Lolita’s Themes and Analysis

In Humbert’s obsessive, taboo desires, artful presentation, and interaction with America, a number of salient themes are produced in ‘Lolita.’

A number of themes are prevalent in Nabokov’s work, among them impartial fate and control, taboo, and solipsism.

Lolita Themes and Analysis


Lolita Themes

The theme of impartial fate and control 

The theme of fate is prominent in Lolita. Humbert has a strong awareness of the workings of fate in his life. Indeed, things seemed to go too perfectly for him regarding his designs for Lolita. The Mccoo’s residence he was supposed to lodge in when he got to Ramsdale burned down conveniently to steer him in the path of Charlotte’s residence and subsequently, Lolita.

Although Charlotte’s romantic interest in him appeared repulsive at first, the boon of marriage with the woman placed Humbert near his Lolita, and when Charlotte discovers his diary with all its hideous desires and plans, her plan to expose Humbert and take Lolita away from him forever is once more interrupted by fate when an absent-minded Charlotte gets run down by a car.

Although Humbert acknowledges the work of fate in aiding his designs, he imagined that he has as much control over his destiny and that of those around him. Fate might have taken him to Charlotte’s residence, but he had fashioned Lolita- this complete, mindless sexual object- out of the personality that is Dolores.

When he cleverly arranges matters to secure momentary sexual release from seemingly innocuous physical contact with Lolita, he imagines himself as an artist, fulfilling his fantasies and manipulating humans around him in such a way that they serve his interests, even if they do not realize they were doing so.

He gives himself credit for Charlotte’s demise by connecting the absent-mindedness that ultimately caused her death to her distress at the information she discovered from his diary. However, Fate is not on his side for long. Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty, both symbolize “cruel” fate and a wresting of control over events from Humbert.

As Humbert journeys across the United States, pursued by Quilty, he senses that fate had abandoned him and that he was no longer in control. Indeed, Quilty would eventually pry Lolita away from his hands forever, utilizing a clever Humbert-like machination that Humbert could neither detect nor prevent.

Quilty had designed the plan of Lolita’s escape and Humbert had given full reign to his nemesis when he allowed Lolita to choose the “routes’’ for their second cross country trip. Even after a vengeful Humbert had killed Quilty, he still could not shake off the feeling that his failure to end Quilty the way he wanted to represent another successful attempt by Quilty to fully remove the illusion of the controlling artist Humbert thought he was.

After the killing of Quilty, an action that proved far more bizarre and problematic than he had anticipated, Humbert remarks: “This was the end of the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty”, acknowledging Quilty’s mastery over him even in death.

Taboo

The most prominent theme in Lolita is perhaps the obvious issue of taboo. Nabokov gave a fresh spin to the issue of pedophilia and equips Humbert with his immaculate rhetorical skills to defend this inclination. Throughout the narration, Humbert shows an awareness of the reaction readers would have towards his actions and so sought to counter it with rhetorical tools. He tries to defend his impulses as natural and artistic rather than wicked and unjust.

He appeals to the general reader’s open-mindedness, as against the conventional judgments of “frigid” gentlemen and “women of the jury”. He casts the laws barring relationships of the kind he indulges in as unprogressive and out of keeping with grand civilizations like that of Ancient Greeks and the Romans.

Lolita forces the reader to “consider” Humbert’s point of view; the idea of the unfortunate “artist” being prevented from following his natural impulses by backward laws. However, Humbert largely fails and abandons the enterprise at the end when he acknowledges his wickedness and destruction. We are left with a grim picture that, stripped from the fancy and persuasive prose of Humbert, exposes a deeply disturbing tale of destruction and misery.

Solipcism

A prominent theme in Nabokov’s novel concerns Humbert Humbert’s solipsism of Lolita. All the information we got about Lolita came from Humbert Humbert’s usually propaganda-filled narration. Humbert’s pedophilic lust causes him to value only the aspect of Lolita that is capable of fulfilling his desires.

Consequently, while he devoted entire paragraphs in detailed, razor-sharp, and near erotic descriptions of Lolita’s physical attributes, he ignores the personality behind the body. We get little of Lolita’s real feelings and aspirations as a result. The little times he proffers an assessment of her personality, it is almost always dismissive and uncomplimentary. For example, earlier in the novel, he proclaims that; “Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl”. 

