Lolita

by: Vladimir Nabokov

Part One, Chapters 10–15

Analysis

The contrast between Humbert and Mrs. Haze exemplifies the contrast between the old, sophisticated, decadent world Europe and the artificial, pretentious world of the United States. Charlotte Haze aspires to be the kind of woman Humbert could love, a worldly, elegant, refined woman who appreciates finer things. Yet her house, with its modern furniture, cheap art, and general untidiness, manifests a different personality. Throughout the novel, Humbert’s European manner and old-world aesthetics attract a number of American women, each of whom he eventually rejects. This sexual clash between America and Europe will be upended in the relationship between Humbert and Lolita, when Humbert falls under the spell of Lolita’s fresh, vulgar American sensibilities. Despite Humbert’s best efforts, any attempt to educate and sophisticate Lolita will fail. Humbert generally forgives and occasionally romanticizes Lolita’s vulgarity, unlike Charlotte, who has little patience for her daughter’s shallowness.

Humbert describes Lolita as an object, focusing on the nymphet qualities he finds so exciting while rarely addressing her inner mind or feelings. Though he notes her bad moods and her vulgarities, Humbert nonetheless remains convinced of Lolita’s essential connection to Annabel. This connection is significant to Humbert and Humbert alone, which reinforces his notion that only a special man like himself could truly comprehend the rareness of a nymphet like Lolita. At the same time, this reasoning reduces Lolita to a privately held notion of Humbert’s and denies her the chance to grow or create meaning in her life. The disconnect between Humbert’s romantic but objectifying view of Lolita the nymphet and the real character of Lolita the girl finds a correspondence in Humbert’s language, which also romanticizes the unromanticizable. Humbert describes his perverse, unlawful desires with elegant, beautiful prose, rendering attractive what many readers would otherwise find repulsive. This effect of language is particularly notable when Humbert masturbates against Lolita. Despite the troubling nature of the encounter, the rapturous, satisfying language complicates the reader’s reaction, as we may simultaneously be disturbed by the events yet seduced by the prose.

Even at this early stage, the love triangle between Lolita, Charlotte, and Humbert appears volatile, particularly as the characters seem unaware of the darker elements of their emotional responses. Besides the obvious, unsettling nature of Humbert’s infatuation, a strong current of jealousy exists between Mrs. Haze and Lolita, above and beyond the usual tensions between mother and daughter. Charlotte’s attraction to Humbert parallels Humbert’s attraction to Lolita, as neither will see the true nature of the object of their affections. When Lolita kisses Humbert, he is ecstatic—Lolita has become real to him, rather than just a dream. Yet, given her typically adolescent temperament, most adults would venture that her crush is of the schoolgirl variety and unlikely to develop into a serious adult love. Humbert prolongs the crush through his manipulation of her.

Humbert believes his life is controlled by the odd, unpredictable presence of McFate, his word for the particularly American brand of fate that he believes explains the repeated patterns and coincidences in his life. For Humbert, McFate wields its power arbitrarily, bringing him to Lolita after Mrs. Phalen’s accident but then thwarting their time together, such as with the planned trip to Hourglass Lake. McFate also works in more subtle ways. For example, the Hazes live at 342 Lawn Street, and Humbert and Lolita will later stay at Room 342 in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, and will eventually visit 342 hotels. Also, McFate continually brings Humbert into contact with Clare Quilty. Though he has not yet appeared physically in the narrative, Quilty is never far from Humbert. Quilty is the celebrity whom Lolita adores, and whom Humbert resembles. When Humbert gets a toothache, Charlotte recommends Dr. Ivor Quilty, Clare Quilty’s uncle. Humbert relies on McFate to explain the inexplicable and to give order to his life. Similarly, Nabokov uses McFate to hide clues and highlight thematic patterns in the novel.