Humbert buys Lolita many things in the town of Lepingville. In the hotel, they have separate rooms, and he can hear Lolita crying. Sometime in the night, she creeps into his bed because, as Humbert says, she has nowhere else to go.
As Humbert and Lolita’s relationship transforms into a blatantly sexual one, Humbert’s demonstrated duplicity and seductive skill with language should make us question whether we can fully trust his description of the affair. In particular, Humbert’s claim that Lolita seduced him, rather than the other way around, seems suspicious. Like many adolescents, Lolita appears to have mixed feelings toward sex, ranging from mild repulsion to enthusiastic curiosity. Until now, she has appeared to be a flirtatious, vulgar girl of mercurial moods, whose supposed crush on Humbert varies in intensity from moment to moment. As she eagerly questions Humbert about his sexual relationship with her mother, we can see that she clearly has a teenager’s typical interest in sexuality. However, despite the passionate kisses she shares with Humbert, sex seems mostly a game to Lolita. She describes her clandestine encounters with Charlie as fun, but in the same chapter she makes reference to the “disgusting” things that she learned at camp. She clearly enjoys Humbert’s attentions yet often grows bored with his unceasing ardor.
Humbert doesn’t describe the actual act of sex with Lolita in any detail. One reason may be that his desire for Lolita encompasses something beyond physical lust—even when Humbert drugs Lolita, he mostly daydreams about examining her body, rather than about actually forcing himself on her. In some sense, Humbert’s refusal to describe the event explicitly may represent a desire to preserve the sanctity of the act, or of Lolita herself. However, Humbert’s reticence about the physical act of sex may be simply a strategy to keep the reader from being too disgusted with him, enabling him to keep alive the romantic element of his narrative.
Whether or not Lolita initiates the seduction, it would be hard to argue that Lolita consciously intends to transform her relationship with Humbert into a real love affair. Left to her own devices, Lolita might not have chosen to continue with Humbert after their initial sexual encounter. Indeed, after their first night together, Lolita becomes sullen. Her frequent references to rape and incest indicate that she understands the impropriety of their relationship, but her cool self-awareness suggests that she isn’t as outraged as we might expect. However, despite the fact that Lolita often seems quite composed and self-controlled for a child, the fact remains that she is deeply affected by her first sexual encounter with an adult. Like many adolescents, she isn’t prepared to handle the emotions that arise from sex, let alone the emotions that arise from sex with a grown man who happens to be her stepfather. The next morning, she wants to call her mother. While she may not exactly understand what has gone wrong, she still seeks consolation from the person who was supposed to be her protector.
Just as Humbert consummates his relationship with Lolita, Clare Quilty appears as Humbert’s dark shadow. Quilty remains a mysterious form throughout the novel, a trickster figure and a game player who never quite comes to light. Lolita fascinates him, but Quilty doesn’t seem as controlled by his desires as Humbert is by his. This self-control will eventually distinguish Quilty from Humbert in Lolita’s eyes. Humbert, unaware of the role that Quilty will play in his life and the danger he represents, fails to recognize him as the celebrity that Lolita adores, and whom he himself resembles. Instead, he notes Quilty’s resemblance to a Swedish relative of his, Gustave Trapp. This represents an ironic kind of recognition, since Trapp and Humbert, being relatives, presumably resemble each other as well. The fact that Humbert links Quilty with Trapp, rather than himself, seems a perverse refusal to admit how he and Quilty are connected—and, ultimately, very similar. Humbert’s inability to see Quilty—to neither recognize nor to literally see him, since he is often standing at a distance, or in the shadows—represents an powerlessness on Humbert’s part to accurately see himself.
Freed from the constraint of friends, family, and watchful society, Humbert can now take advantage of Lolita, since, as he himself observes, Lolita has nowhere else to go. As the novel progresses, Humbert’s control over Lolita becomes more and more forceful, just as she tries harder and harder to escape. Significantly, Lolita surrenders to Humbert in the town of Lepingville, a name that recalls Nabokov’s fascination with lepidoptery, or the study of butterflies. Like a butterfly collector, Humbert will pin Lolita down and eventually drain her of the lively, whimsical quality that he loved in the first place.