The characters in Nabokov’s Lolita are presented through Humbert Humbert’s unreliable narration. Whether there are disparities between Humbert’s portrayals and the truth, and whether this truth can be discerned has been a focal point of critical analysis into the book.
Humbert is a selfish and narcissistic pedophile who uses his gift for beautiful narration to seduce readers of his memoir. Seeking sympathy, he often casts himself as a helpless man following his natural impulses. He is mean, foul-mouthed, and overly critical. He utilizes an ironic, self-mocking tone as well as complicated word games to divert readers’ attention from the horrors he describes.
He is also very persuasive and possesses a gentlemanly exterior that facilitates his deceptions. Humbert was inflicted with his pedophilic urges because of a short-lived, unconsummated romantic tangle he had with a childhood love, Annabel Leigh. Although his urges for little girls never ceased at any point, he tries, unsuccessfully, to control them by having relationships with adult women. Humbert often suffers mental problems that consign him to Sanatoriums and is prone to near hallucinatory flights and bouts of bad temper.
His desire for sympathy makes his narration unreliable. He often misrepresents the facts to suit his propaganda. He is typically unsympathetic; He restricts Lolita’s interaction with people of her age because he was afraid of her escaping from him. He keeps her as a sex slave essentially and would resort to bribery, threats, and physical force to secure her compliance. He cold-heartedly delays informing Lolita of her mother’s death until he had had sex multiple times with her.
Even when he permits himself moments of honest reflection about Lolita’s suffering, he never makes an effort to alleviate it. He never acknowledges the personality behind Lolita. He dismissed her aspirations as “disgustingly conventional” and refers to her displays of independent thinking as a symptom of waywardness. He is also a hypocrite who lacks the self-awareness to realize that he is far more guilty of that which he accuses others of.
He murders Quilty partly because he holds him responsible for corrupting Lolita— a sentiment that denial his complicity in that loss. Towards the end of the novel, however, Humbert Humbert acknowledges the wickedness of his actions and seems to experience a moral awakening.
Lolita is a young girl that is fairly exposed for her age, prankish, naive, and bubbly. She is yanked out of her life as a normal twelve-year-old child for life as an unwilling sex slave to Humbert. She falls for her kidnapper’s threats and is cowed by his bribes. But she deeply resents his molestations and would stay up late to cry whenever she feels he was asleep.
Though obscured by Humbert’s selfish narration, Lolita’s desires for an alternative life, as represented by her interests in weddings and acting, seeps through occasionally. She is also very much interested in clothes, pop music and adventure- attributes Humbert takes full advantage of to secure her compliance.
The death of her mother makes a lonely and hopeless girl out of her but with time Lolita learns to fool Humbert. She takes advantage of her crush on the playwright, Clare Quilty, to flee from Humbert. She shows a strength of character to resist Quilty’s attempt to make her star in a pornographic film and is thrown away as a result. She eventually gets married to a manual laborer, Dick Schiller. Over time Lolita’s high aspirations were cut short by the reality of her less-than-ideal life with Dick Schiller.
She copes with her unfavorable conditions with equanimity and confidently shows a warm solicitude for her new husband and her unborn child. The 17-year-old Dolly is at a resigned spot and dreams of nothing more than her husband’s success with his new job in Alaska and is firmly focused on the future, not the past. This Dolly feels no bitterness or anger toward Quilty or Humbert.
Quilty is a popular playwright that Lolita falls in love. Like Humbert, he is a pedophile and shares the same dark, manipulative character. He functions as both a sort of “double” and nemesis for Humbert. Humbert notes this affinity and describes Quilty’s tastes—genre, humor, cleverness, fashion, a likeness for wine- as related to his own.
Quilty is a mysterious figure that doggedly pursues and later pry Lolita out of Humbert’s hands. But he is as much a selfish pervert as Humbert and tries to get Lolita to do child pornography. When she refuses, he kicks her. He was able to manipulate Lolita by promising to make her a movie star. Quilty shares Humbert’s propensity to work French phrases into his speech. He, like Humbert, is also defensive as regards his treatment of Dolores.
His claim that he gave Lolita a splendid vacation echoes Humbert’s claim that he gave Lolita a “good time”, but both of them are economical with the truth and gloss over their brutal treatment of the little girl. They both share a taste for preserving their perverse desires in art.
Quilty’s pornographic movies can in this respect be compared to Humbert’s elevation of his erotic sessions with Lolita to the art through poetic descriptions and evocative imageries. Both of them fancy themselves to be artists, although Quilty is more successful. Quilty hides behind the goodwill from this success and reputation to get away with his deviant behavior. However, his proclivity for young girls is well known and appears to be the subject of gossip.
