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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lolita!