Humbert Humbert uses language to seduce the readers of his memoir, and he almost succeeds in making himself a sympathetic pedophile. He criticizes the vulgarity of American culture, establishing himself as an intellectual. His ironic, self-mocking tone and his complicated word games divert readers’ attention from the horrors he describes. His skill with language makes him a persuasive narrator, often able to convince readers to see his perspective. These linguistic skills, along with his distinguished appearance, erudition, and European roots, enable him to seduce the women around him as well. Humbert has never wanted for love.
As a young boy, Humbert embarks on a short-lived, unconsummated, and ultimately tragic romance with Annabel Leigh, a “nymphet” (a prepubescent girl between the ages of about nine and fourteen).. Since then, he has been obsessed with the particular type of girl Annabel represents. He marries adult women in an effort to overcome his craving for nymphets, but the marriages always dissolve, and the longings remain. Despite his failed marriages, his mental problems, and his sporadic employment, Humbert still attracts attention consistently from the opposite sex, though he usually disdains this attention. He claims to have loved only Lolita, and his obsession eventually consumes him.
Humbert is a completely unreliable narrator, and his myopic self-delusion and need for sympathy make many of his statements suspect. He claims Lolita seduced him and that she was in complete control of the relationship. However, Humbert, as the adult, clearly has the upper hand. He controls the money and Lolita’s freedom, and he often repeats that Lolita has nowhere to go if she leaves him. When Lolita occasionally shrinks from his touch, he views her reluctance as an example of her mercurial nature, rather than as a child’s repulsion at an adult’s sexual advances. Humbert claims that his feelings for Lolita are rooted in love, not lust, but his self-delusion prevents him from making this case convincingly. Alternately slavish and domineering, Humbert has little control over his feelings and impulses. He never considers the morality of his actions, and he refuses to acknowledge that Lolita may not share his feelings. As his relationship with Lolita deteriorates, Humbert becomes more and more controlling of her and less and less in control of himself. He considers Quilty’s love for Lolita deviant and corrupting, and he murders Quilty to avenge Lolita’s lost innocence, a seemingly drastic act of denial of his own complicity in that loss. Only near the end of the novel, when he admits that he himself stole Lolita’s childhood, does Humbert allow the truth to break through his solipsism.
Although the name Lolita has become synonymous with underage sexpot, Nabokov’s Lolita is simply a stubborn child. She is neither very beautiful nor particularly charming, and Humbert often remarks on her skinny arms, freckles, vulgar language, and unladylike behavior. Lolita attracts the depraved Humbert not because she is precocious or beautiful, but because she is a nymphet, Humbert’s ideal combination of childishness and the first blushes of womanhood. To nonpedophiles, Lolita would be a rather ordinary twelve-year-old girl. Her ordinariness is a constant source of frustration for Humbert, and she consistently thwarts his attempts to educate her and make her more sophisticated. She adores popular culture, enjoys mingling freely with other people, and, like most prepubescent girls, has a tendency toward the dramatic. However, when she shouts and rebels against Humbert, she exhibits more than the frustration of an ordinary adolescent: sheclearly feels trapped by her arrangement with Humbert, but she is powerless to extricate herself.
Lolita changes radically throughout the novel, despite aging only about six years. At the beginning, she is an innocent, though sexually experienced child of twelve. Humbert forces her transition into a more fully sexual being, but she never seems to acknowledge that her sexual activities with Humbert are very different from her fooling around with Charlie in the bushes at summer camp. By the end of the novel, she has become a worn-out, pregnant wife of a laborer. Throughout her life, Lolita sustains an almost complete lack of self-awareness. As an adult, she recollects her time with Humbert dispassionately and doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against either him or Quilty for ruining her childhood. Her attitude suggests that as a child she had nothing for them to steal, nothing important enough to value. Her refusal to look too deeply within herself, and her tendency to look forward rather than backward, might represent typically American traits, but Humbert also deserves part of the blame. Humbert objectifies Lolita, and he robs her of any sense of self. Lolita exists only as the object of his obsession, never as an individual. The lack of self-awareness in a child is typical and often charming. In the adult Lolita, the absence of self-awareness seems tragic.
Mysterious, manipulative, and utterly corrupt, Quilty is Humbert’s doppelgänger. He serves as a kind of mirror image of Humbert, reflecting similar traits and thoughts but embodying a darker side of those characteristics that Humbert stridently disavows. Quilty and Humbert both adore nymphets, but they act on their adoration in very different ways. While Humbert slavishly worships and idealizes Lolita, Quilty takes her for granted and wishes to denigrate her through pornography. Humbert paints himself as a man in love, while Quilty is, in many ways, a more typical pedophile. Both Quilty and Humbert are men of letters, well read and very persuasive, but Quilty has a much more successful career. Quilty is also far less subtle than Humbert about his nymphet obsession. Quilty’s professional success and reputation perhaps allow him to get away with his deviant behavior, though he is well known for his predilection for young girls and has already faced charges. At his final encounter with Humbert, Quilty’s baroque speech, cavalier attitude, and persistent game-playing imply that he, like Humbert, is not quite sane. He dies in the middle of an attempt to bribe Humbert with a variety of perverse pleasures.
Physically, Quilty appears infrequently in the novel, but his presence asserts itself through a relentless series of hidden clues. These clues, which include initials, place names, titles, and many other references and suggestions, build and intensify, creating a dense cloud above the actual story that eventually bursts when Lolita identifies Quilty as her lover. The clues reinforce the idea that Quilty is Humbert’s double, since he exists more as a shadow than as a living human being. That Lolita adores the intangible Quilty and remains unmoved by solid, present Humbert represents one of the novel’s crueler twists, and suggests that Lolita may indeed have had her eye on a future outside of Humbert’s control.
A typical middle-class, middle-aged American woman, Charlotte Haze aspires to sophistication and European elegance, but her attempts fall comically flat. She is religious and not particularly imaginative. Charlotte sees Humbert as the epitome of the world-weary European lover of—and in—grand literature. He represents her chance to become the woman she dreams of being, but her vulgar, self-conscious stabs at sophistication, such as her tendency to drop celebrity names and mispronounce French phrases, make Humbert cringe. Humbert usually refers to her derisively as Mama or the Haze woman. Charlotte’s love letter to Humbert traffics mainly in self-pitying martyrdom and melodramatic gestures. Nabokov portrays Charlotte with so little sympathy that the tragic elements of her character almost disappear. She dies, after all, knowing that the man she loves lusts after her own daughter.
Charlotte is not particularly fond of Lolita. Although Lolita’s adolescent tantrums certainly don’t make her a very likeable child, Charlotte’s distain signals a greater lack of motherly concern than normal. Charlotte seems to see Lolita as a threat, almost as competition, and she sends Lolita to camp to keep her from hindering her romantic plans for Humbert. Humbert, of course, sees Charlotte only as an obstacle to his romantic plans for Lolita. Though Charlotte is not an overtly kind and wonderful mother, her presence does protect Lolita—when Charlotte dies, Humbert is free to kidnap Lolita and change her life forever.