Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The theater becomes a symbol of artifice and artistry in Lolita. Humbert blames Lolita’s newfound ability to lie on her experience in the school play. Quilty uses the same school play to bring Lolita to him, and Lolita is awed by the theater because of Quilty’s influence. This is particularly poignant for Humbert, as he himself was never able to interest Lolita in any artistic endeavors. Ultimately, Lolita itself can be seen as a marvel of stagecraft: using language, theater requires an audience to willingly suspend its collective disbelief, in order to place themselves imaginatively in the world of the play. Like a theater audience, a reader may be aware of the craft and artifice involved in the narrative’s construction, but he or she nonetheless becomes a willing participant in the illusion. This involvement takes on a darker tone for the reader of Lolita, as the force of Nabokov’s artistry manages to make an incestuous pedophile not only understandable but also oddly sympathetic.
Even though Humbert writes Lolita from his prison cell, his confinement begins long before his murder of Quilty. From the moment he loses Annabel and realizes that he worships nymphets, Humbert understands that he is in a prison of his own making. He knows that his proclivities are forbidden by society, so he must put forth a respectable façade and hide his true desires. Nabokov also uses the concept of the prison metaphorically to symbolizeHumbert’s secret self. Humbert is initially imprisoned by his secret love for nymphets, then by his love for Lolita. By the end of the novel, however, Humbert has completely flouted all of society’s rules and thus escapes from his confinement. At that moment, though his body languishes in a real, physical prison, he finds himself free of the prison of respectability, and can thus reveal—and revel in—his true self for the first time. The prison, paradoxically, becomes a symbol of his psychological freedom.