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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Lolita published in 1989.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the first lines of the novel proper, in which Humbert Humbert offers an opening remark on his attraction for Lolita. The passage immediately immerses the reader in the narrator’s both twisted and seductive psychology.

Rather than offering background information on him or Lolita, Humbert jumps straight into a bizarre mix of love expression and self-admonition. That Lolita is a “light” and “fire” presents her in a traditionally positive imagery of illumination and vigor, yet the tone immediately changes with the observation that that same light is a “sin.” Even this line has a third turn, however, when Humbert appends the term “soul.” Lolita thus may epitomize his evil actions, but she remains integrated into his deepest identity: Lolita, Nabokov implies, is a sin Humbert will be unwilling to renounce.

It’s worth spending some time on the word-level choices Nabokov has made. The heavy alliteration in the lines gives the language a luscious quality: First come the five “l” sounds, subdivided into an “lo,” three “li”s, and a final “lo.” Then comes the two “s” sounds of “sin” and “soul” again, divided between the vowels of “i” and “o.” Nabokov is a true master of such linguistic play. He uses it throughout his work to craft compelling prose, but this sentence seems a bit overdone—and purposefully so. As a parody of his own style, it indicates that Humbert’s language may at times become overwrought.

Notice also the incessant repetition of the possession “my”: Humbert may start the novel by discussing Lolita, but she is only ever seen in relation to himself. When read closely, these lines teach the reader to be cautious of any description the narrator will offer on Lolita—for his perceptions will always be warped through a similarly possessive viewpoint. She will be seen through the lens of his sin and his soul rather than on her own representative terms.


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You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Having given the reader a series of ornate descriptions, Humbert Humbert notes his awareness of his own tendency for flashiness. He observes, more generally, that this is a style characteristic of murderers.

This is an odd comparison, and one must wonder why, in Humbert's opinion, murderers would feel compelled to overuse alliteration and poetic rhythm. The line comes just after Humbert gives a hard-to-follow explanation of his age difference from Lolita, likely implying that “fancy prose” allows one to hide sins or negative events beneath language. By aestheticizing the extensive age difference between Humbert and Lolita, it prevents the reader from judging him as harshly as we otherwise might. The implication is that the reader must be wary of fancy prose and must see Humbert as a linguistic seducer who obscures his sins under floral text.

The admission here is a double one: Humbert is confessing simultaneously to murder and to having written too fancily. In doing so, he equates somewhat oddly his aesthetic and ethical crimes, especially considering that “murderer” is the middle, rather than the emphasis, of the sentence. Homicide functions, in fact, as an excuse here for overwrought writing. Admission of guilt, then, actually becomes another part of Humbert’s linguistic game: By confessing to one lesser sin he is able to subtly insert a confession to a much larger one.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory...

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert has begun to give a brief summary of his personal background. Here, he offers a glancing remark on his mother’s death and absence from his life.

The passage’s immediate—and presumably intended—effect is to garner the reader’s sympathy for Humbert. He presents himself as a lonesome, even traumatized child, who lacked a maternal figure throughout his development. Humbert's mother's extremely early death, in particular, has removed her not only from his life, but also from his “memory,” so she cannot even play a moral or inspirational role. That distance is also stressed by the lack of detail available on her death, which is only conveyed in two vague nouns in the parentheses: “(picnic, lighting).” Here we see Humbert’s prose winning over the reader’s emotional sensibilities in addition to our aesthetic ones.

Yet even in a line intended to garner sympathy, there are disturbing moments. The reference to his mother’s “photogenic” nature applies an erotic eye to the woman, and considering that Lolita was described as a fire, the reference to “warmth” should invite similar caution. One need not commit to a fully Freudian reading of the passage in order to observe that there is a perversion to the way Humbert speaks of his mother. Nabokov places us, then, in an ethically compromised position in which we must assess whether a dead mother is indeed a good justification to treat Humbert with more compassion.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nymphets
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert breaks off while recounting his studies and travels to suddenly give this definition of “nymphets.” He will use the term repeatedly throughout the book to refer to the young girls he finds sexually arousing. (It's also worth noting that the word "nymphet" has entered the English language thanks to Nabokov's invention here.)

