The most noticeable feature of Lolita, and the main reason for its staying power, is Humbert Humbert's gorgeous, tricky, and delightful prose. Nabokov's primary motivation for writing so beautifully is to plunge the reader into a state of "'aesthetic bliss.'" Lolita is as pleasurable a reading experience as any novel, and for what is ostensibly a mystery story, it demands a rereading largely on the basis of its beautiful writing. Humbert's language is enchanting, and the motif of enchantment and fairy tales runs throughout the novel; indeed, Nabokov believed that all stories should resemble fairy tales, and the storyteller should be a kind of enchanter. In addition to this blissful enchantment, the language of Lolita has a number of other effects.
Inherent in this aesthetic bliss is a freezing of time. When Humbert describes Lolita playing tennis in minute detail, he succeeds in locking her into eternal nymphet-hood. Every time he revisits her through prose, she attains the specificity of her image in his memory.
Humbert also diverts the reader from his ugly actions with his pretty words. But he goes beyond mere prettiness; his constant wordplay and verbal games force us to concentrate on language rather than on him.
Nabokov also subverts the mystery genre by using language as the main dispenser of clues, rather than action. While some of the verbal acrobatics are merely for entertainment, the flood of allusions often reveals clues to Quilty's identity and Humbert's character.
Far less a mystery than a love story, Lolita concerns itself with Humbert's obsessive drive for sex, in Part One, and violence, in Part Two. The two passions oppose each other, as sex creates life and violence brings it to an end. They are not exclusive to the first and second part, of course; Humbert frequently wants to kill Haze in Part One, as he wanted to kill his first wife Valeria, and his lust does not diminish in Part Two.
Humbert usually gets what he wants - he beds Lolita, Haze dies, and he kills Quilty. However, some of his desires are impossible to achieve, namely his wish for nymphets never to grow up. Inevitably, he loses his hold on Lolita as she ages and develops independent desires (among them, as he finds out later, love for Quilty). Madness often ensues, a condition Humbert has a history of, as when Valeria cheated on him. He occasionally concedes his insanity and calls himself a "madman." Humbert also releases these unsatisfied desires through other forms; he cries several times in the novel in Lolita's presence, and even does so during intercourse.
Humbert uses the word "McFate" to describe the numerous coincidences in life which suggest a series of fated checkpoints through which he must pass. For instance, the number 342 recurs as Haze's home address, as their room number at The Enchanted Hunter, and in the number of hotels at which they stay. Dogs also pop up at several key moments, notably when Haze is run over by a driver trying to avoid a neighborhood dog. Another possibility other than the fated checkpoints is that Humbert has authored these coincidences from his jail cell, changing real events around to fit his whims as an unreliable narrator.
Reader as jury
Since Nabokov believes fiction should not be moral, but only aesthetic, he mocks our tendency to make moral judgments by having Humbert address his readers as jury members and judges. However, this explanation obscures a complicated investigation into morality, fate, and free will. Humbert attempts to remove moral responsibility for his actions by subscribing to a philosophy of fate; if he is not in charge of events, then he cannot be held liable for them. By the end of the novel, however, he admits he exercised free will in his abuse of Lolita and deserves some kind of punishment. Still, he does not believe capital punishment or even jail serves up the degree of suffering he has inflicted upon himself by losing Lolita.
Europe vs. the Unites States
While Nabokov denied his novel was in any way an allegory of the culture clash between Old Europe (represented by Humbert) and Young America (represented by Lolita), the reader can extract much about America from their relationship. Haze can be viewed as a symbol of bourgeois America; hopelessly striving toward European elegance, she is instead stuck in American middle-class kitsch. Lolita, too, is entrenched in American popular culture. Her attraction to lowbrow film, especially, draws Humbert's attention. In a sense, Lolita's emphasis on prose and subjective vision is a reaction to the objective, visual language of film, and renders itself virtually unfilmable (although two respected versions of Lolita have been filmed). Humbert's European ear also revises American idiom to humorous or even logical effect (consider his phrase "west-door neighbor").
Parody of Doppelgänger tale
The Doppelgänger tale, a story that involves characters who "double" and oppose each other (Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde epitomizes this), receives much parody and revision from Nabokov, who once called the Doppelgänger a "'frightful bore.'" Names in the novel are themselves doubles, especially Humbert Humbert, whose double name contains linguistic allusions to the words "man" and "shade" (shadows form another motif in the novel and are traditional symbols for doubles).
The major double is between Humbert and Quilty, as befits the protagonist and antagonist. However, Quilty is much like Humbert, a suave, literary pedophile, and they even reverse position as hunter and hunted. Nabokov effaces the differences between the two supposed opposites and reveals their similarities. Nabokov's parody, then, is not simply a literary subversion, but an examination into the gray area of morality.
Finally, mirrors throughout the novel create double images but, in line with the false Humbert/Quilty double, they often simply magnify a single character. This magnification suggests the solipsism (the belief that the self is the only existent thing) from which the characters, especially lonely Humbert, cannot escape.
Nabokov was a highly respected lepidopterist (specialist in butterflies), and if anything in Lolita can be viewed as a strict symbol (a technique Nabokov disdained), it is Lolita as a butterfly. She is elusive and beautiful and Humbert hunts her like the lepidopterist does with his net. However, she also goes through a metamorphosis that Humbert tries to stop - since the metamorphosis seems to occur in reverse. Rather than change from a disgusting larva to a gorgeous winged creature, Lolita seems to get more vulgar as she ages and loses her nymphet powers (especially by the end of the novel).
Mockery of psychoanalysis
Nabokov is a harsh critic of Sigmund Freud and the entire field of psychoanalysis, and Humbert is his proxy mocker throughout Lolita. He derides the idea that Annabel was the traumatic motivation for his love for Lolita, and makes jest of many other psychoanalytic clichés, such as the gun symbolizing the phallus.
Lolita Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Lolita is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think that dismissing this as trash because one finds the content offensive is missing the point of art. This book is considered a classic for a reason. Relationships between old men and girls exist despite the disturbing nature of them. Lolita...
Since Nabokov believes fiction should not be moral, but only aesthetic, he mocks our tendency to make moral judgments by having Humbert address his readers as jury members and judges. Humbert attempts to remove moral responsibility for his actions...