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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lolita!