The language here becomes suddenly distanced and scientific, as if Humbert is presenting an animal species or natural phenomenon. In particular, the use of specific “age limits” and the phrase “propose to designate” grant Humbert a false scholarly authority. As a result, the nymphet seems like an objective fact, when in fact this "type" is a perverted creation of one single narrator.

And it takes a good deal of careful reading to observe the insidious nature of the nymphet. The reference to “bewitched travelers” implies that these men are attracted partially due to an enchantment rather than out of rational choice—thus reducing their moral culpability. That the nymphets are likened in a subtle parenthetical to demons and have a “true nature” implies that their young age obscures a hidden coercive maturity. The term, then, reveals less about the actual “maidens” and more about the psychology of Humbert: He projects onto these girls a precocious sentience in which they are conniving and aware of their seductive power.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nymphets
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert Humbert chronicles, here, his early experiences encountering and resisting the allure of nymphets. He wonders, in particular, whether his gaze and thoughts may have had some unintended effect on their futures.

To evidence this rather bizarre question, Humbert gives a provocative image of how interconnected the world is: “wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect.” Literary metaphors describing interlocked lives are generally poetic, but “wrought-iron” gives this one a harsher sense of imprisonment. “Criss-cross” similarly turns what would be normally a linear “cause and effect” instead into an entangling morass. Humbert implies that the world’s logic does not necessarily conform to rational rules, but rather often entraps one in an uncertain series of links. It recalls an earlier reference the “tangle of thorns” from the novel’s opening, and also introduces the concept of paranoia and recurring patterns that will prove central to Humbert’s character.

One must ask, after all, what the motivation would be for such a paranoid philosophical musing: Why would he desire for the nymphets to have been affected? Nabokov likely means to stress Humbert’s egoistic complex, in which he wants to be seen as an all-important determiner of others’ lives. If he did have some effect on the nymphets, it would demonstrate that his life is not simply constituted of passive perception, but can also inform the actions of those around him. Similarly, it would grant him an important role in the nymphet’s lives, so this rumination becomes a way for him to be psychologically closer to them.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert Humbert makes this exclamation when he finds a book in the prison library that includes an entry on Clare Quilty next to one on Dolores Quine—who bears the same name as Lolita (Dolores). His paranoid mind latches onto this coincidence and he laments the way he has been entrapped.

In response to this sense of paralysis, Humbert alludes to language as his only recourse for self-empowerment. Physically imprisoned, he is on trial for both a real jury and the jury of the reader—and thus has only his deceptive, florid prose to use as defenses and as objects of play. The sing-song rhymes of the first two sentences serve this exact function: Humbert cannot actually exonerate himself or change his circumstances, but he can compare “Quine” (who bears Lolita’s name) to “Swine” and “Quilty” to being “Guilty.” The sentence thus serves to both describe and enact how Humbert is restricted to games of language.

That Humbert addresses this mournful line to Lolita puts into parallel the way he wishes to play with her and his inability to do so. Thus while the line might seem to disempower Humbert, it also reiterates the sexual and seductive role of Humbert’s writing: his exuberant use of language becomes a way to recreate his experiences with Lolita. Furthermore, the desperate, emotional note that creeps into the line's final exclamation is surprisingly tragic—underneath all the twisted obsession and wordplay, there is also an emotional heart to the character of Humbert Humbert.

Part 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

Lolita had been safely solipsized.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert delivers this pithy pronouncement during his first sexual experience with Lolita. He describes the encounter with highly abstract language that distracts the reader from visualizing the scene, while also pronouncing with pleasure his victory.

