Humbert lists the many different names of his love: Dolores, Lo, Dolly, Lolita. He admits to being a murderer and states that he will present his case to the readers, whom he calls “his jury.” Humbert explains that Lolita was not the first girl-child in his life and refers to a particular girl he calls “exhibit number one.”
Humbert begins his story from his birth in Paris and his childhood on the Riviera, where a frequently absent father and a kind, yet strict aunt raise him. His mother had died suddenly, and he describes this traumatic event with only two brief words: “picnic, lightning.” His father runs a luxurious hotel, and Humbert lives a healthy, happy childhood among the Riviera tourists. He states that his sexual education up until the age of thirteen has been sporadic and somewhat dreamlike, based on old French novels and movies.
In the summer of 1923, Humbert meets a twelve-year-old girl named Annabel Leigh, who is traveling with her parents. Although Humbert and Annabel are initially just friends, that friendship soon changes into passionate, adolescent love. Humbert states that he doesn’t have as clear a picture of Annabel as he does of Lolita, though he lyrically recounts their awkward, fumbling attempts at sex. Annabel and Humbert never manage to consummate their love, and four months later she dies of typhus in Corfu.
Humbert wonders if his predilection for young girls began with Annabel and claims that she and Lolita are somehow connected. He claims that his brief encounter with Annabel had physical and spiritual components that today’s children would never understand. He mourns the fact that he was never able to complete the sexual act with Annabel and describes one encounter in the mimosa grove where they came very close. He tells the reader that he was only able to break free of Annabel’s spell when he met Lolita, more than twenty years later.
Humbert discusses his college days, when he gave up the study of psychiatry for the study of English literature. Moderately successful, he publishes a few books. During this time, he visits many kinds of prostitutes but finds himself mostly drawn to a particular type of girl, the nymphet. A nymphet, according to Humbert, is a girl between the ages of nine and fourteen, not necessarily beautiful, but possessing an elusive, sexually appealing quality. He attributes this quality to a magic spell and makes references to historical and cultural instances of romance and marriage between underage girls and older men. He states that that the allure of the nymphet can only be understood by adult men who are at least thirty years older and who have the wisdom to understand the girls’ enchanting qualities. While Humbert spends his time watching nymphets in the playground, he rarely acts on his obsession. As an attractive man, Humbert finds himself with many adult female admirers. However, most of them repulse him. Humbert finds it unfair that a man can bed a girl of seventeen but not one of twelve.
John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., has already warned the reader of Humbert’s persuasiveness, and Humbert confirms this assessment by beginning his manuscript with a direct plea to the reader. The first chapter combines both elements that Ray commented upon: unrepentant lust for a girl-child and the elegant language of a man who is determined to tell the story from his own point of view. This emphasis on language sets most of Nabokov’s work apart from other novels of its time. In Lolita, Nabokov showcases the connections and individual beauty of words through word games, puns, and patterns. The reader soon becomes involved in the games and, as a result, involved in the narrative. This involvement occurs even though most readers are repulsed by the subject matter, pedophilia. Humbert relies on elegant language that will prove to be very persuasive, even though Humbert himself may not earn our sympathy and often acts monstrously.
Humbert describes his childhood as rather idyllic, and this description reveals many personality characteristics that make him unique among other characters in the novel. Most important, his background is European—not from any particular country, but from a mixture of nationalities. His European character and manner will prove irresistible to many Americans, and it sets up the American-European cultural conflict. Though Nabokov explicitly stated that this is not a novel of a jaded European seducing an innocent American or a shallow American seducing an elegant European, the contrast between the two cultures is highlighted prominently throughout the book. Humbert’s childhood, in other ways, is edenic and dreamy, far different from the childhood that Lolita will have. As the only son of a well-to-do father, Humbert is cultured and educated with high standards, and was raised among the elite vacationers on the Riviera. This privileged childhood is interrupted and forever marked by his encounter with Annabel Leigh.
The name Annabel Leigh is an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” an ode to a young wife. Critics generally assume that the poem refers to Poe’s young wife, who died tragically early in their marriage. There are multiple allusions to Poe throughout the novel, but none so overt as this. Annabel’s name indicates her status not only as a prepubescent lover and object of desire but also as a young life cut short. Even though Annabel predates Lolita, Humbert makes clear that his love for Lolita has blurred the memory of his earlier love. Humbert can’t recollect Annabel’s appearance exactly, but he provides a lyrical description of their attempts at lovemaking. This tendency will be reversed when it comes to Lolita, whose physical features receive long, evocative descriptions while her sexual encounters with Humbert are narrated ambiguously and obliquely. Though Humbert romanticizes his trysts with Annabel, he manages to provide detailed accounts of their failed sexual encounters. With Lolita, he is too far in love to provide anything so mundane.
Humbert’s concept of the nymphet recalls the nymphs of Greek mythology, who were beautiful, wild, sexually active, and seduced by gods and men alike. Thus, Humbert’s invented name for the category of girls he likes places a learned and romantic veneer over his deviant desires. The age range of nymphets is fixed, and Humbert has no use for the nymphets who grow into ordinary women, an unfortunate aversion. Many adult women in the novel are clearly attracted to Humbert, but he sees them only as obstacles and hindrances. Humbert also tries to make his love for nymphets timeless by linking it to the practices of historical figures and faraway cultures. His romanticization of his attraction to underage girls belies his half-hearted attempts to provide a dutiful psychiatric analysis of his tendencies. Throughout the novel, Humbert speaks of the “enchantment” and “spell” of his moments with Lolita and Annabel. The nymphet is a symbol of lost youth and pure love, a dream-girl, who, given her romantic qualities and the censure of society, is virtually unattainable to the adult man.