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.