The line employs a shocking, albeit brilliant, pun: Solipsism is the philosophical belief that nothing exists, or can be proved to exist, outside of the self. So to solipsize someone would mean to view them as only a fictional projection of your own mind. It is a way to deny the external reality of other people and to bestow on them the significance that you so desire. Indeed, this is characteristic of how Humbert interacts with Lolita, always veiling her in metaphors and romantic tales. To do so “safely” implies less the actual security of Lolita herself and more the way Humbert has insulated himself from his own and the reader’s judgmental eyes.

The pun holds a darker side, however, for the way it rhymes and recalls “sodomized,” a term that comes from the Biblical tale of Sodom and that has since been applied generally to sexual actions deemed perverse or culturally inappropriate. Nabokov’s linkage of sodomy and solipsism thus shows the high ethical stakes of accepting Humbert’s language and theoretical pronouncements. To his eyes, Lolita may well be just a confluence of his internal desires, but the reader is being taught to note how this may obscure the actual human stakes of his sexual perversities.

…and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

At the climax of his sexual encounter, Humbert makes this striking appeal to the reader. He both incriminates himself and believes that the splendor of his language and sentiment will somehow serve to exonerate his actions.

In a sense, this is not an unexpected choice. Humbert began the section by explicitly calling attention to the readers as similar “gentlemen of the jury,” and he often uses the phrase to cast us as arbiters on the morality of the narrative. Yet whereas his tone during such appeals is generally cautious and controlled, here he seems to have lost himself in the erotic energy of the events being described. Presumably, the “jury” will not find his pedophiliac descriptions redeeming. And, indeed, Humbert proves to be conscious of how horrific his action are: His “ecstasy” belongs to “man or monster,” which obscures which one of the two he is. Yet Humbert’s candid tone seems to imply that he does not particularly care, for it is not the moral designation of being a man over a monster that he seeks, but rather the superlative of “longest ecstasy.” This description implies that he believes the aesthetic uniqueness of the experience will triumph over any judicial or moral system.

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and lo, the purse was intact.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

After finishing describing his perverse sexual encounter, Humbert reflects on how his action did not in fact maltreat Lolita. To justify this belief, he argues that the experience took place primarily within his own mind and with an aesthetic image of Lolita—and adds that she maintains her virginity.

As usual for Humbert, however, the main point is hidden beneath a thick layer of fancy images. Here, they are all luxurious foods: his orgasm is “honey,” while his sex becomes “milk, molasses, and foaming champagne.” He thus presents perversion in metaphors that, if literal foods, would be desired by a young girl (and also echo the physical results of his masturbation)—thus implying that Lolita has enjoyed, or at least been untroubled by, the experience. This, presumably, is why he feels that her “morals” have not been impaired and “no harm” has been done.

Yet Humbert’s point is predicated on the idea that a purse that is “intact” has not experienced any negative consequences. That is to say, he believes that if Lolita has not changed externally or physiologically, that his actions had no adverse effect. In doing so, Humbert explicitly ignores her psychology and denies her interior experience—something that is particularly noticeable since he constantly describes the richness of his own psychology. Nabokov cautions the reader from developing such harsh divisions of what is internally and externally valid for others, asking us to be skeptical of how much Humbert values his aesthetic life while denying how others may experience the world.

Part 1, Chapter 18 Quotes

But I am no poet. I am only a very conscientious recorder.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert makes this pronouncement after telling Lolita that he will marry her mother and realizing how quickly she has forgotten their encounter. He notes that a poet might use an image—an orange blossom hardly withering on the grave—to express how quickly she will return to his grasp, but then says he is no poet, but only a recorder.

This line breaks with Humbert’s previous self-presentation as a linguistic enchanter. Before, he had described his prose as florid and full of poetic rhythm and language. Yet here, he places just such an image in quotation marks and brackets it off as what a poet would say. Then he explicitly distances himself from such a role, even though he has been playing it throughout the novel thus far. We can take the expression as an attempt to claim narrative objectivity, and to respond to the reader’s growing anxiety that Humbert Humbert may be an unreliable narrator. By casting himself as “a very conscious recorder,” he claims that the text is a faithful copy of the events as they occurred—and that he takes great pains to ensure this spirit of truthfulness.

