Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita's Ape in the Jardin des Plantes

By dana_dragunoiu, 5 January, 2021

by Gerard de Vries

“On a Book Entitled Lolita” contains Nabokov’s recollection of his “initial shiver of inspiration” to write this novel, “prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Many Nabokovians have spent their attention in the hunt of this drawing. A short history of this search, and another candidate for the daubing ape, is presented by Stephen Blackwell, “Lolita’s Ape, Caged at Last!” (The Nabokovian 67 (2011) 14-20).

Nabokov mentions five particulars which make a mistake or an inaccurateness of his recollection unlikely:

  • a newspaper story
  • an ape in the Jardin des Plantes
  • months of coaxing by a scientist
  • the first drawing ever
  • the bars of the cage.

The many attempts in the modern world to teach apes to imitate activities particular to human beings started with Linneaus who, without having seen an ape, gave it the name of Homo ferus, as belonging to the human race. The Comte de Buffon in his Nomenclature des Singes singled the orangutan out as the ape closest to men. Lord Montboddo marked in his Origin and Progress of Language (1773), referring to De Buffon, the use of speech as the main difference between apes and men (see Peter Raby, Bright Paradise. London: Pimlico, 1988). Inspired by Montboddo, Thomas Love Peacock wrote Melincourt (1817) in which an orangutan, Sir Oran, acquires many human abilities such as playing a flute, and eventually enters the House of Commons. Alexandre Ducamps (1803-1860), a French artist, painted many monkeys performing human tasks, such as daubing. 

When only fifteen years old, Gustave Flaubert wrote “Quidquis Volueris”, a tale of horror about a half ape-half man. He claimed that he had written this story for scientific purposes (Enid Starkie, Flaubert, Penguin, 1971). The story was published in Le Colibri, a newspaper that served Rouen and was directed by Alfred Le Poittevin, Flaubert’s close friend. In the preceding year, 1836, several articles had appeared in Le Colibri, dealing with the studying of the ape-man Jack, probably the most celebrated of orangutans. He was brought to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1836 (the London Zoo acquired its first orangutan in 1837).  This menagerie “aspired to communicate the scientific value of its exhibits “ (Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert and Helen Tiffin, Wild man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan. University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, 70). Stendhal and Prosper Mérimée wrote about this ape and the sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan, who also portrayed Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, made a bust titled An Orangutan Called Jack (1836). Jack showed a remarkable talent to imitate human behavior and skills of which many are described (such as warning a baker that the bread in the oven was just cooked, or eating with a spoon). Doubtless he was trained to draw as well.

I suppose that Nabokov, who in 1932 read Madame Bovary “’for the hundredth time’” (VNRY  378), might have come across this ape in writings by or on Flaubert. As Enid Starkie suggested, the 1836 articles in Le Colibri  about Jack might have inspired Flaubert to write his story. A drawing  by Jack would meet four of the five particulars (listed above) mentioned by Nabokov. Could the drawing possibly have been mentioned in one of these articles? 

In the “Matières continues dans les 105 numéros composant la première année du Colibri” (Le Colibri  January 29, 1837) I found four articles about Jack. The Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen most kindly sent me photographs of these articles. They contain many details about Jack, often with a jocular tone (one article is titled “Lettre de l’Orang-Outang au Colibri”) such as his housing, food, illness and his love for a Parisienne, whom he met after escaping from the zoo, donned in a frock coat. But I did not find anything about a drawing. As there are many references to Jack in English-language books published recently, I suppose that much more information about Jack can be found in the libraries in France.

But the question is whether the discovery of the drawing Nabokov had in mind will yield any result regarding the meaning of Nabokov’s source of inspiration. The drawing has to be compared to Jack’s actual housing. His quarters seem to have been quite luxurious and might for example have had a friendly lattice in stead of bars. Moreover, Dieter Zimmer in his annotations to Lolita (Rowohlt 2010) quotes David Premack, who writes that apes are not able to render concrete images on paper, not because of a lack of dexterity, but because a lack of comprehension. As Desmond Morris, who “undertook a scientific investigation into the origin of art” by studying the paintings and drawings by a chimpanzee, concludes: the ape “could innovate but he could not imitate” (“Foreword,” Fierce Friends, by Louise Lippincott and Andreas Blühm, London: Merrell, 2005). This make it unlikely that the bars of Lolita’s ape represented the bars of its cage. 