However later after he had lost Lolita and allowed himself some honest introspection, he confesses that: “quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate — dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and forbidden to me” Humbert’s behavior arises from an inability to evaluate and interact with others beyond what he needs from them.

He offers hasty, summarily uncomplimentary judgments to people he dislikes, like Charlotte and a few other characters in the book. Humbert’s solipsism is evident in his tendency to create artistic clones of real characters around him, clones he molds with attributes that meet his fantasies. For example, he fashions “Lolita” the sex object from a real Dolores. Lolita however is without personality, existing to satisfy his wildest fantasies.

After securing orgasm from an unsuspecting Lolita when they playfully jostle over a Magazine and Apple, Humbert explains that: “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my 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”.

Language as an enchanting tool

At the core, Lolita is a simple book about a pedophiliac man who obsesses over a 12-year-old little girl. The inappropriateness of Humbert’s desires and the evil of his molestations and imprisonment of Lolita should be simple enough. However, this situation is obscured by Nabokov’s subversion of normal expectation around an antagonist whose evil is expected to be displayed in an obviously vulgar and reprehensible manner. Rather Humbert describes his obsession for Lolita with depth, feeling, and rich, poetic language.

His narration is an aesthetic beauty filled with clever wordplays and vivid imageries. When he describes how he molests Lolita, he seems to us more like an artist manipulating his sexual gratifications out of a willing sexual object, and for a moment the reader is distracted from the dark reality of the situation. Using this ability to manipulate language expertly, Humbert tries to not only distract the reader from his evils but manipulate him into a more favorable judgment of his actions.

Alienation

The theme of alienation and exile from society is integral to Lolita. Humbert is forced into shadows, into a sedentary, mobile life to escape both real and imagined enemies. The continuous stretch of American highways provides freedom for him to act out his base, forbidden desires. Lolita on the other hand is trapped with Humbert and isolated from society and its promise of a normal life. Her interactions with kids her age are severely limited and she exists only as a sex slave to Humbert. So, both characters travel from town to town and hotel to hotel while feeling isolated in their own different ways.

Analysis of Key Moments in Lolita 

  1. A young Humbert and Annabel have romance, but it remains unconsummated until Annabel’s death. This results to Humbert’s pedophilic urges, or more specifically, his obsession with nymphets, as he narrates. His inability to consummate his love with Annabel would haunt him for the rest of his life. Annabel was his standard for the perfect sexual partner for a long time until he encountered Lolita who he describes as a spitting image of Annabel.
  2. Humbert marries Valeria Zborovski. This represents Humbert’s attempt to control his pedophilic urges and live a normal life. However, the failure of his marriage to Valeria seemed to destroy this hope permanently. 
  3. Humbert’s erotic encounter with Dolly on the living room couch. This activity marks an escalation in Humbert’s erotic advances at Lolita. From here onwards, Humbert would only grow bolder with Lolita.
  4. Charlotte is run over by a car as she runs to mail letters incriminating Humbert Humbert. Humbert is not only saved from exposure here but an important obstacle in the way of his nefarious plans for Lolita is eliminated. The coast is now clear for Humbert to do whatever he likes to the now vulnerable Lolita. 
  5. Humbert sleeps with Lolita in the enchanted Hunters hotel. This is the point where Humbert truly claimed Lolita. Before this moment he was hesitant to touch her with her vigilance. He even resorted to drugging her so he could have sex with her. But after this sexual intercourse, the stage is set for almost constant violations that would continue until Lolita escapes.
  6. Dolly’s piano teacher mentions in a phone conversation with Humbert that Dolly has missed two lessons. Humbert and Dolly fight, Dolly runs away but is found by Humbert. It is at this point that Lolita, aided by the mysterious Quilty, takes the initiative and begins to scheme her escape from Humbert. 
  7. Humbert telephones the hospital and learns that Dolly had left the day before. Lolita’s loss devastates Humbert and fills him with an unquenchable heartbreak and desire for revenge against the person who took her away from him.
  8. Humbert meets a pregnant Lolita and her husband. Humbert meets a much-changed, heavily pregnant Lolita that is now an adult, but he still loves her and wants her to run away with him. She declines, however, but appears to bear no grudge against Humbert for all he did to her. 
  9. Humbert murders Quilty. Although heartbroken and somewhat repentant for all he had done to Lolita, Humbert’s desire for anger against Quilty remains strong. He murders Quilty after both of them fight, roll and struggle multiple times in a scene that highlights both character’s similarities.