Yet this sentence itself is part of Humbert Humbert’s poetic and rhetorical game: By using an image and then rejecting it, he both benefits from the aesthetic effect and from the narrative authority gained with a disdainful look at the poet. Nabokov establishes, then, a deviously split personality in Humbert Humbert’s narrative style, in which he linguistically seduces us, while constantly denying that very seduction.

Part 1, Chapter 20 Quotes

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down on them.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 87-88
Explanation and Analysis:

While swimming at hourglass lake, Humbert contemplates drowning Charlotte in order to have freer access to Lolita. When he decides against the action, he uses it in an appeal to the reader-jury. He asks that we consider sex offenders not to be diabolical murderers or radical sinners but rather simple, timid people.

Humbert steps out of his poetic language, here, to adopt a scientific register of speech. His reference to “the majority of sex offenders” presents him as a well-read expert who has amassed quantities of data that can shed light on his specific case. Next, he minimizes the intensity of the pedophilia, noting that it does not necessarily require a “coital” relation. Just as he interpreted his first sexual experience with Lolita to have had no real effect on her, he contends that a “throbbing, sweet-moaning” experience can be personal and solipsistic. As a result, these sexual deviants are deemed “innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid”: all adjectives that downplay their social power and thus their presumed effect on the object of their desire.

The main point of the passage is cleverly hidden beneath the tower of adjectives, but it essentially calls for his case to be considered a private and personal matter rather than something that is attended to by “the police and society”—who of course are represented by the reader as jury (and the actual jury who will soon be judging Humbert's case). This passage reiterates the way Humbert has constructed his reality as sealed off from social forces, and, indeed, that he has used this separation as a way to theorize and justify the actions of sexual deviants as innocuous.

Part 1, Chapter 33 Quotes

In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller skates with high white shoes, a portable radio set, chewing gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments—swooners, shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Related Symbols: Motels and Rented Houses
Page Number: 141-142
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert describes the events that transpire just after he informs Lolita of her mothers’ death. To compensate, he buys Lolita a litany of presents and then later observes how their mutual exile has brought them closer together—just as he had wished.

Nabokov is riffing, here, on a specific type of American consumerism. As a European, Humbert would have not grown up with such an obsessive relationship with purchasing objects, but he sees them as a way to seduce and sedate Lolita. He presumes she can be placated with toys and sweets—and especially by clothing. We can read this as both a personal strategy of Humbert’s and also a critique of the American belief that owning things provides a source of emotional significance and meaning. Lolita has just lost her mother, and yet the only response Humbert offers are purchased products and sexual manipulation. As an immigrant, Nabokov held an excellent critical eye for many such American practices, and this novel, in particular, takes aim at the magazine and film consumer industries Nabokov found distasteful.

The final lines in this passage shift the tone, however, from superficial to emotional and predatory. Humbert reflects with delight how entrapped Lolita has become in his game, for, without a mother, she can turn to no one except him. These lines should be recalled at other moments when Lolita seems complicit or even empowered in Humbert’s games, for her actions only ever exist on top of this fundamental state of desperation—even if the desperation is covered by a consumerist veneer.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth—these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

As Part 2 begins, Humbert zooms the narration out and talks in broad strokes about the experience of traveling as an exile with Lolita. Here, he complains about her weak intellectual capacities and her preference for superficial, cliched experiences.

Humbert’s complaints reveal a remarkable shift in his attitudes toward Lolita. Whereas previously she was presented only in idealistic terms that took her every action as beautiful and divine, here she becomes far more human. That Humbert’s main point of contention is with her “mentally” points to how he has previously only valued and considered her physically. Seeing her only as an external object had allowed him to aestheticize her, but once he must reconcile with her actual thoughts and behaviors, Humbert must see her as a full internal being.