Alain Champlain

3 years 6 months ago

I probably shouldn't expect a one-to-one relationship between the description of the "shiver of inspiration" and the final book, but I initially understood Humbert to be the caged ape (which Humbert's description seemed to reinforce), whereas now, I'm tempted to see Humbert as the scientist (it seems conspicuous that there be "a scientist" and not "scientists"), who, for months, saw the same bars, maybe even occupied the same enclosure — but ultimately had the freedom to leave (which I imagine the ape did not).

Forgive me if I'm repeating anyone (I haven't yet read "Lolita's Ape, Caged at Last!"), but it's worth noting Nabokov revisited the art-cage theme, as in Pale Fire:

“My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage [...]
For we are most artistically caged.” (Lines 105-106 and 114)

And in Pnin:

"What did it matter to him that gentle chiaroscuro, offspring of veiled values and translucent undertones, had long since died behind the prison bars of abstract art, in the poorhouse of hideous primitivism?" (I don't have the page number handy, sorry.)

The science-art theme too, of course... too many instances to note.

Regarding the original source: if there was ever mention of Jack (or any other caged animal) drawing, it wouldn't be a great leap for Nabokov to imagine Jack drawing what he saw, which might likely have been elements of his captivity — whether the caged animal drew its cage is not strictly necessary, because the idea is close enough at hand.

Pedantic note: daubing seems like the wrong word for charcoal, at least to my ears. This might just be my own limited understanding of the word, but I'm having a hard time finding good precedents. I'm also slightly confused when you refer to the ape of the "initial shiver of inspiration" as the "daubing ape" and then say "Decamps [not Ducamps] [...] painted many monkeys performing human tasks, such as daubing." In the paintings I'm seeing online, Decamps's monkeys were oil painting (for which daubing is the correct term), not drawing with charcoal. Is anyone else calling the ape "the daubing ape?" I'm probably being overcautious in differentiating Decamps's simian oil painters from the "ape in the Jardin des Plantes" who drew with charcoal, but maybe it's a useful distinction.


3 years 6 months ago

It seems to me irrelevant whether apes can actually make conceptual representations. It would be interesting to find the supposed article, but likewise not particularly relevant. The meaning is what is important, which I take to be that our minds create our reality from which we cannot escape and that artists attempt the escape through the transcendence of Art.  In other words, great Art is always a ‘reproduction’ of the artist’s experience. This would implicate not only Humbert, but Nabokov himself.


I think this is iterated exactly in the lines from Pale Fire (no ape necessary). It is also the basic theme behind ITAB and BS in particular, where the ‘escape’ is literal, but really in all of VN’s work.


The quote you give from Pnin, Alain, I think has a slightly different meaning. Nabokov is bemoaning the loss of artistic sensitivity (veiled values and translucent undertones) in brutal abstract art (which has nowhere to go and therefore is 'imprisoning' the art world).


(For what it is worth, as an artist, I definitely concur that ‘daubing’ is painting and charcoal is ‘sketching.’)


3 years 6 months ago

Here is a Nabokov quote from Speak, Think, Write (p.xxvi) that addresses basically the same concept of being imprisoned by one's own egoic mind:


The human mind is a box with no tangible lid, sides, or bottom, and still it is a box, and there is no earthly method of getting out of it and remaining in it at the same time.


Nabokov was much more of a mystic than generally credited. 

Alain Champlain

3 years 6 months ago

It's important to distinguish between a kind of lofty spiritual transcendence, and a more basic escape from solipsism. They may overlap, sure: they're both transcendent acts of the imagination (in Nabokov). But I don't think Humbert can attain the former if he tries to skip the latter. I don't have a quote with me, but Boyd writes about Humbert's false (or at least incomplete) moral apotheosis in VNAY; whether Humbert is able to artfully imagine an afterlife and its seraphs, and the immortality of his Lolita — he still chooses murder. He sees himself as the prisoner; doesn't realize he's the jailer; doesn't realize e.g. that he's imprisoned Lolita (because he doesn't fully see her, or others, as a person).

Side note (maybe too far out): if the ape drew prison bars, but its enclosure had no prison bars... this would certainly qualify the ape as an 'artist' akin to the 'boy who cried wolf' when "there was no wolf behind him" (introduction to Lectures on Literature). I might be tempted to see similarities between John Ray and the reporter who wrote the newspaper article about the ape, as well as the posthumous storyteller in the 'boy cried wolf' anecdote:

“When [the boy who cried wolf] perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.”

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago

Lolita had been safely solipsized. The implied sun pulsated in the supplied poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness."

(Pg. 63 in the Everyman's Library edition. Part 1, Chapter 13)

The highlighted line can be read as a passive construction, H.H. sharing the credit with Fate. He, with help from circumstances, has in effect succeeded in drawing bars around Lolita's perception and understanding. 

