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.