And what he finds there is, of course, “a disgustingly conventional little girl”—for she is after all a young girl, and a young American girl at that. Humbert complains of her preference for dances, sundaes, and other banalities, but these are standard fare for someone of her age. Indeed, the only shocking thing in “her list of beloved things” is that Humbert finds them shocking at all. This passage offers the first hint of how the pragmatic reality of caring for Lolita will become a burden that interrupts Humbert’s fantasies.

If some café sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert continues to criticize the superficiality of Lolita’s preferences and actions. He casts her, here, as a quintessential American capitalist consumer.

His first complaint refers to Lolita’s insatiability and fickle memory. She cannot recall, each time she sees a sign for cold drinks, that they are available easily and everywhere—not just at that one specific place. That is to say, she cannot connect other drink experiences to the current one and to therefore make a rational judgment on the relative value of this café. This criticism is highly ironic, of course, for it is precisely that forgetful and innocent mindset that allows Lolita to be so easily seduced by Humbert. His tactics work on her just like an advertising campaign, and Humbert himself directly engages in capitalistic consumption by constantly purchasing gifts to subdue Lolita. Thus he is driving the exact process he dislikes.

The passage also offers a more general comment on American culture when it references “the ideal consumer.” Nabokov appears to belittle the forgetful obsession with ice cream and ice drinks as not just a character flaw of Lolita but indeed one of Americans at large. It’s worth noting that we would expect consumers to just be the “object” of advertising—that is to say, the viewer who desires what is being portrayed. But Lolita is also the “subject” of the advertisement or the thing being portrayed. Thus she is presented as both the (sexual) commodity and the one consuming the commodities, both an empowered purchaser and a helpless object.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

As Humbert continues to recount his and Lolita’s travels across America, he oscillates between a loving and disparaging tone. Here, he switches into the former to reiterate his obsession with Lolita and to describe a passion so consuming that he wishes to connect with her full person—both inside and out.

This fascination with Lolita’s interior seems at odds with Humbert’s earlier obsession with her external appearance. Previously, he was frustrated with her “mentally” and preferred to see her as a projection of his own fantasies rather than an actual human. Here he wants to understand and come into contact with that interior—yet he never makes a reference to her mind or emotions. Rather, he seeks organs that regulate breathing and bodily functions, thus shifting the imagery to consumption. After all, “voracious lips” implies not a careful touch, but rather the act of greedily eating. And the organs are coated in his usual batch of aestheticizing adjectives. Nabokov thus displays how Humbert’s attempts to express interest in other parts of Lolita eventually undermine themselves: Even when he presumes to be more caring, his actual language only reiterates sexual greed and twisted violence.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Related Symbols: Motels and Rented Houses
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

As he continues to recount his travels with Lolita, Humbert becomes increasingly desperate. He lapses more and more out of a poetic tone, or even a critical one, and instead reflects on the actual horror of what is transpiring.

This moment of seeming honesty begins with an expression of exhaustion and despondency. Though they have traveled all over America, they “had really seen nothing,” which points to how Humbert has focused solely on Lolita and his own paranoia above all else. They have followed the narrative conventions of an American road trip, in which one goes in search of new experiences with different people and cultures, but instead Humbert’s gaze has remained fixedly solipsistic and inward, only moving to a new place to best position his relationship with Lolita. As a result, the journey seems suddenly drained of meaning. What was before a fantasy land is instead just the detritus of “dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires”—all physical reminders of the sad, desperate road-trip.

He contrasts these desolate images with “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country”—a remarkably positive take on America considering how harsh the European Humbert has been on the nation before. That their journey has “defiled” America implies that the country was pristine to begin with, and casts their crimes as having a significant negative effect on the space. This is a notable shift from his earlier contention that pedophiles do no public harm, for here the very geography of America has been marked by their sinful travels. Nabokov positions Humbert, then, as increasingly aware of his moral complicity, not because he has necessarily come to a full self-accusation, but simply because the glamor of the travel has faded. In a sense, he can no longer seduce himself.

Furthermore, Humbert's brief admission that Lolita sobs every night when he himself is asleep is especially tragic and horrifying. It hints at other kinds of trauma that Humbert may have glossed over or repressed in his "confession," and is a stark reminder of the very real psychological horror Lolita is enduring at this time—something not even Humbert himself can deny any longer.

