Lolita

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Nymphets Symbol Icon
“Nymphet,” is the word Humbert Humbet uses to describe the kind of little girl he finds sexually attractive. Nymphets are supposed to be charming, mischievous, elusive mixtures of tenderness and “eerie vulgarity.” When imagining nymphets, Humbert Humbert often uses imagery from classical mythology, folklore, and the natural world. Forests, islands, mists, beaches and trees become symbols of nymphets and nymphetry. For the male equivalents of nymphets, Humbert Humbert uses the word “faunlet.” Lolita is the chief Nymphet in Humbert’s life and imagination.

Nymphets Quotes in Lolita

The Lolita quotes below all refer to the symbol of Nymphets. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Lolita published in 1989.
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.

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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.

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Nymphets Symbol Timeline in Lolita

The timeline below shows where the symbol Nymphets appears in Lolita. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 5
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon
Interrupting his narration, Humbert Humbert introduces the idea of the nymphet: a special kind of little girl, between the ages of nine and fourteen, who is... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 6
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon
Humbert Humbert wonders what happened to the nymphets he visually enjoyed but never touched, speculating that the activity of his imagination might have... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 16
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Suburbia and American Consumer Culture Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon
Patterns, Memory and Fate Theme Icon
As Charlotte drives Lolita to Camp Q, Humbert Humbert dashes off to look through his nymphet’s underwear. In her room, he discovers two posters: one from an advertisement, with his name... (full context)