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Themes and Colors
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Suburbia and American Consumer Culture Theme Icon
Exile, Homelessness and Road Narratives Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon
Patterns, Memory and Fate Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lolita, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon

Humbert Humbert is not only a pedophile, but a literary scholar, and Lolita is as much—or more—about literature as it is about pedophilia. Often, literature functions as a lens through which Humbert sees and interprets the world around him. He also uses it as a tool to justify himself, and to make sense of his life. He uses Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” to express his love for his childhood sweetheart. He often uses lines from French poetry to express his love for Lolita. To justify his passion for nymphets, he references the child brides or beloveds of famous literary figures like Petrarch, Dante, and Poe.

Humbert Humbert’s perceptions of America and Americans are, likewise, often influenced by his reading. Where he lacks real knowledge of the world, he substitutes ideas from literature. To give one among many examples, his perceptions of the few black characters in Lolita are clearly influenced more by his familiarity with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin than by any real experience with black Americans: he imagines the old bellboy at The Enchanted Hunters as “Uncle Tom,” and gives Miss Opposite’s young driver and gardener Leslie the surname “Tomson.”

Humbert’s knowledge of literature enriches his imagination and experience of the world, but it often keeps him from seeing the reality in front of his face. The best example is probably his relationship with Lolita. Humbert’s fantastic ideas about what nymphets are like come from mythology and literature, rather than any real little girls. These fantasies of frolicking nymphets on mystical islands keep him from noticing the thoughts and feelings of the real little girl he has abducted, of the damage he has done to Lolita, whom he supposedly loves.

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Life and Literary Representation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Life and Literary Representation appears in each chapter of Lolita. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Life and Literary Representation Quotes in Lolita

Below you will find the important quotes in Lolita related to the theme of Life and Literary Representation.
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 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.

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 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 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.