Part 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip, scrambling away to hide her loot.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lolita becomes more accustomed to Humbert’s games, she develops an increased sense of agency in their relationship. She begins to demand money and objects, causing Humbert to reflect on his newly subordinate role as a pimp-like producer of currency.

Humbert’s image here is both grotesque and comical. He transforms himself into a “machine” that is “emitting” money in an automatized fashion, but the contrasting use of the verb “vomiting” adds to the mechanical a sense of human filth. In contrast to the earlier poetic language used to describe his sexual encounters, this one becomes sickly with “leaping epilepsy,” demonstrating that Humbert has begun to see his behavior as deviant.

Furthermore, the passage takes the earlier criticisms of American consumer culture and places them directly in the sexual moments Humbert previously found to be sacred. The image of the machine—and of Lolita holding the coins—directly presents their interaction like that of a prostitute and client. It makes explicit that he is paying for sex and presents Lolita as an active and manipulative agent in that encounter. Though we should be by now quite skeptical whenever Humbert presents Lolita as more aware that she may be, the passage makes clear that Humbert feels himself to have lost his prior complete control.

Part 2, Chapter 16 Quotes

I felt instinctively that toilets—as also telephones—happened to be, for reasons unfathomable, the points where my destiny was liable to catch.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

As Humbert and Lolita depart Beardsley, Lolita makes a call at a gas station while ostensibly going to the toilet. This event causes Humbert to reiterate how often telephones and toilets have appeared at important junctures in his life.

This observation is characteristic of how Humbert functions as a self-aware narrator of his own story. He is not only conveying the events to the reader as they occur, but also annotating which symbols are important. He thus directs the reader’s attention to certain images and clues to which we should be attentive. Nabokov is pointing out how certain personalities, like that of Humbert, have a tendency to read more into the symbolism of their lives—and thus to believe that their actions are preordained by destiny, or bear a special kind of aesthetic symmetry. This practice becomes a way for Humbert to retrospectively make sense of the events that have transpired.

But the fact that his paranoid personality has turned him into an interpreter of his own story also makes a broader claim on how all people, not just those who are deeply paranoid, look for consistent images that orient their destiny and the course of their life. The device also puts the reader in an uncomfortably similar situation as Humbert, for it stresses how analysis is being engaged in by both the jury and the accused.

Part 2, Chapter 17 Quotes

We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Now at the Chestnut Court motel, Humbert has become increasingly paranoid and fearful that his escape with Lolita will fail. To increase his confidence, he consults his gun, which prompts this mockery of psychoanalysis.

Nabokov was an open critic of Sigmund Freud’s theories, both in his fiction and in real life—and he found the methodology and the reading practices it invited insufferable. This line parodies the way Freudian critics will interpret any image as phallic: The “pistol” would normally be seen as an analog for the male genitals, due to its phallic shape and role as an assertion of violence and strength—and Humbert mocks this sexual reference by describing it as the “Ur-father's central forelimb”—thus stressing how ridiculous such one-to-one comparisons can be. Whereas the gun was intended to offer personal security, instead it just plays a ridiculous symbolic function. Nabokov seems to imply that the paranoid interpretation invited by psychoanalysis—one both performed and burlesqued by Humbert—prevents us from actually considering the reality of objects. And this idea is critical to the way that Humbert’s flagrant use of symbolism has often distracted the reader from seeing the actual way he has violated Lolita.

Part 2, Chapter 21 Quotes

Who can say what heartbreaks are caused in a dog by our discontinuing a romp?” (238)

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert, by now, is in the depth throes of anxiety and jealousy, and he has started to make sense of the actions of other humans and animals in a very warped way. Here, he offers a confusing question on a terrier with which Lolita has stopped playing.

