Humbert lists the many different names of his love: Dolores, Lo, Dolly, Lolita. He admits to being a murderer and states that he will present his case to the readers, whom he calls “his jury.” Humbert explains that Lolita was not the first girl-child in his life and refers to a particular girl he calls “exhibit number one.”
Humbert begins his story from his birth in Paris and his childhood on the Riviera, where a frequently absent father and a kind, yet strict aunt raise him. His mother had died suddenly, and he describes this traumatic event with only two brief words: “picnic, lightning.” His father runs a luxurious hotel, and Humbert lives a healthy, happy childhood among the Riviera tourists. He states that his sexual education up until the age of thirteen has been sporadic and somewhat dreamlike, based on old French novels and movies.
In the summer of 1923, Humbert meets a twelve-year-old girl named Annabel Leigh, who is traveling with her parents. Although Humbert and Annabel are initially just friends, that friendship soon changes into passionate, adolescent love. Humbert states that he doesn’t have as clear a picture of Annabel as he does of Lolita, though he lyrically recounts their awkward, fumbling attempts at sex. Annabel and Humbert never manage to consummate their love, and four months later she dies of typhus in Corfu.
Humbert wonders if his predilection for young girls began with Annabel and claims that she and Lolita are somehow connected. He claims that his brief encounter with Annabel had physical and spiritual components that today’s children would never understand. He mourns the fact that he was never able to complete the sexual act with Annabel and describes one encounter in the mimosa grove where they came very close. He tells the reader that he was only able to break free of Annabel’s spell when he met Lolita, more than twenty years later.
Humbert discusses his college days, when he gave up the study of psychiatry for the study of English literature. Moderately successful, he publishes a few books. During this time, he visits many kinds of prostitutes but finds himself mostly drawn to a particular type of girl, the nymphet. A nymphet, according to Humbert, is a girl between the ages of nine and fourteen, not necessarily beautiful, but possessing an elusive, sexually appealing quality. He attributes this quality to a magic spell and makes references to historical and cultural instances of romance and marriage between underage girls and older men. He states that that the allure of the nymphet can only be understood by adult men who are at least thirty years older and who have the wisdom to understand the girls’ enchanting qualities. While Humbert spends his time watching nymphets in the playground, he rarely acts on his obsession. As an attractive man, Humbert finds himself with many adult female admirers. However, most of them repulse him. Humbert finds it unfair that a man can bed a girl of seventeen but not one of twelve.
John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., has already warned the reader of Humbert’s persuasiveness, and Humbert confirms this assessment by beginning his manuscript with a direct plea to the reader. The first chapter combines both elements that Ray commented upon: unrepentant lust for a girl-child and the elegant language of a man who is determined to tell the story from his own point of view. This emphasis on language sets most of Nabokov’s work apart from other novels of its time. In Lolita, Nabokov showcases the connections and individual beauty of words through word games, puns, and patterns. The reader soon becomes involved in the games and, as a result, involved in the narrative. This involvement occurs even though most readers are repulsed by the subject matter, pedophilia. Humbert relies on elegant language that will prove to be very persuasive, even though Humbert himself may not earn our sympathy and often acts monstrously.