The opening line of Lolita—“Lolita, light of my life. Fire of my loins”—creates thick sexual tension and intrigue that is boldly followed up by a satirical story about Humbert Humbert’s relationship with twelve-year-old Lolita. Humbert is manipulative, horrible, repulsive, frequently charming, attractive, and well aware of it. Unfortunately, he is only drawn to girls on the brink of puberty. Though showered by attention from women his own age, Humbert can only think of his nymphet Annabel Leigh—a clever play on Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee—who died tragically when she was twelve and Humbert was thirteen, and the young girls who remind him of her. He discovers Lolita while is he renting a room and becomes instantly smitten. He carefully constructs ways to bring himself closer to her. Humbert marries Lolita’s mother, and when her mother threatens to get in their way, kills her.
Humbert reports that after he has told Lolita her mother is dead she seduced him, though readers have long begun to doubt that Humbert always views reality as is. The two then travel through a series of twisted adventures where Humbert coerces, manipulates, and threatens Lolita into continuing their relationship. Humbert stresses and frets over Lolita’s relations with any other males, both those who are her age and fellow pedophile and nemesis Clare Quilty. Their relationships grows increasingly strained until it is pushed to the breaking point, breaking Humbert Humbert too.
Though the concept of reading an entire novel about pedophila sounds entirely repulsive, Nabokov’s extreme command of language, persuasion, and misdirection leaves readers often sympathizing with Humbert. Though the plot may be about molestation, the novel is about so much more. Humbert’s flaws become a striking commentary on Western culture’s obsession with beauty, youth and lust, leaving readers reflecting on their own vices that mirror Humbert’s. Lolita is not a book to take lightly. It demands careful thought and work to be fully understood as more than a book about rape. The novel’s technical brilliance elevates high above the level achieved by most fiction and the clever word play will overjoy lovers of language. Even the most well versed reader can spend hours decoding the allusion, puns, and foreshadowing that season nearly every paragraph of a remarkable book.