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Patterns, Memory and Fate Theme Analysis

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.
Patterns, Memory and Fate Theme Icon

Throughout Lolita, Humbert Humbert seems to believe that his life is following the pre-established pathways of his fate. He tries to fit every event in his life into a mysterious pattern, finding subtle, hard-to-explain connections everywhere. Annabel Leigh’s mysterious connection to Lolita is the first instance. Sunglasses appear on the cave floor with Annabel, and then again when Humbert Humbert first sees Lolita. Humbert Humbert also notices that life-changing things tend to happen to him around toilets and telephones: they are places “where [his] destiny [is] liable to catch.” Another pattern in Humbert’s story is the recurrence of the numbers 42, 52, and 342, each of which appears many times in the novel. You could go on from there, but the general idea should be clear: behind the confusion of events in Lolita, there seems to be a deeper pattern. Humbert Humbert imagines these patterns in his life as the creations of “McFate,” a character he has invented to explain his strange destiny. Humbert Humbert’s confrontation with Clare Quilty seems like another instance of the workings of fate: earlier in Lolita, Humbert finds two posters in Lolita’s room, one with his own name written on it, and the other with a picture of Clare Quilty.

It is unclear whether the patterns Humbert notices exist in the real world, or are merely products of his imagination. Humbert Humbert’s artistic gifts might be interfering with his perception of reality: his vivid, obsessive imagination creates links between events and perceptions in his memory which may have no “real,” relationship. Humbert Humbert often dwells on the difficulties of memory, in particular, memory’s contamination by time, desire, and the imagination. Often, this contamination is symbolic. Humbert Humbert remembers the windows of Annabel’s home as actual playing cards, because the adults were playing bridge inside while he and Annabel snuck out. The difficulties of memory, and the reality of patterns in fate, are recurring themes in almost all of Nabokov’s novels.

Patterns, Memory and Fate ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Lolita related to the theme of Patterns, Memory and Fate.
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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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 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.

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 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.