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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.
Suburbia and American Consumer Culture Theme Icon

Lolita pokes fun at the middle-class consumer culture of the American suburbs in the 1950s. As a savvy European aesthete, Humbert Humbert narrates his journey through his adopted country in a voice dripping with contempt. Many of the places and people in Lolita are pure caricatures of American “types.” The novel makes fun of everything which was quintessentially “American” in the late 1940s and 1950s, good and bad: Hollywood movies, middle-class consumerism, motels, Freudian psychology, slang, racial stratification, and youth culture.

Humbert Humbert struggles to adapt his elite European sensibilities to his kitschy American environment. Much of the novel’s humor comes from moments when highbrow Humbert must endure American kitsch for the sake of lowbrow Lolita. This satire is particularly apparent in Humbert’s marriage to Lolita’s mother Charlotte: he is disgusted by her middle-class pretensions—especially her taste in art and her desire to take a cruise—but he plays along in order to stay close to Lolita. Although Humbert Humbert mocks the United States, one might say that the novel, in turn, mocks him. He is a caricatured member of a faded European literary elite, and his outrage is so outrageous that it makes him as ridiculous as the elements of American life he mocks.

Suburbia and American Consumer Culture ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Lolita related to the theme of Suburbia and American Consumer Culture.
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.


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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 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 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.