How does the novel’s first-person narration affect our perception of the events being described?
Though the novel is told in first-person, there are many indications that Nabokov wishes readers to supply their own interpretations of the events in the story. By frequently hiding linguistic clues and using puns and word games, Nabokov demands that readers question what Humbert tells them. Nabokov further emphasizes this necessity by providing many instances in which Humbert admits to falsifying his history and his identity in order to get what he wants. Nabokov therefore implies that Humbert is an untrustworthy narrator whose literary skills can persuade readers to overlook his lies, manipulations, and true character. As a result, Nabokov slyly comments on the act of writing beautifully or movingly about horrific situations. If readers fall under the spell of Humbert, unquestioningly listening to his story, they might forget that Humbert is writing about pedophilia, rape, and murder.
Though Humbert is an extremely intelligent man, he often makes references to facts without understanding their true meaning. For example, he hears of Quilty and even sees him on occasion, but he misunderstands the danger he represents. He is unable to see Lolita’s unhappiness, even as he gives enough information to make it obvious to readers. Humbert is also willing to ignore any impulse that runs contrary to his desire or his plan to be with Lolita. As a result, readers have enough ammunition to question Humbert’s version of the story and his depiction of Lolita. As readers search for “the truth,” Nabokov makes it clear that he is far more interested in the beauty of the narrative and the seduction of the methodology of storytelling. The truth, ultimately, becomes less important than the manner in which it is told.
Many characters die in the novel. How are these deaths significant to the story?
Virtually all deaths in the novel appear to be random, chance events—with the notable exception of Humbert’s murder of Quilty. Death occurs capriciously, without any greater meaning or grand reverence. Nabokov uses literary methods to convey the abruptness of death and its attendant feelings of numbness or matter-of-factness. Humbert’s lack of response to loss, another sign of his self-absorbtion, is most clear after the death of his mother, conveyed by the simple phrase “picnic, lightning.” Similarly, Annabel is dispatched not in a sentence, but in a phrase: “and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.” Lolita’s death is completely hidden from the reader, as John Ray, Jr.. Ph.D. notes that “Mrs. Richard F. Schiller” died in childbirth, without ever identifying her as Lolita. Humbert reveals the demise of even the most important characters in abrupt terms. Emotion arises later from his actions, such as from his obsession with nymphets, rather than from overt explanation. Death does not discriminate between those Humbert loves and those Humbert despises.
The death of Quilty, however, takes up many paragraphs, as Humbert draws out the execution by forcing Quilty to face his guilt and acknowledge his role in Lolita’s corruption. Quilty often interrupts Humbert’s plan with bribes and ridicule in an attempt to extend his life. The length of Quilty’s demise indicates that chance plays a smaller role in this death than it has in the other deaths. Humbert’s climactic murder of Quilty is an epic struggle between rivals, one that was foreshadowed and ordained throughout the novel. Though Nabokov blurs the lines between good and evil and makes it clear that Humbert and Quilty have much in common, the length of Quilty’s execution indicates that this death was necessary to the resolution of the novel, particularly the way Humbert learns empathy and begins to feel for others..