that has passionately interested him all his life, and one of his pet projects has always been the compilation of a work that would comprise all the known examples of mimicry in the animal kingdom.” In Lolita (1955), Nabokov creates a world where the characters employ human variants of insect strategies. They adopt masks and mirrors, personae and pretense, imitation and illusion to disguise and deceive.
Despite the elaborate strategies of protective mimicry, all the characters in Lolita, like insects, have brief lives that end abruptly. Humbert’s mother had been struck by a thunderbolt: “picnic, lightning.” His childhood love, Annabel Lee, had died of typhus in Corfu. His first wife, Valeria, had died in childbirth. All four principal characters are doomed and at the end of the novel they are all dead. Charlotte is hit by a car, Lolita (like Valeria) dies giving birth to a child. In a protracted and vengeful scenario, Humbert murders Quilty, is condemned to death and dies of a heart attack in prison. Uniting lepidoptery and art with consummate style and wit, Nabokov wrote the greatest novel by any writer trained in science.