("The supplied poplars" seem to add another sense of bars. And the "Carmen-barmen" lyrics include "bars" in an ironic other sense (sites where freedom is celebrated).)

More about the coinage is in this post: http://thenabokovian.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/NABOKV-L-0016215___body.html


"...While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more or less the same... This is the situation, this is the choice. Don't you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?"

By rubbing all this in, I succeeded in terrorizing Lo, who despite a certain brash alertness of manner and spurts of wit was not as intelligent a child as her I.Q. might suggest. But if I managed to establish that background of shared secrecy and shared guilt, I was much less successful in keeping her in good humor. Every morning during our yearlong travels I had to devise some expectation, some special point in space and time for her to look forward to, for her to survive till bedtime. 

(Pgs 159-160, Part 2, Chapter 1)

By trying to scare Lolita with imagery of himself behind bars, H.H. hopes to keep the ones he's drawn around her intact.

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago

Also, in Alfred Appel Jr.'s The Annotated Lolita, a note to "...the poor creature's cage":

In Pale Fire, Kinbote tells John Shade, "with no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws, and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars" (pp. 226-227). Writing about Sirin-himself-in Conclusive Evidence (1951), in a sentence omitted from the second edition (Speak, Memory), Nabokov says, "His best works are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls" (p. 217). Nabokov employed the prison trope in many ways. See my Introduction:

...Nabokov's are emotional and spiritual exiles, turned back upon themselves, trapped by their obsessive memories and desires in a solipsistic "prison of mirrors" where they cannot distinguish the glass from themselves (to use another prison trope, drawn from the story "The Assistant Producer" [1943], in Nabokov's Dozen [1958]). The transcendence of solipsism is a central concern in Nabokov.

(the latter quote is on pg xxii of the Vintage edition, 1991. The former quote comes from the e-book as my Vintage copy has lost pages near the end over the years.)

Lolita inverts the theme. Instead of a character transcending out of solipsism by themself, Lolita is near-programmed into solipsism (she is "solipsized") by another.

In his note to the "Lolita was safely solipsized" section, Appel points to a quote early in chapter 14:

What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita­—perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own. 

Alain Champlain

3 years 6 months ago

Right, but Humbert only thinks (or seems to think) Lolita has been safely solipsized: he's not fully able to contain her mind/spirit despite having confined her body, and even her body ultimately escapes him. Maybe we're in agreement, and that's what you mean by "near-programmed."

I should clarify my statement that Humbert "doesn't realize that he's imprisoned Lolita." Emphasis on the "real." Humbert says a lot of things, may even admit guilt, but he doesn't act as though he believes it. Other people are not real to him.

Thanks for your comments. I'm still relatively new to Lolita — compared to, say, Pale Fire — so I hadn't yet noticed all the 'bars' you point out.

On that topic (if you're right that the 'bars' pattern in Lolita is on purpose), I wonder whether it's worth pointing out a few more bars in Pale Fire. If Hazel in some ways inverts or parodies "Haze, L", then I'd be tempted to see the bars recurring e.g. when Hazel is taken on a blind date to a Hawaiian bar, but ends up taking the bus homeward (although of course...), and is described as "gripping the stang" (bar in the bus), while "some white fence and the reflector poles passed by," until finally her death is signalled to her parents by the appearance of police lights illuminating "five cedar trunks."

I'm looking forward to re-reading Lolita with this all in mind.


3 years 6 months ago

Interesting comments about L. Haze/Hazel and bars. The puddle outside the bar is “neon barred” which also seems to suggest the Vanessa atalanta “crimson barred.”



What does Humbert mean by Lolita being “safely solipsized”? It is a play on the word “sodomized,” for one thing, but more importantly the word is a crucial instance of the nexus of the novel.


Here are two definitions of solipsism:


1. Philosophythe theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.


By the first definition, Philosophy, it is Lolita who is “solipsized” by remaining her intact, sovereign self.


By the second definition, one could say that Humbert has ‘safely’ incorporated Lolita into his solipsistic projections. But it is not actually 'safe' for Humbert; he further imprisons himself with his desires. Humbert may “imprison” Lolita, but never her sovereign soul.


Humbert mistakes his solipsistic, illicit ecstasy for legitimate spiritual transcendence. Just before his statement of  “safely” solipsizing Lolita he describes his ecstasy in terms usually used in mystical contexts (mysterious, plane, absolute, etc.):


And all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of  joy brewed within my body. What had begun as a delicious distension of my innermost roots became a glowing tingle which now had reached that state of absolute security, confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious life.