Up until the very end of the Novel, Quilty’s presence hangs like a thick cloud but he is never explicitly hinted at. A flurry of clues however is left scattered around, showing his footprints and shadowy, ubiquitous presence. When his identity is eventually revealed, the reader begins to make the connections he had missed earlier.
Quilty exudes a larger-than-life presence in the latter part of the novel. His remote hold on Lolita is stronger than the connection Humbert thinks he has with Lolita. While Humbert is fiercely possessive of “his Lolita”, he does not realize that she belongs to someone else hiding in the shadows. He is also manipulative. He succeeds in enticing Lolita away from Humbert by taking advantage of her love for him, as well as her desire for a career as a movie star when he only wanted her to do pornography. When Humbert tried to kill him, Quilty tried to distract Humbert by fashioning an array of strange, dramatic, near-insane behaviors.
Charlotte is often the target of Humbert’s brutal attacks and it is often difficult to sift her authentic character out from Humbert’s unflattering and animosity-filled representation.
She is the prototypical middle-aged, middle-class American. Humbert accuses her of aiming for and failing to reach a high standard of sophistication. He presents her as pretentious with the narration of her attempts to signal her high class by dropping names of celebrities and mispronouncing French phrases.
Humbert sees her romantic interest in himself as part of an attempt to associate herself with the European elegance and sophistication that Humbert supposedly represents. But it is not far-fetched to presume that Humbert’s dislike for Charlotte is affecting his portrayal of the woman.
After all Humbert, in characteristic myopic self-interest, only sees Charlotte as a stumbling block to his access to Lolita. Lolita is often in the way of Charlotte’s romantic designs for Humbert and as a result, begins to see her young daughter as a nuisance. She is often exasperated by Lolita who on the other hand is prone to adolescent tantrums.
There are sufficient indications that Charlotte comes to see Lolita as a threat and so devices plan to keep Lolita away from the house. However, Charlotte’s presence ultimately protects Lolita from Humbert’s predation—when Charlotte dies, Humbert is free to kidnap Lolita and change her life forever.
Annabel Leigh is Humbert Humbert’s childhood love interest during Humbert’s time at the French Riviera. Their love for each other is passionate, but Humbert cannot have sex with her because they could not find an appropriate space away from prying eyes. When she and Humbert came close to having sex by a beachside cave, they were interrupted by two passing men.
Not long after that she left French Riviera and died four months later of typhoid. Humbert will identify his desire to find a close prototype of Annabel even in his adulthood as responsible for his pedophilia. He sees Lolita as an incarnation of Annabel due to their physical similarities. Annabel’s name and character came from the titular character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” a poem about a young girl who dies early.
Valeria was Humbert Humbert’s wife while he was in Paris. She is a painter from Poland who Humbert marries in an effort to control his obsession with nymphets. Although an adult, Humbert finds her attractive because she acts like a child.
Humbert divorced her after learning that she was cheating on him with a Russian Taxi driver called Maximovich. Valeria and her husband will later die after being subjected to a humiliating experiment that demanded them to act like animals.
Jean Farlow and her husband, John Farlow, are among the few friends of the Hazes’. Unknown to Humbert, she was observing him and Charlotte as they swam at the Hourglass lake while Humbert contemplated drowning Charlotte. She secretly tried to kiss Humbert Humbert after Charlotte’s death but was rejected.
Gaston Godin is an acquaintance of Humbert who teaches French at Beardsley College. He helps Humbert settle and find a job in Beardsley. Humbert has a low opinion of Gaston who he describes as a mediocre scholar.
Humbert has no trouble allowing Gaston into his home because he believes Gaston was incapable of noticing anything strange about his situation with Lolita. The two regularly play chess together. Because he is always surrounded by young men, Humbert suspects Godin of being a pedophile.
Rita is an alcoholic woman in her late twenties from Grainball City. Humbert enters into a relationship with her after losing Lolita. He spent two years with her, traveling around the country.
Although Rita was a comforting presence, Humbert never loves her and appears to even be embarrassed by her. However, he freely drinks heavily with her and indulges her lifestyle, although he once had to help her out of trouble with the police.
Mona Dahl is Lolita’s best friend at Beardsley. She is an intelligent and sexually experienced young girl who helps Lolita lie to Humbert Humbert. Humbert becomes suspicious that Lolita was exposing their secret to Mona.
Dick Schiller is an engineer with impaired hearing who marries Lolita after she was thrown out by Quilty. He appears to know nothing of Lolita’s past. He seemed amiable and cordially welcomed Humbert Humbert to his home. He received a job offer in Grey Star, Alaska and this led Lolita to solicit money from Humbert.