The idea that a dog would experience “heartbreaks” (not just one but several!) from a child is on one level poignant, but on another rather far-fetched. So Humbert seems to be mapping his own frustrations with Lolita onto the behavior of the dog. This terrier, then, becomes a symbol of his own repeated “heartbreaks” every time Lolita halts their interaction. “A romp,” after all, can mean either lighthearted childhood play or sexual activity, and this is the precise way that Lolita and Humbert’s perverse romances have played out: Humbert wishes to cast them as cheerful and meaningless by cloaking them in the language of childhood and of play. Yet the image of the dog also implies a sharp shift in the power dynamics between the two characters, for it presents Lolita as now the owner of Humbert. Nabokov shows, then, how Humbert’s ability to experience the world through images and romantic tropes can turn against him. It causes him to find even in the simplest interactions a form of personal desperation.

Part 2, Chapter 23 Quotes

We all admire the spangled acrobat with classical grace meticulously walking his tight rope in the talcum light; but how much rarer art there is in the sagging rope expert wearing scarecrow clothes and impersonating a grotesque drunk! I should know.”

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

After Quilty has stolen Lolita, he leaves a series of perplexing and teasing clues to his identity at the motels through which Humbert pursues him. Here, Humbert reflects on the seductive artistry of Quilty’s game, praising the flirtatious way he might risk falling into Humbert’s grasp.

To make this comparison, Humber uses the metaphor of the “acrobat,” thus defining their game of pursuit as a form of artistry but also as a circus performance. Yet he differentiates the acrobatics in the novel from a traditional form with “classical grace” that would be softened with “talcum light,” for the poise of this behavior is calculated and technical. Quilty’s performance is extolled as a “rarer art” precisely for its sloppiness: The rope is “sagging” rather than taught, and the acrobat wears “scarecrow clothes”—a gaudy and cumbersome attire—rather than the appropriate leotard. Yet despite appearing inhibited, he is still an “expert” and only “impersonating”—rather than himself being—drunk.

Humbert thus expresses an appreciation for what is haphazard over what is pristine—because it gives one the temptation that the acrobat will fall. Once more, he likens himself to Quilty with the phrase “I should know,” indicating that Humbert has seen his own performances as those of a “sagging rope expert”: He had repeatedly flirted with danger, often making irrational decisions but being saved by fate at the last moment. This passage, then, could be taken in two ways: either as proof of Humbert’s descent in mania, in which he sees normal details of life as indicators of a paranoid circus performance; or as an indication that Humbert’s various falls and slips—both linguistic and ethical—are all part of a brilliant, acrobatic “rarer art.”

Part 2, Chapter 25 Quotes

It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art.”

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert grows increasingly despondent over Lolita’s absence and begins to conflate her with other women in his life. In response, he describes their experiences as a route to the creation of art.

Here, Humbert rejects what he sees as a common hierarchy between sex and art in which “shams and shamans” (probably another mocking reference to Freud and psychoanalysis) see the aesthetic as secondary to the purely sexual. Humbert he does not fully deny the value of sex, but rather considers it most important as a means to art. (If this seems to contradict the reality of Humbert's own life, it is probably because it's another example of him aestheticizing and beautifying his own sexual obsessions and sordid acts.)

An ancilla is a device used to obtain or master something difficult, so “the ancilla of art” would be something that helps someone create art. To call sex “but the ancilla” is to render it solely a means to aesthetic ends rather than a goal in an of itself. Humbert is thus building on his previous defense for his actions under the idea that his Lolita is an aesthetic construction. After all, she has served as the ancilla to the very narrative that we are reading. This line demands a revisiting of Humbert’s earlier language when describing his sexual encounters, which was itself highly aesthetic and metaphorical. Here, he implies that the metaphors were not used to obscure the sex, but rather that the sex served as the inspiration for the language. And by valorizing its gorgeous language and intricate structure, we seem to be affirming Humbert’s exact point.

Part 2, Chapter 29 Quotes

I could not kill her, of course, as some have thought. You see, I loved her. It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert has finally been able to track down Lolita and her husband, and he arrives with murderous intentions. But when he sees them in person he cannot bring himself to go through with the act, and he reflects once more on his love.

