Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Nabokov revered words and believed that the proper language could elevate any material to the level of art. In Lolita, language effectively triumphs over shocking content and gives it shades of beauty that perhaps it does not deserve. Lolita is filled with sordid subjects, including rape, murder, pedophilia, and incest. However, Humbert Humbert, in telling his story, uses puns, literary allusions, and repeating linguistic patterns to render this dark tale in an enchanting form. In this way, Humbert seduces his readers as fully and slyly as he seduces Lolita herself. Words are his power, and he uses them to distract, confuse, and charm. He is a pedophile and a murderer, but he builds up elaborate defenses and explanations for his actions, and his language shields him from judgment. With Lolita, Nabokov’s ultimate achievement may be that he forces readers to be complicit in Humbert’s crimes. In order to uncover the actual story of pedophilia, rape, and murder within the text, readers have to immerse themselves in Humbert’s words and their shadowy meanings—and thus they must enter Humbert’s mind. By engaging so closely with Humbert’s linguistic trickery, readers cannot hold him at a far enough distance to see him for the man he truly is.
Throughout Lolita, the interactions between European and American cultures result in perpetual misunderstandings and conflict. Charlotte Haze, an American, is drawn to the sophistication and worldliness of Humbert, a European. She eagerly accepts Humbert not so much because of who he is, but because she is charmed by what she sees as the glamour and intellect of Humbert’s background. Humbert has no such reverence for Charlotte. He openly mocks the superficiality and transience of American culture, and he views Charlotte as nothing but a simple-minded housewife. However, he adores every one of Lolita’s vulgarities and chronicles every detail of his tour of America—he enjoys the possibilities for freedom along the open American road. He eventually admits that he has defiled the country rather than the other way around. Though Humbert and Lolita develop their own version of peace as they travel together, their union is clearly not based on understanding or acceptance. Lolita cannot comprehend the depth of Humbert’s devotion, which he overtly links to art, history, and culture, and Humbert will never truly recognize Lolita’s unwillingness to let him sophisticate her. Eventually, Lolita leaves Humbert for the American Quilty, who does not bore her with high culture or grand passions.
Humbert’s passion for Lolita defies easy psychological analysis, and throughout Lolita Humbert mocks psychiatry’s tendency toward simplistic, logical explanations. In the foreword to Lolita, John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., claims that Humbert’s tale will be of great interest to psychiatry, but throughout his memoir Humbert does his best to discredit the entire field of study, heaping the most scorn on Freudian psychology. For example, he enjoys lying to the psychiatrists at the sanitarium. He reports mockingly that Pratt, the headmistress of Lolita’s school, diagnoses Lolita as sexually immature, wholly unaware that she actually has an overly active sex life with her stepfather. By undermining the authority and logic of the psychiatric field, Nabokov demands that readers view Humbert as a unique and deeply flawed human being, but not an insane one. Humbert further thwarts efforts of scientific categorization by constantly describing his feelings for Lolita as an enchantment or spell, closer to magic than to science. He tries to prove that his love is not a mental disease but an enormous, strange, and uncontrollable emotion that resists easy classification. Nabokov himself was deeply critical of psychiatry, and Lolita is, in a way, an attack on the field.
Humbert and Lolita are both exiles, and, alienated from the societies with which they are familiar, they find themselves in ambiguous moral territory where the old rules seem not to apply. Humbert chooses exile and comes willingly from Europe to America, while Lolita is forced into exile when Charlotte dies. She becomes detached from her familiar community of Ramsdale and goes on the road with Humbert. Together, they move constantly and belong to no single fixed place. The tourists Humbert and Lolita meet on the road are similarly transient, belonging to a generic America rather than to a specific place. In open, unfamiliar territory, Humbert and Lolita form their own set of rules, where normal sexual and familial relationships become twisted and corrupt. Both Humbert and Lolita have become so disconnected from ordinary society that neither can fully recognize how morally depraved their actions are. Humbert cannot see his own monstrosity, and Lolita shows only occasional awareness of herself of a victim.
Though Humbert sweeps Lolita away so that they can find a measure of freedom, their exile ultimately traps them. Lolita is bound to Humbert because she has nowhere else to go, and though Humbert dreams of leaving America with Lolita, he eventually accepts that he will stay in America until he dies. Though each of them undergoes one final exile, Lolita to Dick Schiller and Humbert to prison, it is clear that they are first and foremost exiled from their own selves, an exile so total that they could never return to their original places in the worlds they once left. Exile in Lolita is tragic and permanent.