So here’s some of what happens: Humbert, who is at a personal loss after having his first love die years earlier, ends up renting from a woman who happens to have this really attractive child daughter, Dolores (Lolita). Dolores’ mother is annoying yet Humbert marries her anyway so he can be close to her daughter. His infatuation with Lolita begins immediately, and so he keeps a diary recording all the lust he feels for her until Charlotte (Dolores’ mother) finds it. Eventually, Charlotte dies and Humbert goes to retrieve Lolita, telling her that her mother is alive but ill. They go on a cross-country trip, fornicate, etc., till the young girl learns he lied to her about her mother. She in turn resents him, but has nowhere to go, and ultimately has to depend on him. Eventually, through some turn of events, Lolita ends up married and pregnant by another man at the age of 17 (and without a doubt, much less attractive in Humbert’s eyes).
Of course, while all these events are taking place, Humbert is contemplating Lolita’s beauty and how she will lose it once she is no longer a nymphet. His thoughts towards her are no doubt repulsive, yet Nabokov does an excellent job normalizing it all. After a while, readers become used to Humbert’s childish fantasies, since Humbert spends such a great deal of time rationalizing it. In Humbert’s world, it all makes sense.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to the story are the multiple names Lolita has, thereby illuminating the point that she is viewed as a different person by different people. She is Lolita to Humbert, Lo to her mother, her friends call her Dolly at school, and when she marries she takes on her birth name: Dolores.
- She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
It’s never really about Lolita the individual per se, but about how she is viewed by others. Having said that, Lolita herself is nothing more than a narrative tool, used to propel the desires within Humbert’s mind. This becomes the crux of the book, since the entire story is his memoir.
The only flaw I can offer is that the narrative does tend to plod on a bit towards the end, and such is what makes Lolita a very good book rather than a great one. Also, my mention that Humbert is really nothing more than a dirty, pathetic old man — albeit more insightful than average — makes for shortcomings that limit the deeper resonance his character can have. Though that’s not to say there aren’t moments of greater depth. Here’s a good moment that shows off his insight:
- There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open ... and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).
Yet even despite his eloquence and education, Humbert is shallow and unlikable. Of course, one does not need to “like” a lead character in order for a book to succeed, but since this tale is only told from Humbert’s point of view, we are not given multiple viewing angles the way Dreiser does in Sister Carrie (a book also about shallow characters, yet the narrative steps away from this). Although emotion holds no place in criticism, I admire Lolita for its strengths, yet it is not a book I particularly enjoyed reading.