He pre-empts, here, reader’s expectations with the phrase “as some have thought.” Up to this point, the novel has seemed to follow the tropes of a detective and revenge narrative, but it reaches here only an anti-climax as opposed to the expected conclusion. Even at this later moment in the text, Humbert remains aware of his readership as a jury—and is still narrativizing his life, even as the expected narrative has fallen through.

Humbert’s profession of eternal love for Lolita contrasts rather starkly with the actual type of affection in the scene. Humbert’s previous romantic descriptions and accompanying metaphorical language have faded away, and he sees the older Lolita in much more realistic terms. Yet, read closely, the construction of “at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight” might offer an explanation: By equating “first” and “last,” Humbert implies that it is the original image of Lolita as nymphet that still dictates his image of her. In cultivating that myth and turning it into this novel, he has immortalized her as “ever and ever sight.” Thus while the conventions of genre fiction may have failed and his view of her is reduced to banal realism, he has been able to, through the text, create a more permanent image.

Part 2, Chapter 35 Quotes

We rolled all over the floor, in each other’s arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Clare Quilty
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert has finally discovered Quilty, and he plans to murder him for kidnapping Lolita. After attempting and failing to shoot him several times, Humbert begins to fight him fist-to-fist.

This description of the fight stresses how Humbert and Quilty are similar and interchangeable, even indistinguishable. First, Humbert describes how both are rolling over the floor, but he maintains the distinction between them as “two” oversized children. (The infantile references and latent homoeroticism are worth mentioning briefly.) But as the sentence continues, the divisions between subject and object break down. “he rolled over me” and “I rolled over him” are phrased in perfectly opposite terms. Then “We rolled over me” indicates that Humbert has merged his identity with that of Quilty; “They rolled over him” steps outside of Humbert as narrator to refer to both himself and Quilty as “they.” And “we rolled over us” unifies them entirely as both the subject and object of the fight.

The brilliant line-by-line development underscores how Humbert and Quilty have been playing similar roles throughout the novel (essentially acting as "doubles" or "doppelgängers," a common theme in Russian literature and Nabokov's work). They are both sexual perverts, both artists in a sense, and both paranoiacs—and this is what has made them so able to intuit the other’s actions at every moment. In their final battle, they fuse together, as if whoever succeeds will also have killed himself. That Humbert was brought down by a close analog to himself indicates, also, his own original culpability—for it seems to position the blame back onto him even as their identities intermingle.

Part 2, Chapter 36 Quotes

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel draws to a close, Humbert reflects again on all the wrong he has done to Lolita and wonders whether anything can be done to address his crimes. He ends his text with the promise of immortality, which the two will hold within the text, as a partial redemption.

Humbert returns, here, to his more floral way of writing and to his philosophical musings on art. He references a variety of artistic tropes: “Aurochs” are a now-extinct cattle species that were depicted in cavemen paintings, while “angels” are traditional religious icons—both of which survived due to “durable pigments.” To connect the two is to bring the most primitive and most religious art into a single sentence, just as he crosses genres from painting to writing with the reference of “prophetic sonnets.” What unites all forms of art, Humbert, explains is how they function as a “refuge” by giving their subjects “immortality.”

The text thus becomes a way to not only repent for what Humbert has done to Lolita, but also an attempt to offer her memory a small reprieve. Though he may not be able to grant her an actual childhood free of perverse pain, he can retrace their history together and crystallize it forever into this novel. Here, then, we see the moral impetus Humbert feels to write, and we also gain insight into why he found it necessary to write in such fancy prose. Beyond just a seduction mechanism, that style allowed him to rewrite his memory of Lolita into the most beautiful setting possible. Yet we must always remain skeptical readers to the end—and note that Humbert’s last lines smack of a nostalgia for his sexual experiences with Lolita. True, he may be offering her a bit of redemption, and a tragic declaration of devotion, but only in so far as he continues to speak for her and preserve his own nymphet obsessions for eternity.

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