Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" is perhaps one of the most famous novels of the Twentieth Century.
For not only did Nabokov dare to explore the forbidden subject of an older man's obsessive love and lustful desire for a young girl, he did so with sheer poetry and language mastery. Joyce Carol Oates once said that "Lolita is one of our finest American novels, a triumph of style and vision" (Oates Pp). However beautifully written, "Lolita" is the story of a pedophile that preys upon a female child and then murders to both protect her and as revenge against the victim.
Although, it has existed throughout history, pedophilia is taboo in civilized societies. It is not only frowned upon morally but it is generally considered a criminal act of sexual exploitation because it is believed that a child cannot reason the act itself or the consequences.
Nabokov's novel may have become a classic in modern literature, yet sexuality between an adult and child is as morally unacceptable and criminally punishable today as it was in the mid-fifties.
The reader is introduced to Nabokov's protagonist, Humbert, by a fictional character named John Ray, who has been assigned the task of editing Humbert's manuscript, "Lolita," or the "Confession of a White Widowed Male," by Humbert's lawyer. Apparently Humbert wrote his work while in jail awaiting his trial for the murder of Clare Quilty, however, Humbert died suddenly of a heart attack. According to the manuscript, the crime took place sometime in the autumn of 1952.
Humbert begins his manuscript expressing his passion and love for "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.... 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" (Nabokov pp 9). Nabokov's character then goes on to describe his childhood and his adolescent relationship with the "girl-child," Annabel, whom he referred to as the "precursor" to Lolita (Nabokov pp 9). Of Humbert's encounter with Annabel, Nabokov writes that she would "let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion" (Nabokov pp 15). This brief sexual encounter ended before climax when the two were interrupted by chance onlookers. Annabel died some four months later. Humbert believes that this young love, and especially the fact that they never completed the sexual act was the root of his obsession for girl-children, nymphets, and which ultimately led to his obsessive lust for Lolita. He believed that Annabel held him in some magical spell that was only broken when he first laid eyes upon his Lolita.
After briefly discussing how he had planned to become a psychiatrist but instead studied English literature, Humbert then writes about how he has developed an obsession for nymphets and claims that it is a fascination that only a true artist or true madman could understand. He then goes on to point out that before a man can fall under a girl-child's charm, there had to be a substantial age gap between them. As if to justify his apparent pedophilic tendencies, Humbert gives a history of other men who have fallen under the spell of nymphets and even discusses how in some regions of the world, females were often married off before puberty. He then recounts how he spent time in a park watching young girls play, fantasizing about their naked bodies, all the while pretending to read a book. This is clearly classic pedophile behavior.
Humbert confesses that he regularly picked up prostitutes, however, he decided to marry as a way to control his sexual urges and add security to his life. Although beautiful, Humbert tires of Valeria as she was not his intellectual equal, yet stays with her nevertheless until an inheritance from an uncle provides enough money to move from France to America, at which time Valeria confesses that she is in love with someone else. This betrayal seems to have sent Humbert into a deep state of depression and mental instability for a period of time.
When Humbert arrives in America, he moves to a Ramsdale and rents a room from a woman named Charlotte Haze. Charlotte's daughter, Dolores, is twelve years old, and instantly reminds Humbert of Annabel, and thus, begins his obsession with Lolita, a name he affectionately called Dolores. While Lolita is at summer camp, Charlotte proposes to Humbert, who accepts eagerly even though he did not particularly like her, because he knew the marriage would give him unlimited access to Lolita. However, before Lolita returns home from camp, Charlotte finds Humbert's journal and discovers his abhorrence for her and his sexual desires for Lolita.
Humbert had started his diary shortly after he moved into the Haze's home. He had described his encounters with Lolita, such as subtle caresses here and there, sometimes in the presence of Charlotte. He told how he would purposely leave his door open hoping that Lolita would come in, and about how one day she did enter his room and sat in his lap until Charlotte called for her. He wrote about Lolita's flirtations with him, and how she kissed him before she left for camp. Humbert also expressed how he wished Charlotte was dead so that he and Lolita could be alone forever. After reading about his sexual fantasies, Charlotte goes insane and vows he will never see Dolores again, yet unfortunately on her way to mail a letter to her daughter about Humbert's true character, she is hit by a car and dies.
When Humbert goes to pick Lolita up from camp he does not tell her that her mother is dead, but instead that she is merely hospitalized. That night they go to a hotel and have sex for the first time. They become lovers and Humbert eventually tells her that Charlotte is dead. Humbert and Lolita then travel across the states for a year and finally settle in Beardsley, Lolita's hometown. There Humbert enrolls her in an all girls' school, however, he soon becomes jealous and critical about her friendships with boys she meets through social gatherings.
Lolita begins to demands not only a raise in her allowance, but financial rewards for the various sexual acts she performs with him. Humbert confesses that he had to pay her for he could not live without her sexual pleasures.
Then for reasons which Humbert vaguely details, Lolita expresses that she wants to leave school and embark on another cross-country journey. Humbert notices that they are being tailed by someone who appears to be a detective and then suddenly Lolita disappears without a trace. Humbert, now alone, retraces all the places he and Lolita had visited, trying desperately to find out what happened to her.
Three years after Lolita disappeared, Humbert receives a letter from her. She is now eighteen, married, pregnant and in need of money. He goes to her and gives her four thousand dollars, however, in exchange for the money he demanded to know what had happened to her when she vanished. Apparently Lolita had been enticed by Clare Quilty, a well-known writer who also delved into child pornography and who was a nephew to a local dentist in Ramsdale. He had been obsessed with Lolita for years and convinced her to leave Humbert and come to work for him in Hollywood. When he tried to force her to star in a child porn film, she left him. The information sends Humbert into a rage of passion for revenge. When he finds Quilty, he kills him. As he is driving away from Quilty's house, he realizes that he has broken every moral law in society so why not break a few legal ones as well. He then begins to drive erratically, such as driving on the wrong side of the road and ignoring traffic lights. He is soon pulled over by police officers who immediately arrest him upon seeing him covered in blood and finding the gun in his car. He is then charged with the murder of Quilty.
Humbert write from his cell that although he deserves at least thirty-five years in prison for his affair with Lolita, he deserved nothing for killing Quilty for he had rid society of a demented sexual deviant. It is from Nabokov's Foreword that the reader learns not only that Humbert had died from heart failure before his trial but that Lolita had died a short time later in childbirth after delivering a stillborn baby.
One might wonder that if Humbert had not found Lolita and been allowed the opportunity to consummate their relationship and fulfill his fantasies, would he have turned into a Quilty character, one that used and abused. Although, Humbert was clearly a pedophile, his attention seemed to center totally on Lolita, just any girl-child…