The novel is a tragicomedy narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with word play and his wry observations of American culture. His humor provides an effective counterpoint to the pathos of the tragic plot. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet, a word that has since had a life of its own and can be found in most dictionaries, and the lesser-used "faunlet". One of the novel's characters, "Vivian Darkbloom", is an anagram of the author's name.
Several times, the narrator begs the reader to understand that he is not proud of his rape of Lolita and is filled with remorse. At one point he listens to the sounds of children playing outdoors, and is stricken with guilt at the realization that he robbed Lolita of her childhood. When he is reunited with the 17-year-old Lolita, he realises that he still loves her, even though she no longer is the nymphet of his dreams.
Most writers see Humbert as an unreliable narrator and credit Nabokov's powers as an ironist. For Richard Rorty, in his interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity." Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person."
Critics have further noted that, since the novel is a first person narrative by Humbert, the novel gives very little information about what Lolita is personally like, that in effect she has been silenced by not being the book's narrator. Nomi Tamir-Ghez writes "Not only is Lolita's voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader...since it is Humbert who tells the story...throughout most of the novel, the reader is absorbed in Humbert's feelings". Similarly Mica Howe and Sarah Appleton Aguiar write that the novel silences and objectifies Lolita. Christine Clegg notes that this is a recurring theme in criticism of the novel in the 1990s. Actor Brian Cox, who played Humbert in a 2009 one-man stage monologue based on the novel, stated that the novel is "not about Lolita as a flesh and blood entity. It's Lolita as a memory". He concluded that a stage monologue would be truer to the book than any film could possibly be. Elizabeth Janeway writing in The New York Times Book Review holds "Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh".
Clegg sees the novel's non-disclosure of Lolita's feelings as directly linked to the fact that her "real" name is Dolores and (in the novel but not the film) only Humbert refers to her as Lolita. Humbert also states he has effectively "solipsized" Lolita early in the novel. Eric Lemay of Northwestern University writes:
The human child, the one noticed by non-nymphomaniacs, answers to other names, "Lo," "Lola," "Dolly," and, least alluring of all, "Dolores." "But in my arms," asserts Humbert, "she was always Lolita." And in his arms or out, "Lolita" was always the creation of Humbert's craven self.... The Siren-like Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song "Lolita." ... To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.
In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. In an NPR interview Nafasi contrasts the sorrowful and seductive sides of Dolores/Lolita's character. She notes "Because her name is not Lolita, her real name is Dolores which as you know in Latin means dolour, so her real name is associated with sorrow and with anguish and with innocence, while Lolita becomes a sort of light-headed, seductive, and airy name. The Lolita of our novel is both of these at the same time and in our culture here today we only associate it with one aspect of that little girl and the crassest interpretation of her." Following Nafasi's comments, the NPR interviewer, Madeleine Brand, lists as embodiments of the latter side of Lolita, "the Long Island Lolita, Britney Spears, the Olsen twins, and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita".
For Nafisi, the essence of the novel is Humbert's solipsism and his erasure of Lolita's independent identity. She writes: "Lolita was given to us as Humbert's creature [...] To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own [...] Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert's attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses."
One of the novel's early champions, Lionel Trilling, warned in 1958 of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with so eloquent and so self-deceived a narrator: "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."
A minority of critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. In 1959, novelist Robertson Davies excused the narrator entirely, writing that the theme of Lolita is "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar."
In his essay on Stalinism Koba the Dread, Martin Amis proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov's childhood (though Nabokov states in his afterword that he "[detests] symbols and allegories"). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. "Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies," he says. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny."