Poetics of Taxonomy: Nabokov’s Butterflies

Stephen M. Shelton

"Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she was only fourteen? An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us."

Although they are easy to miss, such fleeting references to butterflies appear throughout Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, gracing his characters’ afternoon walks, lofty observations, and philosophical musings. These butterflies are largely insubstantial instances of passing beauty, often tangential to the actual movement of the story. And yet they appear in nearly in all of Nabokov’s works, a testament to his fascination with the order of arthropods and their delicate wings.

The above quotation is from “Lolita,” the novel that gained Nabokov widespread acclaim. Specimens of each of the butterflies mentioned in “Lolita” are now pinned in a tray in a cabinet in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), as are all of the butterflies Nabokov ever mentions in his novels.

The cabinet is filled floor to ceiling with trays of hundreds of specimens ranging from sea green Luna moths the size of one’s hand to the petite Polyommatus blues. Each tray is dedicated to one of Nabokov’s works and houses every specimen that the work references. The butterflies flutter through his novels, but now they are inert, the objects of scientific study.

Nabokov, known mostly for his literature, worked for six years as curator of the butterfly—or Lepidoptera—wing of the MCZ. There he developed a theory regarding the migration of the Polyommatus blue butterflies. Although his taxonomic research was largely forgotten in the decades after his departure from Harvard, Naomi E. Pierce, a biology professor in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department, has renewed the attention paid to Nabokov’s work in Lepidoptera, authoring a new much-talked-about study that legitimates the novelist’s scientific pursuits.

Nabokov was both a writer and a scientist, and a look into his time at Harvard reveals the precarious balance he tried to strike between Lepidoptera and literature, as well as the marked tension he had with a university that is now profoundly affected by his work.


As a child, Nabokov loved butterflies. His passion for Lepidoptera lasted his entire lifetime. Each summer, he and his wife Vera travelled to Colo. and Utah to expand his collection. Notably, the first work Nabokov published in English was an article in the scientific journal The Entomologist.

In 1941, while teaching at Wellesley College, the amateur butterfly collector made a visit to Harvard’s MCZ seeking to compare his personal collection to the University’s. He had arrived in the United States one year prior.

He was astonished by how poorly organized Harvard’s Lepidoptera collection was, and before leaving the museum that day he left a note offering to help rearrange it. What started as an unpaid position tidying the University’s Lepidoptera wing turned into a part-time job. Within a short period, Nabokov became the de facto curator of the collection, working in office number 402, on Oxford St.

Nabokov was a taxonomist, meaning his primary task at the MCZ was classification. Working in an era before molecular biology, he studied speciation by examining genitalia. While at the MCZ, Nabokov focused his studies on a group of butterflies known as Polyommatinae. Nicknamed ‘The Blues,’ the Polyommatinae form a subgroup within the family Lycaenidae.

These are not the bright oranges of the Monarch. Some Polyommatus blues’ wings are a dusty cornflower blue, faded around the edges. Others are more copper, still others are white. Often, the wings are ringed with brown.

Nabokov was unique in his efforts to postulate the specific order in which species developed. “He was more evolutionary in his thinking,” and also advanced in purporting numerical taxonomy, Pierce says.

“For a traditional morphologist at the time, he was ahead of his time in trying to be so quantitative,” she continues.