Although the name Lolita has become synonymous with underage sexpot, Nabokov’s Lolita is simply a stubborn child. She is neither very beautiful nor particularly charming, and Humbert often remarks on her skinny arms, freckles, vulgar language, and unladylike behavior. Lolita attracts the depraved Humbert not because she is precocious or beautiful, but because she is a nymphet, Humbert’s ideal combination of childishness and the first blushes of womanhood. To nonpedophiles, Lolita would be a rather ordinary twelve-year-old girl. Her ordinariness is a constant source of frustration for Humbert, and she consistently thwarts his attempts to educate her and make her more sophisticated. She adores popular culture, enjoys mingling freely with other people, and, like most prepubescent girls, has a tendency toward the dramatic. However, when she shouts and rebels against Humbert, she exhibits more than the frustration of an ordinary adolescent: sheclearly feels trapped by her arrangement with Humbert, but she is powerless to extricate herself.
Lolita changes radically throughout the novel, despite aging only about six years. At the beginning, she is an innocent, though sexually experienced child of twelve. Humbert forces her transition into a more fully sexual being, but she never seems to acknowledge that her sexual activities with Humbert are very different from her fooling around with Charlie in the bushes at summer camp. By the end of the novel, she has become a worn-out, pregnant wife of a laborer. Throughout her life, Lolita sustains an almost complete lack of self-awareness. As an adult, she recollects her time with Humbert dispassionately and doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against either him or Quilty for ruining her childhood. Her attitude suggests that as a child she had nothing for them to steal, nothing important enough to value. Her refusal to look too deeply within herself, and her tendency to look forward rather than backward, might represent typically American traits, but Humbert also deserves part of the blame. Humbert objectifies Lolita, and he robs her of any sense of self. Lolita exists only as the object of his obsession, never as an individual. The lack of self-awareness in a child is typical and often charming. In the adult Lolita, the absence of self-awareness seems tragic.