One of the twentieth century’s most controversial novels, Lolita puts readers into the mind of a pedophile and, through Humbert Humbert’s artful account of his relationship with Lolita, challenges assumptions about love and morality. Although Humbert is a highly biased and unreliable narrator, his perspective offers an alternative view of perverse feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that many in his society would be quick to judge. He acknowledges the inappropriateness of his attraction to little girls, yet he attempts to convince his audience that he genuinely loves Lolita and wants to keep her safe from harm. Nabokov, and Humbert by extension, employs a number of literary techniques in order to depict this complex dynamic including the use of doubles to show contrasting attitudes and mythical language to elevate Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. The fact that Humbert feels compelled to write an account of his time with Lolita in the first place speaks to his awareness of how the public is likely to view his case, and this choice becomes symbolic of the novel’s central conflict. Throughout every stage of his life, Humbert struggles to navigate between his incurable sexual attraction to young girls and the harsh moral judgment that his culture reserves for pedophiles. He ultimately spends the entirety of the novel trying to rationalize the dissonance between his feelings and the social pressure that he faces.

Before Lolita appears in the novel directly, the reader learns of both Humbert’s past and his future, and this information challenges them to limit the judgments they make upfront. Nabokov uses the novel’s foreword as a framing device, or a narrative which lays the groundwork for the story that follows it. This structural element plays a key role in shaping how the reader perceives Humbert’s experiences as, not unlike a Greek tragedy, it reveals the fate that he will ultimately meet. The fact that he dies of heart disease foreshadows the emotional toll that his relationship with Lolita will take on him, and his lack of a formal trial allows the reader to develop their own opinions based on the account that Humbert presents throughout the novel. Knowing right away that Humbert dies redirects the reader’s attention from what the conclusion will be to how he reaches that conclusion, a process which Nabokov implies is far more compelling. Once the novel proper begins, Humbert offers details about his childhood and adolescence which work to humanize him as a character. The reader learns of his lost childhood love, Annabel Leigh, and the long-lasting impact that her memory has on him. Intermixing these sympathy-evoking anecdotes with explanations of Humbert’s incurable attraction to “nymphets” works to direct the reader’s attention away from his reprehensible morals and emphasize his identity as a man rather than a monster. The artistic, mythical language that Humbert uses further enhances this dynamic so that when he finally meets Lolita, an event which serves as the novel’s inciting incident, his immediate reverence for her comes across as less predatory.  

Once Humbert resolves to make Lolita a part of his life, the novel’s rising action develops rather quickly. He initially tries to satisfy his desires for her without fully compromising her innocence, a mentality which reflects his fears of social ridicule and the possibility of losing her. Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, becomes the next obstacle that Humbert must overcome in order to get closer to the focus of his obsession, and although he yearns to kill her, he attempts to convince his audience that his inability to do so reflects his humanity. When she does eventually die in an accident that comes out of nowhere, the only true challenge left for Humbert to overcome is Lolita’s ability to keep their secret. This fear of being found out, as well as Lolita’s need to be continuously entertained, sends the pair on a cross-country road trip that begins at the Enchanted Hunters hotel where they have sex for the first time. Although Lolita’s childish whims frustrate Humbert and he resents the fact that she is growing up, he continually emphasizes just how much he loves and reveres her. Humbert explains to his audience that everything he does is for Lolita’s benefit, especially when he begins to sense that someone is following them. 

The realization that a man, who Humbert eventually discovers is Clare Quilty, is tracking the pair across the country serves as a key turning point in the novel that ultimately leads to the climax and falling action. Humbert grows more and more obsessive as the threat against his possession of Lolita grows, further blinding him to the reality of his step-daughter’s needs. When he learns that Lolita has left him in favor of following someone else, Humbert vows to seek revenge against the man whom he perceives as her kidnapper. This moment, which serves as the novel’s climax, reveals a shift in how Humbert views his relationship. Rather than aiming to hide how he feels about Lolita from those around him, their separation drives him to pursue her no matter the social cost. This desperation manifests itself throughout the novel’s falling action as he reunites with a married and pregnant Lolita, tracks down Quilty, and eventually murders him. Humbert, utterly devastated in the end, allows himself to be discovered by the police, and this choice represents the first genuine act of self-sacrifice that he makes on Lolita’s behalf. In his final moments of freedom, Humbert begins to realize that he never knew Lolita like he once believed as his own, narcissistic attitude clouded his understanding of their relationship. His ultimate decision to immortalize their experiences by writing Lolita in prison signifies his changed perception.