Humbert Humbert has little control over his pedophilic urges for Lolita and this leads him to force her into a cross-country tour in a bid to keep her compliant. Gradually he becomes aware of the shadowy presence of another pedophile who desires Lolita for his own needs.
‘Spoiler-Free’ Lolita Summary
Lolita is a story structured as an autobiography written by Humbert Humbert during his time at the sanatorium and then in prison. It featured a vivid but unreliable narration of events that sees Humbert Humbert get infatuated with Lolita, a 12-year-old girl.
Humbert came into the small town of Ramsdale seeking accommodation, and through a series of unfortunate happenstances ends up at the residence of Charlotte Haze. Although he dislikes the house, he accepts the lodging because he desires Charlotte’s young daughter, Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. He keeps a diary where he documents his fantasies for Lolita, as well as his attempts to find sexual gratification from the slightest physical contact.
Events take Charlotte out of the way and allow Humbert to put into action his plans for Lolita. He moves her from town to town to keep her contented but is pursued by a not too dissimilar character, Clare Quilty, who wants Lolita too for his own selfish purpose. Humbert’s narration is from a perspective of a judged convict who is trying to plead his case not just to a judge and jury, but to the readers as well. He anticipates reactions to his actions and so sought to temper them with spirited persuasive strategies.
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
The novel begins with a foreword from a fictional psychologist, John Ray, who introduces the strange story that will follow. John Ray had received Humbert Humbert’s manuscript from his lawyer after Humbert had succumbed to coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for an unidentified crime. We also learn that a certain Mrs. Schiller later revealed to be the titular character, Lolita, had died from childbirth on Christmas day. Both of them died in 1952.
Ray describes the writing in the manuscript as beautiful and persuasive but condemns the despicable actions of the author. He predicts that the novel would be highly valued in psychiatric circles and would also encourage parents to raise better children.
Humbert’s early life
The story begins with Humbert’s poetic reminisces of his love and lust for Lolita whom he describes as “My Lolita” and “Fire of my lungs”.
Humbert’s introduction is put aside for narration of events leading up to his time with Lolita. We are taken to his childhood in the French Riviera and the love affair with his friend, Annabel Leigh, when he was thirteen and she, twelve. Their love for each other was, to Humbert’s disappointment, unconsummated, up until Annabel is taken away from the Riviera, dying four months later from Typhus. Humbert claims that his unconsummated love for Annabel would condemn him to a lifetime of sexual obsession with a category of girls aged between 9 to 14, whom he calls “Nymphets”.
Later as a young adult, Humbert receives an education in both Paris and London and soon begins publishing articles in journals. However, he is still plagued by his desire for Nymphets and tries to be around them, although he just about manages to repress the urges. He turns to prostitutes for sexual fulfillment and takes an interest in one, Monique, because of her nymphet-like features. He tries to and abandons the search for child prostitutes after a madame scams him.
Desirous of living a normal life, Humbert decides to get married in 1935 to Valeria, the adult daughter of his doctor. Their marriage lasted for four years and was broken when Humbert discovered that Valeria had been cheating on him. After his divorce, Humbert relocates to the United States to access an inheritance granted him by a dead uncle. He initially takes up residence in New York for a while, engaging in a variety of jobs and activities such as writing and editing ads for a perfume business, working on a study of French literature for English students, participating in a scientific expedition to the Arctic and enduring three periods of confinement in mental institutions.
Humbert meets Lolita
In 1947, Humbert Humbert moved to New England where he was supposed to take up residence in the small town of Ramsdale with a family called the McCoos. The prospect of living near the young daughter of the Mccoos excited him considerably, but he was disappointed with the news that the Mccoo’s house had burned down. Mr. McCoo then refers him to Charlotte Haze, who was letting a room. Humbert is hesitant to remain in the town but allows Charlotte to give him a tour of her house out of politeness. He detests the decor and was irritated at what he is convinced was Charlotte’s attempt at flirtation.
He was about to refuse her offer of lodging when he saw Charlotte’s young daughter, Dolores, sunbathing in the garden. He is immediately infatuated, believing that he was seeing a reincarnation of Annabel. He immediately accepts Charlotte’s offer and moves in.
Humbert documented his fantasies and schemes on Dolores in a diary. He obtains sexual pleasure from both deliberately fashioned and accidental contact with Dolores- although he keeps his actions as discreet as possible. On one occasion, he gropes her thighs and drives himself to erection out of contact with her legs.
Charlotte’s marriage and death
Charlotte however appears to fall in love with Humbert, but her desire to spend time alone with him is obstructed by Lolita’s meddling presence. She sought to remove Lolita from the picture by enrolling her at a boarding school. One day when Charlotte was away from the house with Lolita, the maid brings Humbert a note from Charlotte where she declares her love for Humbert and gives him the option of either accepting to marry her or moving away from the house.
Humbert is physically repulsed by the prospect of marrying Charlotte but decides to accept because he wanted to be near Lolita. So, he marries Charlotte when she returns. While swimming at the Hourglass Lake, Humbert contemplates drowning his new wife after she informs him of her plan to send Lolita to a boarding school. He was unable to kill her however and instead settled for looking for better ways to assert control so he can ensure Lolita stays close to him.