Style, Tone, and Figurative Language

Tone

Lolita is a personal memoir by Humbert. It features his first-person narration of the entire story and we depend on him for the facts. However, he is an unreliable narrator who is often dishonest. Lolita is an attempt by Humbert, a morally repugnant pedophile, to plead his case before readers in such a manner that they might sympathize with him.

To do this, he takes advantage of his education and background as a student of Literature to weave poetic prose that not only seeks to distract readers with its dazzling brilliance, but casts his perverse desires as legitimate, noble, and helpless, as the case may be. As a result, readers often find themselves shocked to be moved by Humbert’s narration to the point where they begin to sympathize with him despite the gravity of his offense.

However, despite claims to gentlemanly behavior, the reality, sifted away from the poetic narration and sugar-coating reveals a different nature.

Humbert ensnares readers into sympathy through enchanting prose, half-truths, deprecatory humor, and scathing criticism of American culture that a lot of the readers relate with. Humbert also sometimes refers to himself in the third person, perhaps signaling that the Humbert narrating the story has changed a lot from the Humbert in the narration.

Figurative Language

Nabokov gifts Humbert his flair for aesthetically pleasing prose. For example, the very first sentence of Humbert’s narration is memorable for its poetic quality. The lines: “Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul” features impressive sound play and great depth of feeling. 

Humbert hides the illicit behind more innocent words. “Life” as used in the above quote is also likely a euphemism for the penis. This would become more apparent when he mentions later on that: “My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me.”

In another instance, after gaining sexual release from seemingly playful physical contact with Lolita, he compares his actions to that of a “conjurer” who pours “milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse, and lo, the purse was intact”. However, the word “purse,” is an Elizabethan euphemism for “vagina.” He also cleverly creates a pun by placing the word “lo,” a nickname for Dolly, close to the word “purse,” suggesting that Dolly’s virginity remains intact after his conjuring trick.

Like has been noted earlier, he also makes generous allusions to the works of other literary giants to give himself or his motives an artistic or noble air. He aptly names his childhood love interest Annabel Leigh and uses terms like “Princedom by the sea” and “Noble winged seraphs” which are allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s passionate love poem “Annabel Lee”. Humbert also makes ample use of wordplay.

When his wife’s Russian lover drove them both to Humbert’s house for her to pack her belongings, Humbert contemplates assaulting her thus;

“The taxi driver drove the Humberts to their residence, and all the way Valeria talked, and Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert the Small whether Humbert Humbert should kill her or her lover, or both, or neither”.

Here the “Humberts” refers both to himself and his wife and also to the different aspects of his personality.

Through evocative imagery, he lets objects in the background also reflect his mood. For example, when all his designs threaten to fall apart after Charlotte discovers his diary and starts raining curses on him, his description of a simple act of making a drink evokes powerful images that capture his panic.

He opens the refrigerator to take the drink but the normal chill that greets him appears to him as a “vicious roar.” He “removed the ice from its heart,” with the ice cubes producing “rasping, crackling, tortured sounds” as the warm water loosened them “in their cells”. In another instance, while Humbert goes to meet with Dolly at the lobby of the Enchanted Hunters hotel, he realizes a man was intently staring at him “over a dead cigar and stale newspaper”. The man happens to be Clare Quilty and the images “dead” and “stale” foreshadow the pain Quilty would bring to him, as well as the dreadful fate that awaits all of them.

Analysis of Symbols 

Annabel Lee 

With his use of Allusions, Nabokov intends a dual purpose that allows his artistic purpose to clash with Humbert’s. So, while Humbert might try to signal the legitimacy of his behavior by invoking a distinguished genealogy, Nabokov would normally want the reader to realize the irony present in such allusions. In seeking legitimacy for his unnatural sexual proclivity, Humbert Humbert connects it with renowned American writer and poet, Edgar Alan Poe’s marriage with Virginia. As he puts it “Virginia was not quite fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her”.

However, the irony that Nabokov would have us realize is that Humbert is less than honest in several important details.

In Annabel Lee, the narrator narrates his deep love for a girl who died at a young age many years ago “in a kingdom by the sea. The narrator proclaimed that they loved each other “with a love that was more than love” and with an intensity that aroused the envy of the “winged seraphs of heaven” who then took Annabel’s life. Humbert Humbert tried to connect his infatuation with his youthful love to what we have seen in Poe’s poem. Nabokov names her Annabel Lee, after the girl in Poe’s poem, and Humbert Humbert ties his memory of Annabel Lee to cues from Poe’s poem.