Very much like Hermann in Despair, Humbert falsely believes his desires are synonymous with “Art” and therefore legitimate and transcendent. I think this is the issue that VN struggled with in most of his works and why I see him as a sort of “mystic manqué.” Most mystical experiences are described as going beyond the ego into a Void, where not only desire and self, but even Art is left behind. That is why he has Shade write “we are most artistically caged.”


Alain Champlain

3 years 6 months ago

You're right about "neon barred" Mary — and possibly crimson too — thanks, I knew I was forgetting at least one!

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago

Once, three decades ago, in my tender and terrible boyhood, I had the occasion of seeing a man in the act of making contact with God. I had wandered into the so­called Rose Court at the back of the Ducal Chapel in my native Onhava, during an interval in hymnal practice. … Into these roses and thorns there walked a black shadow: a tall, pale, long-nosed, dark-haired young minister whom I had seen around once or twice strode out of the vestry and without seeing me stopped in the middle of the court. Guilty disgust contorted his thin lips. He wore spectacles. His clenched hands seemed to be gripping invisible prison bars. But there is no bound to the measure of grace which man may be able to receive. All at once his look changed to one of rapture and reverence. I had never seen such a blaze of bliss before but was to perceive something of that splendor, of that spiritual energy and divine vision, now, in another land, reflected upon the rugged and homely face of old John Shade.


(Pale Fire note to lines 47-48, pg 88 in the Vintage edition.)


Perhaps according to Kinbote’s mystical/religious outlook earthly life is a kind of prison pre- the freedom of Heaven (and/or a madly imagined land).


Going back to the Lolita/solipsism theme, it’s been a while since I’ve read Lolita completely and/or crit around it, but now I’m wondering, broadly of course, how “reliable” a narrator H.H might be … Could there be more monster than meets the eye? And I wonder too, relatedly, whether he might be a sort of novelist, in the tradition of VN’s writer-protags. On the face of it he comes across as more of a critic/reader/non-fiction-confessional-diarist, inverting that theme too, but there’s also the notes that Charlotte comes across that he tells her are “‘fragments for a novel’” (that initiate her doom) (pg. 96 of the Annotated Lolita, near the end of Chapter 22, Part 1) What if we’re getting duped similarly, in certain ways?


Appel says, “…Lolita is a burlesque of the confessional mode, the literary diary…” (Ibid., Introduction, pg l.)


In a note to the first mention of H.H.’s diary, Appel says,


Blank ... Blankton, Mass.: there is no such town. The "blanks" make fun of the "authenticity" of the pages of both the diary and the entire novel, H.H.'s "photographic memory" notwithstanding. Thus Lolita's parodic design also includes the literary journal or diary. Nabokov regarded with profound skepticism the possibilities of complete autobiographical revelation. "Manifold self­awareness" (as he calls it in Speak, Memory) is not to be achieved through solemn introspection, certainly not through the diarist's compulsive egotism, candid but totally self-conscious self-analysis, carefully created "honesty," willful irony, and studied self-deprecation. Nabokov burlesqued the literary diary as far back as 1934. Near the end of Despair, Hermann's first-person narrative "degenerates into a diary"-"the lowest form of literature" (p. 208)-and this early parody is fully realized in Lolita, especially in the present chapter. For more on the confessional mode, see Dostoevskian grin.


(Ibid, second note to Chapter 11, Part 1.)

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago

Mary, an "Unabridged Websters" Copyright 1952 (though it doesn't say "second edition" anywhere) adds an interesting angle to the definitions:


Solipsism, n. The metaphysical conception that oneself is the only reality; absolute egoism.


A more contemporary Webster's, 10th edition:


Solipsism... (1874): a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing.


3 years 6 months ago

Thanks, William, I like the Webster’s 10th definition. I took the easy route of dictionary.com.


I am rethinking how I attributed the first definition of dictionary.com to Lolita – “1. Philosophy. the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist” as suggesting her self-sovereignty. The issue of her sovereignty is crucial, but I think the definition is still mainly meaning an egotistical nature. So I would say that ‘solipsized’ just pertains to Humbert being ironically aware that he used her as a projection of his fantasy and convincing himself that she remained unharmed.



3 years 6 months ago

(Pale Fire note to lines 47-48, pg 88 in the Vintage edition.)

Perhaps according to Kinbote’s mystical/religious outlook earthly life is a kind of prison pre- the freedom of Heaven (and/or a madly imagined land).


William, I think this passage encapsulates a basic theme of Pale Fire (as well as most of VN’s work, including Lolita), that is the relation of art and spiritual transcendence. Are they the same? Although Nabokov writes ecstatically about artistic inspiration, his novels tread a fine line on the abyss of the mystical Void. He was going to call one of his novels “The Brink”(I regret I can’t remember now which, or where I read this).


