Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Nabokov revered words and believed that the proper language could elevate any material to the level of art. In Lolita, language effectively triumphs over shocking content and gives it shades of beauty that perhaps it does not deserve. Lolita is filled with sordid subjects, including rape, murder, pedophilia, and incest. However, Humbert Humbert, in telling his story, uses puns, literary allusions, and repeating linguistic patterns to render this dark tale in an enchanting form. In this way, Humbert seduces his readers as fully and slyly as he seduces Lolita herself. Words are his power, and he uses them to distract, confuse, and charm. He is a pedophile and a murderer, but he builds up elaborate defenses and explanations for his actions, and his language shields him from judgment. With Lolita, Nabokov’s ultimate achievement may be that he forces readers to be complicit in Humbert’s crimes. In order to uncover the actual story of pedophilia, rape, and murder within the text, readers have to immerse themselves in Humbert’s words and their shadowy meanings—and thus they must enter Humbert’s mind. By engaging so closely with Humbert’s linguistic trickery, readers cannot hold him at a far enough distance to see him for the man he truly is.
Throughout Lolita, the interactions between European and American cultures result in perpetual misunderstandings and conflict. Charlotte Haze, an American, is drawn to the sophistication and worldliness of Humbert, a European. She eagerly accepts Humbert not so much because of who he is, but because she is charmed by what she sees as the glamour and intellect of Humbert’s background. Humbert has no such reverence for Charlotte. He openly mocks the superficiality and transience of American culture, and he views Charlotte as nothing but a simple-minded housewife. However, he adores every one of Lolita’s vulgarities and chronicles every detail of his tour of America—he enjoys the possibilities for freedom along the open American road. He eventually admits that he has defiled the country rather than the other way around. Though Humbert and Lolita develop their own version of peace as they travel together, their union is clearly not based on understanding or acceptance. Lolita cannot comprehend the depth of Humbert’s devotion, which he overtly links to art, history, and culture, and Humbert will never truly recognize Lolita’s unwillingness to let him sophisticate her. Eventually, Lolita leaves Humbert for the American Quilty, who does not bore her with high culture or grand passions.
Humbert’s passion for Lolita defies easy psychological analysis, and throughout Lolita Humbert mocks psychiatry’s tendency toward simplistic, logical explanations. In the foreword to Lolita, John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., claims that Humbert’s tale will be of great interest to psychiatry, but throughout his memoir Humbert does his best to discredit the entire field of study, heaping the most scorn on Freudian psychology. For example, he enjoys lying to the psychiatrists at the sanitarium. He reports mockingly that Pratt, the headmistress of Lolita’s school, diagnoses Lolita as sexually immature, wholly unaware that she actually has an overly active sex life with her stepfather. By undermining the authority and logic of the psychiatric field, Nabokov demands that readers view Humbert as a unique and deeply flawed human being, but not an insane one. Humbert further thwarts efforts of scientific categorization by constantly describing his feelings for Lolita as an enchantment or spell, closer to magic than to science. He tries to prove that his love is not a mental disease but an enormous, strange, and uncontrollable emotion that resists easy classification. Nabokov himself was deeply critical of psychiatry, and Lolita is, in a way, an attack on the field.
Humbert and Lolita are both exiles, and, alienated from the societies with which they are familiar, they find themselves in ambiguous moral territory where the old rules seem not to apply. Humbert chooses exile and comes willingly from Europe to America, while Lolita is forced into exile when Charlotte dies. She becomes detached from her familiar community of Ramsdale and goes on the road with Humbert. Together, they move constantly and belong to no single fixed place. The tourists Humbert and Lolita meet on the road are similarly transient, belonging to a generic America rather than to a specific place. In open, unfamiliar territory, Humbert and Lolita form their own set of rules, where normal sexual and familial relationships become twisted and corrupt. Both Humbert and Lolita have become so disconnected from ordinary society that neither can fully recognize how morally depraved their actions are. Humbert cannot see his own monstrosity, and Lolita shows only occasional awareness of herself of a victim.
