The foreword to “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,” is written by the fictional psychologist John Ray Jr., Ph.D., a specialist in perversions and abnormal states of mind. It frames the remainder of the novel as a manuscript sent in by a criminal. Ray informs his readers that this criminal died on November 16th, 1952, while in “legal captivity,”—just days before his trial was scheduled to begin. Faithful to the author’s instructions, Ray does not name him or specify his crime, referring to him instead by his chosen pseudonym: Humbert Humbert. He explains that every name in the manuscript has been changed—a few by him, most by Humbert—except for the name of Lolita, who is too important to the story. Ray directs readers curious about the “‘real,’ people beyond the ‘true,’ story,” to scan their newspapers from September and October, 1952. He explains that he has changed almost nothing that he received. He gives a brief account of what several characters have been up to since the end of the enclosed story, including Mona Dahl, the writer Vivian Darkbloom, and “Mrs. Richard F. Schiller,” who has recently died in childbirth.
This foreword frames the rest of the novel as a medical document, rather than a creative work. John Ray Jr. lists his sources, specifies dates, and provides documentary information about the ‘real’ story not told in the text which follows. The irony here is that the foreword is just as fictional as the rest of the novel. It is not really the foreword to a medical case history, but a parody of scientific style. All the made-up evidence makes it feel “real,” while we know it is not. The idea that a particular style of writing can influence whether or what we are reading feels “true,” or “realistic,” will remain important throughout Lolita. Vivian Darkbloom is an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov. By hiding his name in the fake foreword, the author slyly reminds his readers to be suspicious of writing (like the foreword) which pretends to represent “real life,” with complete accuracy: every piece of writing comes from someone with an individual perspective and agenda. Before the novel even starts, we are told that its protagonists are both dead: “Mrs. Richard F. Schiller,” is Lolita.
Ray defends the enclosed manuscript against anticipated objections. Though certain scenes in the novel can be considered “aphrodisiac,” he points out that it uses no obscene language. He mocks the “paradoxical prudes,” who are disgusted by erotic scenes, yet hypocritical enough to accept the “lavish array,” of obscene words in mainstream novels. He cites the 1933 Supreme Court decision in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses as precedent for the idea that erotic writing which serves an artistic purpose is not pornography.
Here, “John Ray Jr.” seems to express the opinions of the author, who knew that Lolita’s subject matter would cause a scandal. It did: the book was banned in several countries. Ray makes two arguments in the book’s favor: first, that true works of art redeem any kind of content; second, that mainstream American culture is already filled with obscene material. We should be suspicious of these arguments. They are almost the same as the arguments Humbert uses to justify his rape of Lolita: that his lust is artistically motivated, or that Lolita was sexually “corrupted,” by her culture before Humbert found her.
Anticipating “the learned,” who might object that Humbert Humbert’s pedophilia is not a unique (and thus scientifically interesting) case, Ray makes an argument for the literary merit of the book. Alternating between aesthetic praise and moral condemnation, he attempts to describe the personality and style of the author. Ray concludes his foreword by claiming that the text of Lolita is important in three capacities: as a case history, as a literary work, and most importantly, as an ethical guide: for parents who should be more vigilant in caring for their children. The book is a “general lesson,” which “warn[s] us of dangerous trends.”
John Ray’s gushing praise for the narrator’s personality is meant to put us “on guard,” as readers: it’s a little strange to hear psychologist praise a pedophile. If Humbert has so easily charmed John Ray, why not us as well? The end of John Ray’s foreword parodies the moralistic attitude toward literature that the author despised. Nabokov is mocking those who believe literature is supposed to provide “general lessons,” and function as a moral guide. The joke becomes clear after reading the rest of the novel. It’s difficult to imagine Lolita’s improbable, wholly unique experience as a guide to any general “trend.”