Desperate to obtain sexual release from Lolita, he settled for drugging both her and Charlotte’s drink, so he can molest Lolita undetected. However, when he comes back from the drugstore where he had gone to secure a powerful sleeping drug, he discovers that Charlotte had discovered his diary and read its contents.
Charlotte was shocked and furious to learn that Humbert did not love her and was only tolerating the marriage for the opportunity to be with Lolita and so was writing letters to warn her friends when Humbert came back. She launched into an angry tirade at Humbert and as she went out to post the letters, she was knocked down by a car.
The fast-thinking Humbert, scheming to become Lolita’s guardian, manages to convince close family friends of Charlotte that he was Lolita’s real father from a long-ago affair with Charlotte. Afterward, he picks Lolita up from summer Camp, telling her that her mother was only ill.
He took her to a motel in Briceland called The Enchanted Hunters where he drugs her with sleeping pills and tries to molest her in the bed as she sleeps. She wakes up, however, forcing him to abandon the enterprise. Humbert claims that the next morning Lolita initiated sex with him. He believes she had been “corrupted” during her stay at summer camp.
Humbert and Lolita’s Road life
The second part of the book is notable for its faster pace and sense of urgency. When Humbert and Lolita resumed their journeys on the road Lolita’s behavior becomes more erratic and she threatens to call her mother or the police and tell them everything Humbert had done to her. Here Humbert finally reveals Charlotte’s death, letting Lolita know she had nowhere else to go.
To prevent Lolita from trying to escape from him, Humbert decided to create an adventurous, fun-filled schedule; they spend several months on the road, staying in motels and visiting tourist attractions.
Constrained by financial and legal concerns, Humbert decided to settle in Beardsley where his French friend, Gaston Godin, was able to secure a lecturing job for him. He enrolls Lolita at the local girls’ school. Although Lolita makes new friends and tries to adapt to this new school, the headmistress, Pratt, suspects that something was wrong with Lolita’s home environment. As part of socialization attempts prescribed to help Lolita, Pratt urged Humbert to let Lolita participate in the school play: The Enchanted Hunters by Clare Quilty.
As Lolita was engaged in rehearsals for the play, Humbert Humbert starts to grow suspicious of her, leading to a deterioration in their relationship. When he learns that Lolita has been missing piano lessons, he gets into a violent fight with her, leading to her running out of the house. When he catches up with her at a telephone booth, her attitude has changed. She suggested they get on the road again, this time with her choosing the routes. Humbert agrees and by the summer of May 1949, the two were on another cross-country trip.
However, as they travel, Humbert notices that a man in a red car is following them. He is concerned when he observes that Lolita has been in constant communication with this individual. Humbert fears that Lolita might be trying to escape, although he finally convinced himself that he was just being paranoid.
Lolita fell ill when they were in the town called Elphinstone. She stays for several days at a local hospital, and when Humbert comes to take her home, he learns that the man trailing him all the while had already left with her. A horrified Humbert then spends the rest of the summer looking for Lolita and her lover with little success.
In despair, he abandons the search and settles for a relationship with an alcoholic named Rita. Their relationship lasts for two years and is interrupted when Humbert receives a letter from now 17-year-old Lolita asking for money. She is now married to an engineer named Dick and needs the money so she and her husband can move to Alaska where a new job is awaiting Dick.
Although she did not disclose her exact address in the letter, Humbert manages to track her down, with the intent of murdering her husband, who he believed took her away from him. When Humbert sees Lolita at her new home, he is struck by how much she had changed; She was no longer a nymphet and was heavily pregnant. However, Humbert still loves her. He learns that her husband was not the man who took Lolita away from him and so presses Lolita to reveal the name of the “abductor”.
Lolita reluctantly reveals that he is Clare Quilty, a renowned playwright her mother had known. She had met him during rehearsals for her school’s production of Quilty’s play. Lolita ran off with Quilty because she was in love with him, but was thrown away when she refuses his request for her to act in a pornographic film. Although Humbert gives Lolita the money she asks for, he begs her to run away with him. Lolita, although surprised and even moved by the gesture, firmly refuses.
Quilty’s Murder and End
A heartbroken Humbert then drives away, driven by his obsession to exact vengeance on Quilty. But first, he returns to Ramsdale to facilitate the transfer of Charlotte’s properties in his possession to Lolita. While on the search for Quilty, Humbert experiences a moment of self-reflection where he acknowledges the damage his terrible and selfish behavior has done to Lolita.
However, his desire for revenge on Quilty is still strong and when he tracks the playwright to his huge, rickety house he shoots and kills him in a gruesome manner after twice rebuffing Quilty’s dramatic trickery and attempts at negotiation. Humbert announces his murder to Quilty’s drunk friends on the bottom floor but they did not take him seriously. Humbert leaves Pavor Manor, and in an act bordering on insanity, decides to drive on the wrong side of the highway. He is then stopped by the police and arrested