Humbert describes his childhood as rather idyllic, and this description reveals many personality characteristics that make him unique among other characters in the novel. Most important, his background is European—not from any particular country, but from a mixture of nationalities. His European character and manner will prove irresistible to many Americans, and it sets up the American-European cultural conflict. Though Nabokov explicitly stated that this is not a novel of a jaded European seducing an innocent American or a shallow American seducing an elegant European, the contrast between the two cultures is highlighted prominently throughout the book. Humbert’s childhood, in other ways, is edenic and dreamy, far different from the childhood that Lolita will have. As the only son of a well-to-do father, Humbert is cultured and educated with high standards, and was raised among the elite vacationers on the Riviera. This privileged childhood is interrupted and forever marked by his encounter with Annabel Leigh.
The name Annabel Leigh is an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” an ode to a young wife. Critics generally assume that the poem refers to Poe’s young wife, who died tragically early in their marriage. There are multiple allusions to Poe throughout the novel, but none so overt as this. Annabel’s name indicates her status not only as a prepubescent lover and object of desire but also as a young life cut short. Even though Annabel predates Lolita, Humbert makes clear that his love for Lolita has blurred the memory of his earlier love. Humbert can’t recollect Annabel’s appearance exactly, but he provides a lyrical description of their attempts at lovemaking. This tendency will be reversed when it comes to Lolita, whose physical features receive long, evocative descriptions while her sexual encounters with Humbert are narrated ambiguously and obliquely. Though Humbert romanticizes his trysts with Annabel, he manages to provide detailed accounts of their failed sexual encounters. With Lolita, he is too far in love to provide anything so mundane.
Humbert’s concept of the nymphet recalls the nymphs of Greek mythology, who were beautiful, wild, sexually active, and seduced by gods and men alike. Thus, Humbert’s invented name for the category of girls he likes places a learned and romantic veneer over his deviant desires. The age range of nymphets is fixed, and Humbert has no use for the nymphets who grow into ordinary women, an unfortunate aversion. Many adult women in the novel are clearly attracted to Humbert, but he sees them only as obstacles and hindrances. Humbert also tries to make his love for nymphets timeless by linking it to the practices of historical figures and faraway cultures. His romanticization of his attraction to underage girls belies his half-hearted attempts to provide a dutiful psychiatric analysis of his tendencies. Throughout the novel, Humbert speaks of the “enchantment” and “spell” of his moments with Lolita and Annabel. The nymphet is a symbol of lost youth and pure love, a dream-girl, who, given her romantic qualities and the censure of society, is virtually unattainable to the adult man.