The Defense, LITD, Despair, Lolita, PF, LATH all feature protagonists who see themselves as artists, as therefore beyond the pale (transcendent to human norms), but come to ironic and tragic ends. Note that Shade's cage is artistically papered, but still a cage. It seems to me that VN was struggling with his gift of ecstatic artistic transcendence but perhaps realized that this did not necessarily bring spiritual liberation.

Shade sees K's Zembla fantasy as an artistic solution to his life, but clearly this does not really save him.

Only Krug in BS and Cincinnatus in ITAB transcend in the end, once they face their inner demons. This is why I see the Jungian paradigm of archetypes and Individuation played out so clearly in PF. Note that in the passage quoted the priest is a "shadow" but is transformed into radiant bliss after struggling with his inner self. This is like the Jungian alchemic transformation of the shadow into the higher self

Kinbote sees this bliss in Shade's art. Shade is K's ideal. Shade has access to transcendence through art. However, if you read PF carefully, Shade is not all he seems; he drinks and has affaires and rejects his 'darling' daughter. He is like the Jungian persona.

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago


A quick Google search found this page, related to the Berg collection, that contains the following excerpt:

Nabokov had been turning over various seeds of Pale Fire as early as 1939, but the form it was finally to take did not crystallize until 1960. When he submitted the poem, originally called "The Brink," to Esquire in 1961, he told editor Rust Hills that it was "racy and tricky, and unpleasant, and bizarre." (Esquire rejected the piece, as the magazine never published poetry.) The novel was published in April 1962, and by summer it was a best-seller, despite the complexity of the narrative and the fact that, according to Nabokov, "few reviewers realized what it was really about." Reviews were mixed, but Mary McCarthy's encomium in her New Republic review, "A Bolt from the Blue," eclipsed them all: she called it "one of the very great works of art of this century." Pale Fire, too, was nominated for but did not win the National Book Award.

Yes, I agree about VN's series of artist protags, who like him are scratching at the surface of ineffables underneath that, perhaps paradoxically, lead to higher realms of understanding. The narrator of RLSK is another, amateur writer learning about doing so.

And, as far as Shade's take on Kinbote's version of a "Crystal land," isn't he mostly entertained/bemused by it, after his hard-working days of looking at the nature of death?

Cincinattus' epiphany is that he's a character in a novel... another kind of transcendence..

And, I like your reminders about the imperfections of Shade. Perhaps they are partly the conduit that enables his compassion for Kinbote, who is otherwise culturally dismissed as a gay madman (being a 1950s East coast academic mileau).


3 years 6 months ago

Thanks, William. I was pretty sure "The Brink" was for Pale Fire - it fits so well.


>I neglected to mention RLSK. I would actually put that in the category of true transcendence, rather than a failed one. V becomes a writer, but doesn't have the same pretensions about art as some of the others, like Humbert.

>Shade is bemused at Kinbote, but he does recognize that imagination (art) does help to alleviate, but not necessarily liberate existential issues.

> I may be wrong, but I don't think Cincinnatus realizes he's a character in a novel. Krug does, but that is just a sort of neat authorial 'trick.' Both Cincinnatus and Krug have realizations that they have merely been oppressed by the contents of their own minds. Losing one's head = losing one's mind = losing one's acquired ego = transcendence.

>I may be the only person who thinks this, but I believe VN created Shade as such a likable, avuncular, waggish fellow as part of PF's "deceit." We believe in his happy marriage and concern for his daughter. Yet there are many indications of his dark side, including suspicions that his marriage is not so great. This lack of awareness of Shade's duplicity, in turn, hides the role of Sybil. This all becomes much clearer if you understand the dynamics of the Jungian archetypes. 

I assert that on a separate, allegorical fictive plane the characters are archetypes acting out the dynamics of Jungian individuation. Shade is the persona, the idealized self-image. That is why he is so likable! Sybil, as major conflict, the anima, suggests a much larger role for her. Kinbote (as ego) commits suicide without ever coming to terms with Sybil. What does that mean, for VN? Was he intending to counter Jung by suggesting that confronting and subsuming the anima is NOT necessary for ego-death? 

My theory is that PF is an answer, not only to Jung but to Joyce and to Northrup Frye (and perhaps to Eliot); VN appropriates the popular idea of the day about the 'monomyth' by subverting the paradigm. In this way, Art prevails. I think VN was a natural mystic, but struggled on the brink, and ultimately favored art and memory to enlightenment.