Though Humbert sweeps Lolita away so that they can find a measure of freedom, their exile ultimately traps them. Lolita is bound to Humbert because she has nowhere else to go, and though Humbert dreams of leaving America with Lolita, he eventually accepts that he will stay in America until he dies. Though each of them undergoes one final exile, Lolita to Dick Schiller and Humbert to prison, it is clear that they are first and foremost exiled from their own selves, an exile so total that they could never return to their original places in the worlds they once left. Exile in Lolita is tragic and permanent.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Images of and references to butterflies and lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths, appear throughout the novel, emphasizing not only the physical similarities between the fragile insect and young Lolita but also the distant and clinical way in which Humbert views his lovely prey. He effectively studies, captures, and pins them down, destroying the very delicate, living quality he so adores. Virtually every time Humbert describes a nymphet, he uses such terms as frail, fragile, supple, silky, or fairy-like, all of which could just as easily describe butterflies. Like butterflies, nymphets are elusive, becoming ordinary teenagers in the blink of an eye. Lolita, in particular, undergoes a significant metamorphosis, changing from innocent girl-child to exhausted wife and mother-to-be. Next to such delicate and mercurial creatures, Humbert becomes aware of his own monstrosity, often referring to himself as a lumbering brute.
Quilty is Humbert’s double in the novel and represents Humbert’s darker side. Humbert is evil in many ways, but Quilty is more evil, and his presence suggests that the line between good and evil is blurred rather than distinct. Humbert and Quilty seem near opposites for much of the novel. Humbert adores and worships Lolita, while Quilty uses and ultimately abandons her. Humbert presents his own feelings for Lolita as tender and Quilty’s as depraved. However, the men are more similar than different. Both are educated and literary. Both, of course, are pedophiles. Humbert sees himself as the force of good, avenging Lolita’s corruption, yet he himself originally robbed Lolita of her innocence.
By the end of the novel, Humbert and Quilty become even more closely identified with one another. When Humbert and Lolita play tennis one day, Humbert leaves to take a phone call, and Quilty sneaks in on the game to briefly become Lolita’s partner. Lolita eventually leaves Humbert for Quilty, but her new life is hardly an improvement. When Humbert finally confronts Quilty, the men become one and the same as they struggle with each other. Humbert, describing their fight, says, “We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.” His jumbled use of the first-person and third-person plurals indicates that he and Quilty are no longer distinct from one another. The already blurred line between the two men has now disappeared entirely.
Almost all the characters in Lolita engage in games. Sometimes they consist of innocent amusement, such as when Humbert tries to interest Lolita in tennis and dreams of making her a tennis star. Humbert also plays many silly games with Lolita to get her attention and to keep her compliant. This sense of play reinforces the fact that Lolita is still a child and that Humbert must constantly entertain her. Games also distract characters from more serious issues and allow them to hide sinister motives. Humbert and Godin play chess so that they can pass the time without revealing their true selves. Quilty, in particular, plays word games with his hotel aliases, leaving puzzles for Humbert to decipher. The characters play games to hide the feelings they cannot reveal, to further their own ends, and to dissuade those who seek to discover the truth, including readers. Though the games start out as innocuous and childlike, they soon become deadly manipulations.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The theater becomes a symbol of artifice and artistry in Lolita. Humbert blames Lolita’s newfound ability to lie on her experience in the school play. Quilty uses the same school play to bring Lolita to him, and Lolita is awed by the theater because of Quilty’s influence. This is particularly poignant for Humbert, as he himself was never able to interest Lolita in any artistic endeavors. Ultimately, Lolita itself can be seen as a marvel of stagecraft: using language, theater requires an audience to willingly suspend its collective disbelief, in order to place themselves imaginatively in the world of the play. Like a theater audience, a reader may be aware of the craft and artifice involved in the narrative’s construction, but he or she nonetheless becomes a willing participant in the illusion. This involvement takes on a darker tone for the reader of Lolita, as the force of Nabokov’s artistry manages to make an incestuous pedophile not only understandable but also oddly sympathetic.
Even though Humbert writes Lolita from his prison cell, his confinement begins long before his murder of Quilty. From the moment he loses Annabel and realizes that he worships nymphets, Humbert understands that he is in a prison of his own making. He knows that his proclivities are forbidden by society, so he must put forth a respectable façade and hide his true desires. Nabokov also uses the concept of the prison metaphorically to symbolizeHumbert’s secret self. Humbert is initially imprisoned by his secret love for nymphets, then by his love for Lolita. By the end of the novel, however, Humbert has completely flouted all of society’s rules and thus escapes from his confinement. At that moment, though his body languishes in a real, physical prison, he finds himself free of the prison of respectability, and can thus reveal—and revel in—his true self for the first time. The prison, paradoxically, becomes a symbol of his psychological freedom.