He declares that “there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea ” Still drawing from Poe’s poem he describes the difficulties he faced in his relationship with her as the work of envious “seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble winged seraphs”.

However, his connection to Poe’s poem is broken by the abhorrent fact that Humbert is a 36-year-old molesting a twelve-year-old girl against her will— certainly a far cry from the more consensual love story in Poe’s poem.

Elphinstone 

Humbert Humbert’s rich imagination leads him to not only solipsize Lolita but to infuse his narration with imaginary, fairytale-like elements. This also closely mirrors his strong sense of fate. This quality of Humbert is aided by Nabokov’s own machinations that more smoothly connect Humbert’s imaginative or artistic indulgences.

Humbert described Annabel Lee as the “Initial fateful elf” of his life, and the hometown of her “incarnate”, Lolita, is Pisky, which is another word for Elf. Annabel represents the beginning of Humbert’s pedophilic desires, and Lolita’s hometown also suggests a kind of beginning, the origination of Lolita. After Humbert’s first sexual intercourse with Lolita at the Enchanted Hunters hotel, he noted that “Nothing could have been more childish than … the purplish spot on her naked neck where a fairy tale vampire had feasted.” Also, when Humbert goes to kill Clare Quilty, he noted that the door of that playwright’s house “swung open as in a medieval fairy tale.”

Humbert Humbert would lose Lolita in the town of Elphinstone, a name that contains a ring of “Elf” within it. So, Humbert’s fairy tale begins in the town of “elf” and ends in “Elph’s stone”. This adds a supernatural element consistent with the already thick sense of fate. Humbert’s story acquires the symbolism of a fairy tale although there is no happy ending for him. It is another way in which Nabokov speaks through the novel, highlighting the irony of Humbert’s references and parodying an ancient literary genre in the process.

The Shade

The name “Humbert” closely resembles the Latin word for Shade. The symbolism of the shade is prevalent in Lolita and best represents Humbert’s status as an outcast in society owing to his unnatural and forbidden sexual inclinations. His pedophilia or ‘nymphetry’ is well-hidden from public view and represents an underground. With his attempts to marry or have relationships with normal adults, Humbert would signal his desire to move away from the shade into the outside world, but the strength of his obsession would always pull him back to the shade. Clare Quilty’s presence in large patches of the novel also represents a kind of shade or shadow because of its hidden but ubiquitous nature.

FAQs

Is Lolita a satire?

Lolita satirizes the artsy-craftsy American urban culture as well as consumerism in Charlotte’s and Lolita’s behavior. Humbert also satirizes American songs, Ads, movies, magazines, brand names, tourist attractions, hotels educationists, and child guardians.

Is Humbert Humbert an anti-hero?

Humbert is both protagonist, anti-hero, and villain. He is the story’s main character and we see everything in the book through his point of view. His rhetorical skills persuade and attract sympathy while his humor and commentary on societal culture entertain. But he destroys the childhood of Lolita, contributed to Charlotte’s death, and had to qualms about using Lolita as a sex slave for years. So he is both Lolita’s villainous abductor and charming weaver of words.

Who did Humbert Humbert kill?

Humbert killed Clare Quilty, the playwright, for taking Lolita from him. It is also possible that Humbert sees Quilty as a mirror of his own evil, and in destroying Quilty, aimed at exorcising himself of this evil.

How old were Humbert Humbert and Lolita in the book?

Humbert first met Lolita when he was 37 and she 12. He both died at 42 and 17 respectively.

Why did Humbert call her Lolita?

Humbert differentiates Lolita, the object of his lustful desires and fantasies, from Dolores Haze, the real daughter of Charlotte Haze with her own non-sexual personality distinct from Humbert’s desires, as well as Mrs. Schiller, the name of the married, no longer nymphet Lolita. Lolita is Humbert’s own artistic creation. Initially in the novel when Humbert schemes for and puts in place plans to satiate his lustful obsession for the young girl, he refers to her as Lolita. Lolita exists solely for his sexual purpose and does not have any personality worth exploring. However towards the end of the novel, after he stops seeing her as a sexual, he refers to her as Dolores Haze.

About Israel Njoku
Israel has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication. He loves entertainment, pop-culture and the arts and tries to extract themes with wider reaching implications from them through rigorous analysis.
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