Lolita, generally considered Nabokov’s greatest novel, unites wildly grotesque parody, farce, and pathos with two powerful, shocking subjects: the passionate feelings of a grown man toward a pubescent girl and the complex nature of romantic love, which is not only tender and generous but also ruthless and even totalitarian.
The novel’s middle-aged, middle-European narrator “writes” this book as his confession while in a prison cell awaiting trial for murder. His double-talk name, Humbert Humbert, sets the tone of punning parody that pervades the text, as various people address him as Humberg, Herbert, Humbird, Humberger, and Humbug. Humbert Humbert traces his sexual obsession for “nymphets”—girls between the ages of nine and fourteen—to a case of interrupted coitus when he was thirteen years old; he and a certain Annabel Leigh had the beginnings of their first affair, forever aborted by her premature death of typhus. (The allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and life number at least twenty; Nabokov refers to many other writers, including Shakespeare, John Keats, Flaubert, James Joyce, Proust, and T. S. Eliot.) After his marriage to a “life-sized” woman in Paris ends ridiculously, Humbert emigrates to the United States.
Here Humbert discovers Lolita Haze, a twelve-year-old, gum-chewing, Coke-gurgling, comic-book-addicted, blatantly bratty schoolgirl. Humbert agrees to marry Charlotte, her vapid, pretentious, widowed mother, in order to be near the irresistible daughter. When Charlotte learns of his pedophilia through reading his diary, she runs distractedly out of the house and conveniently is killed by a passing car before she can publicize his perversion.
Having laid his wife to rest, the widower undertakes the clumsy comedy of seducing his stepdaughter, who, by no means sexually innocent, volunteers to show her would-be ravisher what intercourse is all about. He registers his shock:
Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved. . . . My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me.
“Hum” and “La” engage in a parody of incest—he stands legally in loco parentis—as they traverse the continent. They encounter a neon-lit landscape of highways, gas stations, billboards, coffee shops, jukeboxes, and motels. Humbert finds Lolita coolly acquiescent to his caresses at times, peevishly self-centered at others, and capable of quickly shifting from dreamy childishness to trashy vulgarity to whining waywardness.
The couple is shadowed by a playwright, Clare Quilty (“Clearly Guilty”?), who is a peekaboo parody of the psychological double that was made famous by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Dostoevsky. Both Humbert and Quilty are authors, love word puzzles, dress similarly, and are addicted to deviant sex. Quilty spirits Lolita away from Humbert, has a brief liaison with her, then discards her when she refuses to serve the boys whom he prefers to her.
Several years later, Humbert is contacted by Lolita, who desperately needs money. She is seventeen, married, plain, pale, and pregnant. In a moving episode, he discovers that he is ardently in love with her, despite her worn looks and sagging flesh. She will not return to him, but she does give him Quilty’s address. Humbert then kills Quilty in a farcically protracted scene. The “editor’s” preface tells the reader that Lolita died in childbirth, and Humbert succumbed to cardiac arrest.
The novel works on many levels: it is a remorseless satire of middle-class, immature America and a seriocomic commentary on Continental-American cultural relations. More profoundly, it is a moving romance in the medieval tradition of courtly love, with the afflicted Humbert Humbert displaying his derangement by obsessional devotion and...
(The entire section is 2,603 words.)