Chapter 5 Summary

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Humbert spends the rest of his youth and young adulthood feeling unfulfilled. He attends college in London and Paris, frequently visiting prostitutes to relieve his sexual needs. He studies psychology and then literature, working hard at academics but failing to produce much worthwhile scholarship. He publishes a few essays and poems in unimportant journals, teaches a bit, and eventually begins work on a multivolume textbook of French literature for English-speaking students. This latter job will occupy him until he gets arrested for murder.

During this period, Humbert feels—and mostly resists—a growing sexual desire for certain girls between the ages of nine and fourteen. He has his own name for such girls: “nymphets.” Not all girls belong to this category, and those who do are not necessarily beautiful or privileged. Nymphets are difficult to define, but they stand apart from ordinary girls due to

certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm.

Ordinary girls are—to their detriment in Humbert’s eyes—“essentially human.” Nymphets are more like enchantresses or devils. They are powerful, and yet they do not know it. Their friends do not think they are unusual, nor do ordinary men. Only a few select men understand nymphets:

You have to be an artist and a madman…with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.

Such a man does not notice or become enchanted by a nymphet unless he is much older than she—at least ten years older, if not far more. According to Humbert, Annabel was not a nymphet to him because they were equals, deeply in love.

Because of his proclivities, Humbert has studied the history of cultural attitudes surrounding sex with young girls. He considers it unfortunate that in modern times, in the countries where he has lived, girls younger than fourteen are considered too young to become sexual partners for grown men. However, not all cultures make such judgments. He rattles off examples from far-flung countries and from the ancient world, showing case after case in which men have loved and married girls as young as eight or ten or twelve.

Though clearly excited by the mere idea of these love affairs, Humbert tries to restrain himself. Retreating to a more removed, third-person voice, he writes, “Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did.” But even as he writes this, he fails to turn his mind away from his obsession. He lists the average ages at which girls first begin growing breasts or sprouting pubic hairs.

Returning to his descriptions of the past, Humbert explains that he used to visit public parks to watch the nymphets play. During this period, he grew aroused whenever a nymphet so much as paused next to him to tie her roller skate. Once, one of these little girls felt underneath his park bench for a lost toy. This latter encounter was interrupted—to Humbert’s enormous frustration—by an “insolent hag” who observed his expression and asked if he was ill.

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